I worked in a bookshop between 1996 and 2002. What a brilliant job that was for a book nerd like me! To my mind, there is something almost sacred and spiritual about books, and walking into a beautiful bookshop is akin to entering a church. Books are my religion, I have to admit.
One of the best parts of my job was looking through the secondhand books (the shop sold both new and used books), cleaning and dusting them before placing them on the shelves for sale. I found many forgotten bookmarks tucked inside those fusty pages. Once I stumbled across a lock of Victorian hair, which was macabre, but so pretty and ethereal. I found numerous postcards, receipts, bank notes and newspaper and magazine clippings. My favorite finds were the letters, always fascinating, always giving away something of the writer. One in particular caught my eye and my imagination.
It was written on VJ day, August 15th, 1945, so seventy years ago now. It’s from a Polish squadron leader, to an English couple. In it, he talks about his feelings now that the war has finally ended, and his plans—or lack of them—for his future. It begins “My very dear ones,” which I think is lovely. These people meant something to him. He says, “Peace has come, everyone intend to settle his life again,” but then goes on to say “In present circumstances there is no future for me in Poland.” He talks about his sadness at having to begin life somewhere new: “It is very hard to change the country when someone is old enough, however, it seems to me that it is the only way for me.” I love the turn of phrases, the idiosyncratic use of English.
What We're Reading This WeekGet recommendations for the greatest books around straight to your inbox every week.
The letter was written in Italy, which he describes as “a marvellous country in summer, plenty of sun, fruits, etc. We are living near Adriatic sea, good opportunity to swim and get brown.” I love the idea that ‘normal’ fun things continue as usual, even on momentous days in history.
This letter eventually became a starting point for my novel Mrs. Sinclair’s Suitcase. I found myself wondering about this pilot and what may have become of him, what may have led him to England, to Italy. Once I started writing the novel, I could “see” him quite clearly—handsome (of course!) with dark brown hair, blue eyes, a nice smile; a loving but quite lonely man, determined and stubborn, and tenacious.
I keep this precious letter in a safe place and still look at it from time to time, still wondering…