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It was hot, the summer of 1938. In the streets of Belsize Park and Swiss
Cottage and Finchley, the pavements glittered, the dustbins gave out
Rabelaisian smells. In the ill-equipped kitchens of the lodging houses, milk
turned sour and expiring flies buzzed dismally on strips of sticky paper.
Children in buggies were pushed up the hill to Hempstead Heath to picnic in
the yellowing grass or catch tiddlers in Whitestone Pond. In Spain, Franco's
Fascists scored victory upon victory; in Germany, Hitler stepped up his tirades
about the Sudetenland, ready to move against the Czechs. Mussolini started
to ape, though less effectively, the Führer's measures against the Jews.
The British would have found it vulgar to let the ill-bred ravings of foreigners
interfere with their pleasures. Trenches were dug in the parks, leaflets were
issued giving instructions about the issue of gas masks; the fleet stood ready.
But the rich left without signs of perturbation for their grouse moors or
houses by the sea. The poor, as always, stayed behind and took the sunshine
on their doorsteps or in their tiny gardens.
The refugees were poor and they stayed.
Ruth's arrival had enabled her family to try to reconstitute their lives.
Professor Berger now left for the public library each morning with his
briefcase, to sit between Dr Levy and a tramp with holes in his shoes who
came to read the paper, and hid from Leonie, and partly even from himself,
the knowledge that without the references and notes he had left behind, his
book could only be a travesty of what he might have written. Aunt Hilda,
having discovered that entry to the British Museum was free, spent hours
wandering round the Anthropology section and found (among the exhibits
from Bechuanaland) an error which caused her the kind of excited melancholy
so common in scholars presented with other people's follies.
'It is not a Mi-Mi drinking cup,' she would say each evening. 'I am quite
certain. The attribution is wrong.'
'Well then, go and tell someone, Hilda,' Leonie would suggest.
'No. I am only a guest in this country. I have no right.'
Uncle Mishak now had park benches he had made his own, and friends among
the gardeners who kept London's squares and gardens tidy. Like a small boy,
he would come home with treasures: a clump of wallflowers which still
retained their scent, thrown onto a compost heap; a few cherries dropped
onto a pavement from an overhanging branch. As for Leonie, once she'd
accepted the miracle of Ruth's return, she began to repair the network of
friends and relations, of good causes and lame dogs, that had filled her life in
Vienna. Dispersed and scattered these might be, but there was still her
godmother's sister, newly arrived in Swiss Cottage, a schoolfriend married to
a bookbinder in Putney, and an ancient step-uncle from Moravia, a little
touched in the head, who sat under the statue of Queen Victoria on the
Embankment, convinced that she was Maria Theresia and he was still in his
As for the ladies of the Willow Tea Rooms, they responded to the worsening of
the situation in Europe with a gesture of great daring. They decided to stay
open in the evening - to the almost sinfully late hour of nine o'clock. This,
however, meant engaging a new waitress — and here they were extremely
Ruth's first concern when she arrived had been to hide her marriage
certificate and all other evidence of her involvement with Professor Somerville
whom she could now only serve by never going near him or mentioning his
This was not as easy as it sounded. Number 27 Belsize Close was not a place
where privacy was high on the list of priorities, nor had Ruth ever had to have
secrets from her parents. Fortunately she had read many English adventure
stories in which intrepid boys and girls buried treasure beneath the loose
floor-boards of whatever house they lived in.
Accustomed to the solid parquet floors of her native city, she had been
puzzled by this, but now she understood how it could be done. The floor of
the Bergers' sitting room, hideously furnished with a sagging moquette sofa,
a fumed oak table and brown chenille curtains, was covered in linoleum, and
her parents' bedroom next to it was obviously unsuitable. But in the room at
the back, with its two narrow beds, which Ruth shared with her Aunt Hilda,
the floor was covered only by a soiled rag rug. Dragging aside the wash-
stand, she managed to prise open one of the splintered boards and make a
space into which she lowered a biscuit tin decorated with a picture of the
Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret Rose patting a corgi dog, and containing
her documents and the wedding ring which she meant to sell, but not just
Next she went to the post office and secured a box number to which all mail
could be sent, and wrote to Mr Proudfoot to tell him what she had done. After
which she settled down to look for work. It was nearly two months before the
beginning of the autumn term at University College and though she had
heeded Quin's admonitions and was looking forward very much to being a
student once again, she intended to spend every available second till then
helping her family.
Jobs as mother's helps were easy to come by. Within a week, Ruth found
herself trailing across Hampstead Heath in charge of the three progressively
educated children of a lady weaver. Untroubled by theories on infant care, she
felt sorry for the pale, confused, abominably behaved little creatures in their
soiled linen smocks, desperately searching for something they were not
allowed to do. When the middle one, a six-year-old boy, ran across a busy
road, she smacked him hard on the leg which caused instant uproar among
'We want it done to us too. Properly,' said the oldest. 'So that you can see the
mark, like with Peter.'
Ruth obliged and soon the walks became extremely enjoyable, but, of course,
the money was not very good and it was Ruth's announcement that she
intended to spend her evenings as a waitress in the Willow Tea Rooms which
brought Leonie's period of saintly virtue to a sudden end.
For several days after Ruth was restored to her, Leonie had kept to her vow
never again to argue with Ruth or speak a cross word to her. Just to be able
to touch Ruth's hand across the table, just to hear her humming in the bath,
had been a joy so deep that it had precluded ever crossing Ruth's will again.
This, however, was too much.
'You will do nothing of the sort!' she yelled. 'No daughter of mine is going to
have her behind pinched by old gentlemen and take tips!'
But Ruth was adamant. 'If Paul Ziller can play gypsy music in a cummerbund,
I can be a waitress. And anyway, what about you doing the ironing for that
awful old woman across the road?'
Leonie said it was different and canvassed the inmates of the Willow Tea
Rooms for support which did not come.
'Of course, when she begins university it will be another matter, but now she
will want to help,' said Ziller, meaning - as did Dr Levy, and von Hofmann
from the Burg Theatre and the banker from Hamburg - that the sight of this
bright-haired girl bearing down on them with a tray of an evening was a
pleasure they did not think it necessary to forego.
So Ruth became a waitress at the Willow and was undoubtedly good for trade.
For the weary, disillusioned exiles, Ruth was a sign that there was still hope in
the world. She had been rescued mysteriously by an Englishman and that in
itself was a thought that warmed the heart. And not only was Ruth young and
sweet and funny, but she was in love!
'I have had a letter!' Ruth would say, and soon everyone in the Willow Tea
Rooms and the square knew about Heini, everyone asked about him. The
news that Heini's visa was almost through made them as happy as if the good
fortune was their own - and they all understood that it was essential that
when Heini arrived, he had his piano.
It was the matter of Heini's piano which disposed of the last remnants of
saintliness still adhering to Leonie. For there was only one place where it
could possibly go: in the Bergers' so-called sitting room - and Leonie was
perfectly correct in saying that it would make the place impossibly crowded.
'All right, he can sleep on the sofa till he has his own place, but Heini and the
piano - Ruth, be reasonable.'
But when has love been reasonable? Seeing her daughter's distress, Leonie
consulted her husband, sure that his strictness would prevail. But the week in
which they had believed Ruth lost had changed the Professor.
'We shall manage,' he said. 'I work in the library in any case and we can take
one of the chairs into our bedroom.'
So Ruth had put a jam jar on the windowsill, with a label on it saying Heini's
Piano. It was an entirely British jam jar, which gave her satisfaction, having
contained Oxford marmalade and been retrieved from the dustbin of the
nursery school teacher on the ground floor, but it was not filling up very
quickly. Ruth had made enquiries about the deposit on the kind of piano Heini
required and it was two guineas even before the weekly rental and there was
a delivery charge as well. She gave her wages from the progressive lady
weaver to her mother and had hoped that the money from the Willow Tea
Rooms would help, but there always seemed to be an emergency: Aunt Hilda
needed throat pastilles, or the teapot broke its spout. Though she bought
nothing for herself during those long hot weeks of summer, not a hair ribbon,
not an ice cream on the most sizzling day, the heap of coins at the bottom of
the jar remained pitifully small.
If Heini's letters were shown to everyone and were matters for rejoicing, the
letters from Mr Proudfoot, arriving secretly at Ruth's post office box, were
another matter. Mr Proudfoot had seen fit to lay the conditions of nullity
before Ruth, who found them daunting.
'Are you sure there's no insanity in the family?' she asked her puzzled
parents. 'What about Great-Aunt Miriam?'
'To believe that the Kaiser was a reincarnation of Tutankhamen may be
eccentric, but it is not insane,' said her father firmly. But if the immediate
prospects for annulment were poor, Mr Proudfoot was helpful about getting
her British naturalization confirmed, sending her forms in prepaid envelopes
and continuing to offer assistance. That Quin himself never wrote or sent a
message was only what she had expected and did not disappoint her in the
By the middle of August:, the crisis over Czechoslovakia began to dominate
the newspapers. Hitler's rantings grew more demented; newsreel pictures
showed him strutting about with his arm round Mussolini or shaking his fist at
anyone who dared to interfere with the concerns of Eastern
Europe. Cabinet ministers abandoned their grouse moors and began to
shuttle back and forth between London and
Paris, between Paris and Berlin The Czechs appealed for help.
Great Britain's increasing preparations for war affected the inhabitants of
Belsize Park in various ways. Mrs Weiss looked up at a large grey barrage
balloon floating above her, said, 'Mein Gott, vat is zat?', fell over a hole in the
pavement and was conveyed to Hempstead Hospital for stitches in her
nose.Uncle Mishak, passing a poster which urged him to
Keep Calm and Dig, did just that, excavating a vegetable patch in the rubble-
strewn garden behind the house. In the
Willow Tea Rooms, Miss Maud pored anxiously over a leaflet giving
instructions for the assembling of a prefabri-cated air-raid shelter and
received much good advice from the male customers who professed to
understand them. Mrs
Surdt stopped singing over the washing up because her
Trevor had been passed fit for the air force, and Dr Levy, though he had made
it perfectly dear that he was not entitled to practise medicine, was pulled into
a neighbouring house to resuscitate a man with a weak heart whose wife had
sought to amuse him by coming to bed in her gas mask.
For Ruth, the crisis meant only the dread of separation from Heini. She
emptied the jam jar and sent frantic cables to Budapest, but his emigration
papers, though expected at any moment., still hadn't come through. There
was one matter, however, on which she sought enlightenment from
Miss Maud and Miss Violet who, as general's daughters, could be expected to
know about the army.
'Would someone aged thirty, or a bit over, be called up?' 'Only if the war went
on for a King time,' Miss Maud replied.
It was during these dark days that Ruth received news which would normally
have caused her the deepest dis-appointment. University College had given
her place on the Zoology course to another refugee. They were now full up
and could not admit her in the coming year.
'It was a muddle,' she said, holding out the letter. 'When I wasn't on the
student transport, the Quakers got in touch with them and they had so many
people begging to come that they accepted someone else. They're going to
see if they can get me into another college, but they're not very hopeful as
it's so late.'
Ruth, after the first shock, made the best of it. 'It doesn't matter,' she said. 'I
want to go on working anyway, to help you and to help Heini when he comes.'
'It matters a great deal,' said the Professor sternly. For him and his wife,
Ruth's rejection was a bitter blow. Like parents the world over, they would
accept any tribulation if their child could go forward into a better future. Ruth
must not live in the twilit world of the refugees, the world of menial jobs, of
anxiety about permits and poverty and fear. 'I wonder if I should get in touch
with Quinton Somer-ville,' said the Professor that night when Ruth had gone
to bed. 'I feel sure he would help.' 'No, I wouldn't do that.'
The Professor looked at her in surprise. 'Why not?' But Leonie, who seldom
found a use for logical thought and was pursuing a hunch so nebulous that it
could not possibly be uttered, just said that she thought it was a bad idea -
and in the days that followed nobody had time to think of their personal lives.
All the cliches written later about the Munich crisis were true. The world did
hold its breath, the storm clouds did gather over Europe, strangers did stop
each other in the street and ask for news. Then Neville Chamberlain, that
obstinate old man who had never been in an aeroplane before, flew to meet
Hitler, flew home again, and back once more… to return at last with a piece of
paper in which he believed wholly and which he held up to his people with the
words 'Peace in our time.'
There were many who cried appeasement and many - and the refugees, of
course, among them - who knew what
Hitler's promises were worth, and that the Czechs had been betrayed, yet
who could want war? As the crowds cheered in front of Buckingham Palace,
Ruth waltzed with Mrs Burtt among the pots and pans in the Willow Tea
Rooms kitchen because Heini could come now and Mrs Burtt's Trevor sleep
safe in his bed.
It was in this time of renewed hope, when the chrysanthemums glowed gold
and russet in the flower seller's basket and little boys called at Number 27 for
the conkers Uncle Mishak collected in his wanderings, that Professor Berger
came home to find Ruth reading a letter - and was startled by the radiance in
'From Heini?' he asked. 'He is coming?'
She shook her head. 'It's from the University of Thameside. They've offered
me a place, straight away. I start next week.'
He took the letter she held out to him. It was signed by the Admissions Tutor,
but no one was deceived by that.
'This is Somerville's doing,' said the Professor, and felt a weight lift from his
heart because it had hurt, the belief that his young protege had forgotten
them. 'He's Professor of Zoology there. And sternly to Ruth: 'You will be
worthy of his kindness, I know.'
She had retired into her hair, trying to still the confusion in her mind and
remained in it, figuratively speaking, till late that night when her Aunt Hilda's
snuffling proclaimed her to be asleep, and she could lean out of the window,
breathing in the sooty air, and try to think things out.
Why had he done it? Why had Quin, who had made it so clear that they
should never meet again, accepted her as a student? What had made him
override his decision and ignore the warnings of his solicitor about collusion
and consent and heaven knew what else, to give her this chance?
But what did it matter why? He had done it, and the future lay bright and
shining before her. She would be the most studious student they had ever
seen at Thameside. She would work till she burst, she would get a First - she
would get the best First they had ever had - and she would do it without ever
making him speak to her, without even once looking his way.
That her acceptance had nothing to do with Quin, that he did not even know
of it, was something which could not have occurred to Ruth or to her family,
accustomed as they were to the formal working of Austrian academic life, yet
it was so. Quin always left the admissions, indeed most of the administration,
to his second in command, Dr Felton, and was himself not only not in London,
but not even in his Northumbrian home.
Believing in the inevitability of war, he had taken himself off to a naval base in
Scotland to evoke the revered name of his appalling grandfather, Rear
Admiral 'Basher' Somerville, and get himself into the navy. To talk himself into
the corridors of power had been relatively easy; to talk himself out of them,
as the threat of war receded, was taking longer.
Professor Somerville was going to be late for the beginning of term.
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