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

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chapter twenty-eight

Russell stood on a stool at the window, trying to re-engage the curtain cord into the slide of the railing mechanism, while Claudia sat on the settee with the sitting room curtains across her lap.

“Somehow Herr Wankler found out,” she said. “You didn’t tell anyone, did you?”

“Nobody. Apart from Jake.”

“Jake? Why?”

“Sorry. It just slipped out. That night you were in Hamburg.”

“Jake doesn’t know anybody at the magazine.”

“He wouldn’t do anything to harm you. He’s besotted with you.”

“Wankler gave me the lunch hour to clear my desk.”

From his elevated height Russell looked down upon her like a sad stone angel hanging on the wall of a church. “It’s all my fault.”

“If I were ten years younger, I could just thumb my nose. But I’m the oldest female editor in town. I’m competing with twenty-five-year-old tarts.”

Russell pulled on the curtain cord and the mechanism jammed tight. He gave a great, mournful sigh. Russell often sighed and so she ignored it. “Maybe I am losing touch. My idea of how women should lead their lives seems to be distinctly out of fashion.”

Russell attempted to force the cord out of the railing glider. She found she was twisting the curtain fabric into knots and smoothed it out on her lap. “There’s no one I can turn to. Except Stephen.”

He sighed again. “I should do something useful. Get a job.”

“Your responsibility is Hope.”

“I’m a burden to you.”

She was conscious of Russell engaging in some other activity for a moment or two, but she was engrossed in her thoughts and took no notice. She went on talking to him, as she often did, as a way of talking to herself. “And can I really sacrifice my dignity, just for an easy life? Just when I was beginning to believe again that life is for pursuing your dreams.”

There was a sudden clatter from the basement. Claudia looked up. There was no one at the window. She was alone. The stool was gone. She glanced at the curtain in her lap and then up at the curtain rail. The curtain cord was missing, too.

“Russell!” she screamed, jumped to her feet and bolted to the door to the basement.

As she flew down the stairs Russell’s trouser legs came into view first. He was standing on the stool, with an end of the curtain cord dangling off his shoulders. In a moment he would kick the stool away. She flung herself into the room and threw her arms around his legs.

“Don’t!”

She saw Russell looking down, bemused. His head was bent over at the ceiling. There was not enough height to hang himself. And nothing to hang himself from. And the cord would probably break.

Claudia was confused. “What are you doing?”

He pointed to his kitchen window curtain rail. “Trying to figure out how this thing works.”

“God, I thought — you wouldn’t ever, would you?”

Russell stepped down from the stool. “Who would look after Hope?”

Claudia threw her arms around him, hugging him close. “Oh, Russell. Sometimes I think the worst mistake I ever made was divorcing you.”

Russell stroked her hair, the way he often did with Hope. He spoke without passion or regret, but as he always did, just analysing the situation. “Our kind of love is not enough for you. You need to be in love. You were never in love with me. Jake. That’s the man you need.”

“He’s just half a loaf.”

“He told me that chap he lives with just uses him as cover.”

Claudia’s heart skipped a beat, telling her she would like to believe that, but it was all too late. “He would say that, wouldn’t he.” Besides, now she had grown-up problems on her mind. She would have to speak to Daphne.

 

‘Bluesology’ was the name of the group, according to the legend on the face of the drum, although no drummer had as yet surfaced. Claudia hadn’t known seedy upstairs Soho drinking clubs ran to bands in mid-afternoon. If you could call it a band. Two dark, epicene young men stood on the small dais — a plodding guitarist and a saxophonist who swayed like a willow in the wind — and behind the upright piano sat a podgy, sandy-haired bespectacled teenager who seemed to have been left behind by a school group outing. The band produced a languid, wandering wail perfectly attuned to the melancholic gloom, relieved by soulful riffs of melody from the piano. The tunes didn’t so much conclude as expire eventually without anyone noticing. You knew they had finished because you could hear a low hum of conversation from the few drinkers in the bar, but there was not one isolated hand clap. The audience was otherwise engaged on the depressive business of post-lunchtime drinking.

When the porky pianist with the innocent face stood up, she half-expected him to be wearing short trousers. He thumped a few angry chords, said “Shit” loudly and slammed down the piano lid, and the band sloped off into the darkness. A man at the bar stepped aside to let them pass. A fit-looking man in his thirties, of medium height, with regular features and closely cropped hair, he was dressed in a conservative business suit, and wore a white shirt with a firmly knotted plain tie — the protective camouflage, she knew, of the most violent villains, like the Kray twins. He seemed to be engaged in a lengthy negotiation, apparently trying to persuade the dubious, blowsy landlady to buy an unframed canvas painting that was propped up on the bar. Or to accept in lieu of an unpaid bar bill? You would not take him for an artist. And indeed, when, finally unsuccessful, he wrapped up the painting again and she caught a glimpse of his face and of the portrait at the same time, it did appear to be someone else’s work. Because the man’s own pale, anxious face stared out of it, straining through a vortex of strangulated colours. A few minutes after he left, a bulky man in his sixties came in and had a glass of white wine and a few words with the landlady. His fleshy face was heavily made-up and beneath the hem of his black leather Gestapo overcoat his calves were sheathed in fishnet stockings. As he left, Daphne bustled in past him, with a wave to the landlady.

“Sorry I’m late.”

“Was that Francis Bacon?”

“Probably. He practically lives here. It’s the bloody Irish. We’re putting out an extra edition on the civil rights demonstrations.”

“This place is the pits. Why couldn’t we meet at your office?”

“I’m meeting someone here later. Besides, where else can you get a drink at four in the afternoon? And you need a drink.”

The landlady put a large whisky in front of Daphne. Claudia declined another spritzer.

“I need a job.”

Daphne sighed. “I’ve tried, love. But everyone’s downshifting like mad. And the word is out about you all over Fleet Street.”

“What are they saying?”

“You make things up.” She patted Claudia on the hand and gave her a bright smile. “Have you thought about going into p.r?”

“They want chicks young enough not to laugh when the client drops his trousers.”

“The press, p.r. — the only other trade I can think of that would give a woman a job over a man is a massage parlour.” Daphne lit a Gauloise. “You need big money?”

“I’ve got a big mortgage. Huge overdraft. Hope’s specialist school fees. My pension is peanuts. Russell’s incapable. What if I fell under a bus? She’d go to an institution.”

“What about that novel of yours?”

“Romantic fiction is dead. The battle of the sexes all takes place below the neck now — raw sex and violence.”

“Love is eternal. It’s the same story with shorter words and a brasher cover.”

“Try telling that to the publishers.”

“I liked it. You should dust off that manuscript and give it another try.”

Claudia sighed. “It’s such a long shot. A strategy of desperation.”

“You’re really desperate?”

Claudia looked her best friend in the eye and said, “Yes”.

Daphne took a long pull from her whisky. “You know, when that sleazebag brought in that photograph I thought long and hard before I sent it to you.”

“I’m glad you did.”

“One should never interfere in other peoples’ love lives.”

“You did the right thing.”

“Now I’m not so sure.”

“What are you trying to say?”

Daphne put her hand over Claudia’s once again. “Would it be so bad really? Lots of wives look the other way.”

Claudia’s voice rose an octave. “But with a man? I can’t compete with that. It makes me feel so . . . worthless.”

“It would be a cushy life.”

“I could never love Stephen.”

“What’s love got to do with it?” A too-wide smile suddenly appeared pasted onto Daphnee’s face. She had spied someone coming in the door. “Christ, what time is it?”.

Claudia peered into her drink. “Too late. Whatever time it is. It’s too fucking late.”

A man bounded up to Daphne and gave her a wet smack full on the lips. He turned to leer at Claudia. “Why, hello.” He teased out the two syllables in a sing-song innuendo like a fey TV game show host. It was the moustached ex-Squadron Leader, or so he had claimed, whom she had met on her blind date on Primrose Hill.

Daphne arched an eyebrow. “You know each other?”

“That would be telling,” oozed the odious ex-Squadron Leader.

Claudia ignored him and spoke straight to Daphne. “N.S.I.T.”

Daphne was uncomprehending. So was the former warrior. “If you girls are going to talk in code, I’d better go fetch the drinks.” He went to the bar.

“Explain,” said Daphne.

“It’s how debs’ mothers used to describe unsuitable suitors. Not Safe In Taxis.”

“You forget I never came out.”

“Then there was VVSITPQ.”

“I give up.”

“Very, Very Safe In Taxis, Probably Queer. And between them they just about sums up the problem with men.”

“What’s a girl to do?” Daphne knocked back the rest of her drink and glanced towards the bar. The ex-Squadron Leader was nowhere to be seen. “I thought he was going to fetch us a drink.”

“He went into the gents.”

“I’m a heavy date. He’s probably trying to figure out how to jimmy the condom machine.”

“Why waste your life on men like that?”

Daphne sighed. “I know.”

“Sex?”

“I know. They either go at it like a barnyard animal or you have to use an air pump.”

“Who needs it?”

“I know. It makes you feel like an unpaid psychological therapist.”

“It can’t be for intellectual stimulation.”

“I know. They only read the back pages of the newspapers: the stock market, cricket, football and the television listings.”

“Companionship?”

“I know. They’re not in the same world, even if you’re in the same bed.”

“So? Who needs them?”

“We do.”

“Like a horse needs a saddle.”

“I know. I’m like an old actress who can’t keep off the stage. I need someone to put on a performance for. Men are an addiction.” Daphne held up her empty glass. “Like this stuff. Maybe I’ll give it up.”

“The booze?”

“Heavens, no. The bad hats. But you were offered it all on a plate. Sex. Intellectual stimulation. Companionship.”

“I’m not sure about intellectual. We were working on that.”

“Stephen’s not intellectual enough for you?”

“I thought you meant Jake.”

“I mean Stephen. Forget Jake.”

“They’re two of a kind anyway.”

“Except Stephen can offer you the one thing you need most now.”

“I know.”

“From what you tell me, Jake is a naif.”

“I know.”

“Unemployed.”

“I know.”

“American.”

“I know.”

“You’re beginning to sound like me.”

“How’s that?”

“I know,” Daphne mimicked. “Self-aware but addicted. Here comes my poison.”

The ex-Squadron Leader arrived with drinks on a tray. “Shall I ring a chum?” His teeth flashed at Claudia from under his moustache. They were too even. They were probably false. He winked. “Or shall we make it a threesome?”

“I warn you,” said Daphne, “his idea of foreplay is to tell smutty jokes.” The Squadron Leader beamed as if he’d been awarded a medal and started to tell one.

Through the grimy windows the coloured lights of Soho had begun to flash seductively. The drink had already made her head light, and she fancied another one. Unless she made a move now it was going to be a long slide into oblivion.

The Squadron Leader was half-choking with suppressed laughter. “So, anyway, on the last night Goldstein bursts into the bedroom and he’s wearing a cowboy suit. ‘I don’t care vot you say, dahlink —’”

Claudia stood up. “My God, Daphne. How can you cheapen yourself?”

The Squadron Leader twisted his lips from a leer to a scowl. “What’s your price, darling?”

In the ladies’ lavatory Claudia inspected her face. Her fingers pulled the skin around her eyes taut. As soon as she relaxed them the wrinkles reappeared. Another face hovered above hers in the mirror. It was a stunning young girl, almost too tall for a woman, with an amazing violet wig on her head. Amethyst earrings dangled beneath it. Claudia gave a start. It was a youthful image of herself; apart from the colour, she had exactly the same hair bob.

The young woman’s voice was rusty. “Which twin has the Toni?” she quipped, applying purple lipstick to her mouth. The face disappeared from the mirror. Claudia heard her enter a stall and, too soon, there was the splash of peeing. Claudia turned and looked. Beneath the stall door she saw the heels of the purple pumps. Claudia sighed. Back in the mirror the abject face of surrender stared out at her. She felt as compromised as any Jane Austen heroine. Romance was for teenagers. It was time to grow up.

The ‘Bluesologists’ had resumed their funky meanderings in the bar. The ex-Squadron Leader was pawing Daphne, who wore the patient mask of a martyr tied to a stake. She would apologise tomorrow. She had been projecting her own self-loathing on to a loyal friend who had helped her to set her mind straight. Claudia went to the bar counter and asked the blowsy landlady if she might use the phone.