The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (5 page)

Has Mr Hastings found the Lucas biography for you yet?

Yours sincerely,

Juliet Ashton

From Juliet to Markham Reynolds
Mr Markham Reynolds
63 Halkin Street
London SW1

4th February 1946

Dear Mr Reynolds,

I captured your delivery boy in the act of depositing a clutch of pink carnations on to my doorstep. I seized him and threatened him until he confessed your address—you see, Mr Reynolds, you are not the only one who can inveigle innocent employees. I hope you don't sack him; he seems a nice boy, and he really had no alternative—I menaced him with
Remembrance of Things Past.

Now I can thank you for the dozens of flowers you've sent me—it's been years since I've seen such roses, such camellias, such orchids, and you can have no idea how they lift my heart in this shivering winter. Why I deserve to live in a bower, when everyone else has to be satisfied with bedraggled leafless trees and slush, I don't know, but I'm perfectly delighted to do so.

Yours sincerely,

Juliet Ashton

From Markham Reynolds to Juliet
5th February 1946

Dear Miss Ashton,

I didn't fire the delivery boy—I promoted him. He got me what I couldn't manage to get for myself: an introduction to you.
The way I see it, your note is a figurative handshake and the preliminaries are now over. I hope you're of the same opinion, as it will save me the trouble of wangling an invitation to Lady Bascomb's next dinner party on the off-chance you might be there. Your friends are a suspicious lot, especially that fellow Stark, who said it wasn't his job to reverse the direction of the Lend Lease and refused to bring you to the cocktail party I threw at the
View
office.

God knows, my intentions are pure, or at least, non-mercenary. The simple truth of it is that you're the only female writer who makes me laugh. Your Izzy Bickerstaff columns were the wittiest work to come out of the war, and I want to meet the woman who wrote them.

If I swear that I won't kidnap you, will you do me the honour of dining with me next week? You pick the evening—I'm entirely at your disposal.

Yours,

Markham Reynolds

From Juliet to Markham Reynolds
6th February 1946

Dear Mr Reynolds,

I am no proof against compliments, especially compliments about my writing. I'll be delighted to dine with you. Thursday next?

Yours sincerely,

Juliet Ashton

From Markham Reynolds to Juliet
7th February 1946

Dear Juliet,

Thursday's too far away. Monday? Claridge's? Seven?

Yours,

Mark

P.S. I don't suppose you have a telephone, do you?

From Juliet to Markham Reynolds
7th February 1946

Dear Mr Reynolds,

All right—Monday, Claridge's, seven.

I do have a telephone. It's in Oakley Street under a pile of rubble that used to be my flat. I'm only renting here, and my landlady, Mrs Olive Burns, possesses the sole telephone on the premises. If you would like to chat with her, I can give you her number.

Yours sincerely,
Juliet Ashton

From Dawsey to Juliet
7th February 1946

Dear Miss Ashton,

I'm certain the Guernsey Literary Society would like to be included in your article for
The Times
. I have asked Mrs Maugery to write to you about our meetings, as she is an educated lady and her words will sound more at home in
an article than mine. I don't think we are much like literary societies in London.

Mr Hastings hasn't found a copy of the Lucas biography yet, but I had a postcard from him saying, ‘Hard on the trail. Don't give up.' He is a kind man, isn't he?

I'm heaving slates for the Crown Hotel's new roof. The owners are hoping that tourists may want to come back this summer. I am glad of the work but will be happy to be working on my land soon.

It is nice to come home in the evening and find a letter from you.

I wish you good fortune in finding a subject you would care to write a book about.

Yours sincerely,

Dawsey Adams

From Amelia Maugery to Juliet
8th February 1946

Dear Miss Ashton,

Dawsey Adams has just been to visit. I have never seen him as pleased with anything as he is with your gift and letter. He was so busy convincing me to write to you by the next post that he forgot to be shy. I don't believe he is aware of it, but Dawsey has a rare gift for persuasion—he never asks for anything for himself, so everyone is eager to do what he asks for others.

He told me of your proposed article and asked if I would write to you about the literary society we formed during—and because of—the German Occupation. I will be happy to do so, but with a caveat.

A friend from England sent me a copy of
Izzy Bickerstaff Goes to War
. We had no news from the outside world for five years, so you can imagine how satisfying it was to learn how England endured those years herself. Your book was as informative as it was entertaining and amusing—but it is the amusing tone I must quibble with.

I realise that our name, the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, is an unusual one and could easily be subjected to ridicule. Would you assure me you will not be tempted to do so? The Society members are very dear to me, and I do not wish them to be perceived as objects of fun by your readers.

Would you be willing to tell me of your intentions for the article and also something of yourself? If you can appreciate the import of my questions, I should be glad to tell you about the Society. I hope I shall hear from you soon.

Yours sincerely,

Amelia Maugery

From Juliet to Amelia
Mrs Amelia Maugery
Windcross Manor
La Bouvée
St Martin's, Guernsey

10th February 1946

Dear Mrs Maugery,

Thank you for your letter. I am very glad to answer your questions.

I did make fun of many wartime situations; the
Spectator
felt a light approach to the bad news would serve as an antidote
and that humour would help to raise London's low morale. I am very glad
Izzy
served that purpose, but the need to be humorous against the odds is—thank goodness—over. I would never make fun of anyone who loved reading. Nor of Mr Adams—I was glad to learn one of my books fell into such hands as his.

Since you should know something about me, I have asked the Reverend Simon Simpless, of St Hilda's Church near Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, to write to you. He has known me since I was a child and is fond of me. I have asked Lady Bella Taunton to provide a reference for me too. We were fire wardens together during the Blitz and she wholeheartedly dislikes me. Between the two of them, you may get a fair picture of my character.

I am enclosing a copy of a biography I wrote of Anne Brontë, so you can see that I am capable of a different kind of work. It didn't sell very well—in fact, not at all, but I am much prouder of it than I am of
Izzy Bickerstaff Goes to War
.

If there is anything else I can do to assure you of my good will, I will be glad to do so.

Yours sincerely,

Juliet Ashton

From Juliet to Sophie
12th February 1946

Dearest Sophie,

Markham V. Reynolds, he of the camellias, has finally materialised. Introduced himself, paid me compliments, and invited me out to dinner—Claridge's, no less. I accepted regally—Claridge's, oh yes, I
have
heard of Claridge's—and
then spent the next three days fretting about my hair. It's lucky I have my lovely new dress, so I didn't have to waste precious fretting time on what to wear.

As Madame Helena said, ‘The hairs, they are a disaster.' I tried a French roll; it fell down. A bun; it fell down. I was on the verge of tying an enormous red velvet bow on the top of my head when my neighbour Evangeline Smythe came to the rescue, bless her. She's a genius with my hair. In two minutes, I was a picture of elegance—she caught up all the curls and swirled them round at the back—and I could even move my head. Off I went, feeling perfectly adorable. Not even Claridge's marble lobby could intimidate
me
.

Then Markham V. Reynolds stepped forward, and the bubble popped. He's dazzling. Honestly, Sophie, I've never seen anything like him. Not even the furnace-man can compare. Tanned, with blazing blue eyes. Ravishing leather shoes, elegant wool suit, blinding white handkerchief in breast pocket. Of course, being American, he's tall, and he has one of those alarming American smiles, all gleaming teeth and good humour, but he's not a genial American. He's quite impressive, and he's used to ordering people about—though he does it so easily, they don't notice. He's got that way of believing his opinion is the truth, but he's not disagreeable about it. He's too sure he's right to bother about being disagreeable.

Once we were seated—in our own velvet-draped alcove—and all the waiters and stewards and maîtres d'hôtel had finished fluttering about, I asked him point-blank why he had sent me all those flowers without including any note.

He laughed. ‘To make you interested. If I had written to you directly, asking you to meet me, how would you have replied?' I admitted I would have declined. He raised one
pointed eyebrow at me. Was it his fault he could outwit me so easily?

I was awfully insulted to be so transparent, but he just laughed at me again. And then he began to talk about the war and Victorian literature—he knows I wrote a biography of Anne Brontë—and New York and rationing, and before I knew it, I was basking in his attention, utterly charmed.

Do you remember that afternoon in Leeds when we speculated on the possible reasons why Markham V. Reynolds, Junior, was obliged to remain a man of mystery? It's very disappointing, but we were completely wrong. He's not married. He's certainly not bashful. He doesn't have a disfiguring scar that causes him to shun the daylight. He doesn't seem to be a werewolf (no fur on his knuckles, anyway). And he's not a Nazi on the run (he'd have an accent).

Now that I think about it, maybe he
is
a werewolf. I can picture him lunging over the moors in hot pursuit of his prey, and I'm certain that he wouldn't think twice about eating an innocent bystander. I'll watch him closely at the next full moon. He's asked me to go dancing tomorrow—perhaps I should wear a high collar. Oh, that's vampires, isn't it?

I think I am a little giddy.

Love,

Juliet

From Lady Bella Taunton to Amelia
12th February 1946

Dear Mrs Maugery,

Juliet Ashton has written to me, and I am astonished. Am I to understand she wishes me to provide a character reference
for her? Well, so be it! I cannot impugn her character—only her common sense. She hasn't any.

War, as you know, makes strange bedfellows, and Juliet and I were thrown together from the very first when we were fire wardens during the Blitz. Fire wardens spent their nights on various London roof-tops, watching out for incendiary bombs that might fall. When they did, we would rush forth with stirrup pumps and buckets of sand to stifle any small blaze before it could spread. Juliet and I were paired off to work together. We did not chat, as less conscientious wardens would have done. I insisted on total vigilance at all times. Even so, I learnt a few details of her life prior to the war.

Her father was a respectable farmer in Suffolk. Her mother, I surmise, was a typical farmer's wife, milking cows and plucking chickens, when not otherwise engaged in owning a bookshop in Bury St Edmunds. Juliet's parents were both killed in a motor-car accident when she was twelve and she went to live with her great-uncle, a renowned classicist, in St John's Wood. There she disrupted his studies and household by running away—twice.

In despair, he sent her to boarding school. Upon leaving, she shunned a higher education, came to London, and shared a flat with her friend Sophie Stark. She worked by day in bookshops. By night, she wrote a book about one of those wretched Brontë girls—I forget which one. I believe the book was published by Sophie's brother's firm, Stephens & Stark. Though it's biologically impossible, I can only assume that some form of nepotism was responsible for the book's publication.

Anyway, she began to publish feature articles for various magazines and newspapers. Her light, frivolous turn of mind gained her a large following among the less intellectually inclined readers—of whom, I fear, there are many. She spent
the very last of her inheritance on a flat in Chelsea. Chelsea, home of artists, models, libertines and socialists—completely irresponsible people all, just as Juliet proved herself to be as a fire warden.

I come now to the specifics of our association.

Juliet and I were two of several wardens assigned to the roof of the Inner Temple Hall of the Inns of Court. Let me say first that, for a warden, quick action and a clear head were imperative—one had to be aware of
everything
going on around one.
Everything
.

One night in May 1941, a high-explosive bomb was dropped through the roof of the Inner Temple Hall Library. The Library roof was some distance away from Juliet's post, but she was so aghast by the destruction of her precious books that she sprinted
towards
the flames—as if she could single-handedly deliver the Library from its fate! Of course, her delusions created nothing but further damage, for the firemen had to waste valuable minutes in rescuing her.

I believe Juliet suffered some minor burns in the debacle, but fifty thousand books were blown to Kingdom Come. Juliet's name was struck off the fire-warden list, and rightly so. I discovered that she then volunteered her services to the Auxiliary Fire Services. On the morning after a bombing raid, the AFS would be on hand to offer tea and comfort to the rescue squads. The AFS also provided assistance to the survivors: reuniting families, securing temporary housing, clothing, food, funds. I believe Juliet to have been adequate to that daytime task—causing no catastrophe among the teacups.

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