Read The Wardrobe Online

Authors: Judy Nunn

Tags: #Australia

The Wardrobe (6 page)

‘You’re sure?’ she’d whispered.

‘Absolutely. Look at him, for God’s sake. Can’t you just smell Fleet Street?’

She could. While the county journalists, respecting the occasion, had worn suits, the pouchy man from London was in a none-too-clean, open-necked shirt with a sports jacket that had seen far better days. Did he consider this provincial event beneath him, she wondered, or was his crumpled exterior a conscious
and calculated statement intended to impress? Elizabeth suspected it was a little of both.

‘Which paper is he from?’


The Times
, I think.’

‘Really?’

‘Yep, pretty sure.’

‘Ah.’ She’d kept a special eye on the pouchy man from that moment on.

Now, as the official proceedings came to a close, she was surprised to see him pocket his notebook. Surely he wasn’t going to leave it at that, she thought. What about the all-important human element, essential to any good feature article? But sure enough, as the band struck up and the troops marched back into High Street, leaving the park free for the festivities that would follow, the pouchy man glanced at his watch and started elbowing his way through the crowd.

He’s heading for the railway station, she thought. He’s on his way back to London. Good, she told herself; better than good, in fact – excellent. The editor of
The Times
would surely be impressed by her article after the dry report submitted by his own journalist. She prayed that Walter had his facts right and that the pouchy man really was from
The Times.

Within only minutes, it seemed, Princes Gardens had transformed into a fairground. The tantalising smell of frying onions permeated the air, and one of the army bands, now stationed near the fountain, was playing ‘C’est Magnifique’, the popular number from Cole Porter’s new musical
Can-Can
. Several portable booths, which had stood deserted on the periphery of the park during the proceedings, had suddenly come alive. One was selling soft drinks
and ice-creams; another, pork pies and pasties; and at another an enterprising middle-aged man with a Hawaiian shirt and a wife frantically tending a hotplate of onions was doling out American hot dogs and hamburgers. Elizabeth interviewed him. He was a Hampshireman, he said, born and bred in Portsmouth.

‘If it hadn’ been for the Yanks, I wouldn’ be servin’ this sort of grub now, would I?’ he said, indicating the queue and the fact that his booth was doing a far brisker trade than the others. ‘I owe those Yankee Doodle Dandies, ’n that’s the truth.’

Elizabeth scribbled his words down verbatim. Of course, hot dogs and hamburgers had taken over the world, but it was interesting to note that the American forces had been stationed around Portsmouth and Southampton prior to the D-day landings. The whole of the area had been of huge military significance throughout the war, and the army’s presence continued to have a profound effect on all local communities. ‘Yankee Doodle’ and the success of his hamburger booth seemed historical proof of the fact.

There was even a London hawker’s cart selling jellied eels and pickled periwinkles, which may have appeared surprising but wasn’t really. Colin the Cockney, in his traditional ‘pearly king’ outfit, wheeled his cart off the London train at country railway stations all over England, visiting any town and any occasion he considered worthwhile.

‘Oh, yeah,’ he replied in response to Elizabeth’s query about the day’s significance. ‘This is the most highly significant of days, no doubt about it. I wouldn’t
miss a day like this for quids. The home of the British army! Makes you downright proud, dun’it?’

Elizabeth strongly suspected that Colin never went anywhere unless there was a personal quid in it for him, but she didn’t intend to come from that angle. Colin the Cockney was a symbol. Together with his signature suit of pearly buttons, his hawker’s cart, his jellied eels and pickled periwinkles, Colin gave the day a very special stamp of approval.

A young couple had just purchased a small waxed paper cup of Colin’s jellied eels, and the girl’s nose was screwed up in dubious anticipation as she contemplated the shapeless grey object her boyfriend proffered on the end of a toothpick. She’d never eaten a jellied eel before.

‘Do you mind if we take a photograph?’ Elizabeth asked.

As she’d roamed amongst the crowd conducting her interviews, Elizabeth had made sure Walter stayed religiously by her side, clicking away at every opportunity. It was the standard tack they adopted. Walter was essential for Elizabeth’s credibility. Many people refused to take female journalists seriously, and his presence was proof she was a bona fide member of the press.

The young couple with the jellied eels were certainly impressed. The girl stopped pulling a face, fluffed up her hair and posed, mouth open and ready to engulf the eel.

‘Would you mind, Colin?’

Elizabeth beckoned the Cockney into the shot and he happily joined the young couple. The presence of the press was attracting attention to his cart, and a
picture in the local rag was always good for business. Indeed, Colin had appeared in any number of provincial newspapers and was quite a recognisable figure on the county fair circuit.

‘Ooh, it’s tough, isn’t it?’ the young girl said several photographs later when Elizabeth encouraged her to actually eat the eel.

‘What’s it taste like?’ her boyfriend asked.

‘Nothing really.’ She chewed harder. ‘It’s like eating rubber … ergh.’ She looked around for somewhere to spit, but with the photographer nearby decided to swallow instead, nearly gagging as she did so.

Colin rapidly returned to his cart and his customers, wishing the girl would bugger off. It’s a bleedin’ eel, he thought, what did the daft cow expect?

Elizabeth ushered the couple to one side. ‘So how did you feel about the ceremony?’ she asked.

‘Well, it’s who we really are, isn’t it?’ The young man, like his girlfriend, was eager to make an impression and he said all the things he thought the reporter might want to hear. ‘A grand military history … proud to be British …’

Elizabeth jotted down several quotes, which she thought would look apt beside a picture of the couple with the Cockney and his jellied eels, but it was time to move on. She’d explored the civilians’ reaction to the day, now she needed the military point of view. Twenty minutes later, she realised just what an uphill battle she was facing. The hundreds upon hundreds of soldiers now mingling with the crowd seemed to belong to two categories only.

‘Ah yes, good show, wasn’t it,’ said the major, and the colonel, and the others of senior rank whom she
approached. They posed happily enough for Walter, but the moment she attempted to interview them their manner became patronising and dismissive. ‘Yes, yes, very good show indeed. Excellent turnout all round.’ Then, one by one, they proceeded to ignore her. Elizabeth came to the conclusion that they found her confronting. They felt threatened to be seen publicly taking a female member of the press seriously, she decided, and she rather pitied them their insecurity.

The other category treated her just as frivolously and, in Elizabeth’s opinion, was even more irritating.

‘An interview? Of course. Shall we go somewhere a bit more private?’ The leer was unmistakable. One brash young corporal even gave Walter a comradely wink and a jerk of the head that said
get lost
, intimating they both knew this was too good an opportunity for any red-blooded male to resist. Walter, always protective, and a little in love with Elizabeth although he’d never let her know it, wanted to attack the man. But he didn’t. They’d encountered insulting behaviour before and Elizabeth preferred to handle things her own way. Her methods invariably proved successful, so Walter left it to her.

This time, however, Elizabeth was at a loss. She’d become confident interviewing men on a one-to-one basis. Her fierce intelligence quickly convinced those who would patronise her that she was not their intellectual inferior, and her wit was an instant dampener to the Casanovas who assumed she was easy game. But she had never been assigned a job interviewing men en masse in an area where they were obviously conscious of how they were being perceived by other men. She scribbled down several observations. It
was a very interesting topic for a future article, she thought, albeit highly controversial and therefore probably unpublishable.

‘Excuse me. May I be of assistance?’ The voice, with a slight Midlands accent, was pleasing in tone, and the manner respectful.

Elizabeth looked up from her notepad. The two pips on the young man’s shoulder informed her that his rank was that of lieutenant. But for how long, she wondered. He couldn’t be more than twenty. Pleasant-looking, fair-haired, little more than a boy really; she’d bet her last shilling he was fresh out of military school.

‘Of assistance in what way precisely?’ she asked, her voice clipped, her message clear. The younger, the brasher, she’d found. No doubt several of his army chums were nearby, nudging and winking.

‘Well, you’re press, aren’t you?’ The young man darted a glance at Walter. ‘And you’re interviewing people …’ Or
trying
to, he thought. He’d been watching Elizabeth for quite some time and felt sorry for the way she’d been fobbed off or leered at. It didn’t seem fair to him. ‘I’m happy for you to interview me if you like.’ She was scrutinising him so closely, he felt a little uncomfortable. ‘That is, if it’d be any help,’ he finished lamely.

‘It would be a
great
help, Lieutenant, thank you very much.’ Elizabeth, recognising he was sincere, smiled warmly and offered her hand. ‘I’m Elizabeth Hoffmann from
The Courier-Mail
, and this is Walter Barnes.’

‘Daniel Gardiner, how do you do.’ By golly, she was a looker, he thought.

They shook hands all round.

‘Shall we have a cup of tea?’ Elizabeth led the way over to the trestle tables and urns, where army wives were selling tin mugs of tea and shortbread biscuits for threepence, proceeds to go to the Widows and Orphans Fund.

‘No, no,’ she insisted as they got to the end of the queue and Daniel dug in his pocket for change, ‘
The Courier-Mail
takes care of all incidentals.’

Daniel looked at Walter. It didn’t seem at all right that a woman should pay, but Walter just shrugged and nodded. He was eager to get his mug of tea and take off. Elizabeth didn’t need him for the moment, and there was a wealth of photographs yet to be taken.
The Courier-Mail
intended to accompany Elizabeth’s feature story with a pictorial souvenir lift-out section devoted entirely to Aldershot’s military centennial celebrations.

‘So tell me about yourself, Lieutenant,’ Elizabeth said when Walter had gone and they’d settled themselves in the only two spare canvas chairs at the far end of one of the trestle tables. ‘How long have you been stationed in Aldershot?’

‘Only a few months,’ he replied. ‘I graduated from Sandhurst just last year.’

‘Ah.’ She gave a nod and smiled, inwardly congratulating herself. ‘I thought so.’

‘It shows that much, does it?’

‘Well, yes, it does rather. You’re very young.’

‘Twenty’s not that young. Not when it comes to a war.’ There was no belligerence in his tone, but he was quite firmly correcting her. ‘Men much younger than me have died for this country.’

‘Oh.’ Elizabeth felt instantly contrite. ‘Oh God, how awful of me.’ She’d just treated him in the very same manner she herself so detested. ‘I didn’t mean to patronise. I’m sorry, Lieutenant.’

‘You didn’t patronise, and you don’t need to be sorry, and the name’s Daniel.’ He grinned, eager to put her at her ease. ‘No offence taken, I assure you. But if you really want to make amends …’ He looked at her hopefully. ‘Do I get to call you Elizabeth?’

She laughed. His boyishness was disarming and she was thankful to be so easily forgiven. ‘Elizabeth it is.’ Then her manner briskly reverted to that of interviewer. ‘So, Daniel, you’re with what unit?’ she asked, pencil poised over notepad.

‘I’m actually with the Royal Army Service Corps. Transport.’

She noted it down. ‘And you were posted here to Aldershot direct from the Academy?’

‘That’s right. How about you?’

‘I beg your pardon?’ She looked up.

‘Are you from Aldershot?’ She didn’t look like a country girl, he thought.

‘No. I’m from London.’

‘Oh. Right.’ Well, that made more sense. ‘So why’d you pick Aldershot?’ He was genuinely intrigued. ‘I mean, Aldershot of all places – seems strange to me.’

‘Why don’t
I
ask the questions,’ she said firmly, but not unkindly. He didn’t appear to be flirting, indeed she found him most pleasant, but wiser to keep things on track, she thought.

‘Sorry.’ He shrugged apologetically. ‘It’s just that I’ve never met a female reporter before, and it’s really interesting. I wondered why you chose Aldershot, that’s all.’

‘I didn’t. Aldershot chose me.’ There was something so ingenuous about young Daniel Gardiner that Elizabeth felt a sudden obligation to give an honest answer. ‘The editor of
The Courier-Mail
is a brave, modern-thinking man who believes in allowing a woman journalist a chance.’ She recalled the steady stream of rejections she’d received from the other provincial editors to whom she’d sent applications – over fifty in all. ‘Believe me, there are many who don’t.’

‘Oh, I see.’

Daniel did. From the candour of her response, and the flash of rebellion in her eyes, Daniel saw a great deal. Elizabeth Hoffmann was not only good-looking, she was intelligent and tenacious and downright fascinating. He put his mug on the table and leaned forward on his elbows, keen to discover more. ‘What made you want to become a journalist, Elizabeth?’

But the boyish enthusiasm didn’t work a second time. In his eagerness, he’d just overstepped the mark.

‘Let’s get on with the interview, shall we?’

The brief glimpse Elizabeth had allowed was over. The shutters were down and it was back to business.

‘Yes, of course. Sorry.’

He sat up, straight-backed and duly chastised, but already wondering what possible tack he could take that might afford him another glimpse. He wanted to get to know Elizabeth Hoffmann.

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