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

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chapter twenty-nine

The newsstand board shrieked ‘Queen’s Honours List: Again No Knighthood for Noël’. Stephen averted his eyes. The Stage would be on his desk after lunch. If he paused to pick it up now one of the paparazzi would very likely leap out of a doorway and snap him in flagrante high dudgeon. Twirling his rolled black umbrella he marched past the newsstand and into The Ivy.

He sat alone, but of course not unrecognised. The maitre d’ hotel and the waiters made their customary homage, and as they led him to his usual table at the far end of the room he exchanged a word, or a nod and a smile, with half a dozen acquaintances or those who would like to become acquainted. He had a commanding view of the door, well of almost everything really, which meant, of course, from the perspective of his audience, he was stage centre.

 

Claudia halted at the newsstand as if she’d been smacked in the face. Her eyes opened wide and her jaw dropped. There was the latest issue of Nova. On its cover a young woman wearing a matching three-piece orange outfit — wide-legged trousers and T-shirt with a loose cardie hanging softly from her shoulders — leaned full-length along the left-hand edge of the frame. Her eyes were closed, her face pensive, and she held a hand on an elbow, a favourite pose of Claudia’s. A slim brunette, with long hair curling to her shoulders, she looked like the dynamic heroine of The Avengers, Emma Peel, in a rare reflective moment. Next to her, an extended block of large type traced the contours of her profile:

 

‘I have taken the Pill.

I have hoisted

my skirts to my thighs,

dropped them to my ankles,

rebelled at university,

abused the

American Embassy,

lived with two men,

married one,

earned my keep,

kept my identity and frankly . . .

I’m lost.’

 

Claudia’s intestines twisted in a long, silent scream. There it was. Her idea. The magazine she had wanted to produce. The authentic predicament of the modern woman. Her eyes began to moisten, and as she moved on slightly dazed she knew it was more than that. It was her story. Her predicament.

 

When, from the corner of his eye, he glimpsed Claudia entering, Stephen made an elaborate study of the menu. The ebbing ripple of hard, bright chatter, displaced by silence as she approached, allowed him to gauge her progress towards his table. For Claudia, marching behind the maitre d’ hotel, it must have been a long, long walk. When she finally arrived at her Calvary you could hear the clink of a spoon in a teacup.

At the scent of her perfume, Nina Ricci L’Air du Temps, Stephen rose instantly. She was exquisitely dressed, looked absolutely magnificent and greeted his charming smile with another equally theatrical. The audience held its breath, waiting to see if they would kiss, and so of course he kissed her on both cheeks. Only then, as a chair was pulled out for her, did the flood of ambient chatter creep back into the room.

“Sorry I’m late,” she said, barren of the slightest sign of distress.

“What’s eighteen months between chums?”

She launched the first thrust at once. “I’ve changed my mind about Belinda’s play. You can do what you like. I shan’t interfere.”

“That’s extremely generous of you.”

“Provided you reinstate Jake in the role.”

“My dear, I haven’t the slightest intention of putting on Belinda’s play. Never have had.” That put a spoke in her wheel.

“I thought you liked it.”

“It’s not without merit. But you don’t really think I could bear dragging up all that gossip about you.”

“And you.”

“We understand each other.”

“Poor Belinda.”

Her sympathy seemed genuine. Stephen glided off the troublesome topic of his daughter. “But that’s not what we’re here to talk about, is it?”

A waiter appeared. Claudia was finding it difficult to concentrate on her menu. He was in control, but he would have to tread carefully. There was a lot of hurt and rage welling up inside her. She pushed the menu away. “You order for me.”

Submission. “Like old times,” he said, with genuine warmth, and ordered for both of them without referring to the menu.

Over coffee they got down to cases. “It would have been an open marriage,” he said, a twinkle in his eyes. “I thought you understood.”

“I was blind.”

“Love is blind.”

“So is panic.”

“You know, it’s much more civilised to go through life seeing only what one chooses to see. I would place no demands on you. Hope would be looked after somewhere.”

That was a mis-step. If Claudia had had a spoon between her teeth it would have snapped. “I would never put Hope in a home.”

Stephen retreated. “Then a flat for her and Russell perhaps.”

Claudia shook her head. “I don’t want her to leave her home.”

“Keep it. A second home.”

“There’s a mortgage.”

Stephen smiled and touched her bare arm. “You’re worth it.”

She withdrew and crossed her arms. “Why do you want a wife?”

Like any subject that really mattered, this was to be treated airily. “We have now entered an enlightened age, thank God, on sexual matters. But the news does not seem to have trickled through to the palace.”

“Why me?”

Before answering Stephen took a moment to survey the room, bestowing a benevolent glance on one or two familiar faces in the audience. Then he leaned forward and gazed into her eyes.

“You’re the one who got away. I want everything to be the way we planned.”

“The way you planned. You always told me what to think.”

“Only because I love you so much I can’t bear it when you think differently from me.”

“I’ll be buried alive.”

“You can have anything you fancy. Except, of course, your American lover.”

“I’m surprised you didn’t make a pass at him.” She paused, her napkin halfway to her lips as he took a modest sip of his Beaumes de Venise. The cloth fell onto her plate and her eyes widened. “You did, didn’t you. You wanted both of us.”

Her lips tensed and her hand tightened around her wine glass. Stephen flinched. Would she toss the wine in his face? No. The stakes were too high. Her knuckles loosened their grip.

Stephen sought and held her eyes. “The foolish boy is as romantic as you are. You’ll have to give him up. It would all end in tears.”

The wrong metaphor. She dropped her gaze and looked as though she were about to weep right now and that would be unpleasantly vulgar. When a woman cries in public the man is always degraded. But when her head came up again her eyes were dry and her voice was cold.

“Is this a marriage proposal?”

Stephen covered her hand with his. She did not resist.

“I’ll put it all in writing,” he said.

Claudia looked away, seeming to acknowledge the surreptitious glances of the nearby spectators seated in the round about her for the first time.

“On one condition,” she haggled. “You give Jake a break.”

Stephen permitted himself a dry chuckle. “A British Council tour to Siberia, perhaps?”

“A big break. I’m absolutely serious.”

Stephen sighed. “‘Yanks Go Home.’ How I wish he would.”

“That’s what I admire about you. You can arrange anything if you really set your heart on it.” She had not removed her hand from beneath his. Now she added her other hand to cover his and raised a cool glance to his eyes. “Darling,” she added, with a knowing half-smile.

Her voice was emotionless, like a judge delivering sentence. But he was not entering into this relationship to warm his heart. There would be good times. She was an attractive woman and in bed he knew he could rouse her so that passion conquered her head. And now that the terms of engagement had been made clear, their constantly stimulating battle of wits would be disputed only with light armaments. He nodded. The contract was agreed. And this time she would honour it because she had no choice. He had always admired her mind, which he could outwit only because she was not entirely governed by logic. It had been very remiss of him not to put her in full possession of the facts in the first place.

“I shall never love you,” she said.

“I’m touched that you consider my need. But I can do without substance.” Stephen raised his glass to the contract. “What really matters is style.” They both drank. He swept the house with a satisfied smile, half-anticipating the dimming of lights and an appreciative burst of applause.