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

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chapter twenty-seven

Claudia pedalled south down the outer circle of Regent’s Park with the wind streaming her hair and the low morning sun in her eyes. So she didn’t have a love life. Worse things happen at sea. She might never have a love life again. Not in that perfect sense: those exquisite moments of delight with someone you love, trust and above all respect. Almost anybody could supply the bed thrills. She smiled as she remembered how Jake had supplied them and she felt a sudden little ache, strangely not in her genital area but in her heart. It was not just the horny bits; she wanted to share her entire being with someone who believed in what she believed and aspired to what she aspired. Jake came from another planet, but he was a quick study.

Worse things happen at sea. She had Hope who loved her unquestioningly. She had Russell who was the most chivalrous friend anyone could ever have. They had a nice home in Primrose Hill, an area which the estate agent ads were beginning to describe as gentrified. She had a good career job, well-paid now thanks to the rise that she got with the relaunch of the magazine. And she loved what she was doing. The blind date series had turned the trick. Now she could engage her readers in serious subjects, while keeping their interest, and without offending advertisers, because the topics she chose to write about — modern art, class consciousness, consumerism, feminism, the false promise of technology, the frivolity of fashion, the decadence of mass culture — would be explored within a little romantic playlet about two strange people meeting and trying to impress each other, with the unspoken agenda of getting a leg over. Naturally, they would talk of the pressing cultural issues of the day. She had described her idea to Daphne with some pride as a kind of Socratic dialogue between two people feeling each other out — before they felt each other up. Their conversations justified her own opinion piece at the front of the mag on the themes they discussed, but it was based on the views of real people. Well, they would be real people if they existed. The sooner they did, the better. Every day brought mailbags full of readers’ experiences, but, honestly, the drivel they wrote about. Meanwhile circulation was trending upward, MW was gaining a reputation as a forum for thinking women and no one, not even Herr Wankler, had made any complaints.

She felt confident enough now to tackle racism. Enoch Powell was scaremongering, of course, in his ‘river of blood’ speech. Nobody believed his extravagant claim that by the end of the ‘80s you’d be able to count immigrants and their children and grandchildren in the millions and they would amount to almost one person in ten by the end of the century. But you could not deny that he had the keenest mind in government and if it turned out anything like those figures, Britain would be unrecognisable.

Powell had lurched away from the mainstream of the conservative party into lunacy. At the last party conference he had called for a revolution: halving income tax and slashing public spending, dismantling the welfare state, selling off the state owned corporations — British Steel, British Rail, the utilities and the communications services — to the private sector, yielding British business and industry to rampant capitalism. Never, not in a million years, would that constitute an agenda for the Conservative land-owning gentry. The man was obviously a lunatic.

On the positive side, racial discrimination was now criminalised and in general the ordinary British public had exhibited their customary tolerance. The overall reaction to mass immigration was not unsympathetic. The problem was Enoch, who was stirring things up. That Gallup poll showed that three-quarters of the population agreed with him about the possible future consequences. And a thousand East End dockworkers had marched on Parliament to support him, shouting and brandishing their evil placards: ‘Back Britain not Black Britain’. The dockers were supposed to be a traditionally copper-bottomed Labour constituency. Not so surprising, on reflection. Enoch Powell is, after all, Alf Garnett’s favourite politician. There’s always a gap between what the people in Parliament and the posher streets of Primrose Hill think and what the people in the country feel in their guts. She herself had to admit to a twinge of nostalgia for the Britain she had grown up in. It was all mixed up with a sad sense of loss of empire, a diminution of greatness, a regret for past glories. She hoped her feeling was patriotism, not racism.

At lunchtime, when Claudia returned from a meeting shaking the raindrops from her hair from the sudden squall that had descended on Mayfair, Jenny avoided her eye. So it was a total surprise to find Herr Wankler standing against the window in her office, from which he would have watched her cycling across the square. Why had he come unannounced? Why wasn’t he sitting where he customarily waited, in the low leather sofa outside her office facing Jenny’s desk? Why hadn’t Jenny tipped her the wink? Why was he scowling like an executioner?

The guillotine fell before any words could tumble from her mouth. “You lied to Herr Direktor Stutzmann. You have invented all these stories. We know.” Wankler brought his steel fist down on her desk with a thump that set the coffee cups dancing. “You are sacked. I want your desk cleared by the time we get back.” He glared at the heaped surface. “It will be the first time I have seen it clear.”

Through the doorway behind him Claudia caught a glimpse of Jenny before the mirror, marshalling the boas strung around her neck into her long afghan fur-trimmed coat that smelled of hashish and camel dung. Bizarrely, what bubbled Claudia’s anger to the boil, what forced tears up to the brim of her eyes, was that the smirk that was never far from Jenny’s lips was now gone. She had completed a passage. She was no longer an outsider, needing to demonstrate her resentment. The carping rebel had joined the Establishment. Her face was set in a pleasant half-smile that Claudia recognised as her own. Claudia screamed into Wankler’s face. “Why are you taking that strumpet to lunch?”

Her attack unsettled Herr Wankler’s idiomatic control. “She is not the one who blew the trumpet on you. We know it from other sources. And it is none of your business. You are an ex-employee.” The coffee cups rattled again as he gave her desk another mighty whack with his artificial hand, clapped his perky Austrian hat on his head with the other, and left.

The magazine Claudia hurled after him, the one she formerly edited, hit the slamming door. Instantly it re-opened. Wankler’s face was purplish, engorged with pumping blood. Claudia shrank backwards. Was he going to administer the final solution with his steel paw? No, there it was lying on the desk. Wankler retrieved his false hand and departed again with as much dignity as he could muster.

Claudia fought back her tears all through lunchtime. Her staff dropped in, one by one, to bid their awkward farewells. She mourned the future of her magazine under the stewardship of a woman who believed that the most significant event of May, 1968 had been that in the middle of the student uprisings in Paris, Balenciaga had closed his haute couture house. She went through her desk and files and found a number of things she had been looking for for some time and now no longer needed. Most of it she chucked onto the floor, leaving the desk totally clear. She left the office carrying her briefcase and a clutch of folders that would not fit into her pannier. She would have to take a taxi and return for her pushbike. Out in the street she suddenly felt a forlorn, ridiculous figure. Nobody walks around London with folders in their arms unless they’ve just been sacked. And try hailing a taxi with your arms full. As she walked the fierce anger had subsided to a dull, aching pain around her heart. She needed a friend. Daphne would be in a tizz now, fighting to meet her deadline. Besides, she needed more than a consoling mate. She needed someone who loved her.

‘La Fontana Amorosa’, which in her reveries she remembered as their private, hidden rendezvous, empty and shadowed in candlelight, had transformed into a bustling trattoria clattering with lunchtime trade. Waiters darted about like kamikaze pilots, but none of them was Jake. Suddenly Giuliani was at her side, his face etched deep in mourning.

“I had to put him in the sack, Signora. I am very sorry.”

“Why?”

He shrugged his shoulders and made a helpless gesture that encompassed his thriving empire. “Business. Somehow he offended a very important customer. A man who brings a lot of trade here. I couldn’t refuse.”

Though brimming with her own despair, Claudia’s heart still had room for compassion. Poor Jake! Her face fell even further.

Giuliani smiled sympathetically. “He’s a very talented boy, your son.”

It was not until then that Claudia burst into tears.

 

The afternoon wore away in an endless foot-slog. First there was the problem of where to leave his backpack. In his journeys to auditions in Soho theatres he had often passed a plaque identifying the West End Reception Centre for Men. It was affixed to a grimy building near the top end of Dean Street where in a Victorian typeface the rubric ‘Male Hospital’ was still chiseled in the red stone above the doorway. But, day or night, the doors had always been padlocked. Needs must. Jake walked around the block and discovered the entrance was in the back, in Great Chapel Street. That, too, was locked but a sign promised it would open at 8pm. You can’t interview for a job wearing a knapsack on your back so Jake walked up to Euston station and invested sixpence in a left luggage locker. He stuffed what he needed overnight into a plastic bag. Returning to Soho, he made the rounds of the shopfronts advertising unskilled catering jobs. He knew that to get a regular job you needed an address, and he soon found out that the West End Reception Centre for Men wouldn’t do. Darkness descended on the skirts of a cold wind. The shops began to close. People hurried home. It would be naff to stand outside waiting for the hostel to open so he walked around Soho, visiting the churches and reading the placards in the cinema lobbies. When it started to drizzle he repaired to the warmth of Piccadilly Circus tube station and studied the advertisements until well past the appointed hour, determined not to be the first homeless applicant on the doorstep of the West End Reception Centre for Men. As a result he was last in the queue of shabby, rain-soaked old men that stretched around the corner of Great Chapel Street into Carlisle Street, and when he got inside the soup was cold and he had to sleep on a mattress laid out on the dinner table, his arm linked through his plastic bag of belongings to prevent it wandering off during the night.