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Excerpt from Radio Girls
Maisie was leaving the tearoom, brushing crumbs from her skirt, when Hilda came at her at a dead run, looped her arm through Maisie’s, and barreled her down to Talks.
“Bit of a crisis, I’m afraid,” Hilda explained, though she didn’t look afraid at all. She was glowing hot with excitement.
“Oh, excellent. Reinforcements,” Fielden said with heavy sarcasm on seeing Maisie. “Are you sure you don’t want to ask any of the cleaning crew to help?”
“Mr. Fielden,” Hilda said, and it was enough to silence him. She parked Maisie in front of a telephone and handed her a list of names, phone exchange codes, and a steno pad. “Somehow a program on Turkey has been thrust upon us, and it’s all hands on deck for research.”
Fielden sniggered at Maisie’s expression.
“The nation, Miss Musgrave, not the Christmas dinner.”
What a shame. It’d be so nice to shove a whole turkey in his mouth.
Hilda ignored him. “We must find someone, preferably Turkish, who can speak at length, be comprehensible, and be interesting. Oh, and some music. One of those silly exotic restaurants will have a player or a group. Just be sure they are genuine. And some poetry or a reading from a novel, that will be nice.”
“There doesn’t seem to be anything original,” Fielden informed her in his most dour tones. “I’m just off to King’s College and the library to be sure.”
“Good.” Hilda nodded, frowning at her watch. “I’ll have to cancel my lunch, poor Fred.” She turned back to Maisie. “Ready to begin?”
The only thing Maisie felt ready to do was hyperventilate. Answering a phone was one thing—which Miss Shields didn’t allow anyway (“you’re not as twangy as most Americans, but your accent will still put people off ”). Reaching out to a stranger on behalf of the BBC was not in her bailiwick.
“I’d really rather type and things,” Maisie begged. “My voice just isn’t—”
“Of course it is,” Hilda interrupted. “And we need more notes before there can be any typing.” The clear eyes lasered in on Maisie. “You have a very pleasant manner, you know.”
She always sounds so sincere. Why isn’t she a politician?
“We just need to find something that won’t shame the BBC.”
Was that meant to be encouraging? Hilda was halfway into her own office but stuck her head around the door again.
“And warn everyone that if I hear the phrase ‘Turkish Delight’ they’ll get a hose turned on them.”
Maisie picked up the phone, though she could barely keep it steady, and asked the operator to connect her.
Maybe no one will answer anywhere.
But someone did, and she had to speak.
“Er, hullo. Um, this is Miss Musgrave calling from the BBC Talks
Department, and, er . . . I . . . That is, we were hoping you might be able to assist . . .”
The voice squeaked and crackled—it would have rained fuzz through the airwaves. But the words got out. And Maisie hadn’t reckoned the effect of “BBC.” The man on the other end didn’t know she was Mousy Maisie, Invisible Girl, dogsbody extraordinaire.
“Yes, Miss Musgrave, what can I do for you?”
She’d never heard anyone address her so deferentially.
“We’re preparing a Talk on Turkey, and we’re a bit pressed for
time—” Was that really her voice, gaining confidence and competence by the syllable? This man deeply regretted not being able to help, and meant it. Maisie thanked him politely and soldiered on.
“This is Miss Musgrave of the BBC Talks Department.” The voice was getting crisper and more commanding, with a mixture of warmth and politeness. “We are looking for a knowledgeable person to speak about Turkey for a program that’s come up rather suddenly and were hoping you might be able to assist us.”
Maisie reported it all: the restaurant managers who thought maybe, perhaps, could they ring back? The expert in Byzantine history who insisted the capital be referred to as Constantinople, even though it had been renamed Istanbul in 1923. (“I’m all for adding controversy,” Hilda said, “but he doesn’t sound like someone who can be bullied into decorum in a timely fashion.”) The diplomat who wanted to pontificate on the successful eradication of the Ottoman Empire and the proven brilliance of the Sykes-Picot Agreement. (“Practically begs the imperialists in the Turkish embassy to march on the BBC with torches and pitchforks. Certainly good for publicity, but a nuisance for the fire brigade and awkward if we want lunch.”)
The phones rang in—Hilda had sent telegrams to “a few Foreign Office chaps I know.” The representative of the Turkish consulate was glad to speak to Miss Matheson if she was a friend of Mr. Winters, but was concerned the BBC was making light of his nation.
“Nothing of the sort,” Hilda insisted. “We want listeners to gain a real understanding of the Turkish nation, not just its history, but what its people are really like. If you can send over a few notes this afternoon, we can turn it into a script and send it back for your approval.”
“That seems satisfactory,” came the grudging, but also eager, response.
“Thank you so much!”
“I’ll get on looking for musicians,” Maisie offered.
“No need,” Fielden announced with grim smugness. “I’ve found us a trio, Miss Matheson, who play instruments called a ‘saz,’ a ‘sipsi,’ and a ‘darbuka.’ I suppose we can’t expect Bach.”
“I should jolly well hope not!” Hilda crowed gleefully.
“They probably won’t fit in the lift.” Fielden sighed, stumping out of the room.
“I expect they’ll have a remarkable sound,” Hilda told Maisie. “The engineers will be run to exhaustion, which should render them ecstatic. You did very well, Miss Musgrave. Thank you. I’ll give you a note for Miss Shields to explain why you’re a bit late getting back there.”
Cripes, I forgot all about the executive offices. She came in expecting the worst, but Reith was locked in a meeting and Miss Shields only gave her a withering glance as she scurried to her typewriter.
[From RADIO GIRLS by Sarah-Jane Stratford. Reprinted by arrangement with New American Library, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2016 by Sarah-Jane Stratford.]
Sarah-Jane Stratford is an author and essayist who has written for the Guardian, Boston Globe, Los Angeles Review of Books, Slate, Salon, Marie Claire and Guernica, among others. She is also a member of WAM! (Women, Action, and the Media).