Peter Steward's Web Site
The phone rang. There was nothing unusual about that. It was a wrong number. Nothing unusual about that either except for the fact that it was the eighth that morning.
We often had fun with wrong numbers just like on the boat wreck night when I had been asked if I was the lady from the Family Planning Clinic. Today we must have had a crossed line from the exchange.
The phone rang again and I picked it up ready for another wrong number. I wasn't disappointed.
"Hello press office"
"Oh really David. Come on stop messing about. This is no time for a joke."
"I'm sorry but this is not David and I am not messing about. This is the local press office."
"Oh I am sorry," came the voice from the other end. "You must think me awful. It's just that I'm trying to phone the office where I work. Every time I do it they recognise my voice and say something silly like 'hello Chinese take away'" With that she apologiesd again and put the phone down.
"Hey Robin we've just been linked joint top with the Chinese Take Away in the silly organisations stakes," I said before gettiing on with my work.
In fact it was quite a day for zany telephone calls. A few minutes later I made the daily police checks which are the staple diet for any weekly newspaper.
"Do me a favour will you Eric, " said the Public Relations Officer at the other end.
"Yes if I can," I replied.
"Ring back in two minutes and ask the girl on the switchboard if she is my secretary. When she says no ask if you can speak to me and say you're from Australia House. Oh you'll need an Australian accent as well cobber."
Okay," I replied not bothering to ask why. In my book policemen worked in mysterious ways. So two minutes later I went through the ritual.
"Hello is that Mr Collins' secretary?" I asked in my best Queensland accent.
"No I'm afraid he doesn't have a secretary."
"Could I speak to him then?"
"Yes who's calling please?"
"This is Australia House."
"Oh....... hold on."
There was a double click
"Hello Phil it's Eric here," I said when I got through.
"Ta mate that's very kind of you. It was just a bet actually with the girls on the switchboard. I said I was going to emigrate to Australia and they didn't believe me. I'll buy you a pint the next time I see you."
I put the phone down and then realised I had forgotten one small thing. That was to ask whether there had been an crimes or accidents. So I rang back and got the same switchboard operator. This time I spoke to her in my normal English accent.
"Morning can I speak to Phil Collins in pr," I said.
"Oh it's Australia house again. Hold on I'll put you through," came the reply.
Many weeks passed at the office in what I would call organised chaos. From my humble, stuttering beginnings I had become an important part of the team. A team whose job was to blanket cover the town and surrounding areas, trying to ensure that no news slipped through the net. This wasn't too difficult a job because we had no competition. Gradually I was even winning the approval of Shad Greene. He no longer passed comment on my stories, which indicated I had been accepted. I still made him tea as often a s possible to keep in his good books.
Shad Greene assumed that he had a settled staff. Robin, myself and Louise represented the younger brigade who wouldn't leave because we were still short on experience at a grass roots level of journalism. Birkett had the not so secret past that he wanted to stay secret and that was primarily why he stayed put. He felt comfortable and safe. That left Tony Willson.
I suppose we always expected him to be the most likely to move on. He was unlikely to put up with being on a par with Birkett for long. He had ambitions, but we never dreamed they would take the turn that they did.
It was a Wednesday when he came out with the news. A week before he had mysteriously taken the day off and now we realised it was for a visit to no lesser place than Fleet Street.
He waited until we were all in the office just before dinner before telling us.
"I suppose you have all been wondering where I went when I took the day off last week? Well I went to Fleet Street for an interview and I heard this morning that I have got the job."
"Well that's wonderful. I am sorry... I mean we are all sorry to lose you but it's wonderful news to know that one of our number has made it to the top," said Birkett obviously seeing the chance looming to become the one and only chief reporter in the office. His star was rising.
"Come on then Tone where are you going. The Times, Guardian, Telegraph or is it slightly more down market, perhaps the Mirror or the Express," inquired Robin.
"What about the Sun or Financial Times?" I added.
"What about the Sun or Financial Times? echoed Robin as though I was asking him the question.
"More likely to be the Morning Star," added Louis.
"Well you're all wrong, " said Willson as he seemed about to put us out of our misery "It's a little magazine called Encounters and I just happen to have a copy here."
He threw it onto the table. It was a rather cheap looking second-rate sex magazine.
"I think you've got the wrong one out of your pocket old mate. This one's a......" said Robin. But before he could finish the sentence Willson put him right.
"Yep it's a sex magazine and apart from that the salary I'm being offered is almost double what I am earning here and think of the fun I'm gonna have. By the way they pay £20 for an original and true life article. I'm sure you lot can make a few up to help supplement your income. Just send them to me under different names each time and Bob's your uncle."
"Well actually mine's called Frank," said Birkett trying desperately to lower the conversation even further.
"Well I start as editor in three weeks' time and of course I will send you a copy each month.
"In a plain white envelope I suppose," said Robin.
"But of course."
So for the next three weeks Tony Willson was alternately the toast and the joke of the office. Everyone agreed that he was wrecking any future he might have in serious journalism, but at the same time we all admired his nerve and yes he probably would have fun for a limited time.
Before he left Tony took us to the public house just across the road from the office and bought a round of drinks. According to Robin this was quite a famous first or should I say famous thirst? He left on a Friday, having informed us that his divorce was progressing nicely but that his proposed next wife refused to go to London with him. But he was undaunted, after all he would soon have the run of London and his message was a simple one "Watch out female sex, I'm on my way." If he could find so many wives in the country, London would be a walkover particularly when you are editor of a top quality sex mag!
In many ways I was sorry to see him go. He had certainly been a character and the first person I had met in the office. But everytime somebody leaves they are replaced and the wheel turns full circle. We awaited his successor with eagerness. But first, in a simple ceremony Birkett was officially made chief reporter and we were told that the new man or woman would be his assistant.
It was three weeks later that HE arrived. A middle aged man. I suppose Shad Greene needed somebody over 40 to redress the balance of old and young. It started to become two separate groups. There was the editor, Birkett and this new bloke on one side and Robin, Louis and myself on the other.
The new man came with the obvious intention of making changes, although he seemed to have little or no authority to do so. He seemed to dislike anybody or anything who stood in his way. He soon began to dominate Birkett.
Reg Johnson was altogether a strange man, both in looks and attitude. He resembled a clown with a bald forehead and crown and lengthy hair cascading down the sides and over his collar. On reflection he rather resembled Max Wall. His actions were strange as well. He never ate or drank during the day, but smoked veil smelling Turkish cigarettes which upset the entire office of non smokers. Soon he was ordering all and sundry around and soon Birkett was getting thoroughly fed up with him.
"I'm not going to stick that man much longer. He marks up the diary. He's even started telling me what jobs I ought to do. It's always with the same phrase "Far be it for me to tell you what to do. Then he goes ahead and tells you. I'm chief reporter here and it's time he knew it. I'm going to tell him, I am."
But he didn't and the entire office began to become more silent and depressed as he seemed to cast an evil spell over everything. He was even dominating Shad Greene, telling him what stories should go into the paper and which should be left out. All his orders were prefixed with 'far be it for me to tell you."
"Far be it for me to tell you but if it was up to me I would do ...."
"Far be it for me to pick holes in something you have written but....."
And so it went on It became a catch phrase and an office joke. At home in the evenings Robin would turn to me and say:
"Far be it for me to tell you Eric but it's your turn to make the tea."
After three months of this man we were sure that Shad Greene was looking to get rid of somebody he viewed as a trouble-maker.
As I have said before the paper was owned by two businessmen who never interfered while things were runing smoothly. Running smoothly meant making a profit and keeping a settled staff.
Shad Greene would telephone the pair occasionally, but with the advent of Johnson, the phone calls became more common and more numerous. We knew that because Greene would shut his office door, something he scarcely ever did whilst making a phone call.
Birkett brought about the crunch. Shad Greene had always kept an almost fatherly eye on him and there was no concealing what Birkett had been going through since the arrival of Johnson.
Then one day Birkett, who had been off alcohol for many years, came into the office drunk.
"He's back on the bottle," Robin whispered to me.
It was a sad day in which we got a glimpse of the Birkett of the past and it wasn't a pretty sight. He staggered around between the desk and toilet all day and was eventually called into Shad Greene's office when he couldn't hide the office any longer..
They talked for quite some time before Birkett came out, picked up his coat and staggered out of the office. Johnson, who had been looking on with seeming indifference, was then called into the office and, after a lengthy discussion, came out and also picked up his coat and left the office in silence.
A few minutes later Shad Greene came into the reporters' room and for the first time in many weeks came out with more than one sentence.
"I would appreciate it very much if you would forget what you have seen today, particularly regarding Mr Birkett. He will be back in work tomorrow and in a sober state. Mr Johnson, however, has resigned and will not be returning to work here. It is a most unfortunate incident and is best forgotten. I shall be endeavouring to find a replacement for Mr Johnson as soon as possible."
We never found out what Shad Greene had said to either Birkett or Johnson but the next day everything was back to normal and from that day onwards we never saw Birkett touch another drop of alcohol.
Shad Greene was obviously aware of making a big mistake in the appointment of Johnson and so he decided to take another course of action. A few days after the Johnson-Birkett affair he called Robin into the office and shortly afterwards Robin came out with a broad smile on his face.
"The old man's promoted me. I am the new official assistant chief reporter of this rag and far be it for me to point this out, but the drinks are on me," he said proudly.
We all congratulated him and said we hoped he would still speak to us and secondly that he would still mix with us socially.
"I'll do better than that. I suggest we have a regular weekly get together either in a lunchtime or in an evening. I've got to get rid of the extra salary somehow," he replied.
It was a happy day at the office. Robin was a likeable chap and at no time in the future did he ever become big headed. In fact he revelled in what little responsibility he was given.
Of course it meant that once again we were a reporter short and Shad Greene set about advertising in the trade journal for a "young reporter." There was no way he was going for anybody experienced again.
There was only one reply to the advert in four weeks and, although Shad Greene didn't take completely to the youth, he decided to take him on for a trial period.
Martin was straight from college and very inexperienced in both journalism and life in general. He took everything seriously and any jokes were wasted on him. For Martin, life was a struggle and an uphill one at that.
He found the work hard and myself, Louise and Robin were continually trying to help him out and explain how to conduct interviews. Nevertheless we found his awkwardness preferable to Johnson's orders. It was worth carrying a passenger just to live a peaceful life and he was able to do a few basic things.
The main problem came when, after a few months, Martin began to let the job get to him. We tried to explain that there was no pressure on him and that his job was safe. Shad Greene was very reluctant to sack somebody he had hired himself as that would be admitting that he had been in the wrong not just once but twice. Martin continued to feel guilty about not doing enough work or taking too long over the little that he did. At nights he shut himself up in his lodgings and refused to go out until the morning.
"I think the poor lad's heading for a nervous breakdown," said Robin one night over bacon and eggs.
"Yes I suppose he is but what can we do about it. We've all tried to help him. He doesn't seem to want our help and won't come out with us in the evening so we can talk to him," I replied.
"I know but we really should try to do something. I think it's a deep rooted problem and I also think that one of us should try to sort him out," said Robin, showing that he very much had a caring side to his nature.
"Well I suppose as the youngest person in the office and the nearest to Martin in age I ought to have a go. I'll see what I can do," I said gallantly, but at the same time not really taking to the idea. Somehow, someone had to draw Martin out of his shell before he became totally submerged. The idea would simply be to try and prompt him to talk about himself and unburden himself at the same time. It wasn't going to be easy.
In the end, however, it turned out to be very easy. Martin, once he began talking about himself, found it difficult to stop and some of the things he told me were unusual to say the least and he turned out to be a rather complex and slightly frightening character.
It was about a week after my chat with Robin that I first approached Martin. I had not approached him before for two reasons. Firstly I had been putting the matter off and secondly the work had been piling up and kept me more than occupied.
"Martin how about coming out for a drink tonight," I eventually said when I had plucked up the courage.
"Thanks all the same but I think I'll give it a miss if you don't mind," he replied.
I realised the direct approach wasn't working and so I changed my tactics.
"I'm only asking you because Robin's going away for the evening and I've got this old landlady. If I stay in she'll pster me all night. So I will have to go to the pub anyway and I really hate drinking alone."
He was quiet and thoughtful for a moment before replying.
"Okay Eric if it will help you."
I arranged to pick him up at his lodgings at 7.30 p.m and by 8 we were all set up in the bar at the Swan with beer in front of us. I was working on the assumption that if I got some drinks inside Martin he might chat more easily. It was slow going at first. We talked for a while about music and cricket, which were the two real loves of his life.
By 9.30 I was ready to give it all up as a bad job, buy a final drink and call it a night and return home to report failure to Robin. I had failed miserably and hoped that Robin, with his superior charm, might have more success.
Suddenly Martin stopped dribbling on about Hereford United's record signing and the chances of Kent winning the county championship and came back to earth.
"I suppose you all think that I'm rather a strange sort of person?"
I was taken aback by this sudden change and all I could utter was a very low key "pardon."
"Me ... you all think I'm odd don't you. I know everybody has tried to be kind to me in the office and give me an easy ride. But you see I have problems that none of you know about. You wouldn't understand."
"It's difficult Eric, honest it is."
He took a long drink from his glass and I began to wonder whether he was going to continue or not.
"The point is to you or the others my problems probably wouldn't really be problems. They would just be annoyances that could be put to the backs of your mind. But I'm not like that. I don't seem to be able to cope with things. Everything gets on top of me and I seem to be dragged down by something invisible that I don't understand. It's a horrible feeling. Like you know you're going to drown but your head never quite goes completely under the water. But I'm sure you don't want to hear my troubles."
Now I had got this far I wasn't going to let go that easily.
"Look Martin I agree that we have noticed that you're not really the life and soul of the party. That's why I'm here tonight. This is a put up job. Robin hasn't gone out tonight and my landlady goes out every evening anyway, although she is rather mad. I wanted to take you out for a drink to see if I could help you. Now I've admitted it I wouldn't blame you if you walked out on me and never spoke to me again."
"Well at least you're being honest. I appreciate that Eric and I suppose it's better than ignoring me, which is what most people do. I can tell you it took a lot to get me here tonight. I almost phoned you to say I couldn't make it, but I suppose the fact that I didn't meant that I wanted to come. I think I want to tell you about myself. I don't know how far I can go. I may suddenly stop halfway through and walk out, but you'll have to take that chace."
"Okay that's fine by me, How about starting at the beginning?"
So we did.
Poor old Martin turned out to be a walking time bomb full of baggage. He hated the size of his feet, the shape of his nose and many other things and all his problems seemed to stem from his childhood.
"I never really knew my father. That's where I think the problems started. You see my mother brought me up and told me that my father had died shortly after my birth. I always accepted that as the truth, after all when you are young you tend to believe everything people tell you, especially when it's your mother.
"I always thought it was rather strange that there were never any wedding pictures around or photographs of my mother and father together and questions I asked about this were met with short, sharp replies or a quick ' come on and get ready you know we're going out."
Martin looked as if he was close to tears but he swallowed and then continued.
"Eventually I learned not to ask questions or refer to my father at all. My mother brought me up as well as she could, but she was never what I would call a good parent. She had too many problems and hangups and I think I inherited many of my problems from her. She must have told herself on numerous occasions that she was just a normal human being and had nothing to worry about, but of course things went from bad to worse. She often lost her temper and began to regularly hit me and as Igrew up I thought more and more about leaving home. The school I attended taught me that it was okay to have a mind of your own and I didn;t have to rely entirely on my mohter. I became argumentative and obstructive towards her. I refused to do what she wanted and I must have been turning into a right spoiled little brat.
"Eventually I grew out of the stage of being deliberately obnoxious but more and more I wanted to leave home. So I made plans, but as they say the best made plans of mice and men. I did actually leave, carrying an ol bag containing a few things. On the first occasion I stayed out for two hours before returning home and on the second I stayed out all night. I got frozen and slunk home in the morning to be met with a bloody good hiding from my mother. It was after that I decided to forget the idea of running away. I didn't know where to go and when I returned home I always got punished. London may have been paved with gold but the miles on the way certainly weren't and what chance had a 12-year-old boy. ASnyway I really think my mohter wouldn't have been concerned enough about me to try and find me or call the police and my leaving was just my cry for help.
"I settled down for a time after that and became quite studios. I suppose I was still trying to please her. But then something else happened and I flipped again. I think I was starting to become quite a nutter. I had to see this doctor and I thought that was quite strange because not once did he examine me physically and I had these ugly feet and this huge nose. He just sat there and talked and talked and the whole thing got very boring. Stupid questions about how did I feel at certain times of the day. Absolute rubbish. All I knew was how I felt when I felt like it if you can understand that. I'm sorry Eric I must be rambling a bit.
"Eventually in one of my saner moments I decided that journalism was what I wanted to do. That's a laugh in itself. It's a complete contradiction really as journalists need to have extrovert characters and I'm probably one of the world's great introverts. Journalism needs people like Robin who can clown about and take life as a joke, while still treating being a reporter as a serious profession.
"I applied to training college when I was old enough and they seemed to have more places available than they could attract applicants, so I got one of them. You know all about the rest because you must have gone through the same process. I was looked upon as a bit if a washout at college. They just didn't understand. They thought I was an oddball. They thought that because I rested my head on my arms during lectures that I was asleep. I was really trying to come to terms with my problems at that time in an attempt to re-join the human race.
"Everything came to a head on a visit to Somerset House. Every week at college we went on a visit to Lodnon and on this particular day we were given an initiative test to look up either our birth certificate or the will of somebody we knew.
"I was okay with the will. I looked up a friend of the family who had been killed in a road accident. I had problems with the birth certificate, however. Eventually I got hold of a copy and, without paying much attention, got it photocopied. I wasn't particularly interested in the exercise and just wanted to get home for tea. I didn't look at the paper until late in the evening when I was back in my lodgings. Then it was a feeling of curiosity that led me to take it out of my jacket with the intention of placing it with my books to take into college the following morning.
"I suddenly realised that the certificate might give me my father's first name and occupation. My mother had even kept these basics from me. When I read the certificate it was with an increasing feeling of horror. I was shocked to read under the section set aside for the father's name just two words - not known.
"I realise now that to some people that would not have mattered. They would probably have laughed off the discovery and at the worst been annoyed that their mother had hidden a dark secret for many years. It had neither affect on me, however.
"I was stunned. Stunned not for a few hours, but for days and weeks and months after and even now the realisation that I am a bastard in the literal sense of the word makes me want to throw up. I spent night after night laying awake and thinking.
"Thinking about how my mother had cheated me all these years."
"Didn't you talk to her about it," I asked.
"Oh yes but she tossed it aside and changed the subject and said it was of no importance and that made it worse. She would even taunt me with it ' well now you know what you are don't you. You're a bastard and don't think your father was the first man I had either. There were plenty before him and plenty after. It's only in the last few years that I've stopped. They all paid bloody well. I made a mistake. You were never meant to happen so I haven't a clue which one of the lousy no-goods was responsible and quite honestly I don't give a toss either. Now you know exactly what I am and exactly what you are. That's all she said. After that I stopped visiting her. I still had some spark of decency in me even if she hadn't and I was determined not to be dragged down to her level.
"At first I fought back but it nagged at me and soon I felt worse than ever about it. It was a sif somebody in the street was pointing at me and saying Look there's the son of that whore who lives down South Road. It hurt more and more after that. Other people may not have been aware but I knew. I was glad to get this job because I thought I could make a fresh start and put the memories behind me. I had the idea of becoming a good reporter, absorbing myself in my work. But whatever I did my problems kept coming back and over the past few months I have felt unable to cope. This has led to me feeling really guilty as though I've brought all this on myself. I know I'm a burden to you all but I don't seem able to do anything about it. I enjoy working here and would hate to leave but I fear that unless I can sort myself out I might have to try and make another fresh start, although wherever I go my hang ups are bound to follow. I couldn't be sure that a fresh start would be any different to this one. I do appreciate everything you and Robin and Louise have done for me. I may seem ungrateful but that's because I can't express my feelings.
"Another thing that came directly from finding out that I was illegitimate is that I can't face girls or women. I have never been out with one. I have never had a girlfriend and I suppose I see all of them as an extension of my mother, which is obviously totally unfair to them. When in female company I feel shy and withdrawn.
"But you get on well with Louise don't you," I asked.
"Yes it's different with Louise because she's a colleague. I can treat her as just another reporter. If I go to a dance, however, it's more than my life's worth to ask a girl to dance. I would love to have a normal boy/girl relationship but I find it impossible. I long to hold a girl close."
By this time I could see that Martin was becoming more and more depressed. The fact that he referred to girls rather than women rather suggested to me that he had never really grown up into a man. I must admit just talking to him was depressing me as well. So I wasn't too annoyed when one of the local coppers sat down beside us and started chattering. I was not annoyed either when Martin announced that he felt rather tired and wanted to go home. By this time he was feeling too sorry for himself to be of any ise to anybody.
"I am sorry to have lumbered you with all this Eric, but I think you have helped me to make up my mind on something."
He didn't say what but got up, put on his jacket and left the pub saying that he would see me at work the next morning.
Back at Violets, Robin didn't question me too closely after I told him that Martin had expressly asked me not to share what he had said with anybody. Robin was curious but accepted the position as I obviously looked shattered.
"Okay mate I won't ask you to break a promise. I will ask you, however to do some bacon and eggs. I'm absolutely famished and it's you turn."
Normality had been resumed. It was always my turn! Things were quickly getting back to normal.
The next day was a Friday and so things were fairly quiet at work. It was press day and as a consequence anything that happened after 10.30 a.m was too late for that week's paper. So we all followed the good old tradition of "a job worth doing is a job worth putting off until Monday.
Most of the day was spent sitting around chatting and drinking coffee and trying to put the world to rights. It was the one day of the week when the pressure was off.
Neither Martin nor myself referred to the previous evening. I didn't bring it up for two reasons. Firstly I was sure that the last thing Martin wanted to do was to have his life discussed in the office and secondly it was up to him to bring the subject up if he wanted to.
So the day went smoothly with no mention of the previous evening. Before I left the office in the late afternoon I checked the events diary to see who was on duty over the weekend. It revealed that Martin and Louise were on Saturday and Birkett on Sunday. So I decide to have a quiet and lazy weekend. I thought of Martin and Louise in the office on the following day and couldn't help but smile. Would he talk to her, I wondered.
So the weekend was a very pleasant one and I returned to work on Monday expecting to find everything as I had left it on Friday. Oh how I was mistaken.
After the refreshment of the weekend I was up bright and early on the Monday morning and went into work rather earlier than usual. That is one of the benefits of enjoying a job. You never mind how early you go into work or how late you leave and Mondays hold no fear. Starting at a relatively early hour I fully expected to be first in and was more than a little surprised to see Shad Greene and Birkett's cars were already in the car park.
As I approached the door to the office I could hear physical movement inside and raised voices. I soon saw why. Birkett and Greene were walking round the remains of Martin's desk and Louise was watching them. In fact the only people missing from the scene were Robin who I had left in bed to enjoy a day off and Martin himself.
What had formerly been Martin's desk was a pile of bits and pieces on the floor in a heap. The drawers had been tipped out and obviously something like an axe had been used to hack the desk to pieces.
"What on earth has happened?" I asked
"It's Martin's desk. He's wrecked the bloody thing," replied Birkett.
"How do you know it was Martin that did it?"
"Well I just phoned his landlady and apparently he walked out last night and he's taken all his clothes and things and taken off for goodness knows where."
"Well that doesn't prove that he smashed his desk up. Perhaps he didn't like his lodgings but didn't want to hurt the feelings of the landlady by telling her to her face," I said.
"You've got to admit old son that it looks pretty suspicious doesn't it? replied Birkett and I had to agree,
"Everything appears to have been okay on Saturday when Louise left and I came in briefly in the evening and everything was hunky dory. So he must have come in sometime yesterday. Why did he do it though? I know he was a quiet lad and had problems and I would be the first to say that he was no journalist but I didn't think he was the violent type. Thank God there was nobody around when he came in," said Birkett.
Louise walked up to me and whispered in my ear.
"Come and have a coffee in the cafe down the road. I need to have a chat with yu," she said.
I took the hint and told Birkett we were popping out to grab a quick breakfast.
It was a short walk to the cafe and on the way Louise said nothing. It was almost as if she was weary of somebody overhearing us. Finally with a steaming coffee in front of us I asked her what all the secrecy was about.
"Louise why all the cloak and dagger stuff?"
"Mainly because I want to talk about Martin and what happened over the weekend and I don't want Birkett and Greene to know. They won't miss us. We're both in early and there is disruption in the office. They'll be glad that we are out of the way in case they decide to call in the police. Otherwise they'll have the mess to clear up. All they really care about is how much it's going to cost to replace the desk and what they are going to do about finidng Martin. The think is Eric I know one or two things about this that they don't and I think you know about them too.
"On Saturday things were very quiet and I got to talking to Martin and he began to open up his heart to me. He told me he had met you in the pub during the week and told you all about his problems and all about not having a father and all that sort of thing."
She went on to tell me exactly what Martin had said to her and it tallied pretty well with what we had spoken about in the pub.
"I'm rather glad he told somebody else. I was beginning to think it was too much of a burden to carry on my own shoulders," I said.
"That's not the point Eric. He told me more than he told you. Once he got started he wouldn't or couldn't stop. He said you had been the catalyst that opened the flood gates, After he left you he wanted to tell somebody else and that sombody happened to be me. He told me all the things he had told you and also all the things he was going to tell you when that copper arrived in the pub and broke his train of thought."
She paused and sipped her coffee as if reluctant to go on.
"Well what did he tell you," I said eagerly.
"It's not very pleasant Eric. He has a fetish for women's boobs and whips and leather and all that kind of thing."
The words seemed strange coming from Louise, although we no longer looked on her as the naive little flower we once had , foolowing her comments about boyfriend Bruce.
"You mean he's kinky?" I said.
"Yes I suppose that is what I mean. He said it all cam about because he was too shy to approach girls and had to live in this fantasy world of whips and leather and then he produced a pair of women's leather boots from his desk and asked me to put them on."
"You mean he was making a pass at you. Well I suppose in some ways that was a step in the right direction anyway."
"Eric this isn't funny."
"No I suppose not. Go on. What did you do?"
"Well I made some excuse about having an urgent job to go to and left the office. His last words to me were 'I'm sorry Louise, please forgive me. I know you aren't that type of girl', Problem is Eric I think at times that I might be that type of girl. Anyway when I got back to the office he had gone. I didn't think much more about it because by that time it was time to knock off anyway and I thought that with things being so quiet he had just decided to go home slightly early. The next time I thought about what had happened was when I got in early this morning and found the desk in pieces. I immediately called Birkett and he must have contacted Greene, but not before I had read the letter."
She handed me a small plain white envelope addresses "To Louise and Eric - two good friends."
"Where di you find this?" I asked
"It was tucked underneath my typewriter. I saw it before the other two and read it in the toilet. I don't know whether we should let them know about it or not."
I unfolded the paper and read the contents. They were somehow rather pathetic.
Dear Louise and Eric
I am sorry it has all ended this way. I felt that I couldn't stand it any longer. The whole thing has been building up inside me for a while now. If you decdie to tell Shad Greene about this letter, tell him I'm sorry about wrecking the desk but it was done in a bout of temper and I had to hiot something or someone. Luckily there was nobody around. Apologise to everyone for the trouble I have caused. I do hope to see you both again. Perhaps someday I will be able to get myself sorted out."
It was simply signed Martin
"Oh hell. What are we going to do about this," I asked after studying the letter for a few minutes.
"I don't know Eric. I really don't know. We must either show it to Greene and tell him everything we know or we must destroy it and forget its existence. Greene is certain that Martin caused the damage anyhow. It doesn't take a genius to work that out. I really don't see what purpose it would serve to tell him all the rest."
"On the other hand Martin didn't say anything about keeping quiet about it. If we tell Greene he might just understand and drop the matter. If we don't he's obviously going to hound the police until the catch the villain, although I'm not sure that that isn't what Martin wants. He feels so guilty about living, perhaps he wants a genuine reason to feel guilty about something and perhaps this is all a cry for help," I said.
Eventually after considerable discussion we decided to keep quiet about the whole matter. It turned out to be a good decision because some days later Shad Greene announced that he hadn't reported the matter to the police and intended overlooking it. He accepted that Martin had gone off to goodness knows where and wouldn't return.
"These youngsters are all the same. Got a good steady job and they do something silly and throw it all away. Got no time for them. Pity he didn't leave us a resignation note. Technically now we're going to have to sack him." And those were his final words on the matter.
Within a few days a new desk had arrived and Shad Greene started interviewing for a replacement for Martin.
With Johnston and Martin behind him, Greene was careful not to make a third mistake with his staff appointment. He still prided himself on being able to pick the right character, although some of us were now questioning this ability. This time his advert in the national trade journal attracted three applications and the poor devils must have thought they were being interrogated by the length of the interviews and the interminable set of questions that Greene had run through with Birkett before the interviewees arrived. All three were locked away with the editor for two hours. Then on each occasion he made some excuse and left them alone in his office, slunk round the back and secretly peered at them. So thorough were his methods that one of the applicants withdrew on the grounds that his father had been in a German prisoner of war camp and it all brought back too many bad memories.
In the end all the effort worked, however, as this time he chose wisely. Martin's place was taken by a very pleasant 32-year-old with a wife and two children. He had told Greene that he wanted to settle down after years of moving about and a place by the seas suited him and his family well. He liked the area and was willing to give his all to the job. Corny stuff but it worked in winning over the editor.
So John McManus joined the staff and he got on with everyone. He was a friendly, sunny kind of guy and once again the office began to work together as a happy and contented team.
As for Martin he was soon forgotten, except of course by Louise and myself, who knew so much more about him than the others did. That didn't prevent him from becoming something of a cult figure, however. A number of tall stories grew up about him. Some were true, others equally untrue. Soon it became difficult to separate fact from fiction.
I tried for my own piece of mind to sort out the true ones and that at times became very sad but also amusing. I decided top put the incidents involved down on paper in case I ever wanted to write a book on the life of a young journalist in a seaside town in the early 1970s. To date I have had no wish to do this, but who knows what the future might bring?
This is what I wrote.
Four of the incidents referred to I know to be true. I loosely label them - the three hour golden wedding interview, the UFO spotting, the pot plant attack and the body exhumation.
Martin and the three hour golden wedding interview:
Robin was aware of this one. It was a Saturday afternoon and Robin and Martin were on duty. Robin had a fete to cover and was due to pass the place where Martin was scheduled to interview a couple celebrating their golden wedding. So Robin gave him a lift, dropped him off and said he would pick him up about an hour later after covering the fete. So Robin drove off and returned just over an hour later fully expecting Martin to be waiting by the road side. But there was no sign of him. Robin assumed he had finished the interview early and gone for a walk to kill time. In his own experience of covering golden weddings, there was only need to set aside about 30 minutes. The couple jabbered on for that amount of time and then seemed to dry up. Either their memories were poor or they became tired talking. There was only so many times you could ask the all important question "to what do you attribute such a lengthy marriage" and receive the reply "give and take dear, give and take."
So Robin settled down to wait for Martin's return and picked up his book as he was in no particular hurry to get back to the office. An hour and 60 pages later Robin began to get a little fed up and decided that even a long walk wouldn't have taken all that time. He gave Martin another 10 minutes and then decided to call at the house to see if the golden wedding couple could tell him where Martin was.
The door was opened by a strange little man with a very large red nose and a party hat propped onto the top of his small bald head.
"Hello," said Robin "Is our reporter here or do you know where he is?"
"A reporter you say. Um not sure we've seen any of them. Mind you we've a bit of a party goin so he might have slipped in. You'd better come in and have a look."
Robin entered the living room to the strains of the March of the Torreadors blasting out from a rather ancient wind up gramophone. There were a number of obviously drunk, middle aged men and women prancing around the floor. Perched on a settee in the corner were the anniversary couple. They were obviously enjoying the goings on despite the fact that everybody seemed to be ignoring them.
Perched in the corner, slumped against the wall was Martin. A glass of champagne was by his side and he had a ridiculous party hat on his head.
Robin sighed deeply and walked over to him
"Martin," he said pulling his arm.
Martin groaned and looked up.
"Ello Robin old mate. Ere have some champagne" Martin was obviously drunk and Robin had to quickly assess the problem. There was only one thing to do and that was get him out of the house.
"Come on Martin, hold onto me and we'll get you back to the office."
So saying Robin summoned up as much strength as he could muster and heaved Martin to his feet. Martin was doing a fine impression of a sack of potatoes, but he eventually managed to stagger to the hall, where the little bloke with the red nose was sitting on the stairs.
"Going already mate. It's just hotting up," said the red nose.
Martin leared at him and staggered out the door.
"Well I don't know who you are but it's been a pleasure meeting you," said red nose holding out a bony hand.
"Likewise," replied Martin as Robin helped him out the door.
On the way back to the office Robin had to stop three times to allow Martin to throw up at the side of the road.
"That was some party... some bloody party," said Martin philosophically.
"Of course you'll be ready to do some work when we get back to the office," said Robin
"Work is a four letter word of the worst kind," he replied.
In a strange way according to Robin, Martin seemed to be more in control of himself when he was drunk that when he was sober. Certainly he was full of confidence. Unfortunately as he began to sober up in the office with the help of black coffee he became more and more morose and burst into fits of uncontrollable sobbing.
Robin left him alone until he thought he was sufficiently sober to be able to start work.
"Well I suppose after all that time you must have a pretty full story. It's not often you get three hours to do an interview for a golden wedding," said Robin.
"Oh no," said Martin who by now seemed to entering the depths of dispair.
"What's wrong?" inquired Robin.
"I forgot to interview them."
"I'm sorry Robin but as soon as I got in the door they started forcing drink on me."
"But didn't you tell them who you were."
"Well no not really. The problem is I can't take drink and after a couple of glasses I couldn't remember who I was and what I was there for. They seemed really friendly people but I couldn't work out who they were."
"Well you'll just have to go back on Monday and do a proper interview. There's loads of mail come in so if you could sort through that and deal with it I ....." Robin tailed off as Martin had fallen asleep slumped across his desk.
Martin and the UFO Sighting
Martin was easy prey for the succession of nutcases that came into the office, just wanting somebody to talk to. Unfortunately he couldn't pick out the true story from the con.
The UFO sighting was obviously a con. A middle aged Scotsman came into the office and convinced Martin that a flying saucer had landed on the local park and how three little green men carrying laser guns had walked out of it.
Martin was obviously engrossed by the description of how these little inter-terrestrial beings had then disappeared into thin air. The Scotsman was obviously enjoying putting one over on the power of the press. Besides it was pouring with rain and he was enjoying the dry and warmth of the office.
After about 45 minutes Gwen decided that enough was enough and even Martin shouldn't be subjected to any more. She picked up the nearest phone and made it look as if a call was coming in.
"Hello," she said into the silent receiver.
"Martin. Yes he's here. Hold on please I'll try and get him.... Yes I understand that it's a long distance call and you're in a hurry. Please hold the line."
It was the old trick of front office staff getting a journalist out of trouble by pretending there was an urgent call waiting. It made it easy for even the most gullible reporter to get rid of a tiresome member of the public and it was a method that was frequently used in our office. A simple non existent call gave the reporter the chance to say "I'm sorry but I shall have to go now."
But not Martin. He didn't have the sense to see an easy way out and couldn't see that somebody would be prepared to lie in order to get him out of a situation. To Martin everything was in black and white, there were no shades of grey.
"Martin it's a call for you... from Lancashire," Gwen said.
Martin obviously didn't know anybody in Lancashire, but he showed no outward sign of surprise at all.
"Can you take their number and I'll phone them back," he said.
"But I think it's rather urgent."
"I'll phone back."
At this point Gwen gave up and replaced the receiver. The Scotsman kept going for another half an hour until the rain stopped, By that time even Martin was beginning to think the story could possibly have been made up.
When the Scotsman finally left Martin turned to Gwen.
"Do you think he was making all that up?"
"You mean it's taken you all that time to work that out?" Gwen replied.
"But why would he do such a thing?"
"Martin, it's been raining outside and he wanted some shelter."
"Yeah I suppose that's true. If you knew that was the case why didn't you try to rescue me? Anyway what's that L:ancashire number I have to phone?"
Gwen shrugged. She knew it was going to take her a long time to explain.
Martin and the Plant Attack
If I had not seen this one for myself I just wouldn't have believed it. I mean how many people can claim that they were under siege from a common or garden plant? Well Martin could and did.
It was a story almost straight from the pages of a comedy script.
Martin's desk, before he wrecked it, was in the corner of the reporters' room. It was by a window and one of Louise's boasts was that she had green fingers and could grow plants at a tremendous rate. Birkett had goaded her once that he didn't believe her and so she had decided to decorate the office in order to prove him wrong.
One Monday she arrived laden with plants of various types and she arranged them round the room. After a few weeks interest among the reporting staff had waned and all accepted the plants as a permanent office fixture. Louise still tended to them regularly during her lunch break. Birkett had become slightly fed up with three near his desk and placed them on Martin's windowsill. Martin had two other plants on the floor near his desk and at rather large fern at the side.
The event I am setting down took place on a Wednesday. Martin seemed to accept parenthood of the plants with a kind of easy going indignation. He didn't care fro them but he put up with them.
Her story about having green fingers certainly seemed true as the greenery blossomed and many opf the plants and flowers took on a decidedly healthy look. The area around Martin's desk began to resemble a forest. Of course nobody had the heart to get rid of the plants and so they continued to thrive and grow.
It was a rather tall and winding green plant that started the trouble. I am no good on plant names but this one had a home on the radiator next to Martin's desk and obviously flourished in the heat.
Martin had a habit of balancing his chair on one leg and on a number of occasions had collapsed in a crumpled heap on the floor. On this particular occasion he was once again defying the laws of gravity in precariously balancing on just the right back leg. In the corner Robin and Birkett were betting on the chances of him staying upright for more than two minutes. Robin had odds of 10/11 against this happening.
Suddenly there was a muffled scream from the corner. Birkett, Robin and Louise looked at each other and Shad Greene looked disapprovingly over the top of his office glass.
Martin lay on the floor, having fallen off his chair. There was nothing unusual in that, but this time he was angrily wrestling with the plant and was ripping it to shreds and turning the earth from the pot over himself.
By this time a very indignant Gwen had come up from the front office and was staring at Martin with her mouth wide open. Everyone just stood and stared they seemed almost frightened to speak. Gwen was the first to come to her senses as she had a vested interest in the situation.
"Martin what are you doing?"
Martin threw some of the earth off his torusers and looked up.
"It bloody attacked me."
"It what," said Robin sounding a little more than bemused.
"That plant. It pulled me off my chair. Look at its bloody roots." So saying he pulled the plant out of the pot.
"You leave that alone. It took me ages to grow it," said Louise
"What have you been feeding it on. The sodding thing's alive," cried Martin as he picked himself off the floor.
"You've been reading too much science fiction lad," said Birkett before informing Robin that he owed him 50p.
"I'm not working in this office until all those plants go. They're evil," said Martin.
"Don't you worry they're not staying here. I'm going to give them all to my mother. At least she'll appreciate them," said Louise who was by now in quite a temper.
"Bloody good job an all," said Martin as he stormed off towards the toilet in an attempt to clean up.
From that day onwards we never had a plant or flowers of any sort in the office. The whole incident became painful to Louise and long after Martin left she couldn't face talking about it.
Gwen remarked that it wasn't surprising that somebody who had believed that little green men had invaded the local park would also believe that plants could attack and kill.
Martin continued to fall off his chair with monotonous regularity. Once the plants had gone he had no excuse for ending up in a crumpled heap on the floor, although on one occasion he did claim a fortune teller at one of the local fetes had placed a curse on him!
Martin and the body exhumation
Probably the most macabre episode Martin got involved in started with another visit to the office form a member of the public. This time it was a genuine call, but a strange one to say the least.
A Mr Bertram Farmer told Martin a weird story about wanting to have his mother's body exhumed. He had this strange idea in his head that his mother had died in hospital on the same day as another woman He believed that the other woman had been buried in his mother's grave. He had no way of proving this, it was all based on some tenuous talk with a nurse. But he wanted the body exhumed and felt the paper could have some bearing on the matter. Again a gullible Martin took it all in, returned upstairs and actually wrote a punchy story and submitted it to Shad Greene who immediately went berserk.
"Look son I know you're pretty new to this business but you seem to be very easily taken in."
Martin tried to argue but got nowhere. You never did with Shad Greene. The story was shelved and I think that was really where Martin's hatred of the editor began to build up. It was something that would fester and have consequences at a later date as I will eventually reveal. But for now I'm getting ahead of myself. The outcome of this incident was that for once Martin was correct in his assessment. Nothing appeared in our newspaper, but it did in one or two of the nationals. Mr Farmer eventually received permission from the relevant authorities to go ahead with the exhumation and indeed to the chagrin of Shad Greene it was found that Mrs Farmer had been buried in the wrong plot. This caused distress not only to Mr Farmer but also to the family of the other woman involved. Mrs Framer was re-buried in the existing plat and the headstones were switched to ensure that the right person was resting under the right epitaph.
As for Martin. Well we believed that he had gone for good. He was to turn up again sooner than we thought, but once again I am getting ahead of myself.