Primrose Hill Revisited – the complete book online - chapter three

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chapter three

Spring showers. A light flurry of wet snow filtered through leaden skies as Claudia hurried past drowned daffodils beneath the ancient, leafless plane trees of Berkeley Square. It was that time of year when you never knew what to wear outdoors. She shivered. And wondered at the unsettling image she had seen in her full-length bedroom mirror that morning. Was this little mauve shift of silk twill, popping with white polka dots, just a titch too young for her, as well as being jolly flimsy? On Saturday she had laid a week’s salary for it across the counter at Bazaar. And now she was feeling post-prodigality depression. She could have had the curtains cleaned for that kind of money. But dressing well was part of her job, and she couldn’t wear Paisley curtains.

Claudia paused to set her net bags of groceries down on the wet pavement and switch them between her hands, then quickened her step until her calf-high purple Barbara Hulanicki boots with the zip-up sides, liberated from a photo-shoot so not in the shops yet, were almost trotting through the puddles. Her father had kept a little sign on the desk in his office: ‘Punctuality is the Politeness of Princes’ and that prim assertion had exerted a moral force more lasting than any of the Commandments laid down by the nuns of the Sacred Heart School for Girls. Running late meant you were losing control over your life. But Selfridge’s was the only food shop in miles and when else did she have time to shop?

The first thing she expected to see as she pushed open the door to the cosy, rushing clack of typewriters was Jenny’s pair of twenty-year-old, sheer, white-stockinged legs. They seemed to grow longer every day, or was it that her skirts grew shorter? Claudia thought again of providing Jenny’s reception desk with something that had caught her eye in an office furniture catalogue, an artefact termed a modesty board.

But they weren’t there. Jenny was present, but her legs were not. They were hidden beneath what appeared to be a sludge-coloured horse blanket.

“Stand up,” Claudia shrieked. Jenny obliged with a mocking smile. Gone were the mini-skirt, the skimpy ribbed sweater and the high, laced white boots and white patterned stockings. She was wearing a wide, flowing subfusc skirt that trailed on the floor. Above it sprouted an embroidered jacket of a vaguely military cut, and from around her neck swirled a clutch of long, filmy scarves in a clash of patterns that would have been violent if the varied colours had not been so muted.

Claudia could not keep the astonishment out of her voice. “Whatever are you wearing?”

Jenny twirled a full turn, the hem of her skirt raising dust from the floor, and as it sank back down to clothe her ankles again, announced with a smirk, “The dolly bird is dead.”

Claudia’s first reaction was a fear that Jenny was going to get tangled up in her typewriter. But she used the girl as an early warning system for cultural change. So her second thought was that over the weekend the world had shifted once again without her knowledge. Jenny winked through her heavy smudge of make-up, a sure signal she was one-up in the constant game of wits she played with her boss, and flicked her eyes towards the glass partition that separated Claudia’s office from the open plan editorial room. She pulled a face and thrust a hand in front of her crotch, making a fist and pulling it up and down rapidly. Claudia’s third thought was a familiar pang of worry: had she made a dreadful mistake with Jenny? It was not clever to hire as an assistant a woman who combined so much raw sexual ambition with a natural instinct for what was just about to become fashionable, and wore the protective camouflage of an airhead with a filthy mind. But she was so bloody efficient, anticipating the problems that to Claudia seemed to arrive like motorcar accidents. One of these was Herr Wankler. But for some reason he was not sitting on the decrepit leather sofa in the reception area opposite Jenny’s desk. He habitually sat there because he always arrived early, and, though the seat sagged so low it forced his knees nearly to the level of his chin, he never seemed to mind waiting there. This time he was already standing in her office, and Claudia wondered what, precisely, this might signify in the arcane conventions of Teutonic protocol that she was always hard pressed to decipher.

Herr Wankler’s 45-year-old beer belly bulged in profile against the grey light filtering through the bare branches in the square. He held his long, black, leather storm-trooper’s coat folded over his arm — the one with the black leather glove encasing an artificial hand — and his natty little Austrian hat with the orange feather in the band was still perched on his head. He rocked back on his heels and his lips pursed as he studied the cork wall. It was cluttered with graphic illustrations and covers of Modern Woman magazine, but she knew what he’d be looking at: the framed cutting from the front page of The Stage that seemed to fascinate him so. Under the headline ‘Gurney Wedding Bombs Out-of-Town’ it showed Claudia in her white bridal gown slamming her groom full in the face with her bouquet. Claudia whisked her grocery bags under her desk just before Wankler turned.

Herr Wankler, how was your flight?”

He consulted his watch. “They said you’d be here by lunchtime.”

The bloody krauts never missed an opportunity to be boorish, or was it just the need to be numbingly explicit? They invented the word ‘kindergarten’, after all. Claudia chose a note of frivolous irony. “Lunchtime in Britain is a very ambiguous concept, I’m afraid,” she trilled. “I was at a photo shoot.”

Wankler held out his artificial gloved hand. It gripped the current issue of Modern Woman with its ethereal photograph of a bride wreathed in apple blossoms and its featured cover line: ‘10 Essentials for the Perfect White Wedding.’ He slapped it down on the desk.

“Sales of this issue were down fifteen percent —”

She interrupted. “There’s always a seasonal drop in early —”

He rumbled on through her defences, oblivious as a Panzer. “— month-on-month compared to last year.” He dropped a copy of another magazine down on the desk. It was the latest issue of the American rag, Yin. The cover shot was a hard-glamour photo of a predatory woman with a sultry pout. Not a million miles from Jenny’s schadenfreude smirk.

Wankler posed like an old-fashioned bare-knuckled boxer, folding his arms. “America is where it’s at now.”

“You could never sell that trash to British women.” Claudia was shocked to hear herself actually terminate her remark with a sniffing noise. Just like Sister Mary Eustace, the Latin teacher at the Sacred Heart School for Girls.

“How would you describe our readers, Claudia?”

“It’s how she describes herself that matters. Her self-image. The modern, independent woman. Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. Julie Christie in Billy Liar. But she’s British through and through. She believes in traditional values. Marriage. Children. Home. Though she dreams of love and romance.”

“How old?”

“If its statistics you want, social groups B,C1,C2 — age twenty to thirty-five.”

“How old are you?”

Claudia stiffened. Now he was playing dirty. “Thirty-eight.”

“Really?”

“The way I’m able to remember is, it’s the same as my bust size.”

That penetrated. Wankler stuttered. “It’s just that . . . you look —”

“It’s part of my job to keep as young as my readers.”

Annoyed now, Wankler flourished the rolled-up copy of Yin like a long-handled German grenade. “Damn and blast! I’ll tell you what your readers want.” He thumped the magazine down on the desk again and, tracing the cover lines with a gloved mechanical fingertip, began to read them aloud.

“Got your eye on a married man? How to get him to cash in his family values.” He paused and glared at her significantly. “I thought he was Prince Charming. He thought I was a mattress.” Pause. Glare. “Can your man get his tongue around cunnilingus?” Triumphantly, his eyes bulged at Claudia. For a horrid instant she thought his tongue might protrude as well. “Yin’s slogan is ‘For Fearless Fun Females’,” he trumpeted.

“Only because they don’t dare put ‘fucking’ on the cover.”

His eyes narrowed to slits. “Yin is launching in the UK in the fall.” Like all the Germans, Herr Wankler used Americanised English.

Claudia faltered. He delivered the copy of Yin into her hands with reverence, then picked up the current issue of Modern Woman and let it fall into the waste-bin — a bomb dropping from the belly of an aeroplane. “We’re not publishing a girl scout magazine. What we need is sex appeal.”

Claudia’s face flushed. She hurled Yin into the waste-bin. “That is not sexy. It’s depraved.”

Herr Wankler stiffened. The sudden thought came to her that he had been a prison camp guard. Then, abruptly, his shoulders slumped, a wary look came into his eyes and a thin smile played on his lips. “I’m only following orders”.

Claudia turned to the wall and rolled her eyes at an absent audience. She was wrong. He had been a trustee. A prisoner who spied on other prisoners. He put his good hand on her shoulder, and she thought it politic to let it rest there.

Fräulein Claudia, I’m trying to help you. The world is getting younger. My daughter . . . If I had talked to my father the way she talks to me . . . he would have had me shot.”

Claudia turned and looked into his eyes, open like begging cups. He wasn’t kidding. She felt a pang of compassion. “You should know,” he continued. “You have a teenage daughter.”

“She’s only twelve.”

Wankler squeezed her shoulder. “She’ll be going out on dates soon.”

No she wouldn’t. Claudia had to search her clothing for a hankie.

“Who knows what they get up to on their dates,” Herr Wankler mused. He chuckled and his eyes swivelled to fix her full-frontal, twin searchlights mounted on a watchtower. “Maybe we should go out on dates.” Claudia grimaced and carefully removed his hand from her shoulder. “I mean,” he added hastily, “people our age. Maybe we’re missing something. It might be worth the risk.”

“What risk?”

His eyes mooned at her again. “Of getting shot.”

The German jollity period was over. Wankler straightened his posture. “I want your new editorial strategy on my desk in four weeks.”

Claudia turned to face him, red-faced and furious. “My readers won’t countenance that degrading American trash, and neither will I.”

Wankler narrowed his eyes. “If that’s your polite English way of saying ‘no’, you’re fired.”

There it was, the final solution. Claudia’s stomach knotted. Her shoulders slumped and she felt her face sag. She heard a gagging, distant voice saying “I’ll need at least a couple of months.”

“Four weeks. I will need time to find a new editor.” Herr Wankler spun on his heel and marched out.

Claudia went to look out the window. Bloody weather. Now the sun was out, but it was pale and cheerless. So this is what unconditional surrender feels like, she thought. And then she thought again. And wheeled and delved into the wastebin, extracted the current copy of Modern Woman, and flipped to the classified advertisements huddled in the back pages.