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Saturday, 16 September 2017

Phone Shy!

From the moment I started work I was filled with enthusiasm for my position as a junior shorthand typist at Messrs. Francis, Day & Hunter of 138 Charing Cross Road, even if it was only in the Copyright Department. To be honest, for those as star-struck as myself, the only Department that might have been more boring was the Packing Department where Bill and Cyril packed sheet music to be sent to Theatres and Music Shops far and wide but the very possibility, faint though it was, that I might catch a glimpse of a celebrity was intoxicating. In the interim I was to type letters for Mr Roy and Mr Paul, advising theatres whether they could use various pieces of music in productions they were planning which in theory should have been interesting but actually wasn’t. I also did the filing which I could never quite get the hang of and therefore I did it in a most haphazard manner as was discovered whenever anyone tried to find documents after I left the Company ten months later. The Head of Department was Mr Blackburn and his secretary was called Pat and she typed more important and interesting letters than I did. Pat told me that she was engaged to someone called Norman who lived in the same street in Pinner and when she Got Married and Started a Family, if my work was acceptable I might well move into her place and actually become Secretary to Mr. Blackburn.

The Copyright Department was almost at the top of the old building, the only people working above us were the Arrangers in the tiny attic rooms, and Flo from Hackney, the lady who made the teas and coffees for us all. To get to my desk each day I had to pass by the terribly exciting Professional Department on the first floor where Stella was receptionist and Olive typed for Mr Bert Corri and Mr Tommy Sands played the piano for singers who dropped in throughout the day to practice various numbers. From time to time Stella and Olive chattered together in the Ladies Room on the ground floor and casually mentioned the Famous and Renowned, names like Frankie Vaughan and The Stargazers, they who apparently popped in and out of the place exchanging confidences with this fortunate duo. Simply to be allowed to listen in on these conversations was totally thrilling and I envied them with all my heart and wondered if they too might be considering leaving to Get Married & Start Families in the near future. However, in the meantime I reminded myself how very fortunate I was to be working for such a notable organization and pitied those squashed up against me on the fast trains who, like my poor school-friend Shirley, worked in Typing Pools for Shipping Companies. I also took care to buy copies of the New Musical Express from time to time which I read in a showy manner just so that fellow commuters might notice and be impressed.

I was in no doubt that I belonged within that heady strata of Fame and Fortune myself and to comfort and support my ego until my Big Break arrived I very soon reverted to the recently abandoned habit of invented families and to this end on my third day in the Copyright Department I changed my name from Jean which was oh so boring - to Toni which was oh so avant garde. When I was asked by Mr Blackburn, Pat presumably being too polite, how it was I came by a name that differed completely from that stated on my brand new employment record card I laughed in what I hoped was a nonchalant manner and said that my real name was Antoinette in honour of my father Antoine who had been a Resistance Fighter in France and died at the end of the war. Since his death I had usually been known by the diminutive Toni. My full baptismal name was Antoinette Jeanne-Marie, shortened to Jean at school by the nuns. Whether or not this unlikely tale was believed I have no idea. Mr. Blackburn looked as if he wished he had not asked in the first place but at once obligingly began to call me Toni. What a thrill! It would obviously not take too long to become a Household Name.

I was half considering awarding Toni a mother called Kate, a retired actress, living in a neo Georgian house overlooking the Thames just outside of Gravesend with her much younger husband called Benedict recently acquired whilst holidaying in Cannes when the Phone Shy problem inconveniently cropped up. It was a pity because I had most of the details concerning the family organized. Kate’s bedroom was to be pleasingly decorated in pink and gold as was her equally impressive en-suite bathroom and it must be realized that this was at a time when en-suite facilities were not every-day routine features. There were huge cupboards along an entire wall to hold her vast wardrobe of cocktail dresses and casual linen slacks. Even Toni had her own room and en- suite though decidedly more modest and not on the river side of the house. I think the younger brothers – twins aged twelve who were at boarding school most of the time, had to share a room and use the bathroom on the floor below. The unfortunate new husband, Benedict, was not being terribly well treated by his step-children and I visualized many a family drama that could be hesitantly discussed at morning tea time so I was naturally reluctant to relinquish this agreeable Gravesend family. But unfortunately it had to be done, and fast, simply because of the tricky dilemma of the telephone. I don’t need to elaborate on the fact that at 28 York Road there had never been any sign of a telephone ever being installed either during our tenure or that of the large Evans family who went before us. In the 1950s we were definitely not the kind of people who used telephones. And as if it was aware of this fact even the nearest phone box was at the very end of Springhead Road near the 496 bus stop.

Pat, kindly explaining the parameters of my job as a junior shorthand typist told me on my second day that Thursdays would be My Day for Lunchtime Switchboard Duty and took me downstairs to the little room where Joan the Switchboard Operator sat all day in charge of the telephone. The horror I felt as Joan tried vainly to teach me how to operate the confusing tangle of leads revisits even now as I recall it. It was clear that this was a rite of passage I had not as yet been introduced to but for a while neither of my concerned new workmates could quite understand why I seemed so paralysed with fear because as Pat pointed out, this part of my job was almost the same as using the telephone at home. I began to cry at that point and Joan looked directly at me and asked in a low but No Nonsense voice that did not encourage falsehoods, if there was in fact a telephone at home. Was I in the habit of ever using one? I shook my head and Joan put on a comforting face and said the problem was simply that I was Phone Shy. Although this was said kindly, at the same time she managed to make it sound like an unpleasant affliction that would be difficult to overcome, like being alcohol dependent or suffering from kleptomania. It was in that instant I knew without any shadow of a doubt that Kate with her pink and gold bedroom in the neo Georgian house and Benedict the well-meaning new stepfather, would both have to be abandoned. And I cried a little harder because it seemed so unfair to banish them before there had been an opportunity to develop their story.

To comfort and reassure me and to stop the cascade of tears that were now hard to switch off Pat suggested we take an illicit coffee break together, downstairs in the new Espresso Bar in Denmark Street, around the corner. She ran upstairs to get permission from Mr. Blackburn and because being Phone Shy sounded serious he agreed at once. As we sipped our coffee she asked me about my family because even as long ago as 1956 it was clearly considered just a little odd that a junior shorthand typist in central London would be quite as Phone Phobic as I appeared to be. I found myself telling her about an entirely newly constructed and more cautiously modest family living in a semi-detached interwar house in Dover Road, Northfleet, inherited by my mother from an aunt who had been killed by a V1 rocket in 1944. Fortunately for us the rocket that killed her did so at the top of the road, on the corner, whilst she was walking back from the library so there was no actual damage to the house itself. Nevertheless it needed modernising but since my father’s tragic death in France my mother, who was a nurse at Gravesend Hospital and who I decided to call Sue, had not really been in a position to attend to this. She was still having to pay my young brother Quentin’s school fees because she was reluctant to take him out of his prep school and expose him to the horrors of Hall Road Boys School. Then, realizing with dismay that the mythical Quentin’s age meant he had been born after the death of Antoine the Resistance Fighter, I added that Sue had entered into a short lived and foolish marriage after the war with James, an accountant from Brighton who had abandoned us after the birth of his child. There were many things Sue aspired to that would make our lives more comfortable. She would like a better kitchen and a fitted cocktail cabinet in the lounge. She longed for a little second hand car, so handy for when she came home late from her hospital shifts. She would dearly love to have a telephone because she certainly had not anticipated being responsible for a Phone Shy daughter, but the priority really had been to upgrade the original bathroom before anything else.

There were some aspects of the Dover Road house, I told Pat, that we would keep because they were such attractive features, like the stained glass windows in the hallway that lit the stairs when you ran up and down them. A lot of people thought Art Moderne features were ugly, I said, beginning to elaborate rather more enthusiastically, but I really liked them. Pat was not listening very attentively. She had finished her coffee and was patting her lips on a paper napkin. I pictured myself sitting on the stairs of the interwar house, totally alone early in the morning, shoulders drenched in a multitiude of colours as the rising sun infiltrated the hall window. At times, I thought, the tranquility of the house reminded me of a church. A small degree of pride was rising within me when I thought about Sue and all the problems she had faced with so much stoicism over the years. I wanted her to be proud of me. I began to feel just a little bit more confident about being Phone Shy because although it was not something anyone would choose to be afflicted with, it could be overcome. I knew that Sue’s daughter was more than capable of dealing with it!

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