In which the author of My Days with Millicent, Gilmore Tamny, plays “Cartoon Soundtrack in Search of a Cartoon” at O’Brien’s Pub in Boston
In this installment of MDwM: The machinations of her new job at the Gazette, enjoys the liberation of anonymity, hears finally from Millicent, and, most unexpectedly evolution to the cherished advice columnist, Dear Auntie
When I recall those first few months at the Gazette, I think of the smell that pervaded the offices: cigarette and pipe smoke, discarded tea leaves, damp wool, hair pomade, a hint of mothballs, dust, new paper, the tang of sea air that was forced through the creaky windows on gusty days, and always, underneath, the lingering scent of newsprint. If metal could be cut open to reveal blood, I believe the smell would be that of the newspaper ink. It came in different vintages, from the basement where the archives were kept, tinged with musty odor, to the piles of the last weeks, pungent and chemical.
Within a few weeks at the Gazette I found myself reasonably comfortable with the production end, including the wiles of idiosyncratic typesetting machines and editorial eccentricities that I suspected had been carried over from earlier centuries. I liked watching the paper’s progression and took satisfaction putting out the minor fires of grammatical and factual errors. Sometimes my hands ached from typing, or my eyes felt wilted in their sockets after a day of proofreading, but I rarely found it drudgery; I imagined Millicent watching, shaking her head with bemused derision as I tidied up pages with my blue pencil.
My greatest adjustment perhaps was to get accustomed to the noise. The Foreign Office had been a quiet place: people murmured, opening and shutting the file cabinets with care; even the typewriters had a discrete sound to them. Here, voices had to be raised to be heard over the incessant clatter of typewriters, a clamor of Northern accents mixing with Scotch and a few Irish; the sharp clap of Oxfords and heels on linoleum, the shrill call of the tea kettle, the ringing of the phones, the rat-tat of the telegraph, the whistling errand boys, the thump of the mailbags and the far away basso profundo of the press churning out the next days paper. Sometimes there was a sudden, curious pause, where everything stilled in unison, a precarious silence, which teetered for a moment, only to fall back into a steady, good-natured bedlam.
The rest of the copy-editing department consisted of three Mrs. Haddlesomes; June and Beryl, widows of various Haddlesomes and in I guessed to be in their fifties; and Ethyl who had had the distinction of being a Haddlesome both by birth and by marriage to a distant cousin and perhaps in her late forties. Models of silent and wondrous efficiency, they seemed relieved to find me as industrious as themselves, for if anyone slacked, the work had a tendency to grow hideously quickly, like mushrooms. I, in turn, was delighted to find they were reserved, unprobing sorts of persons. While a congenial atmosphere prevailed, one where we fetched each other tea, pencils and carbons, alerted one another to the arrival of Mr. Mochrai, and pitched in whenever a hand was needed, we had little of the gossipy clustering at each other’s desks that I saw in other departments. They referred to me as Miss Bertram and I, to each of them, as Mrs. Haddlesome; I came to have a certain inflection for each and there was a remarkable lack of confusion over to whom I was referring.
The Haddlesomes used an impregnable fortress of good manners to combat Mr. Mochrai, who was proving to be the only genuine bit of unpleasantness at the Gazette. Having found a small error, he would enter the office, puffing on his vile pipe, and unleash an arsenal of rhetorical questions that insinuated we were a lot of foolish ladies and not worth the money we were paid. I rather think he wanted to see us collapse into tears followed by pleas for forgiveness for which he could be grudgingly magnanimous. I suspected this sort of thing might have been enacted frequently at Mr. Mochrai’s last position. That the Haddlesomes refusal to be drawn into this little drama must have infuriated him, and proved very unsatisfying. And, more to the point, it was rare the fault was ours, something which in no way seemed to mitigate his umbrage. Mr. Mochrai had a reputation for tough-minded fairness amongst the reporters at the Gazette, and for helping a lad get a leg up; I’d heard more than one speak admiringly of this willingness to do this, but we saw little if any of this virtue.
There was an incident, where an honest if minor error had appeared by one of the columnists. The ensuing scene where Mr. Mochrai held forth to the Mrs. Haddlesomes in self-righteous lather was met with a polite if obdurate silence, until he finished, when June pointed out that the author had insisted we keep the text as it was. Faced with this, he was silenced and stalked out in disgust. I glanced at Ethel, the oldest Haddlesome, and my favorite. She wore her graying blond hair in an upsweep, a tiny tower of coiffure that reminded me, somehow, of the ornate wigs of the French court in miniature and seemed to emphasize the subtlety of her gestures. Crushing out her cigarette, she gave the slyest sort of wink you can imagine, and inserted a new carbon into her typewriter, the tilt of her towering of teased hair somehow heavily ironical. I swallowed a grin.
You spend much of your life imagining what it might be to have some wordless understanding with another; I, like many, have always saw this possibility embodied in a lover, walking along a cliff some gloomy Sunday afternoon holding hands and exchanging a glance, recognizing the irony of such brooding weather when one is feeling so cozily in accord with another. While I had been comprehended by Millicent, and to a degree that I didn’t realize for many years—that is to say, perfectly—I hadn’t, however, understood her in turn, and that is another thing altogether. It was only working in a cramped, dusty office in a village in the Northern end of England with these three about whose lives I knew almost nothing that I would experience the only version I this phenomenon I would ever know.
I returned home from the Gazette at night pleasantly tired, and slip on a dressing gown, a frivolous crimson velvet affair with a good deal of silk ribbons. I poured myself a glass of wine or a cocktail and settled into the quiet of my flat, a quiet which became a sort of companion in and of itself after the cacophony of the paper. I might read a magazine, bathe or water the plants.
Eventually the necessity for supper could no longer be ignored and I’d consume a meat pie I’d picked up at the shops or some tinned broth and a piece of fruit, pudding sometimes too, if I remembered. I became careful not to miss meals; and to eat more than the pathetic dibs and dabs I had in London. Following dinner, coffee and cigarette; I left most the washing up for the help I’d engaged, a local woman, a widow whose taciturnity suited me admirably, as she had no more desire for friendly chats than I.
The post would have arrived and I’d sort through the odd bill, the copy of LOOK, Ladies Fashion Quarterly, Picture Post, and Vogue. I’d kept my promise to Mrs. Cleavus and sent fifteen pounds, placed between two pieces of cardboard in a thick envelope, to the ‘O’ every month. After supper, I read newspapers or magazines or even a book. I’ve no recollection how the books came into my possession perhaps the newsroom, where a box of well-thumbed novels sat in an informal library system, a carryover from the war when new reading material had been something to be cherished. Then, as night settled in, I turned on the wireless. Eventually I would to go to the extravagance of a television set, but often as not, found myself using it more it like a wireless as I wandered over to the table by the window to play patience, or, varnish my nails or wait for a facial mask to harden.
Such acts of vanity had become a regular routine. With the zeal of the convert, I had tossed out face flannels and government-issue soap, amassing a collection of glass jars, ointments, creams, muds, and tinctures, as well as loofahs, orange sticks, emery boards and the like. They sat on my dressing bureau, reminding me of the votive round a shrine, not, as it might sound, to my own pulchritude, real or imagined, but to the endeavor of beauty as a ceremony in and of itself.
I don’t know what prompted me to respond to the ad that appeared faithfully every week at the back of the Gazette: READERS of ALL AGES: Want to learn a foreign language? Make new friends? Join STARKWRIGHT’S INTERNATIONAL PEN PAL CLUB! A subscription for life! Only one pound three! Probably some reminder of Nice—a frock, an advert for a bottle of scent—and on a lark, I wrote to the address, envisioning correspondence with a respectable Parisian doyen or some elderly gentleman living out his years in the French region of Arab states.
I’d forgotten the impulse the moment I put the letter in the post, for it took me a good few minutes to ascertain why, a month later, I received a letter from a Bourdon housewife named Claire. She introduced herself in somewhat garbled English that somehow managed to sound off-hand rather than clumsy. I replied in French, and so began our correspondence. Amidst chronicling her days of housewifery, Claire wrote with breathtakingly casual frankness of her boredom with her husband and general dissatisfaction with the course of her life. I sensed Claire might not be reading my missives or was perhaps simply too self-absorbed to reply to the content of them, as she never did. She kept me abreast of local gossip, without bothering to explain who anybody was, and debated the pros and cons of having an affair with her priest. But I didn’t mind the lack of dialogue. A natural writer, Claire’s missives even on cooking artichokes or basting the hem of a frock had vividness and humor, all the more startling, really, when one saw how little effort she had put into them.
After a few months, Claire grew impatient with the laboriousness of English and continued our correspondence in French, forgetting, I believe, the original purpose of the exercise. I wondered sometimes if I had fused in her imagination with some person she’d met on holiday or some childhood friend, one she half-remembered in-between managing the kiddies, preparing le boeuf, washing her husband’s clothes.
My flat’s location outside the village gave me a nice buffer against the obligations of village life, but few things could have allowed me privacy quite like my disinclination to worship. So many whist drives and jumble sales, Easter fetes, Whitsunday lunches, alter guilds and choirs to join in Redding; not to mention the charities for African babies, unemployed factory workers, refugees, indigents and the ever-present war veteran’s drives. I often thought fondly of Miss Caruthers pulling round the Helvstead driveway when I heard church bells ringing on Sundays, but felt no urge to service myself.
If, however, I hadn’t demonstrated my respectability, an important commodity in a village even in the middle of the twentieth century, my absence from church might have caused unpleasantness. Early on, I had been closely watched for signs of being man-mad or alcoholic by subtle and not-so-subtle means—eyes probing my purchases at the shops, the postmistresses lingering over a package from London, the occasional interrogation by a tactless elderly widow—but they found little on which to speculate. So many had lost husbands and sons in the war, being on my own, I was less of an oddity than I might have been. The time and expense I put into my clothes and appearance was clucked over, and not quite approved of, but the only really satisfying gossip I generated came from the amount of coal I purchased to keep my flat warm, the inhabitants of Redding-On-Sea being an economizing lot. I rather shocked them.
From time to time I would see Mr. Gull jotting about village in his incongruously sporty car. He was hardly the Byronic type, with his gaunt El Greco lines and somber air, but somehow through one of those configurations of line and form, I thought, he was almost handsome. He gave me a grave, courteous nod whenever he passed.
Even if I had settled, I saw no reason I must entirely stop the aimlessness that had led me to Redding. I’d pack a bag and drive a few hours, longer if I liked, having heard of antique or dress shop, or just till I found a pleasant place to stay overnight. I did so under the name Ms. Bertram; but also Mrs. Bertram, Mrs. Ralph Arbuthnot, Miss Bertram or Miss Arbuthnot; they were a bit slack about identity cards outside the cities. I would sit in the lobby in some old-fashioned hotel, reading the paper, listening the quiet tick of the clock, deliciously aware no one in the world knew where I was. I took day trips as well, but these were a different affair, with a different purpose, and always to the same place.
Since returning to England, I’d managed to keep track of Martin D’Avingnon. His position in the schools and my willingness to prevaricate had made that easy enough. He lived two hours drive away, in a small populous sea-side village called Barmal-in-Furness, which, like Redding-on-Sea, even in the off-season, had its tourists, which minimized the conspicuousness of a stranger. I might drive to Barmal, park my car and watch the square, reading the paper, hoping to catch a glimpse of him. I sat in the park or on the benches by the sea; occasionally I ventured into the shops, I didn’t go to great lengths to disguise myself, but simply wearing sunglasses, a Millicent-shade of carmine lip rouge, and a scarf tied round my hair, transformed me well enough. Anyway, how quickly Miss Bright might have faded from his memories. I tried to conjure the circumstances where I might come to mind; some travel poster, a picture of Millicent of the paper, perhaps, but even this seemed very unlikely.
I thought of him often since I’d returned. And when I did, in an almost dreamlike-fashion, he always wore the same dark suit he had in Nice, as I imagined him shaving, going to bed, eating, bathing, having a pint at the pub. Perhaps he’d gotten engaged since I’d seen him last; perhaps Helene, that voluptuous blond I’d seen him arguing with in the streets of Nice had arrived and was causing a scandal in Barmal. Perhaps he left. Perhaps a local girl had caught his fancy.
And I did see him a few times, coming out of the market or the barber once, running to his car in storm, unmistakable, but somehow never quite how I imagined him. I didn’t, as I knew I wouldn’t, call out to him. But oddly I didn’t feel anything particularly, really. I was simply there to watch.
As the months passed, it seemed a natural thing, losing touch with Millicent, regrettable perhaps, but inevitable. Our time seemed of the long past, years rather than months ago. I found it particularly hard to imagine life before deadlines. They became the regular march, the beat of my days.
Autumn passed, and soon enough came winter filled with cold, slanting rain, a freezing mist that could penetrate the warmest of gloves and fog than seemed to enwrap around oneself like a burnoose. While I had a wool coat made, smartly cut, with matching gloves and hat, someday, I thought, with a shiver of pleasure, I will buy myself a mink coat.
So: I had settled. But really, what excitement is there, an unmarried woman neither young nor old, living out a quiet life in a village on the Northern coast? A pleasant thing, perhaps, if not very interesting, but not one that could explain the intensity of the pleasure, even the occasional exultation I experienced. Much of this feeling of well-being could be attributed to my newfound solvency; and having freedoms so absent from my earlier life did make me nearly giddy sometimes. But this exaltation belonged to another simple fact: we had gotten away with it.
If someone has never truly gotten away with something, and perhaps it needs to be a sizeable transgression, at least, within the perimeters of their own lives, it is probably difficult to express how even the most banal activity can be infused with this peculiarly rich delight. There is relief, of course, of a sort that nearly overwhelms, but relief, even overwhelming relief, rarely lasts particularly long.
This was something else again. So many people were about me, deep into the business of their lives, working, motoring, shopping, rearing their children, and none of them, not a one, knew! And there it was, this secret with me, in me: I’d colluded in a man’s murder, watching exposure loom ever closer and then recede just as quickly, luck having been kind when it by all rights might have been most cruel.
I swam through the hours of a day, with no pressure to surface, each moment voluptuous, singular, not to be snatched at, full of every freedom. For not only in the outer world was this getting away with it true, but in the confines of my own mind as well. I had remarkable little guilt: no telltale heart, no regret, no unbidden memories seizing me at odd hours, not even so much as the occasional nightmare. I had taken Millicent’s pills as insurance, waiting for the arrival of my Christian conscience, like a steam train, pouring furious smoke and grinding me under its wheels. Yet it never did.
The only discernable consequence I had was, occasionally, going about my business in Redding-on-Sea having the feeling that I was living in medias re, which is to say: it was as if one day Mona Bertram had fallen out of the sky with no past, no particular future, just each day to be lived anew, and exactly as I wanted. I felt slippery, unreachable, in a place life, with its inevitable dreariness of illness or boredom or heartbreak, couldn’t catch. I wasn’t lonely that first year at Redding. How could I be when, for the first time, I truly had myself for a companion?
I remember one of my aimless trips in particular. It was a weekend, that first November in Redding, I’d wound my way up near to the northern border, but, as I made my way home, fog had begun creeping in stealthily, from the ground, like poison gas under a door. The road vanished. I pulled over and fell asleep, dreaming in lavish detail of being lost in the Sahara, but with none of the attendant anxieties one might imagine, only a strange unhurried detachment. I woke to cramped limbs, night moving in, and the fog having thickened still further.
As it grew darker a nimbus of light began to materialize. Sliding on my Wellingtons, I tramped up an embankment, thinking I might find a house. I heard the stutter of penned sheep before I bumped into a stone fence and found myself looking at several hundred bedewed wooly backs. The light, I deduced, emanated from a lantern hanging on the outside of the barn; it looked artful and unreal, the mist swirling hazily in an iridescent areole. I called but only a disquieted shuffling and squelching of muddy hooves came in reply. I glanced back to where the car would have been if I could see it, and, after a moment, wedged my way through to the barn. I found a ladder and climbed up to a loft, made myself a little bed of straw, pulling a tarp, having a starchy smell of hay and sunshine, over my shoulders, and to my surprise, slept.
I emerged out of the barn into a bright chill to find the morning free of both fog and sheep, and for a moment, thought my car had disappeared as well, until I remembered the embankment I’d climbed, which hid its outline. The farmer wouldn’t know I was there. My footprints from the night before would be erased under hoof. There would be no trace. I followed along a line of hay and stone, so my Wellingtons never touched the mud. I had come and gone leaving no trace.
At the Gazette on Monday, watching my co-workers chatting in the canteen, recounting their weekends, it occurred to me how much of my life was secret. I felt a frisson of pleasure run up my spine and got up to retrieve my own share of the watery tea and biscuits.
“And how about you Miss Bertram? How was your weekend?”
“Very quiet, thank you,” I smiled and returned to the Haddlesomes.
I didn’t get much correspondence besides my French pen pal Claire’s epistles of domestic ennui, (recently enlivened by reports that an affair with her priest had indeed commenced), so one bleak afternoon in December when I found a card addressed to me amidst the post, I thought it might be for the previous tenants. Pouring a drink, I sat down, and opened the envelope to find a Christmas Dove on it holding a holly bough in its beak. In her curious dark slashing handwriting Millicent had written:
So. Yuletide Greetings and suchlike. A bunch of rot, and the very worst, but I suppose it must be said, however much one loathes it. Siegel says you’ve settled and are working at some rickety paper up North. Hope it’s not too dreadful.
I’ve bad news, from which, unseasonably, I’ll not shield you: Molly has had a nasty stroke. Keeled over a few months ago. Bad, but she gurgles enough that the doctor thinks she ought to be able to make something of a recovery. It happened when the movers came for the things Siegel arranged for you. I’d sent Molly’s nurse a letter to inform her of this but she refused to hear it, as any mention of me, much less a letter is verboten since my marrying “that Papist.” So it came as a surprise, and more than the old system could bear apparently. The doctor said it was only a matter of time, so you’re not to imagine this is a reproach. Not to mention you were much less greedy than you could have been. Provocative old horror—really, I’m quite sure she did it to spite me. It would be just like her. I went to visit Monday last, took ages in the pelting wet, but she refused to see me. Can you imagine?
On to other, if no less ludicrous topics: the ‘house’ Henry purchased—he sends you his regards by the way—is as I remembered—perfectly ghastly. It is expected I shall ‘make something of it.’ All that training of Mummy’s finally coming the fore—murder will out, you might say. A place like this really is like some awful sort of dare, I’m not sure Henry quite knows what he’s getting himself into. Still, it’s should keep me occupied for a few years, and perhaps prevent me turning into one of these countrywomen with such terrible clothes, wearing tweeds and brogues and smelling of dog.
Henry has had the chapel on the property consecrated and has poached a priest from London. I believe it is the thought of my soul that makes him look so calf-sick most days, but I’m not certain. Never go to Italy on your honeymoon, Ramona; it was a hideous mistake. I assume you are well and prospering. Write if you should ever need anything.
p.s. Hotel St. Juste have sent Siegel & Siegel a very polite but firm letter—it seems they are missing one of the Count’s icons. I thought you might have had your eye on it. Compensation has been offered. You are incorrigible, Ramona.
I slid my pumps back on, and braved the icy night to drive to the stationers. I bought the most expensive card, a rather unusually somber picture of Saint Nicholas, and returned to the car. I dated it two days earlier. I wrote as if blithely unaware of her news, touched on Redding, my new flat, the Gazette and the Haddlesomes, till I ran out of space, and unwilling to sign Ramona—I’d found Mona Bertram suited me just fine— I used my initials instead. Sealing the envelope and stamping it I stopped off at the post box, then I drove home, relieved to have disposed of the task.
Christmas came, as Christmas will. I joined the Mrs. Haddlesomes in the cellar of their parish, St. Michael’s, which emitted a homely perfume of boiled cabbage, floor polish and sea damp. Paraded in on a series of battered silver platters, came the requisite goose, Brussels sprouts, roast potatoes, mince pie, and plum puddings. We had quite a lively afternoon culminating with Christmas crackers and then myself and the Mrs. Haddlesomes, still wearing our paper hats, exchanging a few small gifts.
I returned home late afternoon, poured myself a glass of brandy and turned on the wireless. A light, ineffectual snow had started and the sea churned a little, as if in response. It often seemed as if the sea and the sky having such conversations, speaking in an inscrutable language of their own, willing the other to some new course of action. The smoke from my cigarette disappeared almost immediately into the half-light, so grey and diffuse and weighty, it seemed you could mold with your hands. I put the slice of plum pudding the Haddlesome’s had insisted I take home on a plate. I doused the pudding, and lit it, watching the blue flames eating its way into the dim, until it, too, flickered and died as the last light of that afternoon. Really, at that moment, I didn’t want for anything.
At one time the Gazette had a section designated the Women’s Page. It had been done away with during the war, and never returned because of Mr. Mochrai’s particular loathing for it. But now, as I heard from a junior editor, often quite candid after returning from luncheons and breathing hard cider, Mr. Mochrai was being pressured to reinstate it by readers, and more importantly, advertisers.
At that time, the Woman’s Page had little to work with: Lady Dyson Cavart reported the society column, but she, being a fantastic snob, as well suited her position, could hardly be approached for stories concerning a less rarified sphere than the balls, hunts and galas she regularly haunted. A Mrs. Wyvern occasionally wrote for the Gazette as well, and her exclusive focus was on that of the maternal sphere, with suggestions for colicky babies and early amalgamations of the alphabet, would be well-suited, but with her own five offspring, she had no interest or time to pen anything further. The prospect provided good fodder for canteen gossip: would Mochrai agree? Whose columns would it encroach on? Who would write it? Several reporters minced about, pretending to be giddy with excitement about a new style of hat or suggesting techniques for roast duck or spinning imaginary copy for girdle advertisements.
While the internecine politics of the Woman’s Page fermented, I attended a flower show, wrote up a three hundred word piece, and deposited it in a junior editor’s box. I did this not out of recognition that a chance to make my mark was afoot, but to irk Mr. Mochrai. The previous week, he had made an unpleasant remark about Ethel Haddlesome, implying she’d allowed an embarrassing mistake to run. It wasn’t Ethel’s fault, but the typesetter’s, which had already been established privately. But while he was fully aware of this, he went on to excoriate the rest of our little department to several of the junior editors and reporters. Perhaps it was because of the difficulties with the printers that week (considerable) or distress in his personal life, (he’d been heard arguing with his wife about his adult son, who was, as we said in those days, ‘mentally deficient’). But as a copyreader and editor, Ethel was incomparable, and worked too assiduously to have her reputation impinged. We had enough troubles with the writers—a tetchy, fretful, nervous bunch—as it was.
The following week Mr. Mochrai took me aside to say I had shocked him with the amateurism of my poor writing not to mention the temerity of a lady copy editor presuming to do such a thing. I think he’d been surprised at how little ruffled I was; if ambition had been the impulse behind it, rather than an urge to nettle, perhaps it might have; but, instead, I had the further pleasure of seeing him aggravated that his set-down found no mark.
The article, however, appeared three days later, in a two-inch square of type, next to Dear Auntie. I wrote two other pieces after that, in the most gushing style I could manage, imagining the grinding of Mr. Mochrai’s teeth. I profiled a dress shop, and tested new lip rouge that promised to wear for ten hours. Would these pieces, despite Mr. Mochrai’s pronouncement of their “egregiously inferior technique,” appear in the paper? Would Mr. Mochrai’s disgust of things he deemed frivolous be trumped by the practicality necessary of an editor? My articles reappeared on my desk, seared with red-pencil. Yet, again, both ran. I hadn’t been offered a penny and I resisted the urge to give him either of the next two I readied, although I let it drop to his junior editor I had them at my desk. The Haddlesomes and I were ticking away with our blue pencils at the day’s galleys when I was summoned to Mr. Mochrai’s office.
“All right,” he said, as I sat in the chair he motioned to with a heavily ironical gesture of chivalry. “You can go on with your—” he seemed to be searching for words. “Bits. Your bits.”
I raised my eyebrows.
“You know, all that nonsense you’ve been writing,” he said irritably. “You’re still expected to do your editing, mind you. We don’t tolerate any slackness here. But you’ll be expected to go on with it. Interviews, profiles, ‘featurettes,’ ” he grimaced in incalculable disdain. “All of it. You’re expected to do a good lot of the women’s page, so here I am telling you so.”
The idea of being a reporter seemed absurd, and leaving the cozy little room with the Haddlesomes not particularly unappealing. I was about to say so when Mr. Mochrai spoke again.
“Just don’t come blatting to me, when you cock-up,” he said and then shuddered. “And I’m not going to hold your hand, for every story about rosebuds and feminine protection and breast feeding or what have you, so I’ll thank you for not asking.”
I looked at him for a moment: his silky white hair, his mutinous expression, and the sullen, blocky collapse of his shoulders.
“Yes, Mr. Mochrai,” I said. “That will suit me rather well, in fact.”
I think he had finally sussed out the essential lack of ambition behind my efforts, and having called my hand, expected me to fold, or at least make some protestation; the ease of my acceptance took him aback. I rose, as did he, his face sour, mine with a serenely polite smile.
“It’s not covering Parliament for the Times or even Fleet Street, Miss Bertram; you best remember that. Don’t overextend yourself.”
“I shall try not to,” I said. “Thank you, Mr. Mochrai.”
So, begat in a moment of irritated perversity, something like a career was born.
Over the next year I would cover jumble sales, shop openings, estate closures, fetes, auctions and every variety of church function. There was the occasional visit of a minor celebrity: a vice-chancellor’s wife, a local Redding girl who’d gotten a part in a film in America, a famed and somewhat feared author of infant pedagogy. Experts, or the closest that could be found to pass for one, were consulted (and even, on occasion, fabricated) vis-à-vis personal hygiene, gloves, finding a suitable hairdresser, a “romantic dinner of coq au vin any wife can make,” the preferred method for mushy peas. I profiled suggested firming exercises, tested new breeds of rouge and face powder and reported on the virtues of fabrics for frocks vs. upholstery, curtains vs. tablecloths. I made suggestions for updating hats, a few superlatively ludicrous, some rather good. I interviewed parish women on alter arrangements and found a local florist who would, with promise of his shop name in print, come up with a “Tip of the Month” for “those at home aspiring to the professional look.” I contributed a few remarkables to the monthly Remarkable Women series started during the war and continued because of its popularity, including a Mrs. Dixon who invented a garter that never snagged, and a Mrs. Porter whose receipt for tarts required neither flour nor sugar nor fruit and was called a godsend by many during the war.
Ethel Haddlesome had read widely on cookery, from Escoffier to Elizabeth David, and something of an amateur gourmand. At my urging, she wrote a few articles, with receipts. The other Haddlesomes began to contribute: reminiscences, knitting projects, economizing suggestions, household tips and quite good cocktail receipts. All told, with free-lancers, a Woman’s Page began to emerge as a regular feature by the autumn of the next year.
I had no delusions about the material. I knew it not of vital importance, although the tone I was encouraged to strike conveyed as much. But in the smaller corners of life, at least I can say, some of it was useful. Several times passing by a window of a home, or lunching at the pub, or at a teashop, I saw a woman scissoring out an article from the Women’s Page. No matter what Mr. Mochrai said, I’d never seen anyone do that with the rest of the paper.
My stint as a journalist might have gone on so for several more years—I think I might have wearied of it eventually—but then, an opportunity arose as opportunity often does, when one isn’t in the least looking for it. That winter I became, in my most unexpected evolution, one, in some ways, more unexpected than even a murderous collusion, Dear Auntie. There I found success, a full ‘career,’ as the modern parlance would say, but, more importantly, through it, I found my way back to Millicent.
Gilmore Tamny is a writer and musician who lives in Somerville, MA. She has a tumblr of line drawings here.