“An irresistible tale which showcases the transformative power of literacy, reminding us of the hope and sanctuary our neighborhood bookstores offer during the perilous trials of war and unrest.” —KIM MICHELE RICHARDSON, author of The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek. August 1939: London prepares for war as Hitler’s forces sweep across Europe. Grace Bennett has always dreamed of moving to the city, but the bunkers and blackout curtains that she finds on her arrival were not what she expected...
Publisher: Hanover Square Press; Original edition (April 6, 2021) Hardcover: 336 pages ISBN-10: 133565304X ISBN-13: 978-1335653048 Dimensions: 6.17 x 1 x 9.26 inches
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To the authors of all the books I’ve ever read. Thank you for the escape, for the knowledge and for shaping me into who I am.
Grace Bennett had always dreamed of someday living in London. Never did she imagine it would become her only option, especially not on the eve of war.
The train pulled to a stop within Farringdon Station, its name clearly marked on the wall inside a strip of blue set within a red circle. People hovered on the platform, as eager to get on as those within were to get off. They wore smartly cut clothing in the chic styles of city life. Far more sophisticated than in Drayton, Norfolk.
Equal parts nerves and eagerness vibrated about inside Grace. “We’ve arrived.” She looked at Viv beside her.
Her friend clicked the top on her lipstick tube closed and gave a freshly applied vermillion smile. Viv glanced out the window, her gaze skimming the checkerboard of advertisements lining the curved wall. “After so many years of wishing we could be in London.” Her hand caught Grace’s in a quick squeeze. “Here we are.”
Back when they were mere girls, Viv had first mentioned the notion of moving away from dull Drayton for a far more exciting life in the city. It had been a wild concept then, to leave their slow-moving, familiar existence in the country for the bustling, fast-paced pulse of London. Never had Grace considered it might someday become a necessity.
But then, there was nothing left in Drayton for Grace anymore. At least nothing she cared to return to.
The ladies rose from their plush seats and took hold of their luggage. Each had only one case with them, faded things, beaten down more by age than use. Both were stuffed to the point of near-bursting and were not only impossibly heavy, but awkward to manage around the gas mask boxes slung over their shoulders. The ghastly things had to be brought with them everywhere, per the government, to ensure they’d be protected in the event of a gas attack.
Lucky for them, Britton Street was only a two-minute walk away, or so Mrs. Weatherford had said.
Her mother’s childhood friend had a room to let, one she’d offered a year ago when Grace’s mother first passed. The terms had been generous—two months for free while Grace acquired a job and even then, the rent would be discounted thereafter. Despite Grace’s longing to go to London, and despite Viv’s enthusiastic encouragement, Grace had remained in Drayton for nearly a year after in an attempt to pick up the pieces of her broken existence.
That was before she learned the house she’d lived in since her birth truly belonged to her uncle. Before he moved in with his overbearing wife and five children. Before life as she knew it shattered even further apart.
There was no room for Grace in her own home, a point her aunt had been eager to note often. What had once been a place of comfort and love became a place Grace felt unwelcome. When her aunt finally had the temerity to tell Grace to leave, she knew she had no other options.
Writing the letter to Mrs. Weatherford the previous month to see if the opportunity still held was one of the hardest things Grace had ever done. It had been a surrender to the challenges she faced, a terrible, soul-crushing failure. A capitulation that had rendered her the greatest failure.
Grace had never possessed much courage. Even now, she wondered if she would have managed her way to London had Viv not insisted they go together.
Trepidation knotted through her as they waited for the train’s gleaming metal doors to part and unveil a whole new world.
“Everything will be brilliant,” Viv whispered under her breath. “It will all be so much better, Grace. I promise.”
The air-powered doors of the electric train hissed open and they stepped onto the platform amid the push and pull of people coming and going all at once. Then the doors shushed closed behind them, and the gust of the train’s departure tugged at their skirts and hair.
An advert for Chesterfields on the far wall displayed a handsome lifeguard smoking a cigarette while another poster beside it called on the men of London to join the service.
It wasn’t only a reminder of a war their country might soon face, but how living in the city presented a greater element of danger. If Hitler meant to take Britain, he would likely set his sights on London.
“Oh, Grace, look!” Viv exclaimed.
Grace turned from the poster toward the metal stairs, which glided upward on an unseen belt, disappearing somewhere above the arched ceiling. Into the city of their dreams.
The advert was quickly forgotten as she and Viv rushed toward the escalator and tried to tamp down their delight as it effortlessly carried them up, up, up.
Viv’s shoulders squeezed upward with barely restrained happiness. “Didn’t I tell you this would be amazing?”
The enormity of it hit Grace all at once. After years of dreaming and planning, here they were in London.
Away from Grace’s bully of an uncle, out from under the thumb of Viv’s strict parents.
Despite all of Grace’s troubles, she and Viv swept out of the station like caged songbirds ready to finally spread their wings.
Buildings rose into the sky all around, making Grace block the sun with the palm of her hand to see their tops. Several nearby shops greeted them with brightly painted signs touting sandwiches, hairdressers and a chemist. On the streets, lorries rattled by and a double-decker bus rumbled in the opposite direction, its painted side as red and glossy as Viv’s nails.
It was all Grace could do to keep from grasping her friend’s arm and squealing for her to look. Viv was taking it in too, with wide, sparkling eyes. She appeared as much an awed country girl as Grace, albeit in a fashionable dress with her perfectly styled auburn curls.
Grace was not as chic. Though she’d worn her best dress for the occasion, its hem fell just past her knees, and the waist nipped in with a slim black belt that matched her low heels. While not as stylish as Viv’s black-and-white polka-dot dress, the pale blue cotton set off Grace’s gray eyes and complemented her fair hair.
Viv had sewn it for her, of course. But then, Viv had always seen to both of them with an eye set toward grander aspirations. Throughout their friendship, they had spent hours sewing dresses and rolling their hair, years of reading Woman and Woman’s Life on fashion and etiquette and then making countless corrections to ensure they “lost the Drayton” from their speech.
Now, Viv looked like she could grace one of those magazine covers with her high cheekbones and long-lashed brown eyes.
They joined the flurry of people rushing to and fro, heaving the bulk of their suitcases from one hand to the other as Grace led the way toward Britton Street. Thankfully, the directions Mrs. Weatherford had sent in their last correspondence had been detailed and easy to follow.
What had been missing from the account, however, were all the signs of war.
More advertisements, some calling for men to do their part, with others prompting people to disregard Hitler and his threats and still book their summer holidays. Just across the street, a wall of sandbags framed a doorway with a black-and-white sign proclaiming it to be a Public Air Raid Shelter.
* * *
True to Mrs. Weatherford’s directions, they arrived at Britton Street within two short minutes and found themselves in front of a brick townhouse. It had a green door with a polished brass knocker and a flower box filled with purple and white petunias in the window. Based on what Mrs. Weatherford had written, this was unmistakably her house.
And their new home.
Viv charged up the stairs, her curls bouncing with each step, and rapped on the door. Grace joined her at the top, spurred on by the anticipation jolting through her. After all, this was her mum’s dearest friend, the one who visited them in Drayton several times in Grace’s youth.
The friendship between Grace’s mother and Mrs. Weatherford had begun when Mrs. Weatherford had lived in Drayton. Even after she moved, it had continued on through the Great War that took both their husbands’ lives and through the illness that had finally taken Grace’s mother.
The door opened and Mrs. Weatherford, looking older than Grace remembered, appeared in the widening doorway.
She’d always been pleasantly plump with flushed apple cheeks and sparkling blue eyes. Only now she wore round spectacles and her dark hair was laced through with strands of sparkling silver. Her gaze homed in on Grace first. She gasped softly and touched her fingers to her mouth. “Grace, you’re the spitting image of your mum. Beatrice always was so pretty with those gray eyes of hers.” The older woman opened the door wider, revealing her white cotton dress with blue sprigged flowers and matching blue buttons. Behind her, the entryway was small but tidy, filled almost entirely with a set of stairs that went up to another floor. “Please, do come in.”
Grace murmured her thanks for the compliment, downplaying exactly how much that praise tugged at the part of her that still mourned her mother.
She heaved her suitcase through the doorway and into the home that held the savory aroma of meat and vegetables in the warm air. Grace’s mouth watered.
She hadn’t had a proper homemade meal since her mother’s death. Not a good one, at least. Her aunt hadn’t been much of a cook, and Grace spent too many hours running her uncle’s store to prepare anything decent.
A rug underfoot softened Grace’s steps, cream colored with pastel flowers. Though clean, it appeared to be somewhat worn in patches.
“Vivienne,” Mrs. Weatherford said as Viv joined Grace in the entryway. “All my friends call me Viv.” She offered a smile at Mrs. Weatherford with her one-of-a-kind Viv charm.
“What beauties you both have become. I reckon you’ll set my boy blushing.” Mrs. Weatherford motioned for them to rest their bags on the floor. “Colin,” she called up the polished wood stairs. “See to the ladies’ effects while I put the kettle on.”
“How is Colin?” Grace asked politely.
Like her, he was an only child, left without a father after the Great War as she had been. Though he was two years Grace’s junior, they’d played together as children. She recalled those memories with great fondness. There had always been a gentleness to Colin, a genuine kindness behind the sharp intelligence of his eyes.
Mrs. Weatherford threw her hands up in exasperation. “Trying to save the world one animal at a time and bringing them all home.” The good-natured chuckle that followed implied she didn’t mind it as much as she claimed.
Grace took a moment to admire the entryway as they waited on Colin. A table sat beside the stairs with a glossy black telephone atop it. The wallpaper was a cheerful blue-and-white brocade, somewhat faded, and matched the white painted doors and doorframes. While simple in design, everything appeared immaculate. In fact, Grace was certain she would be hard-pressed to find a speck of dust on anything her mother’s friend owned.
A creak sounded, followed by footsteps coming down the stairs as a tall, slender man appeared. His dark hair was combed neatly, and he wore a collared shirt and brown trousers.
He gave a shy smile, which softened his features and made him appear even more youthful than his twenty-one years. “Hullo, Grace.”
“Colin?” she said, incredulous. He was almost a foot taller than her, towering over her as she once had over him.
His reaction was endearing, and it warmed her to know he hadn’t lost his sweetness in the years that stretched between them.
Grace gazed up at him. “You’ve certainly grown since I saw you last.”
He shrugged his skinny shoulders, looking perfectly bashful before offering a slight nod to Viv, whom he’d played with as well since the two girls had always been inseparable. “Viv. Welcome to London. Mum and I have been looking forward to your arrival.” He slid a grin at Grace, then bent to grasp the two suitcases the ladies had set aside. He hesitated. “May I take these for you?”
“Please,” Viv said. “Thank you, Colin.”
He nodded and took one suitcase in each of his hands, carrying them easily up the stairs.
“Do you remember visiting with Colin?” Mrs. Weatherford asked.
“We do,” Grace said. “He seems as kind as he’s always been.”
“Only much taller,” Viv added.
Mrs. Weatherford looked up the stairs with adoration shining in her eyes, as if she could still see him. “He’s a good lad. Come, let’s have some tea and I’ll show you around.”
She motioned for them to follow and pushed open the door that led into a kitchen. Light spilled in from the window above the sink and at the back door, filtering in through parted gauzy white curtains. Everything was as pristine in her narrow kitchen as it had been in the entryway. The sun shone off clean white countertops, and a few dishes had been neatly set in a rack to dry. Towels the color of lemons were draped on a rack, and the scent of whatever she was cooking was even more tantalizing.
She indicated the small table with four white chairs to Grace and Viv and lifted the kettle from the stove. “Your uncle picked a fine time to lay claim to your home with a war soon upon us.” She carried it to the sink and turned on the tap. “And so very like Horace,” she said with evident distaste over the rush of water. “Beatrice was worried he might attempt such a thing, but her illness was so sudden—”
Mrs. Weatherford flicked a glance from where she’d been watching the water level in the kettle to Grace. “I shouldn’t be going on like this, what with you just getting in from traveling. I’m so pleased to see you here. I only wish it was under better circumstances.”
Grace bit her lower lip, uncertain what to say.
“You have a lovely home, Mrs. Weatherford,” Viv said quickly.
Grace cast her a grateful look, which she answered with a conspiratorial wink.
“Thank you.” The older woman cut the tap and scanned her sunny kitchen with a smile. “My Thomas’s family owned it for several generations. It’s not as fine as it once was, but one makes do.”
Grace and Viv each slid into a chair. The lemon-printed cushion was thin enough to feel the hard wooden seat beneath. “We appreciate you allowing us to stay with you. It’s very generous.”
“Think nothing of it.” Mrs. Weatherford set the kettle on the stove and spun the knob to turn the burner on. “There’s not a thing I wouldn’t do for the daughter of my dearest friend.”
“Do you think finding employment will be difficult?” Viv asked. Though she kept her tone light, Grace knew how much her friend longed to be a shop assistant.
In truth, the idea was appealing to Grace as well. It seemed so glamorous to work in a department store, something fine and grand like Woolworths with floors of items that extended the length of an entire block.
Mrs. Weatherford gave a secretive smile. “It just so happens I’m well acquainted with quite a few shop owners in London. I’m sure I can do something to help. And Colin works at Harrods. He can put in a good word as well.”
Viv’s eyes lit up as she mouthed the store name to Grace with barely restrained excitement.
Mrs. Weatherford took one of the yellow towels and lifted a plate from the rack, rubbing away the few remaining drops. “I must say, the two of you don’t sound at all like you’re from Drayton.”
Viv tilted her chin a notch higher. “Thank you. We’ve certainly tried. We’re hoping it will help with our employment.”
“How delightful.” Mrs. Weatherford opened a cabinet and replaced the plate within. “I trust you’ve procured letters of recommendation already?”
Viv had spent the day before their departure to London with a borrowed typewriter, carefully typing a letter of recommendation for herself. She’d offered to do one for Grace as well, but Grace had refused.
Mrs. Weatherford turned back to the drying dishes once more. Viv lifted her eyebrows at Grace, indicating she ought to have agreed.
“We do have letters of recommendation.” Viv spoke confidently for both of them, no doubt already scheming how she might produce a second one for Grace.
“Viv does,” Grace amended. “Unfortunately, I do not. My uncle refused to write a letter of recommendation for the time I spent at his shop.”
It had been his final offense, a retaliation for her “abandoning the store” where she’d worked for most of her life. He didn’t seem to care that his wife had insisted Grace find another place to live, only that Grace would no longer be at his beck and call.
The kettle gave a shrill cry and emitted a cloud of steam from its nozzle. Mrs. Weatherford pulled it from the stove, immediately cutting short its scream, and set it on a trivet.
She tsked as she scooped a spoonful of leaves into the tea ball before adding the boiled water to the teapot. “That’s a shame, a terrible shame.” She muttered something under her breath about Horace and settled the teapot on a silver tray with three teacups and a sugar and creamer set. She offered Grace a resigned frown. “They won’t take you at a department store without one.”
Grace’s stomach dropped to her toes. Perhaps she ought to have allowed Viv to forge her a letter after all.
“However,” Mrs. Weatherford added slowly as she carried the tray to the table and poured them each a steaming cup. “I have a place in mind where you could work for six months to obtain a proper letter of recommendation.”
“Grace would be ideal for whatever you’re thinking.” Viv took a lump of sugar from the bowl and let it plunk into her tea. “She always had the highest marks in school. Especially in maths. She practically ran her uncle’s entire shop on her own and improved it greatly while doing so.”
“Then I think this will work out wonderfully.” Mrs. Weatherford took a sip of her tea.
Something nudged against Grace’s shin. She looked down to find a young tabby cat gazing imploringly up at her with large amber eyes.
Grace stroked her hand over the soft fur behind the kitten’s ears and a purr vibrated to life. “I see you have a cat.”
“Only for a few more days, I hope you don’t mind.” Mrs. Weatherford swept her hand to shoo the cat, but it remained stubbornly at Grace’s side.
“The rascal won’t leave my kitchen anytime he smells food.” Mrs. Weatherford cast a chagrined look down at the little animal who regarded her without guilt or shame. “Colin is a wonder with animals. If I allowed him to keep every wounded creature he brought home, we would have quite the menagerie.” Her chuckle interrupted the steam rising from her tea.
The cat rolled onto his back, revealing a small white star on his chest. Grace scratched at the spot, and his rhythmic purr rumbled under her fingertips. “What do you call him?”
“Tabby.” Mrs. Weatherford playfully rolled her eyes. “My son is far better at rescuing animals than naming them.”
As though summoned, Colin entered the room at that very moment. Tabby leapt to his feet and trotted over to his savior. Colin lifted the kitten into his large hands, his touch gentle with the small creature who nuzzled affectionately against him. This time, it was Colin Mrs. Weatherford shooed away. “Out of the kitchen with him.”
“Sorry, Mum.” Colin gave a quick, apologetic smile to Grace and Viv, then ducked from the room with the cat cradled to his chest.
Mrs. Weatherford shook her head with affectionate amusement as she watched him depart. “I’ll visit Mr. Evans to see about getting you secured in that position at his shop.” She settled back into her chair and gazed out to the garden with a sigh.
Grace glanced out the window where a gaping hole showed in the earth alongside a sad pile of uprooted flowers and a stack of what appeared to be sheets of aluminum. Most likely the beginnings of an Anderson shelter. Grace hadn’t seen any in Drayton where the chances of being bombed weren’t high, but she’d heard of several cities where the Andys had been distributed. The small shelters were to be buried in the garden as a refuge if Hitler attacked Britain.
A tremor of unease rippled down Grace’s spine. Of all the times to finally make their way to London, it was at the start of a war. Now they were in the prime target for bombings.
Not that returning to Drayton was an option. She would rather face the possibility of danger where she was wanted than contend with her uncle’s hostility.
Viv peered out the window curiously and promptly looked away. After a lifetime of farming, she was—as she put it—“jolly well done with dirt.”
Mrs. Weatherford sighed again and took a sip of tea.
“It was a fine garden once.” “It will be again,” Grace reassured her with more confidence than she felt. For if there were bombings, would any garden ever be the same again? Would any of them for that matter?
Such thoughts nipped at the back of her mind and cast them in an eerie shadow. “Mrs. Weatherford,” she said abruptly, no longer wanting to think of war or bombings. “May I inquire as to what sort of shop Mr. Evans runs?”
“Of course, dear.” Mrs. Weatherford set her teacup in its saucer with a clink, her eyes lighting up with enthusiasm. “It’s a book shop.”
Grace masked a twinge of disappointment. After all, she knew very little about books. Any attempts at reading had been quashed by countless interruptions. She’d been far too busy at her uncle’s store, trying to earn enough money for her and her mother’s survival, to bother with reading. Then her mother had become ill…
Uncle Horace’s store had been easy enough to manage, especially as the household wares were items she personally used. Selling tea kettles, towels, vases and other goods she was familiar with came naturally. But she knew nothing about literature.
Well, that wasn’t entirely true.
She could still recall her mother’s copy of Grimm’s Fairy Tales with an elegant princess painted on its front. How she’d loved letting her gaze wander over the colorful illustrations while her mother’s voice spun magic with those fanciful tales. But outside of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, she’d never had time to read.
“Brilliant.” Grace smiled brightly to hide her apprehension. After all, she would make do. Anything would be better than working at her uncle’s store.
But how was she possibly supposed to sell something she knew so little about?