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AN EXPLANATION

Back in the mid 1970s I began to write a story about life on a small provincial weekly paper in a seaside resort. Although the resort is fictitious, the story was based very loosely on my first job in a Suffolk coastal resort.

I cam across the story again recently written on old scraps of paper in a folder hidden amongst a load of rubbish. I was also lucky (or unlucky) to find other scraps of writing which I also intend putting on the Internet.

If you are reading this one please be patient with me as I am having to type it all up from scratch and it is likely to take some time. I will therefore put it on a chapter at a time.

As yet the story has no title. So, for what it's worth, here it is.

© Peter Steward 2002

Chapter 1     Chapter 2    Chapter 3   Chapter 4   Chapter 5   Chapter 6   Chapter 7   Chapter 8   Chapter 9   Chapter 10    Chapter 11   Chapter 12   Chapter 13   Chapter 14

Prologue

There are certain days in a person's life that are destined to be remembered for ever. The first day at school, marriage and the birth of the first child are just a few of these.

Numbered amongst them must also be the first day at work. You arrive smart and ready to do business, but at the same time very unsure about just what is going on.

Eight hours later you leave looking rather dishevelled, with clothes slightly out of place and by this time you are feeling totally unsure of yourself. All the confidence of the early morning has been destroyed. The first day at work has that unique ability of bringing you down to earth with a resounding bump.

So it was with my first day at work on the Journal. The first of many days I would and could never forget.


Chapter One

I was rather late. I knew it only too well, having run all the way from the railway station, stopping only to ask my way to the newspaper office. Unfortunately the rather rotund reporter who led me up the stairs was also well aware of my hurried arrival and was obviously itching to point it out.

I was trying to be philosophical about the matter. What do they expect? After all it was my first day and I had never been one to hold punctuality up as a virtue.

"You're rather late aren't you son?" he asked pointing at his watch with a superior air.

This man mountain had long, thin arms and I could tell by a quick glance at his watch that it was more than five minutes fast. I could visualise him sitting in the office as I arrived and moving his watch forwards so he could expose me for the heinous villain he believed me to be. Pointing at his watch also seemed to underline the fact that I wasn't wearing one of my own.

"No watch then son. You won't get far here without a watch. Never know whether you coming or going so to speak."

I half smiled to myself and muttered something about losing my last watch in a card game. Man mountain was acting the classic hard talking journalist - the kind that outside the trade is the expected norm. Journalists think that they are hard talking people. The fact that I came across many quiet, inoffensive men and women in the trade never really seemed to register. Nevertheless I felt I ought to make some kind of apology to this person.

"My train was late," I replied half in a whisper, not wanting to tell him that the main reason for my late arrival; was that I had dropped my keys down a grating at the railway station and had to enlist the help of a good natured station officer with a handy piece of wire. Afterwards I had to listen to him explaining that his days as a safe breaker had made him very handy with an ordinary piece of wire.

Losing the keys was the latest in a long line of accidents stretching back to a very early age. It still pained me to think of the occasion at the age of eight when I had tumbled off a tri-cycle. All my friends had spanking new two wheelers, but my mother insisted that a three-wheeler was safer for me. Of course they all coped very well with their two wheels, while I continued to fall off. On one particular day when attempting to break the land speed record, I had to be pulled out from underneath a mass of springs, wheels and metal.

Still back to the present and here I was on my first day in a new job, full of enthusiasm and ready to set the world alight and telling myself that confidence was all I needed to take away my reputation as the person who gets everything wrong.

The man mountain brought me down to earth with another glance at his watch.

"It's not like the 8.30 to be late son. Surely if British Rail were aware you were coming they would have been early now wouldn't they?

All his comments seemed to end in a sarcastic question. I ignored the sarcasm. I had only known this person for a few minutes but had already taken a dislike to him. Sarcasm was something I would get used to over the next few months and Tony Willson was one of the great users and abusers of the science.

"My name's Willson," he said. "That's Willson with two ls and not the common person. You see I am quite an uncommon person. You could say I'm an el of a person."

He sniggered. Obviously bad jokes were another of his problems.

"Yes you can say I'm an el of a person."

"You can say that again," I replied under my breath but obviously just loud enough for him to hear.

"Tread carefully son I heard that remark. One thing I don't tolerate is cheek from junior reporters. Don't forget I'm pretty important in this office. I am not a person to be ignored. Understand?"

I understood only too well. Tony Willson was one of those people you can't ignore but for whom your feelings fall far short of adoration and the awe he expected. He stood about 6ft. 4 in tall, weighed well over 16 stone and was built more like a Canadian lumberjack than a humble small town reporter. A bulldozer of a man who constantly told people that Fleet Street was waiting for him. If you ask me Fleet Street was trying desperately to ignore him. He did make the capital some months later - but that's another story.

"Well son the old boy won't be too happy about your non appearance at the appointed hour. I'd offer to make him a cup of tea if I was you. He usually has one about now and it will get you in his good books. I suppose you can make tea?"

"Yes I can," I replied trying to hide the embarrassment I was obviously feeling and showing. You see I still remembered the day I put salt instead of sugar in Aunt Mabel's afternoon brew.

"Salt in the porridge, sugar in the tea," she had pointed out.

Anyway the plain fact was that I was accident-prone and Tony Willson, as I soon found out, was always willing to give you advice. The kind of advice that got you into trouble rather than sorting things out.

It must be time for an explanation about who I am, and what I was doing in what appeared at first glance to be a dreadful office.

It must be time for an explanation about who I am, and what I was doing in what appeared at first glance to be a dreadful office.

My name is Bertrand Ayres. Well that's my official name, but I never quite took to being called Bertrand or Bertie and so for many years had been known by my middle name of Eric.

The change was helped on its way at school thanks to numerous boring jokes surrounding my initials - B.E.A. As far as I was concerned British European Airways had a lot to answer for. I soon became fed up with the obvious jokes that came from classmates and so buried the Bertrand part of the name.

That was all in the past, however. I never liked school, but used it as a launching pad for my future career. So I achieved my A levels, dropped the Bertrand once and for all and set about finding a new life.

So off I went to journalism college without a care in the world and happy to be living 80 miles from home and determined to have a final pleasure fling before settling down as one of the world's wage earners - such is the immaturity of youthful thoughts.

After a year at college and struggling through all the necessary qualifications I found myself at the Journal office armed with a notebook, a great number of pens and very little common sense.

My stay at college had been a mixture of bad jokes - told mainly by myself - and sarcastic remarks - directed mainly at me by various tutors. Nevertheless I survived which is more than can be said for the cars I owned during that 12 month period. The first had a fight with a tree on what I told everyone had been a trunk road. The second was driven straight through the front of a garage. I never could find reverse gear. A friend had offered to put it away for me but I had refused, missed reverse, found second gear and shot into the brickwork.

The result of all that was I left college carless, careless and penniless. Hence the fact that on my first day at work in this sleepy, wintry seaside town I was forced to use the massed might of British Rail to get to my destination.

I had no idea about what to expect from the newspaper office, but whatever I expected couldnít have been further from the reality.

Willson knocked quietly on the door marked "Editor". This in itself made me feel uneasy. Wilson didn't seem the kind of person who would knock quietly on any door and weren't newspaper offices supposed to be a place of hustle and bustle? No Willson was more of the bulldozing kind of guy. After a few seconds there was what could only be described as a grunt from the other side of the door and Willson took this as a sign to enter. Like the dutiful youngster that I was I followed expecting to see a monster with two heads. The editor was in fact seated at his desk with his nose firmly in that day's edition of the Times. I was soon to find out that he spent much of the day in a similar posture.

I never found out whether this man did any work during the day, but I was continually told by people outside the office what a "wonderfully hard working" man he was. Perhaps this was a case of reality not co-inciding with the myth. It was certainly a statement  that those who knew him well took with a pinch of salt. On this first morning he was no different towards me than he would be on any day during my stay on the paper.

Willson pointed to a chair opposite him.

"Sit there son. He can't bite your head off from that distance."

I sat down and waited. Waited was certainly the word as he continued to read his paper. He must have been in the middle of a very important and in-depth article, as neither he nor the paper seemed to move and it must have been 10 minutes before I realised from his rhythmic breathing that he was asleep.

What was I to do? How could I wake him up without it seeming obvious? Wilson had told me that Shad Greene was not a man to cross.

Then another thought struck me. The poor man might be ill. He might have had a heart attack or something equally as disastrous. I stared at the closed door and became very aware of somebody or something watching me from the main reportersí room.

The editor's office was fairly small and was an area partitioned off from the main reporters room. At the top of the wood panelling there was a window running around the entire office and, as my eyes wandered upwards, I caught my first glimpse of four people in the reportersí room staring at me and silently giggling to themselves.

One of them was Willson. I had already secretly summed up his character as something of a bully. The others were my new colleagues. Three people, very different, who at this early stage of my career just seemed like childish gigglers.

I decided there was no future sitting in the office with this man who was either asleep or ill. On top of this I didn't appreciate having four pairs of eyes staring at me, particularly when I would imagine they had been through the same ridiculous ritual on their first days. So I decided to go into the reporters' room to find out what was happening.

I very quietly shut the door so as not to awaken Mr Greene, whom I now assumed was asleep. I suppose I spoke to Tony Willson as he was the only one of the quartet that I had already spoken to.

"What's up with the editor. He seems to be asleep or even ill. Don't you think something should be done?"

"Oh don't worry about it mate," replied a  youth who looked about my age but who I later found out was 10 years my elder. "He's asleep. I expect he's sleeping it off."

"Sleeping what off?" I enquired.

"You'll get used to it mate. The old boy still tries to bask in his former glory. I expect when he wakes up he'll show you his cuttings book, but really he's just a sad old duffer who lives in the past. The problem is the old devil drinks a bottle of wine before he comes to work. It then takes him about two hours to sleep it off. Don't worry about the Times newspaper. He never reads it. It's just a cover. He thinks we don't know what's going on. You'll get used to it. The best thing is to ignore him."

"But you said he would be angry that I was late," I said turning to Willson.

"Oh that's just a little joke son. The old man's usually so pickled in the morning he never knows what time we come in. If I were you I'd sit down at your desk over there and wait for him to summon you. That way he'll think you've been here all day. Create a good impression if you know what I mean.

"He only takes the Times because itís the largest of the dailies and therefore he can make it less obvious that he is asleep. Occasionally if you catch him just as he's waking up he'll try and discuss some article. It's usually something from the previous day's edition. We reckon he has a quick look through in the evening to prepare himself for the next day. We believe that his real reading tastes are more towards the Sun or the Mirror but firstly they wouldn't completely cover his face and secondly nobody in his position would claim to read that rubbish for two hours without a break."

So I sat down to wait. Nobody took much notice of me. Willson spent the time playing with a ruler and marking out what I later learned was his special column for the paper and one he cherished greatly. It was a column that the other reporters were not allowed to write for without his specific permission. It was essentially a gossip column despite the fact that there isn't too much gossip in such a small seaside town.

Willson was not adverse, however, to letting others do his dirty work in making phone calls to people who didn't want to talk to you or making visits to hospitals and other unpleasant places. Often you would end up doing all the hard work just to give him your notes which he would  write up and then claim the stories as his own as he wrote what he felt were "top class articles exposing the great under belly of the town."

The youth seemed to be interested in a race between two maggots round the inside of an ash tray. He planned to set light to the loser. The other two members of staff appeared nondescript.

The girl was reasonably attractive, but seemed to have little idea about how to dress. She wore a baggy summer creation, which drowned what could otherwise have been a shapely pair of legs.

The remaining desk was occupied by a fairly elderly man. He had obviously consumed a delicious breakfast of fried bacon and eggs as most of it seemed to be down his pullover.

There was an unnatural silence about the office. I had always imagined a newspaper office to be a place of activity with the clatter of typewriters and the rolling of the presses. It seemed that on this small weekly paper I was wrong. The typewriters did not clatter until well after 10 a.m and the printing presses were situated in a building 10 miles away.

Precisely at 10 a.m the elderly chap rose from his chair and muttered something about going to court.

So that in general was the office I had come to. Shad Greene was the editor, and the others were Tony Willson, Jack Burkitt, the elderly one, Robin Ashton, the  youth and Louise Quinn, the girl.

After a further 15 minutes of twiddling my thumbs there was the sound of stirring from the editor's office.

"Hello the old boys coming round," said Willson with more than a hint of contempt in his voice.

Shad Greene stood up, tottered over ever so slightly, gripped the edge of his desk and shouted in a loud drawl.

"Willson where's that new chap. Isn't he here yet?"

Willson grimaced and turned to me.

"You'd better go in son and remember offer to make him a cup of tea."

I nodded and walked to the door and tapped on it gently.

"Can't hear you," came the voice from inside. This in itself seemed to be rather a silly statement as he had obviously heard me, but I'm assuming he was trying to make a point in some way. I knocked louder.

"Okay, okay, no need to knock the door down. Come."

I walked into the room and saw that Greene had sat down again and was in his former position with the Times covering his face. He slowly lowered it, folded it lovingly and placed it on the table. For the first time I could see his face. I would estimate that he was in his late 50s and totally bored with his existence and life in general.

"Damn good paper that," he said pointing at the Times. "The day you write like that is the day I will recognise you as a reporter. I hope you're better than the rest we have here. What you need is to read the Times every morning like me and someday you'll be as good as me. Listen lad you play your cards right and I might show you my cuttings' book."

I had the distinct idea that it didn't matter how I played my cards. I was certainly due for a view of this cuttings book whether I liked it or not. I cringed at the thought but somehow managed to force a smile as I said:

"Thank you sir. I look forward to it."

"It's well worth the wait lad, well worth the wait."

Apart from a slight slurring of his words, there weren't many signs that he had been drinking.

"Now let's see you are Bertrand. Strange kind of name for a youngster aint it?"

I cringed for a second time but somehow managed smile as he spoke again.

"Yes strange name that. How old are you."

"19 sir"

"Too bloody young. Listen son do you know how old I was when I entered the profession. I was 26 and that's too early to start. Thirty four is a good age. Wish I was 34 again. Good age that. You know exactly where you are going and what you are doing. Do you know where you are going lad?"

I shook my head. By this time I was totally confused.

"No well you wouldn't at 19 would you?"

I was beginning to learn that as often as not he ended a statement with a question, but then I suppose he was interviewing me for the first time as I had been given the job by the paper's owner and Greene had not been on the interview panel - perhaps it had something to do with the interview being at 10 in the morning.

By this time I was feeling very depressed. It was at this point I remembered Willson's advice.

"Excuse me sir would you like a cup of tea?"

It was a straightforward question and I was rather proud of myself for asking it. It could have come straight from the pages of the best selling book "How to win friends and influence people." Instead of being grateful, however, it seemed to have the opposite effect on Shad Greene.

"What the hell do I want with a cup of tea at this time of the morning. Never touch the stuff until midday."

I sank back in my chair wondering what I could do or say to get him on my side. I decided in the end just to sit there and let him make the approach and do his worst. After staring into space for another minute or so he spoke again.

"Can you write?"

I suppose it seemed like a fair question and I obviously thought he was asking me if I had received a good grounding in the art of journalism at college. At least this time I was confident that my answer wouldn't upset him.

"Yes I think so. We used to write at least one story every day at college and I passed my exams in all the main areas of ...."

He stopped me before I could finish the sentence.

"No I don't mean that crap. I asked you if you could write, join your letters together. There's lots out there seem to have difficulty sometimes, their typing is poor as well." He made a general nod towards the reportersí room. He then waved his thumb in their general direction.

I didn't know whether to take his remarks seriously or as a joke. I decided the best policy was to take it as a serious remark. Shad Greene didn't seem to me like a man given to undue levity and after all it doesn't pay to be too witty, cheeky or clever on your first day.

"Well I had some trouble when I was young. I went from a class that taught unjoined lettering to one that taught and got into all sorts of trouble.

All sorts of trouble. That was exactly what I was getting into in this room. I felt I was virtually becoming a gibbering wreck. My sentences were becoming disjointed and I was sure I wasn't making sense. He seemed to disregard the remark and pulled a form from the top drawer. I could see there was already writing on it and I guessed correctly that it was a college report.

"Says here that you aren't very punctual." As he spoke he aimlessly pointed at the sheet.

"Well I can tell you that you'll be punctual while you are here. I get in here at 8 a.m. You make sure you're here when I arrive, understand?"

"Yes" I replied knowing full well about his early morning drinking habits and lack of awareness at an early hour. I decided the most sensible thing to do was answer every question in a straightforward manner that he was bound to approve of.

As on so many occasions my efforts to make small talk and get on the right side of someone soon had me in hot water again. I had been looking for sometime at a rather interesting telephone he had which allowed him to speak into an intercom microphone without having to hold the receiver.

"That's rather an interesting telephone you have there," I said.

"Never mind that son. Remember in this job you can be as nosey as you like outside the office, but inside you mind your own business, don't you?"

The question seemed to require no answer so I didn't bother to give one.

"What speed shorthand do you have?" he asked.

I was particularly proud that I had been one of only three people at college to reach 140 words per minute within the year. The head tutor had, at the beginning of the year, promised a bottle of champagne to anyone reaching the 140 mark and as a result I had spent a very enjoyable evening during the last week getting very drunk.

"140 words," I replied proudly.

"140 words a second. That's not bad," Shad Greene half grinned at what obviously by his standards had been an attempt at humour."

I decided to play it straight again.

"No 140 words a minute."

"What" he bellowed. "If I had my way I wouldn't employ anybody with less than 180. It's the owners of this paper, they are too easy by half. Well you'll just have to improve while you're here. Prove yourself better than the rest of this staff and don't get any ideas that just because they are all stuck on 120 words per minute that you can rest on your laurels. Prove to yourself boy that you are better than them. I did and look where I am today."

I couldn't think of an answer to that one without sounding facetious. This interview was going nowhere and the next question had me going round in even more circles.

"What's your parents name and address?"

I was happy to give him the details of this as it appeared to be his first sensible question. I told him and he wrote the details down.

"Good now we know who to contact if you fall in the docks."

My expression must have given me away because his next statement came before I had a chance to say anything.

"There's no need to laugh son. The chappie here four years ago nearly drowned in the docks. Went out on a story about illegal immigrants. Nobody ever found out whether he fell or was pushed. Became a nervous wreck after that. He's in an asylum somewhere up north today."

These seemed to be just about the last words of the interview. He grunted a couple of times, looked at the door and picked up the newspaper. I realised this was my cue to leave the room and so I got up. I was just going out of the door when he spoke again.

"Be a good lad and make me a cup of tea will you?"