If you had gone into a certain little Jewish restaurant on the very edge of Soho, one fine afternoon in July 1926, if you'd ordered bagels and coffee and sat by the window, near that little dark corner with the tiny etching of Jacob’s vision of the angels, where two young women, one big and dark-haired, the other slight and fair, were talking animatedly, and if you'd shut out the Yiddish chatter from the table on their other side and listened hard, you just might have heard the following conversation:
“Let me make perfectly sure that I understand you, Marjey. You want me to leave London, go out into the godforsaken wilds of Austria, become part of the staff of a tiny, elitist little boarding school for girls and teach the kids how to draw?”
“And teach the little ones. You’d be head of the junior school as well.”
“Head of the junior school? Teach little kids – what, reading, writing and sums? Can you honestly imagine me with that kind of responsibility! As for teaching, have you forgotten that I left school when I was 16 myself? How on earth can you countenance me becoming a teacher, for goodness sake!”
“But Susie, even you must know enough to teach a bunch of 8 year olds, surely? And they’re lovely little kids, really well behaved. And as for drawing, well, are you or are you not you an artist? Where’s the problem?”
“I’m not an artist,” countered the blonde-haired woman. “I’m a cartoonist, as you well know.”
“But you know how to draw. I’ve seen your ‘real life’ paintings. They’re excellent! You’re perfectly qualified to teach drawing, and the little ones aren’t so much work. You’ll be fine. And besides, weren’t you just saying that you really ought to be leaving London for a while? What better opportunity? I’m offering you a job, a home, and safety from...well, whatever it is you’re leaving behind here - I’m not going to ask!”
“A job in Austria! OK, so I need to get out of here for a bit, but I was really thinking about going to Paris with Matty. But Austria! I can’t speak a word of German! And they’ll all be rich capitalists...their politics...I mean, I’m a socialist, Marjey!”
But her friend cut into her protest.
“Why not just think of it as taking the fight to the enemy! Go on, Susie, it’ll be a proper challenge - you'll have a real fight, no more preaching to the converted! And it’s an English school, so you won’t need German too often, and even if you do...well, look around you!” She gestured at the restaurant in which they were sitting. “If you need to learn German, you’re in the perfect place! Besides, don’t you already speak some Yiddish?”
“Well, some, but...”
“Yiddish and German are surely not that different. Why, I can follow the conversation those two young men there are having well enough myself, and I don’t speak a word of Yiddish! At least think about it, won’t you? It would be so wonderful if I could take a plan to Miss Bettany – I feel such a beast for leaving her in the lurch like this.”
“I suppose it is a job, and goodness knows I need money right now. But really, I’m no teacher. Oh alright! Keep your wig on, Marjorie Durrant, I’ll think about it. I’ll make a decision tomorrow...Thursday at the latest. Now stop pestering me and let’s talk about something else!”
Later, after the tall dark woman left the restaurant, Susie remained behind, toying with her teacup. The Jewish owner meandered over to clear the table and seeing her frowning, raised his eyebrows.
“She wants me to go to Austria, Mauritz,” said Susie, gloomily.
The manager nodded approvingly.
“Austria is a good country,” he observed, flicking out his cloth and beginning to wipe the table.
“It’s a long way away.”
“This is very true, my child.”
“I don’t know whether to go.”
“It is a hard choice.”
“Do you think I should go?”
The manager shrugged expressively, spreading his hands wide.
“I cannot make these decisions for you, young Susie. Anyway, you do not pay me to do your thinking for you, only to get you more tea.” This last was said with a question in his eyes, but she shook her head ruefully.
“No, no more. I need to get going myself. Thank you, Mauritz. Here – keep the change.”
The manager nodded approvingly, and she made for the exit. But as she reached it she turned back and called,
He turned to her. “Yes, my child?”
“Will you teach me some German before I go?”
Mauritz smiled broadly at her. “Yes, my child!”