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 for ever 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 Viande de boeuf Diane and Crêpes Suzette had helped.
Her somewhat 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 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 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 Gibbs’s neatly shorn head as he spoke. He had a problem with his 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 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, she 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 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, who raised 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?
‘Everyday stories of country folk, that kind of thing,’ Prendergast said. Did he know that 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 had 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 had 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 faint-hearted. 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 would need 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 cat, 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 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 Hallé 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 hadn’t been 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.
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 of their flagship across the road, 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 Fräulein Rosenfeld?’ Fräulein Rosenfeld, an Austrian although everyone insisted on referring to her as German (‘Same thing,’ Charles Lofthouse said), was their German-language advisor. In her sixties, ‘the Fräulein’, as she was often referred to, was stout and very badly dressed and 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,’ Fräulein Rosenfeld said. ‘I’m in the middle – there.’ She pointed shyly to the least pretty of the five. ‘I was the eldest.’
Juliet liked Fräulein Rosenfeld, she was so intensely European and everyone else around Juliet was so intensely English. Before the war, Fräulein 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 – was 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 déjeuner sur l’herbe of her imagination that 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 earwax?’ 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 (somewhat 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 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 recognize 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 herself 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.