February 1976 FEBRUARY 1976
‘Feminism,’ Roger said, each syllable thick with scepticism. ‘Been done to death, hasn’t it?’
Sylvia had been prepared for the snort of derision from Clive, the amused smiles from the other men around the room, Valerie’s unfathomable gaze. But she’d also been prepared to stand her ground. She would not be cowed on this one; she would look her commissioning editor in the eye until he gave her a good enough reason to turn her story down. If only she didn’t feel so damn nauseous. She really didn’t have the stomach for a fight today.
‘Hardly,’ she said. ‘And certainly very little about Switzerland. They’re barely getting started with sexual equality. I mean, it’s only five years since women got the vote at national level. They were the last democratic country in the Western world to get there.’
‘Liechtenstein,’ Clive said.
‘Liechtenstein still doesn’t have women’s suffrage. So Switzerland wasn’t the last country in the Western world.’
‘That’s a tiny principality, it’s hardly the same thing.’
She saw Clive mutter something to Ellis and they both laughed. She turned her gaze back to Roger. The less she looked at Clive’s overstuffed face, the better.
Roger lit another cigarette and took a long drag. His shirt was crumpled, tie askew. Broken capillaries sprawled over his nose. In front of him on his desk, his usual mug – its British Press Awards logo fading and chipped after too many washes – was releasing pungent wafts of coffee mixed with whisky, only exacerbating Sylvia’s queasiness.
‘You’ve found someone to interview?’ he asked.
Sylvia looked down at her notes. ‘Yes, a woman named Evelyne Buchs. She’s part of a campaign group out in Lausanne, in the French-speaking part. They’re very active. She’s already agreed to talk to me.’ She’d come across the woman’s name when she was scouring the paper’s cuttings library for a spark of an idea, something to finally make Roger give her a damn break. Tucked away in the World News section of an edition from the previous summer had been a small article about an event in Geneva for International Women’s Year 1975, and Sylvia’s attention had been caught by the passionate words of one of the attendees, a young radical Swiss feminist called Evelyne Buchs.
Roger blew a long plume of smoke up to the ceiling where it joined the cloud that was a permanent fixture in this room. He shook his head. ‘I don’t know, Tallis. There could be a decent story in it, but I’m not sure the budget will stretch to sending you out there.’
She swallowed down a knee-jerk reaction. Was he joking? It was common knowledge that the paper wasn’t short of a bob or two. Max had only recently come back from the Winter Olympics in Innsbruck. Marnie had spent a week in Italy last October following around Elio Fiorucci for a profile piece in the fashion pages, coming back with a new calf’s skin handbag and a tan. And she knew the rumours about how much they’d offered veteran war reporter Ellis to poach him from Reuters last year. They could damn well afford a return flight to Switzerland and some meagre expenses.
‘I think it’s a good idea,’ Max said. Her head flicked in his direction and he gave her an encouraging smile, though she caught a hint of mischief in his eyes as he continued. ‘You know, comparing the situation of Swiss women with what’s happened over here in recent years. Are British women really better off with this whole liberation thing?’
‘That wasn’t exactly the angle I was going for,’ she said, careful to keep her voice even. ‘I want to explore why Swiss women still haven’t achieved the same legal rights as us on abortion, on maternity leave, on discrimination and equal pay, why their society is holding back and what they’re doing to change it.’ If she could only stop the waves of sickness washing over her, she’d be arguing this a lot better.
‘But isn’t this all a bit… political for the women’s pages?’ Clive waved his hand in the air as if brushing it all away. Sylvia saw, with some satisfaction, that his jowls wobbled as he did so. ‘I mean, sex tips and clothes and… menstruation,’ he almost whispered the word, ‘that’s what our female readers want to hear about, not all this vulgar bra-waving. We’re not the bloody Guardian.’
‘How do you know what women want, Clive, have you grown breasts?’ Valerie said, and the room descended into titters. Sylvia threw her a grateful glance, but the columnist didn’t return it. She knew better than to presume anything Valerie said came from a place of female solidarity – any support she offered was likely only a by-product of self-interest. ‘However, much as I fail to agree with my esteemed colleague,’ Valerie continued, her eyebrows firing disdain at Clive, ‘I do think Sylvia’s such a little whizz with her regulars and so marvellous at helping the whole team that I’m not sure we can spare her for a foreign trip.’
Little whizz? ‘I can handle this on top, no problem.’ She kept her eyes on Roger, willing him to listen to her. She could see him wavering. He knew it was a good idea. He knew it.
‘I’ll think about it,’ he said.
Roger held up his hand. ‘I said I’ll think about it. Now, Max, did you get anything juicy out of that gay ice dancer in Innsbruck?’
The sickness dogged her all day. It made her head spin when she stood up from her desk. It sat in a dull ache in her stomach as she walked down Fleet Street, the air thick with the metallic tang of exhaust fumes. It made her legs shake as she negotiated the raised walkways of the Barbican, her heels echoing off the concrete walls. She wished she could go back to last night and refuse Jim’s suggestion that they try that new restaurant in Clapham Junction. It occurred to her now that she was likely to see that prawn cocktail again.
‘Tea, dear? You look like you need it,’ Marjorie said.
Sylvia accepted and sunk into the dusty pink velvet of the armchair. The window from the fifth-floor flat looked out over the site where the Barbican Arts Centre was due to emerge, years late and over budget, if the construction workers, so keen on striking, ever finished the job. Ellis was writing a longform piece about that right now – the sort of meaty news feature she could only dream of. Of course, she had done much of the legwork – interviewing contractors, researching background material – but she wouldn’t get a joint byline, not with the famous Ellis Barker, who wouldn’t deign to share the glory with an underling like her.
‘Marjorie makes the best cuppa.’ Victor had crepe-paper skin and oversized ears, but the eyes he fixed on her were surely as bright as they had been half a century ago.
‘Here you go, dear.’ Marjorie handed her an elegant china mug with a portrait of the Queen on it and sat down on the sofa next to her husband. Sylvia flipped open her notepad, fished a pen out of her bag and smiled at the two of them. Fifty years together and they looked like they were made that way. Like owners and their dogs, she thought, an unwelcome image of Jim’s mother and her Jack Russell popping into her mind; after a while, they begin to resemble each other.
‘So, how did you two meet?’
After so many months of writing the ‘golden oldies’ weekly feature, she had a good idea how the conversation would go. She knew what kept couples together for half a century – not blind devotion, not butterflies in the stomach, but compromise, patience, humour and a stoic tolerance of even the most unlovable of little habits – but something always cropped up that surprised her. There’d been the couple who’d recreated their first date on the same day every year for the past fifty; the man who said he once joked he’d only marry a left-handed woman – and then met his left-handed wife-to-be the very next day; and the 89-year-old who told her the key to not arguing was to stuff your mouth with marshmallows so you physically couldn’t speak. Sylvia had already decided to present Jim with a bag of marshmallows on their wedding day, just to kick things off in the right direction.
However, although she didn’t dislike writing the feature, it wasn’t exactly why she became a journalist. It wasn’t why she’d suffered through tutorials with Dirty Dan, Oxford’s lecherous lecturer, or why she’d turned a blind eye to her student paper’s ‘prettiest undergraduate’ competitions so that the editor, a belligerent third year from Eton, wouldn’t refuse to publish her work.
Give it time, she’d told herself, when she started interviewing the wrinklies. Give it more time, Jim had said a few months down the line, when the political magazine he worked for gave him his first cover feature and she was still drinking tea with Marjories. Fucking bad luck, Max said when her feature ideas got rebuffed by Roger again and again.
After more than eighteen months in her role as junior features writer, Roger was yet to commission a story she’d pitched. It might have begun to make her think she wasn’t good enough. But she had a first from Oxford and a portfolio of student writing that had won her a place on a graduate trainee scheme with a female acceptance rate of just 5 per cent. No, she knew she was good enough. The problem was something else – and she knew exactly what.
‘You’ve been hired primarily to write women’s interest stories, Tallis,’ Roger had said after a few months, when she enquired, as politely as possible, why he always rejected her ideas. ‘Any other junior would give their right arm to cover Ladies’ Day at Ascot or the Chelsea ruddy Flower Show, but you’re always pushing for something else. Don’t be so bloody serious.’
Sylvia thought he’d missed the point on purpose. She didn’t have a problem writing for the women’s pages, but it was archaic to assume this meant covering only fashion, flowers and celebrities. She admired Valerie for having moved the conversation on in her decade-long tenure as the so-called ‘Queen’ of the paper, writing in her witty, biting way about once-taboo subjects including infidelity, sexual satisfaction and domestic sluttery. But Sylvia didn’t want to write about any of that, either. She wanted to write about the big political and social issues that impacted women’s lives. Issues she, as a woman, was interested in. With her Switzerland idea she’d thought she had a good chance – yes it was serious, but what could be more female-focused than a feature about women’s rights? And yet still it didn’t look like Roger was going to budge. Well, neither would she – she wasn’t going to stop pitching features that actually mattered.
‘When’s your own big day, dear?’ Marjorie asked when the interview came to an end, nodding to Sylvia’s hand.
‘Oh, next year some time.’ Sylvia twisted her ring around her finger. ‘We haven’t fixed a date yet.’ She’d be happy with a registry office and a Marks & Spencer dress, but Jim wouldn’t hear of it. You only get married once; it’s got to be a big bash. At least that meant he’d help organise the silly thing.
‘Well, we wish you all the luck in the world,’ Marjorie said. She patted Victor’s knee. ‘You’re going to need it.’
‘Thank you,’ she smiled. ‘Can I use your bathroom before I go?’
The toilet lid had an avocado-green shagpile cover; the loo roll was hidden under the voluminous skirt of a plastic doll. Sylvia peed, wiped, stood up. The smell of air freshener was cloying. She washed her hands and steadied herself against the sink as another wave of nausea hit her, sweat beading on her forehead. Oh God, no. She lifted the toilet lid again and promptly threw up.
It had to be last night’s prawns. She hurried back to the office, stopping only in the chemist to get some paracetamol. It took her a few minutes to find the right section. Shampoos. Deodorants. Sanitary products. Her mind paused, discarding a thought as lightly as it landed in her head.
‘Roger wants to see you,’ Max said, when she got back to her desk. His eyes were bloodshot after what she imagined was the usual three-hour lunch break in the pub. Just a few sharpeners, he always said. The sort of social boozing that worked tongues loose, ensuring stories were told, career-enhancing friendships were made and gossip was shared.
She knocked on the door of Roger’s glass-walled office and he beckoned her in.
‘Tallis. You look peaky.’
‘I’m fine.’ His office was airless. With no windows and the heating ramped up to combat the February chill, the air felt stagnant and smelt stale, a bilious blend of body odour, fags and vegetable soup that made her want to run to the toilet again. The same thought she’d had in the chemist popped into her head again, more vocal this time, insisting its presence, like Max with a shorthand notebook and a sensational headline ready to go.
Roger gestured to the chair in front of his desk. It was just about the only surface not covered with paper. It spilled out of box files stacked in dense rows along the floor-to-ceiling shelves behind his desk, it lay in piles on the industrial-grey carpet, ostensibly propping up the glass walls, and it smothered his desk: rival papers, opened envelopes, an overflowing in-tray of letters and board-meeting minutes neatly typed by Janice. She wondered if he ever read them.
‘I’ve thought about it,’ he said.
‘I’m sorry?’ Her head was full of Marjorie and weddings and avocado-green toilet lid covers and how many days it had been since—
‘Your pitch. Five years on from women’s suffrage in Switzerland.’
Her head cleared and she focused fully on her commissioning editor.
‘June, you said the first vote was?’ he continued.
‘Yes. They were granted suffrage in February 1971, and first voted in a referendum in June.’ She picked her fingernails behind her back. Was he going to…?
‘I know you want this, Tallis. And I know you’ve paid your dues around here. So I’m commissioning you. Go off to Switzerland and bring me back a damn good piece, okay? We’ll run it before June.’
Sylvia couldn’t help her eyebrows from shooting up. ‘Really?’ Her head felt woozy, but she wasn’t sure if it was the shock or the nausea. ‘Thank you, thank you so much,’ she managed.
‘When can you get out there?’
She mentally ran through her diary and discarded anything she found. ‘Next week? There’s a rally in Bern I’d like to go to on 6th March.’
A smile twitched at his mouth. ‘Good. Ask Janice to book you a flight to Geneva. Expense the hotel. And make sure you get all your regulars done before you go. Oh, and I’m not throwing in a photographer so borrow the office camera and get some shots yourself, okay?’
‘Right, yes. Absolutely.’
‘Take a decent coat. Bloody freezing country.’