The Children’s Hour
‘Miss Armstrong? Miss Armstrong, can you hear me?’
She could although she didn’t seem able to respond. She was badly damaged. Broken. She had been hit by a car. It might have been her own fault, she had been distracted - she had lived for so long abroad that she had probably looked the wrong way when she was crossing Wigmore Street in the midsummer twilight. Between the darkness and the daylight.
A policeman? Or a paramedic. Someone official, someone who must have looked in her bag and found something with her name on it. She had been at a concert – Shostakovich. The string quartets, all fifteen parsed out in servings of three a day at the Wigmore Hall. It was Wednesday – the Seventh, Eighth and Ninth. She supposed she would miss the rest of them now.
In the June of 1942 she had been in the Royal Albert Hall for the concert premiere of the Seventh Symphony, the ‘Leningrad’. A man she knew had finessed a ticket for her. The Hall had been packed to the rafters and the atmosphere had been electrifying, magnificent - it had felt as though they were at one with the occupants of the siege. And with Shostakovich too. A collective swelling of the heart. So long ago. So meaningless now.
The Russians had been their enemies and then they were their allies, and then they were enemies again. The Germans the same - the great enemy, the worst of all of them, and now they were our friends, one of the mainstays of Europe. It was all such a waste of breath. War and peace. Peace and war. It would go on forever without end.
‘Miss Armstrong, I’m just going to put this neck collar on you.’
She found herself thinking about her son. Matteo. He was twenty-six years old, the result of a brief liaison with an Italian musician – she had lived in Italy for many years. Juliet’s love for Matteo had been one of the overwhelming wonders of her life. She was worried for him - he was living in Milan with a girl who made him unhappy and she was fretting over this when the car hit her.
Lying on the pavement of Wigmore Street with concerned bystanders all around she knew there was no way out from this. She was just sixty years old, although it had probably been a long enough life. Yet suddenly it all seemed like an illusion, a dream that had happened to someone else. What an odd thing existence was.
There was to be a royal wedding. Even now, as she lay on this London pavement with these kind strangers around her, a sacrificial virgin was being prepared somewhere up the road, to satisfy the need for pomp and circumstance. Union Jacks draped everywhere. There was no mistaking that she was home. At last.
‘This England,’ she murmured.
Mr Toby! Mr Toby!
Juliet came up from the Underground and made her way along Great Portland Street. Checking her watch she saw that she was surprisingly late for work. She had overslept, a result of a late evening in the Belle Meunière in Charlotte Street with a man who had proved less and less interesting as the night had worn on. Inertia – or ennui perhaps - had kept her at the table, although the house specialities of ‘Viane de boeuf Diane’ and Crepe Suzette had helped.
Her rather lacklustre dinner companion was an architect who said he was ‘rebuilding post-war London.’ All on your own? she had asked, rather unkindly. She allowed him a – brief – kiss as he handed her into a taxi at the end of the night. From politeness rather than desire. He had paid for the dinner after all and she had been unnecessarily mean to him although he hadn’t seemed to notice. The whole evening had left her feeling rather sour. I am a disappointment to myself, she thought as Broadcasting House hove into view.
Juliet was a producer in Schools and as she approached Portland Place she found her spirits drooping at the prospect of the rather tedious day ahead – a departmental meeting with Prendergast, followed by a recording of Past Lives, a series she was looking after for Joan Timpson who was having an operation (‘Just a small one, dear.’).
Schools had recently had to move from the basement of Film House in Wardour Street and Juliet missed the dilapidated raffishness of Soho. The BBC didn’t have room for them in Broadcasting House so they had been parked across the road in No 1 and gazed, not without envy, at their mother-ship, the great, many-decked ocean liner of Broadcasting House, scrubbed clean now of its wartime camouflage and thrusting its prow into a new decade and an unknown future.
Unlike the non-stop to and fro across the road, the Schools’ building was quiet when Juliet entered. The carafe of red wine that she had shared with the architect had left her with a very dull head and it was a relief not to have to partake of the usual exchange of morning greetings. The girl on reception looked rather pointedly at the clock when she saw Juliet coming through the door. The girl was having an affair with a producer in the World Service and seemed to think it gave her licence to be brazen. The girls on Schools’ reception came and went with astonishing rapidity. Juliet liked to imagine they were being eaten by something monstrous, a minotaur perhaps, in the mazy bowels of the building, although actually they were simply transferring to more glamorous departments across the road in Broadcasting House.
‘The Circle line was running late,’ Juliet said, although she hardly felt she needed to give the girl an explanation, true or otherwise.
‘Yes, it’s a very poor the service on that route.’
‘Apparently so. (The cheek of the girl!) Mr Prendergast’s meeting is on the first floor,’ the girl said. ‘I expect it’s already begun.’
‘I expect it has.’
‘A day in the working life,’ Prendergast said earnestly to the rump assembled around the table. Several people, Juliet noticed, had absented themselves. Prendergast’s meetings required a certain kind of stamina.
‘Ah, Miss Armstrong, here you are,’ Prendergast said when he caught sight of her. ‘ I was beginning to think that you were lost.’
‘But now I am found,’ Juliet said.
‘I’m garnering new ideas for programmes. A visit to the blacksmith in his smithy, for example. The kind of subject that children are interested in.’ Juliet couldn’t ever recall being interested in a smithy as a child. Or indeed now.
‘Out and about with a shepherd,’ Prendergast persevered. ‘At lambing time perhaps. All children like lambs.’
‘Don’t we get enough of farming in For Rural Schools?’ Charles Lofthouse asked. Charles had ‘trod the boards’ until his leg was blown off in the Café de Paris bomb in ’41 and he could tread no more. Now he had an artificial leg that you could never mistake for a real one. It made people kind to him although there was no real reason why they should be as he was the waspish sort and it was doubtful that losing a leg had improved him. He was the producer in charge of the Explorers’ Club series. Juliet could think of no one less suitable.
‘But lambs are attractive to everyone, not just country children,’ Prendergast protested. He was a General Programmes Manager and as such they were all his flock, one way or another, Juliet supposed. He peered vaguely at the top of Daisy Gibb’s neatly-shorn head as he spoke. He had a problem with is sight – he had been gassed during the First World War - and rarely managed to look anyone in the eye. A staunch Methodist, he was a lay preacher and had a pastoral ‘calling’, something he had confided to Juliet, over a distressingly weak of pot of tea in the cafeteria six months ago when she returned to London from Children’s Hour in Manchester and started in Schools. ‘You, I expect, understand the concept of vocation, Miss Armstrong.’
‘Yes, Mr Prendergast,’ Juliet had said because it seemed a much simpler answer than ‘no’. She had learnt from experience.
She tried to think what dog it was that he reminded her of. A Boxer perhaps. Or an English Bulldog. Rumpled and rather mournful. How old was Prendergast, Juliet wondered? He had been with the BBC since time began, having joined the Corporation in its pioneering infancy under Reith, when it was located at Savoy Hill. Schools was sacrosanct to Prendergast - children, lambs and so on.
‘Of course the problem with Reith,’ he said, ‘was that he didn’t really want people to enjoy the radio. He was terribly puritanical. People should enjoy themselves, don’t you think? We should all live joyfully.’ Prendergast seemed lost in thought - about joy, or more likely, the lack of it, Juliet supposed - but then after a few seconds he seemed to pull himself together with a little shake. A Bulldog not a Boxer, not, Juliet had decided. Did he live alone, she wondered? Prendergast’s marital status was unclear and no one seemed interested enough to question him on the subject.
‘Joy is an admirable goal,’ Juliet had said. ‘Completely unobtainable of course.’
‘Oh, dear. Such cynicism in one so young.’
Juliet was fond of him, but she was perhaps the only one. Older men of a certain type were drawn to her. They seemed to want to improve her in some way. Juliet was almost thirty and didn’t feel she needed much more improvement. The war had seen to that.
‘At sea with the trawlermen,’ someone – Lester Pelling – suggested. He reminded Juliet of one of Lewis Carroll’s unfortunate young oysters, all eager for the treat. He was a Junior Programme Engineer, only seventeen, his voice barely broken. Why was he in this meeting?
‘Quite,’ Prendergast nodded benignly.
‘My father was – ’ Lester Pelling began but was cut off by another genial ‘Quite’ from Prendergast , raising his hand in a gesture more papal than Wesleyan. Juliet wondered if they would ever know what Lester Pelling’s father was. A trawlerman, a war hero, a lunatic? Rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief?
‘Every day stories of country folk, that kind of thing,’ Prendergast said. Did he know that Godfrey Beasley in the BBC’s Midland Region was working on a concept for a series that styled itself like that? Some kind of agricultural information programme disguised as fiction, a ‘farming Dick Barton’ she had heard it described as (who on earth would want to listen to that?) Juliet felt a mild curiosity. Was Prendergast stealing other people’s ideas?
‘Working in a cotton mill,’ Daisy Gibbs offered. She glanced at Juliet and smiled. She was the new Junior Programme Assistant, fresh from Cambridge, and more capable than was strictly necessary. There was something cryptical about her that Juliet had yet to fathom. Like Juliet, Daisy had no teaching qualifications (‘Not a drawback,’ Prendergast said, ‘not at all. Possibly quite the opposite.’)
‘Oh, no, Miss Gibbs,’ Prendergast said. ‘The North would be possessive of industry, would it not, Miss Armstrong?’ Juliet was regarded as their expert in all things northern having come to them from Manchester.
When the war was over and her country, in the form of the Security Service, said that it no longer needed her, Juliet moved to the other great national monolith and started a career in broadcasting, although even now, five years later she failed to think of it as a career, it was simply something that she happened to be doing.
The BBC studios in Manchester were above a bank in Piccadilly. Juliet had been employed as an Announcer. It had a capital letter. (‘A woman!’ everyone said, as if they’d never heard a woman speak before.) She still had nightmares about Continuity – the fear of silence or of speaking over the pips, or of simply running out of words. It was not a job for the fainthearted. She was acting as Duty Officer one night when an SOS notice from the police came in – from time to time someone would be dangerously ill and they needed to find a relative urgently. On this occasion they were looking for someone’s son ‘believed to be in the Windermere area’ when a cat suddenly appeared in the continuity suite (formerly a broom cupboard). The cat, a ginger one - they were the worst type of cats in Juliet’s opinion - had jumped up on the desk and bitten her – quite sharply, so that she couldn’t help but give a little yelp of pain. It then proceeded to roll around on the desk before rubbing its face on the microphone and purring into it so loudly that anyone listening must have thought there was a panther loose in the studio, one that was very pleased with itself for having killed a woman.
Eventually someone grabbed the darn thing by the scruff and yanked it away. Juliet sneezed her way through the rest of the announcement and then cued up Schubert’s Trout wrongly.
‘Perseverance’ was the watchword of the Corporation. Juliet had introduced the Halle once – Barbirolli conducting Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique - and had succumbed to a terrific nosebleed just as she began with, ‘This is the Northern Home Service.’ She had drawn courage from the memory of listening to the Nine O’Clock News in 1940 and hearing a bomb exploding on air. (Oh, for heaven’s sake, she had thought, not the BBC.) The newsreader, Bruce Belfrage, had paused – there was the usual terrible racket a bomb makes – and then a faint voice could be just made out, saying, ‘It’s all right,’ and Belfrage had continued as if nothing had happened. As did Juliet, even though her desk was splattered with blood (her own – generally more alarming than someone else’s). Someone had stuck a bunch of cold keys down her back, a cure that had never been known to work.
It wasn’t all right at the BBC, of course, for seven members of staff were dead on the floors above, but Belfrage couldn’t have known that and, even if he had, he would still have carried on.
At the time Juliet had been so attuned to listening to Godfrey Toby’s indistinct conversations in Dolphin Square that she wondered if she alone had heard that faint voice of reassurance. Perhaps it was why she was drawn to work for the BBC after the war. It’s all right.
'Joy is an admirable goal,' Juliet had said. 'Completely unobtainable of course.'
'Oh, dear. Such cynicism in one so young.'
It was almost lunchtime when Prendergast’s meeting stuttered to an inconclusive halt.
‘Lunch in our cafeteria, perhaps, Miss Armstrong?’ he asked before she could make good her escape. They had their own cafeteria at No 1, a poor shade of the one in the basement across the road in their flagship, and Juliet tried to avoid its smoky, rather foetid, atmosphere.
‘I’ve got sandwiches, I’m afraid, Mr Prendergast,’ she said, with a regretful air. A little bit of acting went a long way with Prendergast. ‘Why don’t you ask Fraulein Rosenfeld?’ Fraulein Rosenfeld, an Austrian yet everyone insisted on referring to her as German (‘Same thing,’ Charles Lofthouse said) was their German language advisor. In her sixties, ‘the Fraulein’, as she was often referred to as, was stout and dressed very badly and was forlornly earnest about even the most trivial things. She had come over in ’37 to attend a conference on ethics and had made the wise choice not to go back. And then, of course, after the war there was no one to go back to. She had shown Juliet a photograph, five pretty girls enjoying a picnic long ago. White dresses, big white ribbons in their long dark hair. ‘My sisters,’ Fraulein Rosenfeld said. ‘I’m in the middle - there,’ she said, pointing shyly to the least pretty of the five. ‘I was the eldest.’
Juliet liked Fraulein Rosenfeld, she was so intensely European and everyone else around Juliet was so intensely English. Before the war Fraulein Rosenfeld had been a different person – a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Vienna and Juliet supposed that any one of those things – the war, philosophy, Vienna - were capable of making you both forlorn and earnest and perhaps badly dressed too. It would be a challenge for Prendergast to introduce joy into their lunch.
Actually it happened to be true, Juliet did have sandwiches – salad cream and an egg boiled hastily while she yawned her way round the kitchen this morning. It was still only early March but there had been a bright pinch of spring in the air and she had thought it would make a change to eat al fresco.
In Cavendish Square Gardens an unoccupied bench was easy to find as clearly no one else was foolish enough to consider it warm enough to eat their packed lunch outside. There was a blush of crocuses on the grass and daffodils were bravely spearing their way out of the earth but there was no warmth in the anaemic sun and Juliet soon began to grow numb with cold.
The sandwich was no comfort, it was a pale, limp thing, a long way from the dejeuner sur l’herbe of her imagination this morning, nonetheless she ate it dutifully. Recently she had bought a new book, by Elizabeth David - A Book of Mediterranean Food. A hopeful purchase. The only olive oil she could find was sold in her local chemist in a small bottle. ‘For softening ear-wax?’ he asked when she handed over her money. There was a better life somewhere, Juliet supposed, if only she could be bothered to find it.
When she had finished her sandwich she stood to shake the crumbs off her coat, causing alarm to an attentive retinue of sparrows which rose as one and fluttered away on dusty London wings, ready to return to their scraps as soon as she was gone.
Juliet set off, for Charlotte Street again, not to last night’s restaurant but to Moretti’s – a café near the Scala theatre that she frequented occasionally.
It was just as she was passing the top of Berners Street that she saw him.
‘Mr Toby. Mr Toby!’ Juliet picked up her pace and reached him as he was about to round the corner into Cleveland Street. She plucked at his coat sleeve. It seemed a bold move. She had once startled him by doing the same when she had handed him back a glove he had dropped. She remembered thinking, isn’t this how a woman signals her intention to a man, by letting fall the coy handkerchief, the flirtatious glove? ‘Why thank you, Miss Armstrong,’ he had said at the time. ‘I would have been perplexed as to its whereabouts.’ Flirting had been on neither of their minds.
She had succeeded now in halting him in his progress. He turned round, seemingly unsurprised, so she was sure that he must have heard her shouting his name. He looked steadily at her, waiting for more.
‘Mr Toby? It’s Juliet, remember me?’ (How could he not!) Pedestrians flowed awkwardly around them. We are a little island, she thought, the two of us. ‘Juliet Armstrong.’
He tipped his hat – a grey trilby that she thought she recognized. He offered a faint smile and said, ‘I’m sorry, Miss…Armstrong? I think you have confused me with someone else. Good day to you.’ He turned on his heel and began to walk away.
It was him, she knew it was him. The same (rather portly) figure, the bland owlish face, the tortoiseshell spectacles, the old trilby. And, finally, the irrefutable – and rather unnerving – evidence of the silver-topped cane.
She said his real name. ‘John Hazeldine.’ She had never once called him that. It sounded like an accusation to her ears.
He paused in his stride, his back to her. There was the lightest talcum of dandruff on the shoulders of his rather greasy gabardine trench. It looked the same as the one that he had worn throughout the war. Did he never buy new clothes? She waited for him to turn round and deny himself again but after a beat he simply walked on, the cane tap-tap-tapping on the grey London pavement. She had been discarded. Like a glove, she thought.
I think you have confused me with someone else. How strange to hear his voice again. It was him, why would he pretend otherwise? Juliet puzzled as she settled at a table in Moretti’s and ordered a coffee from the surly waiter.
She used to come to this café before the war. The name remained although the ownership was different. The café itself was small and rather scruffy, the red and white checked tablecloths never entirely clean. The staff seemed to change all the time and no one ever acknowledged Juliet or appeared to recognise her, which was in itself not an unwelcome thing. It was a terrible place really but she was predisposed towards it. It was a thread in the labyrinth, one that she could follow back to the world before the war, to her self before the war. Innocence and experience butting up against each other in the greasy fug of Moretti’s. It had been rather a relief to find it was still here when she returned to London. So much else had gone. She lit a cigarette and waited for her coffee.
The café was largely frequented by foreigners of one kind or another and Juliet liked to sit and simply listen, trying to decipher where their accents might have originated. When she first started coming here the café was being run by Mr Moretti himself. He was always attentive to her, calling her Signorina and asking after her mother. (‘How’s your Mamma?’) Not that Mr Moretti had ever met her mother but that was Italians, Juliet had supposed. Keener on mothers than the British were.
She always replied, ‘Very well, thank you Mr Moretti, never bold enough to say ‘Signor’ instead of ‘Mr’ - that seemed a presumptuous step to take into someone else’s linguistic territory. The nameless man currently behind the counter at Moretti’s claimed to be Armenian and never asked Juliet about anything, least of all her mother.
It had been a lie, of course. Her mother hadn’t been well, not at all, in fact she had been dying, in the Middlesex, just up the road from Moretti’s, but Juliet had preferred the subterfuge of her mother’s health.
Before she grew too ill to work her mother had been a dressmaker and Juliet had been accustomed to hearing her mother’s’ ‘ladies’ complaining their way up the three flights of stairs to their small flat in Kentish Town in order to stand stiffly to attention in their corsets and ample bras while they were pinned into garments. Sometimes Juliet would hold on to them reassuringly while they balanced precariously on a little three-legged stool while her mother shuffled around on her knees, pinning up their hems. Then her mother grew too sick to sew even the simplest seam and the ladies no longer came. Juliet had missed them - they patted her hand and gave her boiled sweets and took an interest in how well she did at school (What a clever daughter you have, Mrs Armstrong).
Her mother had scrimped and saved and worked endless hours in order to burnish Juliet, polishing her up for a bright future, paying for ballet classes and piano lessons, even elocution with a woman in Kensington. She had been a scholarship girl in a fee-paying school, a school populated by determined girls and even more determined female staff. Her headmistress had suggested she study Modern Languages or Law at university. Or perhaps she should take the Oxbridge entrance? ‘They’re looking for girls like you,’ her headmistress said but didn’t elaborate what kind of girl that might be.
Juliet had stopped going to that school, stopped preparing for that bright future, so that she could care for her mother – there had always been only the two of them - and had never returned after her mother’s death. It seemed impossible somehow. That eager-to-please, academic sixth-former, who played on the left wing in hockey, who was the leading-light of the drama club and practised piano almost every day at school (because there was no room for a piano at home), that girl who was a keen Girl Guide and who loved drama and music and art, that girl, transmuted by bereavement, had gone. And, as far as Juliet could tell, she had never really come back.
She had got into the habit of coming to Moretti’s whenever her mother had hospital treatment and this was where she was when her mother died. It was only a ‘matter of days,’ according to the doctor who had admitted her mother onto a ward in the Middlesex that morning. ‘It’s time,’ he said to Juliet. Did she understand what that meant? Yes, she did, Juliet said. It meant that she was about to lose the only person who loved her. She was seventeen and her grief for herself was almost as great as her grief for her mother.
Never having known him, Juliet felt nothing for her father. Her mother had been somewhat ambivalent on the subject and Juliet appeared to be the only evidence that he had ever existed. He had been a seaman in the Merchant Navy, killed in an accident and buried at sea before Juliet was born and although she sometimes might indulge in conjuring his pearlish eyes and coralline bones she remained dispassionate about the man himself.
Her mother’s death, on the other hand demanded poeticism. As the first clod of earth hit her mother’s coffin Juliet could barely catch a breath. Her mother would suffocate beneath all that earth, she thought, but Juliet was suffocating too. An image came to her mind – the martyrs who were pressed to death by stones piled on top of them. That is me, she thought, I am crushed by loss. ‘Don’t seek out elaborate metaphors’ her English teacher had said of her school essays but her mother’s death had revealed that there was no metaphor too ostentatious for grief. It was a terrible thing and demanded embellishment.
It had been foul weather, wet and windy, the day that her mother died. Juliet had lingered in the warm sanctuary of Moretti’s for as long as possible. She had eaten cheese on toast for lunch – the cheese on toast that Mr Moretti made was infinitely superior to anything they made at home (‘Italian cheese,’ he explained. ‘And Italian bread.’) and then had fought her umbrella all the way along Charlotte Street back to the Middlesex. When she arrived at the ward she discovered that it wasn’t safe to believe anything that anyone told you. It turned out that her mother did not have ‘a matter of days’ but only a handful of hours and she had died while Juliet was enjoying her lunch. When she kissed her mother’s forehead it was still warm and the faint scent of her perfume – lily of the valley – could be caught beneath the awful hospital smells.
‘You just missed it,’ the nurse said as though her mother’s death was a bus or the opening of a play, when really it was the denouement of her drama.
And that was that. Finito.
The end too for the staff of Moretti’s for when war was declared they were all interned and none of them ever came back. Juliet heard that Mr Moretti went down on the Arandora Star in the summer of 1940, along with hundreds of his imprisoned countrymen. Many of them, like Mr Moretti had been in the catering trade.
‘It’s a bloody nuisance,’ Hartley said, ‘you can’t get decent service in the Dorchester anymore.’ But that was Hartley for you.
It made Juliet melancholic to come back to Moretti’s, and yet she did. The lowering of her spirits at the memory of her mother provided a kind of ballast, a counterbalance to what was (in her own opinion) her shallow, rather careless character. Her mother had represented a form of truth for her, something that Juliet knew she had moved away from in the decade since her death.
She fingered the strand of pearls at her neck. Inside each pearl there was a little piece of grit. That was the true self of the pearl, wasn’t it? The beauty of the pearl was just the poor oyster trying to protect itself. From the grit. From the truth.
Juliet used to think that someone who seemed as ordinary as Godfrey Toby must be harbouring a secret – a thrilling past, a dreadful tragedy – but as time had gone by she realized that being ordinary was his secret.
‘Oysters’ made her think of Lester Pelling, the Junior Programmes Engineer and Lester made her think of Cyril with whom she had worked during the war. Cyril and Lester had much in common. This thread of thought led to many others until eventually she arrived back at Godfrey Toby. Everything was interconnected, a great web that stretched across time and history. Forster might have said only connect but Juliet thought there was something to be said for cutting all those threads and disconnecting oneself.
The pearls at her neck were not Juliet’s, she had taken them from the body of a dead woman. Death was a truth too, of course, because it was an absolute. Rather heavier than she looks, I’m afraid. Lift on my three – one-two-three! Juliet shuddered at the memory. Best not to think about that. Best not to think at all, probably. Thinking had always been her downfall. Juliet drained her cup and lit another cigarette.
Mr Moretti used to make her a lovely coffee - ‘Viennese’ - with whipped cream and cinnamon. The war did for that too, of course and the beverage on offer in Moretti’s nowadays was Turkish and more or less undrinkable. It was served in a thick thimble of a cup and was bitter and grainy, only made palatable by the addition of several spoonfuls of sugar. Europe and the Ottoman Empire in the history of a cup. Juliet was in charge of a series for the Juniors called Looking At Things. She knew a lot about cups. She had Looked At them.
She ordered another awful coffee and, for fear of encouraging him in some way, tried not to look in the direction of the funny little man who was sitting at a corner table. He had been staring at her on and off since she first sat down, in a way that was extremely disconcerting. Like many in Moretti’s he had the shabby air of the post-war European diaspora. There was a trollish look to him too, as if he had been put together from left-overs. He could have been sent from Booking to play one of the dispossessed. A hunched shoulder, eyes like pebbles - slightly uneven as if one had slipped a little - and pockmarked skin that looked as if it had been peppered with shot. (Perhaps it had been.) “The wounds of war”, Juliet thought, rather pleased with the way the words sounded in her head. It could be the title of a novel. Perhaps she should write one. But wasn't artistic endeavour the final refuge of the uncommitted?
Juliet was contemplating confronting the odd little man in the polite way of an English woman - ‘Excuse me, do I know you? - although she was fairly certain that she would have remembered someone so odd, but before she could get as far as addressing him he stood up abruptly.
She felt sure he was going to come over and speak to her and readied herself for some kind of conflict but instead he shambled towards the door – he had a limp, she noticed and in lieu of a walking-stick he was supporting himself with a large furled umbrella. He disappeared into the street. He hadn’t paid but the Armenian behind the counter merely glanced up at him as he left and remained uncharacteristically unperturbed.
When her coffee arrived Juliet swallowed it down like medicine, hoping it would perk her up for the afternoon’s onslaught and then gazed like a clairvoyant at the coffee grounds that were left at the bottom of the small cup. Why would Godfrey Toby refuse to acknowledge her?
He had been coming out of a bank. That used to be his cover – bank clerk. It was clever really, no one wanted to engage a bank clerk in conversation about his job. Juliet used to think that someone who seemed as ordinary as Godfrey Toby must be harbouring a secret – a thrilling past, a dreadful tragedy – but as time had gone by she realized that being ordinary was his secret. It was the best disguise of all really, wasn’t it?
Juliet never thought of him as ‘John Hazeldine’ for he had inhabited the rather dull-seeming domain of Godfrey Toby so thoroughly, so magnificently.
To his face he had been ‘Mr Toby’ but really ‘Godfrey’ was how everyone used to refer to him. It indicated neither familiarity nor intimacy it was simply a habit that had formed. They had called their operation the ‘Godfrey case’ and there were a number of files in the Registry that had been headed simply ‘Godfrey’ and not all of them were successfully cross-referenced. That was the kind of thing that used to send the Registry queens into a tizzy, of course.
There had been talk of moving him abroad after the war ended. New Zealand. Somewhere like that anyway. South Africa perhaps. To protect him, in case of reprisals, but wasn’t retribution - one way or another - something they were all at risk of?
And his informants, the fifth columnists – what of them? There had been a plan to monitor them in peacetime but Juliet wasn’t sure if it had ever been implemented. She did know that the decision had been made to leave them in ignorance after the war. No one had told them about MI5’s duplicity. They never knew that they had been recorded by microphones embedded in the plaster of the walls of the flat in Dolphin Square to which they came so eagerly every week. Nor did they have any idea that Godfrey Toby worked for MI5 and was not the Gestapo agent to whom they thought they were bringing traitorous information. And they would have been very surprised to know that the following day a girl sat at a big Imperial typewriter in the flat next door and transcribed those traitorous conversations, one top copy and two carbons at a time. And that girl, for her sins, had been Juliet.
When the operation was wound up at the end of ’44 they were told that he had been stood down and ‘evacuated’ to Portugal, although in reality he had been sent to Paris to interview captured German officers.
Where had Godfrey been since the end of the war? Why had he returned? And, most puzzling of all, why would he pretend not to recognize her?
I know him, Juliet thought. They had worked together throughout the war. She had been in his home for heaven’s sake - in Finchley - where he had lived in a house with a solid oak front door and a robust brass door-knocker in the shape of a lion’s head. A house with leaded lights and parquet flooring. She had sat on the cut moquette of his solid sofa. (Can I get you a cup of tea, Miss Armstrong? Would that help? We’ve had rather a shock ) She had washed her hands with the freesia-scented soap in his bathroom, seen the array of coats and shoes in his hall cupboard. Why she had even glimpsed the pink satin eiderdown beneath which he and Mrs Toby (if there ever really had been such a person) slept.
And together they had committed a hideous act, the kind of thing that binds you to someone forever, whether you liked it or not. Was that why he had denied her now? (Two sugars, Miss Armstrong? That’s right, isn’t it?) Or was that why he had come back?
I should have followed him, she thought. But he would have lost her. He had been rather good at evasion.