Dear Mrs. Bird
AN ADVERTISEMENT IN THE NEWSPAPER
When I first saw the advertisement in the newspaper I thought I might actually burst. I’d had rather a cheerful day so far despite the Luftwaffe annoying everyone by making us all late for work, and then I’d managed to get hold of an onion, which was very good news for a stew. But when I saw the announcement, I could not have been more cock-a-hoop.
It was a quarter past three on one of those wretched December afternoons when the day seemed to start getting dark before it had quite made up its mind to be light, and even with two vests and a greatcoat on, it was impossible to get warm. Sitting on the top deck of the number 24 bus, I could see my breath if I huffed.
I was on my way home from my job as a secretary at Strawman’s Solicitors and looking forward to a sit-down before my overnight shift on the fire-station telephones. I had already read every word of The Evening Chronicle’s news pages and was now looking at the horoscopes, which I didn’t believe in but thought worth a go just in case. For my best friend Bunty it said, “You will be in the money soon enough. Lucky animal: polecat,” which was promising, and for me, “Things may pick up eventually. Lucky fish: cod,” which in comparison was rather a dud.
And then I saw it, under “Situations Vacant,” squeezed between a position for Jam Boilers (no experience necessary) and a Mature Supervisor at an overalls factory (references preferred).
Part-time Junior required at
Launceston Press Ltd., publishers of
The London Evening Chronicle.
Must be capable, enthusiastic hard worker
with 60 wpm typing/110 wpm shorthand.
Letters soonest to Mrs. H. Bird,
Launceston Press Ltd., Launceston House,
It was the best job I had ever seen in my life.
If there was anything I wanted most in the world (other, of course, than for the war to end and Hitler to die a quite grisly death), it was to be a journalist. Or to be precise, what people in the know referred to as a Lady War Correspondent.
For the last ten years—ever since I’d won a trip to the local newspaper as my prize for writing a quite dreadful poem when I was twelve—I had dreamt of a journalistic career.
Now my heart beat like anything, thumping through the vests and the greatcoat and threatening to leap right out and onto the lady in the next seat. I was jolly grateful for the job at Strawman’s, but I was desperate to learn how to be a reporter. The sort of person who always had a notebook in hand, ready to sniff out Political Intrigue, launch Difficult Questions at Governmental Representatives, or, best of all, leap onto the last plane to a far-off country in order to send back Vital Reports of resistance and war.
At school my teachers had told me to simmer down and not have such excitable aspirations, even if English was my best subject. They stopped me writing to the Prime Minister about his Foreign Policy for the school magazine as well. It had been a dispiriting start.
Since then I had persevered, but finding a job when I had almost no experience had proved tricky, especially as I had set my heart on working for a newspaper in London’s Fleet Street. Although in general an optimist, even I didn’t think three summer holidays writing for The Little Whitfield Gazette was going to get me to Berlin.
But now here was my chance.
I examined the advert again, wondering if I might make the grade.
That was me, even if I wasn’t sure what they wanted me to be capable of.
I’d say. I was very nearly shouting like a mad person on the bus.
I would sleep on the office floor if that’s what it took.
* * *
I couldn’t wait to apply.
I rang the bell to get off at the next stop and at the jaunty ping the bus began to slow down. I grabbed my handbag, gas mask, and the onion, shoved the newspaper under my arm, and hurried downstairs double quick, managing to leave one of my gloves behind in the rush.
“Thank you,” I shouted at the conductress, narrowly avoiding flattening her as I leapt off the back of the bus.
It hadn’t quite come to a halt next to where Boots the Chemist was still open despite having had all its windows blown out the week before last, but I jumped onto what remained of the pavement and began to head towards home.
Boots wasn’t the only shop to have taken a biff during the raids. The whole street had had a rotten time of it. The grocer’s was now little more than half a wall and some rubble, four of the flats next door had been completely bombed out, and there was just a big gap where Mr. Parsons’ wool shop had been. Pimlico may still have had its chin up, but it hadn’t been without loss.
Hurdling craters, I ran across the street, slowing down as I called a hello to Mr. Bone the newsagent (“With my name you’d think I’d be a butcher!”), who was rearranging a stack of papers outside his shop. He had his warden’s overalls on already and blew on his fingers to keep warm.
“Afternoon, Emmy,” he said between puffs. “Have you got the early edition? Lovely picture of Their Majesties on the front page.” He smiled brightly. Despite everything the war had done to him, Mr. Bone was the most cheery man I knew. It didn’t matter how horrible the news was, he always pointed out something nice. “No, don’t stop—I can see you’re in a bit of a rush.”
Usually I would stay to chat about the day’s news. Mr. Bone sometimes gave me back issues of newspapers or Picture Post if someone had reserved one but forgotten to collect it, even if he was meant to send them back to the publisher, but today I just had to get home.
“Page two, Mr. Bone,” I shouted gratefully. “The Chronicle needs a Junior. I think this might be the one!”
Mr. Bone was terrifically supportive of my dream to become a Lady War Correspondent, even if he did worry about my wanting to go behind enemy lines, and now he broke into an even bigger smile and waved a copy of the evening paper in triumph.
“That’s the spirit, Emmy,” he shouted. “Best of luck. I’ll save you today’s Times.”
I yelled a thank-you and waved my free hand wildly as I ran on to the end of the road. A few minutes more and then a sharp right, avoiding two elderly ladies who were showing great interest in Walter the hot potato man, most probably because of the warmth, and then past the tearooms to home.
Bunty and I shared a flat on the top floor of her granny’s house in Braybon Street. If there was an air raid, it could be a mad dash downstairs to the Anderson shelter in the garden, but we were used to it by now so it didn’t worry us unduly, and we were awfully lucky to live there for free.
I threw open the front door, rushed across the tiled hallway and up the stairs.
“BUNTY,” I shouted, hoping she might hear me from three floors up. “You’ll never guess what. I’ve got the best ever news.”
By the time I made it to the top of the stairs, Bunty had appeared from her bedroom, wearing her dressing gown and wiping sleep out of her eyes. She was working nights as a secretary at the War Office but of course had to be very tight-lipped about exactly what that involved.
“Have we won the war?” she said. “They didn’t say anything at work.”
“Only a matter of time,” I said. “No, but look, next best thing.”
I shoved the newspaper into her hand.
“No, you idiot. Underneath.”
Bunty grinned and scanned the page again, her eyes widening as she saw the advertisement.
“Oh my LORD.” Her voice got louder with every word. “EMMY, THIS IS YOUR JOB.”
I nodded violently.
“Do you think so? Really? It is, isn’t it?” I said, not making any sense.
“Of course it is. You’re going to be marvellous.”
Bunty was the most loyal friend in the world. She was also tremendously practical, and leapt into action with immediate effect.
“You need to write to them today. Be the first in line. Mr. Strawman will give you a reference, won’t he? And Captain Davies at the station. Oh goodness—will you still be able to do your shifts there?”
As well as my day-time position at the solicitors, I had joined the Auxiliary Fire Service as a volunteer before the start of the Blitz. My brother, Jack, had been flying and fighting like mad and it was high time I pulled my weight too. Bunty’s boyfriend, William, was a full-time fireman on B Watch and when he suggested volunteering as a telephone operator at Carlton Street fire station, it sounded ideal. I would work three nights a week and fit it in around my secretarial job. An interview with the station’s Captain Davies, a medical to make sure I wasn’t about to conk out, and there I was. Smart navy blue uniform with gleaming buttons, stout black shoes, and as proud as punch in my cap with its AFS badge.
Bunty and I had known William since we were children, and when I joined the Service our village newspaper had come up to London and taken a picture of the three of us. They printed it with the headline “Little Whitfield to the Rescue” and made it sound as if William and Bunty and I were responsible for keeping the entire city safe and the War Office going, all on our own. They’d mentioned my fiancé, Edmund, too, which was lovely, as he was from Little Whitfield as well, even if they did slightly imply he was in charge of half the Royal Artillery, which Edmund said was rather a stretch. I’d sent him the cutting and it had given him a good laugh. It was nice that the paper had talked about us all. It made it feel like old times, before the war got in the way and Edmund got sent halfway round the world.
Within two weeks of my joining the Fire Service, the Germans had started having a go at London and I was pleased to be useful in some way. My friend Thelma on B Watch said that even if I couldn’t be a Lady War Correspondent just yet, at least I was doing my bit.
“Oh good, it’s part-time,” said Bunty, reading the advert again and answering her own question. She had stopped shouting now and become deadly earnest. “Honestly, Emmy,” she said. “This could be your big chance.”
We looked at each other for a moment, considering its enormity.
“I bet you’re right up to date on Current Affairs,” she said. “They’ll be ever so impressed.”
“I don’t know, Bunts,” I said, suddenly nervy. “They’ll have awfully high standards, even for a Junior. Could you test me?”
We headed into the living room, where two piles of magazines and three scrapbooks of news cuttings were balancing precariously on the coffee table. I took off my hat and reached into my bag, pulling out the notebook I always carried Just In Case and then flicking through to the back where I had written APPENDIX in large red letters and then MEMBERS OF THE WAR CABINET on the next line.
I handed it to Bunty, who had plonked herself on the sofa.
“I’ll pretend to interview you,” she said, pointing at the least comfortable chair in the room. “And I shall be very stern. First off, who’s Chancellor of the Exchequer?”
“Sir Kingsley Wood,” I said as I unbuttoned my coat and sat down. “That’s easy.”
“Well done,” said Bunty. “All right then, Lord President of the Council? Do you know, I can’t wait for you to start. Your parents are going to be so pleased.”
“Sir John Anderson,” I said, answering the question. “Steady on though, I haven’t got the job yet. I hope Mother and Father will be happy about it. They’ll probably worry about my having to do dangerous things.”
“But they’ll pretend they’re absolutely fine,” said Bunty. We both grinned. Bunty knew my parents almost as well as I did. Our fathers had been friends in the Great War and she was very much part of the family.
“Ask me a really hard one,” I said.
“Righto,” said Bunty, and then stopped. “Oh, I’ve just thought. What do you think Edmund will say? I reckon he’ll have a blue fit,” she added, before I could answer.
I wanted to jump to his defence, but Bunty did have a point. Edmund and I had been seeing each other for ages and been engaged for the last eighteen months. He was wonderful—clever and thoughtful and caring—but he didn’t exactly applaud my hopes of a career in newspapers. Sometimes he could be a bit of a stick-in-the-mud.
“He’s not that bad,” I said, being loyal. “I’m sure he’ll be pleased.”
“And you’ll take the job even if he isn’t,” added Bunty with confidence.
“Crikey, yes,” I said. “If I’m offered it.” I loved Edmund but I wasn’t going to be a doormat about things.
“I do so hope they’ll give you the job,” said Bunty, crossing her fingers. “They have to.”
“Can you imagine? A Junior at The Evening Chronicle.” I stared into space, seeing myself tearing around London in a taxi, poised for a scoop. “The start of a Journalistic Career.”
“Good for you!” said Bunty earnestly. “Will you specialise as a Lady War Correspondent, do you think?”
“Oh yes, I hope so. I shall wear trousers, and after we’ve won the war I will save up for my own car and Edmund and I can rent a flat in Westminster, and I shall probably smoke and spend my evenings at the theatre or saying droll things at the Café de Paris.”
Bunty looked enthusiastic. “I can’t wait,” she said, as if we were booking it in for the week after next. “If Bill doesn’t ask me to marry him, I might pursue a career in politics.”
Before war broke out Bunty’s boyfriend had been studying to become an architect. He’d planned to qualify and start earning some money before they got engaged.
“Oh, Bunts, that’s a splendid idea,” I said, impressed. “I didn’t realise you were interested in that sort of thing.”
“Well, I’m not terribly, not yet anyway. But I’m sure lots of MPs will want a rest after we’ve won, and I’ve always liked the idea of being on the wireless.”
“Good thinking. And people will respect you as you’ve worked at the War Office.”
“But I shall never speak of it.”
Things had really perked up. I was going to be a journalist and Bunty was going to be on the BBC.
“Right,” I said, getting up. “I’m going to write my application letter and then go down to the station and try and see Captain Davies. I’m not sure how being a volunteer telephone operator is going to get me a job at The Evening Chronicle, but it can’t do any harm.”
“Rubbish,” said Bunty. “It’s perfect. If you can keep answering phones in the middle of Hitler trying to blow us all up, you’ll be absolutely top-notch when you’re a Lady War Correspondent under fire. William says you’re the pluckiest girl on the watch and you didn’t even turn a hair when Derek Hobson came back in from a job really bashed up.”
“Well, I am first-aid monitor,” I said. I didn’t really want to think about it. You didn’t make a fuss about that sort of thing, but it had been a horrible night and Derek was still off on leave.
Bunty picked up the newspaper again. “You’re jolly plucky,” she said. “And you’re going to be smashing at your new job. Now, you’d better get on,” she said, handing the paper to me. “It says ‘letters soonest’ . . .”
“Honestly,” I said, taking it from her and going a bit glassy-eyed. “I can’t believe this might actually come true.”
Bunty grinned and said, “You just wait.”
I picked up my bag, took out my best fountain pen, and started to write.
MR. COLLINS, FEATURES AND EDITOR AT LARGE
A week after the newspaper advertisement, I was trying terrifically hard to remain calm. Having taken Being Up To Date With The News to an unprecedented level of mania since writing my letter to Mrs. H. Bird, I was actually on my way to an interview at The London Evening Chronicle.
Bunty had continued to test me to a point of interrogation, and when I told my family and the B Watch girls, everyone had become both enormously excited and quite worryingly overconfident about the prospect of my getting the job. I had written to tell Edmund about the interview, and while it was far too soon to have heard back from him, I had lots of other support. The previous day I’d finished my shift at the fire station to cries of Good Luck from the girls and shouts of Hold The Front Page and Go Get ’Em, Kid, from William and the boys in a spirited attempt to sound like newspaper people you see in the films. It was lovely of them all and I felt as if half of London—and all of Little Whitfield—were behind me.
Today, London was operating under a low and dreary grey sky, the sort that looked like a giant boy had flung off his school jumper and accidentally covered up the West End. Braving the cold, I was wearing a smart blue single-breasted serge suit, my very best shoes, and a little black tilt hat I had borrowed from Bunty. I hoped I might look both businesslike and alert. The sort of person who could sniff out a scoop and get the measure of it in a moment. The sort of person who was not feeling as if her heart might positively explode.
I had the day off work and even though it would have taken less than an hour to walk, I had caught two buses so that I wouldn’t get all windblown and turn up looking a scruff. Having arrived horribly early, I stood outside Launceston House, feeling nervous as I stared up at the huge art deco building in front of me.
That I might work here? It was a dizzying thought.
As I tipped my head back, holding onto Bunty’s hat with one hand and clutching my handbag in the other, I was already slightly unbalanced when a very cross voice boomed, “Quick sticks there, no one likes a slow coach.”
A substantial lady had come out of the building and was heading towards me in what looked like a man’s fedora hat. A short pheasant’s feather on the brim gave it a country air unusual for town, while another part of the dead bird had joined forces with a piece of rabbit to make a smart brooch on the lapel of her coat. She reminded me of my Aunty Tiny, who had gone on her first grouse shoot at three and been blasting things out of a hedgerow ever since.
“I’m so sorry,” I said. “I was just . . .”
The lady grimaced and swept past in a cloud of carbolic soap.
“. . . looking.”
As I watched her head purposefully across the road, I had the oddest feeling of being at school. Any minute now a bell would ring for PE.
I shook the feeling off. I was here for a job working on Serious News about Vitally Important Things so I should jolly well buck up and go in. Taking a deep breath, I looked at my watch for the hundredth time, then walked up the wide marble steps and through the revolving door.
Inside, the entrance hall was very grand and almost as cold as outside in the street. The walls were covered with huge portraits of grim-faced men as two hundred years of publishers looked with oil-painted disdain at a young woman in a borrowed hat dreaming of becoming a Correspondent. Any second now one of them would tut.
Hoping I didn’t slip on the polished floor, I walked over to the walnut reception desk.
“Good morning. Emmeline Lake, here to see Mrs. Bird, please. It’s for an interview.”
The young woman on the desk gave me a sympathetic smile.
“Fifth floor, Miss Lake. Take the lift to the third, go left down the corridor, up the stairs for two flights, and along to the double doors when you get there. Just go straight through. There won’t be anyone to let you in.”
“Thank you,” I said, smiling back. I hoped everyone here was this nice.
“Fifth floor,” she said again. “Jolly good luck.”
Bolstered by her helpfulness and almost forgetting the disconcerting lady on the steps, I joined two middle-aged gentlemen in large coats who were waiting for the lift and arguing about the Prime Minister’s radio broadcast last night. One of them was getting hot under the collar about Allied activity in Africa and kept waving his hands around until the ash flew off the end of his cigarette, narrowly missing his friend. The other one didn’t seem to be listening to him but was still making loud exclamations of “Pah!”
I eavesdropped as the brass arrow above the door stayed at the fourth floor and the men continued to argue.
“It’s a ridiculous move. They haven’t a chance. And anyway, Selassie doesn’t know what he’s doing.”
“Total rot. You’re blowing hot air.”
“Pah! Five shillings says you’re wrong.”
“I’d be embarrassed to take it off you.”
I hadn’t realised I was staring until the one with the cigarette glanced in my direction.
“So what do you think then, sweetheart? Is Eritrea a goner? Should we even bother while we’re about it?”
Crikey. I was being asked for a political opinion and I hadn’t even got to the interview yet.
“Well,” I said, feeling prepared. “I’m not entirely sure, but if Mr. Churchill thinks it’s a good idea, I’d say going at them from the Sudan is the best bet.”
The man nearly swallowed his cigarette. His friend hesitated for a second and then let out a guffaw.
“That told you, Henry! They’re not all as dim as they look.”
The other one sneered. “Anyone can repeat a line they’ve heard on the wireless.”
“Actually I read about it in The Times,” I offered, which was true. Neither responded, but started to argue again as the lift finally arrived.
I followed them in and politely asked the attendant for the third floor. Then I lifted up my chin and felt uppity from under my hat. Becoming a Lady War Correspondent would hardly be a walk in the park, but I wasn’t surprised. My mother always said that a lot of men think that having bosoms means you’re a nitwit. She said the cleverest thing is to let them assume you’re an idiot, so you can crack on and prove them all wrong.
I loved my mother, not least as every time she said something like bosom in front of people, Father rolled his eyes and pretended to clutch his heart for effect.
The thought of my parents cheered me as I got out at the third floor and headed up the stairs. At the top, I stopped for a second to powder my nose and poke a stray bit of hair behind my ear, and tried not to feel self-conscious in front of a large framed picture of a rather stern gentleman with white hair and somewhat forceful eyebrows. I recognised him at once. It was Lord Overton, millionaire philanthropist and owner of Launceston Press. He and his wife were always in the news for their charitable work and I hugely admired them both.
For a moment my nerve nearly failed. I hesitated at the double swing doors that led to Mrs. Bird and my interview.
Deep breath, shoulders back.
I pushed open the doors and walked into a thin, dark corridor. It was a far cry from the imposing entrance hall downstairs. As warned, there was no receptionist. Ahead of me was a line of doors, all but two of them shut, and apart from the muffled sound of typing, barely a sound from anywhere. If I’d expected a bustling newsroom full of chaps like the two in the lift, I was mistaken. Perhaps everyone was out reporting.
Clutching my handbag in front of me, I noticed a half-open door a little way down on the right-hand side and wondered whether a measured call of “Hello there” would be too forward a way to start things off.
I dismissed the idea and decided to knock on one of the doors. If I were to get this job, I might have to telephone America and ask to be put through to the White House. This was no place for faint hearts.
The office on my right had “Miss Knighton” written in a careful hand on a card taped to the door. On the wall next to it was a framed fashion print of a woman walking a poodle and looking immeasurably gay about it. I couldn’t see what that had to do with Significant World Events, but each to their own. There was a similar print on the wall opposite, only in this one the woman was in a summer frock and laughing like anything at a kitten.
I frowned. I was keen on animals but didn’t see what a major newspaper was doing putting up pictures of them during these Challenging Times. Surely a portrait of The King or someone out of the War Cabinet would be a more fitting use for the wall?
Perhaps it meant the people here were cheerful types. But cheerful or not, it was most awfully quiet.
“MISS KNIGHTON . . .” a man bellowed from behind the other half-open door. “MISS KNIGHTON! Oh, for God’s sake . . . MISS KNIGHTON. Where the hell is she? I might as well talk to the deaf. DON’T WORRY, I’LL DO IT MYSELF . . .”
There were rumbles and then a crash.
“Oh, for God’s . . . Idiot.”
“Hello?” I called, heading in the direction of the noise. “Are you all right? Might I help?”
“Of course I’m all right. Kathleen, is that you? Hang on.”
There was more scuffling, and then a slim gentleman in his mid-forties stumbled into the corridor. He was dressed nicely in tweed trousers and matching waistcoat but had got himself in rather a state. His shirtsleeves were rolled up, his brown hair was in need of a cut, and his hands were covered in black ink.
He was surely a journalist. It was very exciting, even if he did look quite murderous.
The journalist, who didn’t introduce himself but glared at me for not being Miss Knighton, pushed the hair out of his eyes and smeared ink all over his forehead. For form’s sake I pretended not to notice.
“HOW DO YOU DO,” I said in a loud voice, as when nervous I have a tendency to shout. “I’m Emmeline Lake. I have an interview with Mrs. Bird.”
“Oh God.” He looked at me with some alarm. “Already?”
I smiled in what I hoped was a keen but intelligent manner. At least he seemed to know about me coming.
“It’s at two o’clock,” I said, trying to be helpful.
“Right then. Well, I’m afraid she’s not here. Of course, she’s never here, which is a plus. Small mercies and all that. Probably organizing some poor charity or another into submission, but there you have it.”
He stopped. My face had dropped into my boots.
“Right,” I said, trying to remain positive.
“So you’re here for the interview, Miss . . .”
“Lake. Yes. But I can wait if that helps?” I looked around for somewhere to sit but the corridor was empty.
“Oh, don’t worry about that,” he said, not unkindly. “I’m afraid you’ve got me instead. But my hands are covered in this bloody ink . . .”
I decided not to mention it was all over his face too, in case it prompted even more of a swear, but instead scrabbled in my bag and offered him my handkerchief. My mother had embroidered a flower and my initials on it for Christmas.
“Thank you. Disaster averted.” He started to obliterate her handiwork. “Good. Well, come in then.”
I followed him into his office, noting the worn name on the door.
FEATURES AND EDITOR AT LARGE
“Watch out. It’s gone everywhere,” said Mr. Collins, and I made my way into the messiest room I had ever seen.
He squeezed himself behind a desk piled high with books and papers, together with an over-flowing ashtray and the unhappily upturned inkpot. The whole scene was given a dramatic edge by the only light in the room, an industrial Anglepoise lamp that looked as if it had been requisitioned from a condemned medical-supplies factory.
I spotted a pale blue blotter on the floor by the desk and bent to pick it up, then handed it to him, as if it were my credentials.
“Ah, good. Yes.” He dabbed at the spilt ink, looking dispirited.
After a few seconds, during which I glanced around and wondered if it was general practice for journalists to use a half-empty bottle of brandy as a bookend, he sighed heavily, gave up on the mess, and stared at me.
“Right,” he said. “Let’s get this over with. Now, Miss Emmeline Lake, here promptly at two o’clock to be interviewed by Mrs. Bird and owner of a small but currently appreciated handkerchief . . .”
For all his floundering, the Features and Editor At Large had not missed a thing.
“Tell me,” he said. “What on God’s earth possessed you to apply for a job working here?”
This was not how I thought the interview would start.