However all that may be, ‘Dear Fleur,’ went the letter. ‘I think I’ve found a job for you! …’ The letter went on, very boring. It was a well-wishing friend and I have forgotten what she looked like. Why did I keep these letters? Why? They are all neatly bundled up in thin folders, tied with pink tape, 1949, 1950, 1951 and on and on. I was trained to be a secretary; maybe I felt that letters ought to be filed, and I’m sure I thought they would be interesting one day. In fact, they aren’t very interesting in themselves. For example about this time, just before the turn of the half-century, a bookshop wrote to ask for their money or they would ‘take further steps’. I owed money to bookshops in those days; some were more lenient than others. I remember at the time thinking the letter about the further steps quite funny and worth keeping. Perhaps I wrote and told them that I was quite terrified of their steps approaching further, nearer, nearer; perhaps I didn’t actually write this but only considered doing so. Apparently I paid them in the end for the final receipt is there, £5.8.9. I always desired books; nearly all of my bills were for books. I possessed one very rare book which I traded for part of my bill with another bookshop, for I wasn’t a bibliophile of any kind; rare books didn’t interest me for their rarity, but for their content. I borrowed frequently from the public library, but often I would go into a bookshop and in my longing to possess, let us say, the Collected Poems of Arthur Clough and a new Collected Chaucer, I would get into conversation with the bookseller and run up a bill.
‘Dear Fleur, I think I’ve found a job for you!’
I wrote off to the address in Northumberland setting forth my merits as a secretary. Within a week I got on a bus to go and be interviewed by my new employer at the Berkeley Hotel. It was six in the evening. I had allowed for the rush hour and arrived early. He was earlier still, and when I went to the desk to ask for him he rose from a nearby chair and came over to me.
He was slight, nearly tall, with white hair, a thin face with high cheekbones which were pink-flushed, although otherwise his face was pale. His right shoulder seemed to protrude further than the left as if fixed in the position for shaking hands, so that his general look was very slightly askew. He had an air which said, I am distinguished. Name, Sir Quentin Oliver. We sat at a table drinking dry sherry. He said, ‘Fleur Talbot – are you half French?’
‘No. Fleur was just a name my mother fancied.’
‘Ah, interesting … Well now, yes, let me explain about the undertaking.’