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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

Chapter 5

Life as a weekly newspaper journalist is made of a series of scenarios - small happenings that in themselves take up only a couple of hours, but which, when woven together, blend into a rich pattern of existence.

When one looks back on a career as a reporter there are many mundane moments filled with run of the mill jobs that flow into obscurity. Every so often, however, something stands out. It may be just one job a month but that is what makes journalism so special.

It was slightly unusual, therefore, to have two memorable incidents within two days, especially when both were strongly connected with the water.

By this time the summer had completely disappeared and Autumn was threatening to break into Winter very quickly. I was not looking forward to this particular Monday, Not because I disliked Mondays as the start of another week, but because of the job I had lined-up for this particular one.

In fact at the office things were going extremely smoothly. Both Birkett and Willson had turned into fairly agreeable human beings and I had learned to ignore Shad Greene. By this time I realised that at times he could be a kindly man and his rantings and ramblings seemed to be reasonably few and far between.

The only problem was that being the youngest and least experienced in the office I was still being given the rough jobs that nobody else wanted and that's how I got lumbered with this particular job.

The previous Friday Tony Willson told me what I was in for.

"Hey Eric how do you fancy a trip out with the lifeboat on Monday. Nice easy job. They'll take you along the coast and then out to sea a little way and then back on land for lunch at their boathouse. It's a public relations exercise and should be straightforward and make a nice feature. They do it every year and we always like to send somebody new if possible. You might think of a different angle. You don't have to worry about bad weather because if that happens they cancel the trip. Everyone in the office has been at least once and I think Robin's been three times."

The last statement wasn't quite true. Robin and Louise were the only two who had been on the trip. Willson and Birkett had always chickened out on the grounds that they were needed in the office if something important turned up.

"It's a good trip. I've been three times and enjoyed it thoroughly. The spread they put on at the end is worth going for on its own - as much as you can eat and drink," said Robin.

It was still with mixed feelings, however, that I set out for the lifeboat hut. When I cornered Louise about whether she had enjoyed her trip she used the stock phrase "no comment."

It was just past mid morning when I made my way to the boat house at the end of the pier. It was with some trepidation by this time I must admit. I am the type of person that gets seasick on the local boating pond. I had never been on the sea, was a non swimmer and quite honestly scared stiff of water. But at least the sea looked calm, although the wind seemed to be getting up a little.

I was met at the boat house by the coxswain, who made me feel very welcome.

"It's nice to have you aboard. As you know the idea is for us to go up the coast for some annual repairs. The journey will take about two hours and, because of the tide, we will be unable to return to our base in the vessel. Anyway we wouldn't want to wait for the repairs to be carried out. Cars will be waiting at the other end for us and we will return by road and have a late lunch. Just to make it a little more interesting for you we will make a small detour and take the vessel out to sea and then as we come in will carry out a test rescue exercise with the help of the inshore rescue team. During our time away we will be covered by the next lifeboat up the coast in case a real emergency occurs. Now we are just waiting for the rest of the crew, so I suggest you board the old girl and get kitted out in the wet suit and life jackets we have ready for you. Obviously when we have a real emergency we go like the clappers, but I'm afraid today will be a rather leisurely affair."

I made my way up to the boat and was helped aboard just as a car drove up containing the remaining crew members. They parked it halfway down the slope leading to the promenade and then walked towards the pier. Suddenly there was a cry from the end of the pier.

"Hey Bill your car."

They turned to see the elderly Vauxhall careering down the slope! It came to rest wedged between the lip of the promenade and the edge leading to the beach below. The front offside wheel was badly buckled and the car was perched dangerously on the edge. Luckily the weather was too cold for people to be sitting on the beach.

"Bloody hell me car," shouted Bill as he rushed off, hastily followed by his fellow passengers who had been walking towards the lifeboat shed. It was a good example of how fast lifeboatmen act when a real emergency occurs.

The incident led to a delay of 30 minutes whilst ropes were fetched and the car was hauled back to safety.

Bill looked round the vehicle with complete indifference.

"I could have sworn I put the handbrake on. Oh well it's only fit for scrap anyway. Come on lads we've got a job to do," so saying he set off for the boat shed, whilst the others stood around scratching their heads and shrugging their shoulders.

The journey when we finally got going was sheer hell. I started off full of good intention, talking to members of the crew and enjoying coffee from flasks brought on board, not to mention the slightly stronger stuff that was kept in other flasks.

It was after about half-an-hour that the wind began to pick up and the boat began to rock slowly from side to side. At first I put on false bravado.

"It's getting a little bit rough isn't it," I said to the Cox.

"Good Lord no. This is lovely and calm. If we never had to put up with anything worse than this we wouldn't grumble. Perfect lifeboat weather." I noticed the hint of a smile on his face.

A few minutes later I got the first real feeling of queeziness. My stomach began to heave and I felt the bile building up in my mouth. Soon I couldn't control the feeling any longer and I leaned over the side and vomited into the sea. The Cox, who had been watching closely came over to me.

"What's wrong lad? Not feeling too good. I suppose it's your first time at sea? You look rather white I must admit. I reckon you'd better sit down in the wheel house."

This I was happy to do. I tried closing my eyes but still the boat went up and down alarmingly and my head went round and round in sympathy. The worst part was knowing that the cure to this feeling was nearby on dry land, but it would be well over an hour before I could enjoy the benefit of it. Land-lubber that was me.

So over the next hour or so I lived a torturous existence, counting the minutes and every so often going to the side to throw up. Never has a man been so glad to see land again. The crew had been very good and left me alone, even during the mock rescue which had really been scheduled for my benefit.

At the landing area the cars met us to take us back to base. By this time I had recovered considerably but still didn't feel like eating anything. So I thanked the cox, turned down lunch and staggered back to the office.

I sat down at my desk, shut my eyes and rested my head on my hands. It took Tony Willson just a couple of minutes to cash in on the situation.

"Well how did you get on Eric. Rescue go okay. Got a decent feature have you?"

I panicked

"Well... oh...I.... Actually... I"

"Stop stammering lad. I suppose you felt sick and spent the trip sitting with your head in your hands in the wheelhouse. I suppose you missed the rescue they set up for you and felt so ill on the way back that you forgot to ask them any questions."

"Well yes that's all true. But how did you know," I asked.

"Simple mate. Many years ago I started my career on a seaside paper in the south. I had exactly the same experience. Louise also suffered the same a couple of years ago. Birkitt just refuses to go out on the boat. I guess we'll just have to run another human interest story about how reporters cannot stand up to the rigors of lifeboat life and what a hard job the brave men do. You'd better go home and sleep it off. Tomorrow will do for the story."

My next experience of watery matters came the following evening, although I must admit that this time I kept my feet well and truly fixed to the ground. In many ways it was an amusing incident, but in others a tragic one.

The wind that began to whip up throughout the night had reached gale force by the early hours of the morning. Added to this rain lashed across the town. It was one of those nights when you tucked the blankets around you and felt sorry for the tramps and people who had to live outside.

The results of the night's havoc were there to be seen. Many of the country roads were flooded, one was blocked by a tree and the beach huts along the promenade had been tossed about and broken. The local council later replaced these with sturdy brick ones that were destined to last for many years. I spent most of the day combining with Robin on a general weather and conditions story. At 5 p.m just before I was due to go home with the thought of a dull evening ahead of me watching television, Birkett came over. I knew he was after something by the surprisingly pleasant tone of his voice.

"Eric old son. Are you doing anything tonight?"

That question meant one of two things. Either Birkett was inviting me round to his place for a drink or he wanted me to work. He was not known for his generosity so I dismissed the former.

"Not really," I replied.

"Good you can come back here at about 7 and stay until about 9. There's a 50-50 chance of flooding down the sea front and if the sea does come over there might be some evacuations. If it does happen it will make us a good lead story for this week. The coastguards will phone at 7 to give the latest position. We should know by then whether anything is going to happen. It should be okay to go home by 9 if nothing has happened."

"Okay no problem," I replied.

So that evening after tea I wandered back to the office, arriving well on time despite the continued heavy wind and rain.

I had been in the office only a short time when the telephone rang. It was still a little early for the coastguard, but too late in the day for a routine call from a member of the public.

"Hello press office," I said with all the confidence I had amassed over the past few weeks.

"Hello is that the lady from the family planning clinic?"

It was a silly question, so I gave a silly answer.

"No it's the Battersea Dogs Home."

"Oh sorry dear, must have got the wrong number."

So saying the woman rang off. It looked as if it was going to be one of those nights.

Right on cue the coastguards came through.

"I think it's going to be okay mate. The tides have reached their peak and apart from soaking the prom, no damage appears to have been done," said Colin who was one of the most approachable people I ever had to deal with, always willing to help and quick to assess situations, however difficult they were.

"Thanks for phoning Col. I shall be staying here until 9 if anything does happen."

"Okay I'll give you a call if there are any problems," he replied.

So that appeared to be it. I now had almost two hours to waste and, after making myself a cup of coffee, I settled down to read an Agatha Christie - why I haven't a clue.

I wasn't particularly enjoying the book and the coffee was long finished and I still had well over an hour to go when the telephone rang again. Perhaps it was another woman wanting birth control advice.

"Hello press officer."

"Can you help us please. Our boat has sunk with all our belongings and we're rather desperate."

"Where are you," I enquired.

"Outside the Cross Keys Hotel," came the reply.

"Okay stay there. I will be with you in 15 minutes."

Here could be a very good story for a young cub reporter. Well those were my first thoughts. This time I was the only one in the office who could tackle it - cometh the hour, cometh the man. This time there was no Willson or Birkett to snatch it away from me. But it was wrong to be thinking in such mercenary terms. I shouldn't be looking forward to making the most of other people's misfortune. I should be hoping that it was a hoax because otherwise there really was some fellow human beings in trouble. Here could be a family who had been on holiday and lost all their possessions. Little did I know that it was much worse than that.

I must explain at this point a little bit about the geography of the area. Although the main town in which I worked was by the sea, there were also beautiful waterways nearby. It was an area for sun, sand and holiday cruisers and this sinking had obviously occurred on the river because the hotel in question was in the next town.

In fact the town to which I was heading was only about four miles away, but far enough to make it necessary to take the office car. The office car was loaned out to reporters strictly for work and only after a mileage book had been signed. So I filled that in and then set off. Despite the closeness of my destination, it still took 15 minutes thanks to numerous road junctions, traffic lights, roundabouts and the fact that the car had seen better days and needed a number of repairs - including new brake linings. In fact it only just about moved. I dare not drive it over 30 mph.

I eventually made it to the hotel, although the wind threatened to knock me off the road on several occasions.

I soon saw what must have been the callers. There were three of them standing by the roadside and looking very bedraggled indeed.

The man and woman looked to be in their early 40s and what I presumed to be their daughter could have been anything from 15 to about 20. It was her weight that made it difficult to judge her age. She looked about 18 stone. Either it was puppy fat or she was seriously overweight. She waddled rather than walked. She looked like a refugee from one of those slimming adverts - the before picture. The mother was also fairly fat and flushed in the face. The man, however, was completely the opposite - thin as a rake and very tall.

I stopped and opened the passenger door and asked the obvious question.

"Are you the family that has been shipwrecked?"

"Well we ainít looking for Battersea Dogs Home love. We're all damn cold. Our homeís gone and all we have left are the clothes we are standing up in and they aren't much are they?"

It was no time to start asking questions on the spot and so I decided to take them back to the warmth of the office and give them some coffee before extracting the details. They happily accepted the offer.

Some minutes later they were sitting on the hard office chairs with cups of boiling coffee in their hands and no apparent wish to talk about their ordeal. I left them to it for a while before starting my interview.

"Can you tell me what happened then," I asked after a time.

"It's a long story really," replied the man. "I don't really want to bore you with the details but as you have been so kind to us I will."

For somebody who didn't want to talk about it, he was soon doing a fine job. That is one of the things I was gradually learning in the job. People who were at first reluctant to talk or have their photographs taken were quite often the most willing to talk in the end.

"It wasn't a hired boat you know. Not one of those holiday cruisers," he began.

"We come from London you see. Living down there has proved to be a little difficult through one thing and another, so at the beginning of the summer I got a job here and we sold our house, paid off a number of debts and decided to buy a houseboat. We got one on the cheap and it seemed to be in a fair state of repair, although it did creak a bit. Nevertheless we got through the summer easily enough, although I was beginning to have my doubts about the idea. More suited to dry land me. I don't mind telling you we were thinking seriously about trying to find a flat somewhere or getting lodgings. But then we thought who's going to put up a family of three, especially with a daughter who has just come out of hospital after a major operation/"

I nodded, although at the time I was thinking more of Violet's home where she seemed willing to take in anybody. But I didn't let on.

"Well last night as you know the weather turned nasty. Those winds were awful and I can tell you we had a right old night of it. My daughter was frightened, my wife had one of her headaches and we were thrown around in our beds as the vessel was tossed around."

"Yes it was frightening at times." It was the first time the wife had spoken and she had an obvious cockney accent.

"Yeah it certainly was and Christie here," the man continued pointing at his daughter as he did so. "Well she has to sleep on her back because of the operation. She was in terrible pain."

Christie opened her mouth to say something but her father was off again before she had the chance to speak.

"Anyway we got through the night okay and this morning I left for work as usual. These two stayed aboard until lunchtime and then went out to do some shopping. When they got home they found the boat half under water. Of course they tried to find the harbour master, but they are never around when you want them. By the time they had found him the boat had gone down and the only trace left was Christie's bra floating on the water. When I arrived home an hour later there was no sign of the boat anywhere. The weather certainly did a good job on our home. We didn't know what to do. We wandered around for some time trying to think things over, but that didn't do Christie's stomach any good."

That was the signal for the woman to tell me in detail all about Christie's operation. I was spared nothing and all the gory details came out. In the end the man took over again.

"Do you know my stomach hasn't been too good lately."

I managed at this point to get them back onto the correct track and established that they had nowhere to spend the night. I decided to phone Violet at the Conservative Club to see if she had any ideas about where they could be housed temporarily.

After a considerable delay I was put through to her.

"Hello dear. Sorry about the delay but I was on a winning street on the one-arm bandits."

"Oh how much have you won/"

"Oh I haven't won anything dear, just lost less than usual, Now what can I do for you? How are you phoning from home. I thought they cut the phone off this morning."

I explained that I was at the office, but it took a little while to sink in as Violet had obviously been at the drink again.

"Listen Violet, I have got a family here whose houseboat has sunk. Do you know anyone that can put them up for the night until they can get council help tomorrow?"

"How many of them are there dear?"

"Three."

"Oh I expect Madge down the road will put them up. Her lodger's on holiday. You say it's just for the one night?"

"Yeah that's right."

"Give me your phone number and I'll find out and call you back."

It seemed an eternity before she rang back, but at least it was with some good news.

"It's okay, Madge will put them up. She lives on our road at number 47. It's a rather dark house but you can't miss it."

The trio of unhappy people were glad to be going somewhere warm if only for the night. The door of number 47 was opened by a tiny wisp of a woman.

"You must be the poor unfortunate family and you must be Eric, " she smiled sweetly at me as she spoke.

"Violet has told me so much about you. She looks upon Robin and you as sons."

Once again I blushed a little and tried to hide it by ushering the family into the hall. By this time Madge was beginning to act like a broody hen and I thought it was about time to leave. So taking my farewells I left and returned to the office as the family continued to thank me. I was full of optimism that this would make an excellent lead story.

I wanted to get the copy typed up that night whilst it was fresh in my mind. There is nothing worse than writing a story when it is stale. It took me well over an hour and by the time I got home it was getting late and I was feeling absolutely exhausted. I went straight to bed and fell asleep immediately.

The following morning came like so many others - too soon. I dislike getting up in the mornings almost as much as I hate going to bed at night.

Still at last I had the satisfaction of having a good story under my belt. The only problem was how would Shad Greene take it? I had left it on his desk so that he would see it as soon as he came in. I still had an inbuilt fear that he would inform me that it wasn't really a weekly paper story. At times I wondered exactly what his idea of a good weekly story was.

If I kept worrying about that kind of thing I would soon be getting an inferiority complex, thinking that nothing I could do would please him.

When I arrived I was surprised to find that Tony Willson was already there. He grinned brightly at me as I entered.

"Morning Scoop. How does it feel to be a real Journalist at last? In his hand he held my story.

"You seemed pretty anxious that the old man should see this as soon as he came in. Why didn't you put it in the basket with the rest of the copy," he inquired.

I didn't know how to answer this rather direct question.

"It's okay Eric I'm only being jealous. It's right that he does see this as soon as he comes in if he can see through his usual alcoholic haze. It's a damn good story and it will certainly make a good lead for this week."

I began to glow with pleasure. Perhaps even Shad Greene would like it. It was something very unusual for Tony Willson to admit to somebody that they had a strong story and it wasnít one of his own. Lead stories were prized possessions. Tony liked to get hold of them and if somebody else had a good one his usual comment was "It's good but I'll get a better one." Now here he was almost admitting defeat.

It wasn't long before I received Shad Greene's comments. He seemed more sober this morning and he allowed himself only a quick glance at the Times before beckoning me into his office. His face seemed several shades lighter than on the day he called me in to pull my dustman story to pieces.

"Is this all your own work?" he said pointing at my copy.

I explained how I got the story and how I dealt with it.

"You say here that the family were found a home for the night. Who found it for them?"

"Well I suppose I did," I replied.

"Well let's put that the family were found a home for the night by this paper, Never does any harm to blow our own trumpet. Okay lad you've done a good story here, well done. You seem to be learning the trade well." He said this with the trace of a smile on his face.

I walked out is his office on Cloud Nine. I felt I had finally arrived. I was really ready for the big time. Ready that is until Tony brought me back to earth.

"Eric, Louise isn't feeling too well today so you'll have to cover court."

That Friday's paper came out with my "homeless story" as the front page lead. Just below the headline of "Storms make family homeless" were the words by staff reporter Tony Willson.

I almost choked when I read that, but I managed to keep my anger in check. I really was beginning to learn.