Primrose Hill Revisited – the complete book online - chapter twenty-four

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chapter twenty-four

Wolfgang Wankler woke with a start, his mind freighted with anxiety, striving to recapture the fraying tendrils of a dream that was fleeing back into his subconscious. He had been in a whorehouse. In that sordid little street off the Reeperbahn, the Herbertstrasse, walled at both ends, both walls penetrated by passages offset as in a labyrinth. The street was full of men, a silent throng shuffling aimlessly up and down between the old brick houses like a herd of captives. An air of menace rose like a miasma from the cobbles. There were no women in the street; they sat in the ground floor windows. The flotsam of the city swirled around those windows — low-life and workers from the wharves, Turkish gastarbeiters, Orientals from the kitchens of cheap restaurants, and drunken Western tourists — leering at the statuesque women posing in the windows in their filmy pink, black, red and ivory negligees. The windows were sealed and the women stared out over the heads of the crowd, dropping their glance to meet the eyes of the men only when one approached. Then they would open their red-painted lips into a rictus and move a hand to stroke a bulging breast or meaty thigh. No one talked. Except for the monotonous tread of shambling footgear on the cobblestones, the street was quiet. Now and then, without a word or gesture, a man would disappear through one of the doors lining the street. Wolfgang slipped inside and presented his business card. They took an enormous amount of cash from him, two hundred marks, and led him down a corridor, through another door and out into a yard where dawn was breaking over the Elbe river. The door closed behind him. He was alone in the courtyard, a deep and urgent sexual need unsatisfied. He hammered on the door with his steel fist. They had kept his card. They knew his identity: Wolfgang Wankler, Dipl. Verkaufsmann.

All was well. He was not in a dismal courtyard behind the Herbertstrasse. He was in his comfortable apartment, one of only four in a substantial purpose-built villa in Schenefeld, practically within the district of Blankenese. He had only been to the Herbertstrasse once, and it cost twenty marks, which was rich enough, but not two hundred, and they don’t ask who you are.

Wolfgang Wankler, Dipl. Verkaufsmann, got up. At the foot of the bed he met his wife who was coming from the other side and shook hands with her. While she padded off to the kitchen to prepare his coffee he stepped out of his pyjamas and slipped on his exercise thong. How did she ever get so pudgy? He had married a slim girl with long blonde hair but soon he’d found out the hair wasn’t really blonde and later she cut it off anyway because she said women of her age cannot wear long hair and now it was brown and frizzy and the shape of her body was the same as the dumplings she made in her steamy kitchen. When she stepped into her sensible black skirt and struggled into her red jersey and set her little brown pork-pie hat on the top of her head to go out shopping she looked like every other middle-aged woman in Hamburg, as stolid as the solid colours they wore. He reproached the image of his own stomach in the mirror, pulled it inwards, and started his stretching exercises.

One of the good things about living in Schenefeld, which was almost like living in Blankenese except that it wasn’t actually on the river and the houses weren’t traditional and not so outrageously expensive, was that you could always get a seat on the S-bahn in the morning. Wearing his own jaunty Austrian hat and his long black leather coat he took his customary seat, stared unseeing through the window, and resumed the interrupted sexual pursuit of the early morning hours. This dream, which he could order for himself, took place in London, where the women all wore such short skirts, just daring you to flick them up a little higher. He pictured himself in the magazine office, choosing the low leather sofa so that he could look up the tiny skirts that wafted past. The scene shifted to Claudia’s office, behind the closed door, where the phantom in his mind sitting in Claudia’s chair deliberately crossed her long, slim legs, offering him a glimpse of red panties. Why did the English call them knickers — so inelegant, so unsexy? He flipped the ridiculous ribbon of skirt above her hips. The tights women wore nowadays were a nuisance. Getting them off was so clumsy. So in his fantasies she never wore tights. He just pulled down her panties — not knickers — bent her body face-forward across her desk and ravished her from behind. The black leather briefcase perched on his knees concealed his stiffening member. Soon, in an hour or two, he would see her in the flesh, touch her flesh — shaking hands certainly — and perhaps she would lean her face forward and brush his cheek with hers in the French way, as she sometimes did, enveloping him in the musk of her scent, teasing him, he was sure, and he could touch her lightly in the small of the back and perhaps, in parting, tease her, negligently grazing, with his good hand, just a little bit further down the curve of her rump. He hoped she would be wearing a mini-skirt, and not one of those floor-sweeping blankets she had unaccountably taken to wearing recently.

But when Claudia arrived at his office in mid-morning, he was disappointed. She had come alone.

“You did not bring Miss Jenny?”

“She did particularly want to come, but then I was mindful of your recent memo about expenses.”

What was that English curse? Damn and blast! “But I was expecting her.”

“Why?”

“It would be good for her to meet the Board.”

“Why?”

Did she suspect, as Sherlock Holmes would say, that a plot was fattening? He would have to tread carefully. He put on his blandest smile. “To introduce the team.” As ever, the best way to reassure her of his good intentions was to appeal to her national prejudices, so he added with a self-deprecating chuckle. “We Germans believe in teamwork.”

“Jenny is simply my P.A. She’s very good at picking up after me and doing her nails, but if you want the Board to meet the team I’d have to bring along the editorial staff who do the work and leave Jenny in London to answer the phone.”

Too much about Jenny. He would have to backtrack fast. Wolfgang Wankler, Dipl. Kaufmann engineered a stiff grin. “That is a very good idea. Maybe I should put that to the Board.”

“If I still have a team after this presentation.”

“Of course you will. I have every confidence in the future of the magazine.”

The magazine must continue. Otherwise, it would be difficult to justify his job. Modern Woman would have to be relaunched and brought into the second half of the twentieth century. But was Claudia the one to do it? Was she young enough to empathise with a younger audience? Her heart, in any case, was in the past. He’d had to force her to restyle the magazine and she’d refused to disclose anything about her new concept in advance of the presentation. He knew all about it, of course, from his clandestine dinner date with Jenny in London, who clearly thought Claudia’s ideas were rubbish. He couldn’t judge. He was too out-of-touch with the younger generation, and in any case it was not his job to make editorial judgments. It was his job to keep the magazine afloat and that’s why he had accepted with genuine pleasure the alternative proposal that Jenny had prepared with some of her friends. It lay now locked in his cupboard so that if Claudia’s presentation were to be rejected, he could quickly present the Board with a new solution — and a new editor.

He had no editorial judgment. That wasn’t his job. His job was to survive. But of course, to please Jenny he had said her ideas were very interesting. That night she had obligingly worn one of her short skirts and he placed his hand, his good hand, on her silken knee in an encouraging way. Her flesh felt strangely cool. Perhaps because English ladies shave their legs? His hand lingered and she did not remove it, and so the gesture transgressed the vague border between an affectionate pat of encouragement and an acceptance of further intimacies and thus emboldened he was about to stroke gently upward when, damn and blast, the waiter arrived with the bill.

When Jenny became editor, of course, there would be many opportunities for business lunches and dinners. Herr Direktor Stutzmann liked to go to London and was inevitably accompanied by his Sekretärin, Fräulein Irme. If revenues picked up with the relaunch, it might not be difficult to persuade the Herr Direktor of the value of acquiring a company flat, perhaps somewhere near Harrods, which he always visited to pick up a gift for Frau Stuzmann. Which, of course, would save on his own hotel bills as well when he was in London, which was good for the company.

While Claudia set up her presentation on the easel in the boardroom, Wankler prowled around the long table. The rosewood glowed and he caressed it, absorbing the power of the business through his fingertips. Each place was furnished with a fresh notepad, a sharpened pencil and a water glass and in the centre stood unopened bottles of water and one of schnapps, which was broached only on social occasions, such as the retirement of a Board Member. He considered his choice of seat carefully. Normally, as Claudia’s immediate superior, he would have positioned himself at the bottom of the table, where she would stand, to lend support to her presentation. But today he would be careful to put some distance between them. He deposited his leather handbag on a seat just above the midpoint of the table, where he would be positioned within the psychological territory of the Herr Direktor, though out of his direct view, and from which he would have a close sight of his reactions.

Apart from the occasional uninformative tremble of his fleshy jowls, Herr Direktor Stutzmann, as grey as the suit he wore, betrayed no emotion throughout Claudia’s crisp presentation. But his general demeanour was dour. The coy pink carnation he wore in his lapel seemed like a souvenir from a weekend party that he had forgotten to remove. The other grey-suited executives, Wankler included, swivelled their eyes between the two ends of the table, antennae searching for the direction their opinions should take. But the Herr Direktor didn’t get where he is today, thought Wankler, by letting people know what he was thinking. He wondered if Fräulein Irme could read the mind of her boss. The only woman in the audience, the wide-hipped, fifty-year-old spinster perched at his side, pencil poised, her face as prim as a prune above the cascading flounces of her silk blouse — pink, matching the carnation — that disguised her voluptuous bosom. What secrets did Herr Direktor Stutzmann burble to her as he buried his face in that scented nest? The Herr Direktor was near retirement age. What tricks did she play with her painted lips to raise his pecker from entropy?

Wankler felt an erection stiffening in his own trousers and sought to distract himself from Eros by drawing a series of severe, rectangular boxes on his notepad as Claudia delivered her Relaunch Idea. He now recalled with alarm that it was actually his idea. He had suggested, just joking, that maybe she should go out on dates. Now, the key part of her new SEW strategy (nothing to do with needlework — the old home-making features would be jettisoned — it stood for Sexual Empowerment for Women) was a continuing series of blind date experiences, many of them exploring the mores of the younger generation. Wankler pressed himself back in his seat and avoided her eye, praying that she would not catch his eye and give him credit for her inspiration,

The Herr Direktor had a weakness for the amusing frivolities of American businessmen. His latest executive toy, a kind of scaffold from which a row of silver metal balls hung suspended on strings, sat before him on the table. He flicked it now with a thick finger and the balls began to click. It was as effective as a megaphone. All eyes swivelled towards the top of the table.

Wankler had converted one of the squares on his notepad into a scaffold. Now he suspended a noose from it. Finally the little balls stopped clicking. The Herr Direktor glowered at Claudia. “These stories are amusing. Are they absolutely genuine?” Twelve pairs of eyes swivelled back to Claudia.

“Absolutely.”

The executives reverted to the Herr Direktor. “They seem like fairy tales,” he growled.

As one man the executives nodded and turned their faces to Claudia. She nodded, too. ”They are like fairy stories. A miraculous chance to find true love. What every woman aspires to.”

She turned to the last page of her chartpad. It was an outsize reproduction of a magazine cover with the headline: ‘My Blind Date: You’re never too old to fall in love again.’ Wankler didn’t need to look; Jenny had already shown it to him. He kept his eyes on the head of the table. And so was the only executive to see the faint, proud blush that swelled Fräulein Irme’s cheeks, the sweet, sidelong glance she offered to the Herr Direktor and the furtive dab of her lacy handkerchief to her eyes. Damn and blast, winced Wankler. The old goat has probably had his hand up her skirt throughout the entire presentation.

The executives held their breath, waiting to discover what they thought. Finally, Herr Direktor Stutzmann nodded twice, his jowls bouncing, and gave his executive toy an enthusiastic prod. He smiled, the executives exhaled, the little silver balls clicked away merrily and, as though the blinds had been drawn, sunny warmth flooded into the room. Claudia’s face beamed above slightly sagging shoulders as the executives got up and moved to congratulate her. A thousand times damn and blast — Wankler anguished through the artificial smile he had pasted on his face — if he had been sitting in his usual place they would be shaking his hand, too.

“Ein prosit!” commanded the Herr Direktor.

Leaping to reclaim his dominion of the magazine, Wankler was the first to grasp the schnapps bottle. Smiling, he poured glasses all around. Together, the executives raised the toast. ”Zum Wohl!”

“Zum Wohl!” the Direktor replied. “And to victory before the Americans arrive.”

Claudia and Fräulein Irme knocked back their schnapps in a single draught with the rest of them. Wolfgang Wankler pushed his way through his fellow executives to Claudia and grasped her hand with his good hand. He beamed at her, eyes alight with complicit joy. At times of stress his usual firm grasp of English idiomatic structure loosened. “Congratulations. I knew you would pull a rabbit out from under your skirts.” He leaned forward and murmured in her ear, “I’m getting a big rise for you.”