Today's Reading

Still, she was grateful to have found a new apartment in the center of town, within easy reach of the shops and the covered market on Beresford Street. It was a big step down from the Mitchells' family home, but with that property now under legal stewardship, a chilly bedsitting room at the top of a town house was some kind of home, and better than getting stuck out in the country parishes. Already the shops had sold out of bicycles, and Hedy had spotted a few aging nags harnessed to tatty old Edwardian carts, piled up with produce from St. Mary and St. Martin, bringing steaming piles of horse dung back to the modern tarmac roads. Pretty soon, Hedy mused, the streets of Jersey would sound and smell like the streets of her childhood.

She checked her watch; it was a little after nine fifteen, giving her just enough time to buy new stockings before her appointment. This morning she'd chased Hemingway around the apartment with a newspaper after he'd clawed runs in her last pair, shouting at him that she wished she'd left him behind. Bare legs would simply not do—and certainly not today, when it was vital that she look and feel her very best. She hurried on toward De Gruchy's department store, passing several local housewives all wearing the same expression—a wary, hunted look of fearful expectation. Each of them quickened their pace as they passed groups of bantering German soldiers— scared to be so close to the enemy, afraid to run in case it should be misinterpreted. And there were scores, perhaps hundreds, of soldiers in the town now, browsing the shop windows and loafing in the parks. How the Reich could spare so many boats to transport them all, Hedy could only wonder. Crossing the road to avoid a boisterous group of off-duty privates sharing cigarettes and slapping each other's shoulders, she reached the store, pushed open the heavy glass door and made her way through the various elegant counters to the hosiery department.

"Excuse me?" Hedy tried to neutralize her accent as much as possible without sounding like a parody. "I would like to buy some stockings."

The assistant, a woman in her forties with hair in a topknot bun, inclined her head as she prepared her customer's bad news. "I'm sorry, madam, we're completely sold out."

Hedy glanced down at the display drawers under the counter's polished glass top, and saw that they were almost empty. "You have nothing in the back, perhaps?" She beamed a rictus smile, afraid this obvious approach might backfire, but the woman shook her head.

"Sorry, I can't help you." She leaned forward conspiratorially, her sickly floral perfume rising uninvited up Hedy's nostrils, and hissed: "It's them. They come in here all friendly, but look! Gone through the whole place like ruddy locusts—sending it all back to their families, see, 'cause they've had nothing in their shops for months. Winter coats, kitchen stuff, fabric, you name it. You tried to buy cheese this week? Can't get it for love nor money."

Hedy matched her low volume. "Can you not refuse to serve them?"

"This Jerry officer came in, said if we do, our managers will be thrown in prison. But where's the new stock going to come from, that's what I want to know? You see them down the harbor this week, sending our Jersey Royals to France? What are we supposed to eat? Tell you what..." The woman's face brightened as an idea occurred to her, and her voice lowered even further. "You can have the stockings I'm wearing right now if you can get us a couple of pork chops by tonight? It's the old man's birthday and I've got nothing for him but a bit of leftover tripe."

Hedy stared at her, considering. The thought of putting on a strange woman's dirty stockings was unpleasant, but more dispiriting was the realization that even if she wanted to, she was in no position to strike that kind of deal. Only this morning she'd noticed that the butcher at the end of her road had stuck up a sign reading "Regular Customers Only." Special deals were doubtless available to friends and the favored in this insular little place, but Hedy had no such traction. She saw her future stretching ahead, an endless queue in which she was always at the back, getting what no one else wanted or nothing at all.


This excerpt is from the paperback edition.

Monday we begin the book Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir.
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