A novel of two Elizabeths, born hours apart into very different lives in London: “Clever and charming.”—Katie Fforde
London, 1926. Two baby girls are born just hours and miles apart. One you know as the Queen of England, but what of the other girl—the daughter of an undertaker named in her honor?
Betsy Sunshine grows up surrounded by death in war-torn London, watching her community grieve for their loved ones while dealing with her own teenage troubles—namely her promiscuous sister Margie. As Betsy grows older we see the how the country changes through her eyes, and along the way we discover the birth of a secret that threatens to tear her family apart.
Sophie Duffy dazzles in her latest work of family/historical fiction. A tale which spans generations to explore the life and times of a family at the heart of their community, it is the story of a stoic young woman who shares a connection with her queenly counterpart in more ways than one.
“Both Betsy and Lilibet develop into strong and faithful women when the world plunges into World War II. As Betsy grows older, we see through her eyes the country changing through the decades. This makes for fascinating social history, full of both humor and tragedy…Highly recommended.”—Historical Novel Society
“Told with wit and warmth, this is a gritty, truly British, drama.”—Paul McVeigh
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I never thought I'd be old. But here I am, sitting on a wee resistant armchair in the overheated lounge of a residential home on the south coast.
I wasn't supposed to live. I came early, the dead hour of the night, my mother exhausted and on the verge of giving up. A scrawny rat of a thing.
'Three pounds and a bit,' the midwife informed Doctor Parkin, dragged from his warm bed by my father.
Doctor Parkin looked me over, handed me back, a parcel of liver. 'Keep Baby with Mother,' he instructed.
That's all Doctor Parkin had to say: Keep Baby with Mother.
I could've been buried in a shoebox that night, but those few words saved my life.
They named me Elizabeth, after the brand new princess, born at the exact same time as me, only across the other side of the river, to posher parents, with a swankier address. Elizabeth Sarah Sunshine, to be known as Betsy. The princess was given a string of names that would grow ever longer when she unexpectedly became queen so that in some ways she would always have more than me. In others, we'd be exactly the same. But she didn't get the Sunshine.
Sunshine by name, more cloudy by nature, perfect for undertaking, the family business. Not for the faint-hearted but secure, that's what Mum always said.
Keep Baby with Mother.
Three pounds and a bit and here I am still.
Death gets us all in the end and my end is approaching, maybe tonight, maybe next year, or maybe once I've got my telegram off the Queen, if she makes it till then, which I hope she does.
I don't fear Death; we've lived cheek by jowl all my life. When I'm gone, I won't be here no more. I'll be somewhere else. Or nowhere at all. Either way, there's nothing I can do about it.
We don't know how or when. I've seen all the ways he can think of: illness, accidents, birth, old age, murder, war, suicide. The kiddies are the worst. Those little coffins carried in a father's arms. The look in his eye that breaks your heart.
My own funeral is planned down to the last nail in the coffin. Nothing fancy. No doves, no bearded mutes, no ostrich feathers. No horses, no Robbie Williams, no Celine Dion. Just my twenty minutes in the crem with the people I love. And Perry Como, because he reminds me of my Mick, bogtrotter, love of my life.
There's one thing I'm afraid of, being buried alive. Goes back to the war. The Anderson shelter. And poor old Janet. More a sister to me than Margie ever was. Margie was always competing, always pinching stuff off of me, from lipstick to boyfriends. Even had to die first, despite being four years younger. But now Margie's gone, I miss her too.
You always want what you can't have. That's what I used to say to Margie. Though she usually got what she wanted, so it didn't apply in her case. I mean, three husbands? Who needs that many? And I don't suppose she wanted that fatal stroke neither.
I never wanted a baby, not really. I didn't long for one, didn't think I was the mothering type. But then, once I'd got wed, it was expected, only it didn't happen, just the monthlies, one after the other after the other. I shrugged it off at first, but then another month went by, and then a year, and it wasn't so easy. And then. My cuckoo. My lucky egg. My nearly-twins.
When I lost him, Charlie, I didn't know how to get him back. I didn't know if I deserved to. Or if I even wanted to, which is bad, seeing as I wanted him so much in the first place. And now everyone keeps nagging me.
Tell him. Tell him. Tell him.
The biggest nag of all is my conscience, which I thought I'd buried along with my soul on a sunny day in Kent in 1949.
I have to try, now, still. Before it's too late.
The ghosts come back to haunt you, if you let them. The trick is not to let them. But at the grand old age of ninety, it's getting harder. They're everywhere: Mum, Dad, Nana, Bert, Margie, Mab, Janet, my Mick. Some dead. Some alive. Some missing.
And Charlie. He's all around, like a fly on a hot day, pestering, needling. However much I swat, he never leaves me alone.
So here I am, in my wee-resistant chair, staring out the smeary windows at the splendour of Bognor, thinking about Charlie.
Keep Baby with Mother.
It's all to do with the training: you can do a lot if you're properly trained.
Queen Elizabeth IICHAPTER 2
I don't like school, not from the first day I have to go. I am the fiftieth child in the class, spend the morning bawling and snivelling on the poor teacher's lap, as if she doesn't have enough to worry about, like forty-nine other children. I want to stay at home with Mum, only Dad's having none of it. 'You need an education,' he says, ahead of his time, though really it's because there'll be no sons, not after what my little sister, Margie, did to Mum two years back. Feet first she came, stamping her way into the world. Doctor Parkin had to dig deep with some barbaric instrument that saved her life but almost saw Mum off in one of Dad's finest boxes. No more kids after that. 'She'll die,' Doctor Parkin said, nice bedside manner.
Our family knows Death, six generations of it. Sunshine & Sons, that's what the business is called. Only, because there are no sons, Dad will let us girls join the business when many a father would shut up shop. Not that Marg will want to join, not one for tradition and duty.
That's where I come in, just like my namesake.
As for school, I soon realise that it's a good place because two-year-old Margie doesn't go and I can get some peace and quiet. In so much as you can get peace and quiet with forty-nine other kiddies.
* * *
'Your dad works with dead bodies.' Joanie Clark is the class bully. She is hard as a butcher's mallet and evil with it. She's cornered me in the playground with her posse of snot-nosed ragamuffins.
'So?' I square up to her. I'm not afraid. I'm only shivering because I'm not wearing my liberty bodice. 'Someone's got to do it.'
But she won't leave it. She goes on and on, saying it's creepy, disgusting, dirty, when she's the one with the head lice and scabs. She's the one that needs a good going-over with a flannel and some Lifebuoy. On and on she goes, her posse standing behind her.
I've had enough. I'm proud of my mum and dad.
'All right, Joanie Clark. Tell me, when you die do you want to be cut up and put in a coal sack? Or would you rather be chucked in the Thames, your body squirming with maggots? And what about your mum? And your dad? And your little brothers and sister?' I go on and on too. I go on and on until I make her and her posse of snot-nosed ragamuffins cry, the whole lot of them.
I get a clout for that later. Two clouts. One off Miss Kenton, our teacher. And a bigger one off of my mum.
'We're respectable people,' Mum says, her lipstick smudged like she's wiped the back of her hand across her mouth, that way she does when she's tired. She's tired a lot. She has to check on the 'boys' at work, clean up after Dad, and deal with the dead. She has to keep a clean house and run around after her mum, that's my Nana Mabel. And, her most important job, she has to look after me and Marg. I'm not too bad but Marg is a pain in the bum, though Mum thinks the sun shines out of it. So I must try harder to be good because Marg won't ever be and Mum'll realise this one day.
Dad reads the paper of an evening. The Daily Telegraph. We play this game sometimes. He reads out the death notices and we guess how old the deceased was. I don't know who the people are but I like to guess all the same. Sometimes I win. I wonder if I'm psychic. Mum says I'm just lucky. Lots of things are lucky. Rabbit paws. Four-leafed clovers. Horseshoes. The dead can take lucky things with them. 'To make sure they get to the other side,' Dad says, like they're going on the Woolwich ferry. Mrs Sullivan takes her stuffed parrot, Hercules. 'It's her wishes,' Dad says. 'Wishes are important.'
Wishes are everything.CHAPTER 3
Wishes get more simple as you get old. You wish you could wait longer before needing a wee. Spending a penny is an effort when you have to get from your chair to the lav. You have to plan and think about all the stuff that used to come natural. So there's no point wishing for world peace, not when you've lived through the war and seen that people don't change. You can't wish for the advancement of medical science, not when you've dealt with victims of cancer and strokes and all the rest of it. There's no point wishing for your husband to come back to you. Once he's gone, he's gone.
The best wish I can have is for my children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. That they will be happy.
I sit in my chair here in Sunnydale and I wonder if I was granted three wishes, what would I choose.
They say be careful what you wish for.
Like all the best families, we have our share of eccentricities, of impetuous and wayward youngsters and of family disagreements.
Queen Elizabeth IICHAPTER 4
The church hall is as comforting as the funeral parlour. Not something most girls would say, but I am not most girls. The church hall, appropriately and conveniently next to the parish church of St Michael the Archangel, is a place I love, not because I am especially religious or holy but because it's where we go for a knees-up, a game of ping-pong and, best of all, Brownies.
Thursday night is Brownie night and I get to wear my uniform, but not Margie because she's too young. Ha, ha. She says she's not bothered, that brown's an evil colour, but I know she is bubbling with jealous rage every time my best friend Janet calls for me and we skip off to the hall.
Brown Owl is lovely. Her real name is Vera Parsons. She's young and glamorous, barely out of the Girl Guides herself. She takes us on nature trails to Dulwich Park, on the bus to Surrey Docks. Swimming at the lido, the pictures at Goose Green. Even when we're mudlarking or pond-dipping, she has a slash of red lipstick on her Bette Davis lips and a squirt of Eau de Cologne. She is smashing. She's like a big sister, but not bossy or smug. (Margie says I am bossy and smug, but that's only because she is flighty and dim.)
But it is 1936 and Miss Parsons can't be a 'Miss' forever. The dark day comes. She gets engaged to Arthur Bellingham, a bank clerk down the National Westminster. She is a typist and their eyes meet over a clutch of carbon copies. I don't reckon much to Arthur Bellingham, or his eyes for that matter, especially when Brown Owl tells us she's leaving Brownies once she's married. I vow I will never give up anything I love to make a man his dinner. When I tell Mum this, her initial reaction is a smile, followed quickly by a telling-off. Which is pretty much how things are between me and my mum: half pride, balanced out by a quarter exasperation and a quarter worry.
However, there is a silver lining. Brown Owl walks me home one Thursday evening. 'I've got something to ask your mum,' she says.
'Am I in trouble?'
'You, Betsy? In trouble? You're my little star.'
'Am I really, Brown Owl?'
'You can call me Vera from now on, when we're not at the church hall. And once I've stopped.' I think she might have a tear in her eye, or it could be the wind which is stirring up.
I don't know what to say. Luckily we've reached home. The front door's on the latch, so I pull her inside, tugging her hand with the ring sticking into me like a thistle, down the passage to the back kitchen, where I know they'll be sat around the wireless, Margie hopefully tucked up in bed.
'We've got a visitor,' I announce. 'It's Brown Owl.'
Mum looks up from her knitting and Dad gets to his feet, folding up his paper and knocking out his pipe.
'Evening, Miss Parsons. Everything all right?'
'Oh yes, Mr Sunshine. Everything's fine. I just wanted to ask a question.'
Mum puts down her needles, 'Edgar, honestly, where are your manners? Do sit down, Vera. Here, by the boiler. It's cold out. Can I get you a cup of tea? Cocoa?'
'No, really, that's very kind, Mrs Sunshine.'
'Thank you, Alice. I must be making tracks, so I'll get to the point.' She glances from Mum to Dad. 'I'd like Betsy to be a bridesmaid.'
There follows three distinct sharp intakes of breath. Brown Owl furrows her pretty brow, unsure why there's this reaction and hastily adds: 'That's if she'd like to of course, and if you have no objections?'
I think I might explode. Mainly with happiness but also with fear, as we Sunshines are used to hiding behind the clouds. Apart from Margie, ever the show-off. And where is Margie now? Hopefully not crouched on the landing, listening through the bannisters, picking up fag ends. More likely asleep, the lazy so-and-so. Her head only has to touch the pillow and she's off to the Land of Nod. Anyway, awake or asleep, she's not here.
But I am. With Brown Owl. Vera. Soon to be Mrs Bellingham. Soon to be walking down the aisle of St Michael the Archangel with me dressed up like a princess, clasping the hem of her train.
I look from one parent to the other; neither has said any- thing. Maybe they're in shock. Undertakers are considered a bad omen, the poor relations of the Grim Reaper. Who would want the undertakers' daughter to be their bridesmaid? Especially the less pretty daughter.
'How lovely.' Mum breaks the silence, passes the buck to me. 'What do you think, Betsy? Would you like to be a bridesmaid?'
If it was anyone else in the world, I would probably say no, but because it's you, Brown Owl, I would be honoured. That's what I'd like to say but the cat has got my tongue, so I nod like a nitwit, like my head's going to topple off, and they all laugh at me, but I don't care because I am going to be a bridesmaid!
'Have you set a date?' Dad is concerned with logistics.
'Splendid. Well, she has our permission, doesn't she, love?' He turns to Mum.
'Course she does. Thank you for asking, Vera.' Mum's in control again. 'How about a glass of sherry while you tell me about your dress and how many bridesmaids. I'd be thrilled if you'd let me help.' She pats Brown Owl's pretty hand with its sparkling ruby ring. 'Edgar?'
Dad gets busy with the sherry bottle and glasses.
'You're a marvel, Mrs Sunshine.'
'Alice, I hope you didn't think I'd asked Betsy so as you'd help out with the dresses. But I'd love it and I don't expect you to do it for nothing.'
'If you and your mother sort the fabric, I'll be more than happy to make the dresses. How many bridesmaids?'
'Really, Mrs Sunshine?'
'Yes, Alice, well there's my sister, Cathleen, she'll be maid of honour. Arthur's three-year-old niece, Tilly. And your Betsy.'
Three of us. I'll be the one in the middle. Not the maid of honour. Not the sweet little one. But I don't care because I am going to be a bridesmaid. And I'm sure Brown Owl asks me because I remind her of the other sister who died of influenza after the Great War. Not because my mum is the best seamstress in south London.
They clink glasses. I fetch some milk and join in with the toasting and, all this time, Margie is asleep, unknowing, upstairs.
That night I drift off to sleep dreaming about tulle and satin and organ music and frothy posies of lily-of-the-valley. But, looking across at Margie, half in half out of her bedclothes, her thick chestnut hair over her pillow, a smile on her dreaming face, I have to chase away thoughts that I'll never be the bride.
On the eve of the wedding, I try on the dress one last time, twirling round and round in front of Margie in our bedroom, and up and down the landing. Margie is livid, her cheeks cochineal, her fists clenched so tight her knuckles are sharp and spiky. I can't help myself; it's hard to always be the good one. I hang up the dress on the back of the door, stare at it for one more moment, taking in the white satin with delicate pink rosebuds sewn all the way down the front.
'Isn't it lovely?' I say to Marg, not expecting an answer, enjoying my reign of superiority, which is soon over when Mum calls us down to dinner.
Once we're sitting at the table, Marg gobbles up the liver and bacon and then asks to be excused before we've even had afters, but then it is rice pud, which isn't her favourite, so Mum says yes, she can leave the table. Quick as a flash, she's disappeared upstairs. Five minutes later, she's back, wearing a queer expression, a concoction of accomplishment and terror – like a cat that has cornered a mouse three times its size. She sits and watches us finish our pudding.
Then it's Dad's turn to excuse himself. He has a call-out. After we've washed up, dried up, and put away, Mum sends Marg and me upstairs. 'You need your beauty sleep,' she says. 'Busy day tomorrow.'
As I lie in bed, waiting for Mum to tuck us in, my tummy is all tickly, I'm that excited. I gaze at my dress for a moment, only then I hear myself scream.
'WHERE ARE THE ROSEBUDS?'
I leap out of bed and stare at the dress, as if the rosebuds might reappear. But they don't. They've been snipped off. One of them lies deadheaded on the floor. Next to the nail scissors.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Betsy and Lilibet"
Copyright © 2018 Sophie Duffy.
Excerpted by permission of Legend Times Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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