Star Press Agency, St Helens
January 11, 1970
I’m bored. My feet are on my desk and I’m listening to Radio Caroline. It’s one of my favourite numbers; Freda Payne’s Band of Gold which followed Mungo Jerry’s In The Summertime. I hum away to the haunting tune staring at the phones on my desk. It is January. The fireworks, the parties – and the hangovers – are now distant memories to be replaced by the grey, dismal days that lead up to a no-doubt even more dismal February.
My name is Keith Wilder and I am news editor of the Star Press Agency. I joined as a reporter straight from university two years ago until the last news editor left for a more lucrative job on The Times. Can’t say I blame him. I aim to emulate him in the not-too-distant future. Anyway, the boss offered me his job.
At first, I thought it may have had something to do with my talent, but the sad truth is that I was probably cheap. So now I lead my fellow hacks on the agency in assisting to make the boss rich. I think they all have an eye on a job on a daily judging by the feverish way they all take cuttings from papers that have run their stories.
The weather has been in the news of late because of the heavy snowfall after New Year, but it has warmed up slightly in the last few days and so the focus has shifted back to local stories, especially with the voting age coming down to eighteen. I organised quite a few vox pops to support that.
I glance at the pile of papers on my desk. On top is the Times and I notice an item which I must have missed first time round. It is that the half-crown is no longer legal tender. How did I miss that? I empty my pockets and notice I have two. Damn! I will have to go to the bank when it opens tomorrow.
I sigh. Nothing is happening. Has the third world war started and I haven’t noticed? The phones have been silent for the past two hours. I have read all the Sunday papers; the pages that matter anyway. I haven’t even had the usual Sunday crank or nutter wanting to tell me that I will rot in Hell or that Martians have landed.
Sunday nights on the news desk are usually enlivened by people who have nothing better to do than to vent their feelings about the government, the council, or the world in general. And for some reason they appear to think that we have influence over just about everybody and everything and when they realise we don’t, they take off. I have been called just about every evil name under the sun. I’ve heard it all before and if they get too abusive, I simply tell them to fuck off and put the phone down.
I’m really quite a patient sort of bloke, but there are times when I feel generally pissed off with the world and I simply can’t be bothered listening, so I just put the phone on the desk and let them get on with it; picking up now and then to see if they’ve finished.
But tonight, not even the nutters are ringing. I stare at my typewriter, a battered old Imperial, thinking that I might do the nightly rounds which mostly consist of ringing the police, fire, and ambulance to find out if anything is breaking.
I sometimes reflect in quieter moments, usually when I’m holding a pint, that my parents wanted me to follow the family tradition to become a joiner or carpenter. I’m beginning to think they may have had a point, but I have always had an insane ambition to be a journalist even when I managed to get into the University of Liverpool to read English. That was even more of a shock to my mum than it was for me. Nobody in my family had ever managed to make it to uni and I discovered later that not that many scribes have a degree. It’s a bit different on the nationals and the BBC but up here, in the frozen north, there is a tendency to view reporters who do have a degree with a little suspicion, so I simply don’t mention it.
I stand up and look around the office. It’s a typical newsroom; paper everywhere; dirty, scruffy, newspapers in great piles strewn around casually; ashtrays full of fag ends; typewriters that during the day fill the room with a loud clatter and bells that sound when the carriages reach the end of their travel. But now it is empty. It is just me and a reporter who I know is in the local pub. He won’t be back tonight.
I slowly walk over to the window and gaze out at the street below. We are in the centre of a Lancashire town called St Helens, not far from Liverpool, most famous for its Pilkington’s glass works and rugby team called The Saints. Before I came here, I truly knew little about rugby not having had the advantage of a posh school education, so I had a steep learning curve to follow because in this town rugby is a religion. And the very first thing I learned was that this is Rugby League country not Rugby Union, words you don’t even dare whisper!
Despite coming from a long line of carpenters and joiners, all I ever wanted to be was a journalist. I have always excelled at English; so much so that my school entered me into a national essay writing competition when I was just eight. I still remember the subject; it was the RNLI – the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. I can’t remember how many words it was. All I remember is that I won it. Amazingly. Astoundingly. I have no idea how many kids entered; Maybe I was the only one. Anyway, the prize was cash for the school and a certificate for me. I recall thinking how unfair that was; it should have been cash for me and a certificate for the school.
After that I could do no wrong. My primary school had never won a prize for anything before, so I was a hero. I don’t feel like a hero any longer. All the lofty ambitions I had at university; all the high ideals we were fond of discussing in the pub have ended up here, just three years later in a scruffy provincial news agency where our work is judged by the number of words and how much they can earn.
Despite all that I have managed to buy myself a Ford Capri which might raise a few eyebrows considering I earn £37 a week. It isn’t new of course. There was no way I could afford around £900. I got it for £600 mostly on HP but the deposit managed to wipe out most of my savings, earned mostly by a bit of freelancing here and there but I don’t care. It’s the closest I am ever going to get to an E-Type. It is also a 1.6 litre and pure white. It’s the sexiest car I have ever driven, and it pulls the ladies. Who said 1970 was a lousy year?
Just as I am contemplating packing up for the night the silence is broken by the news desk phone ringing. I stare at it debating whether to pick up or not. I decide that if it’s a nutter I will just cut him off. I am not in the mood to listen to the ravings of one our regular lunatics.
I pick up saying ‘News desk’ in a stern voice I use for what hopefully might be a hard news story. For what seems like an age there is just silence at the other end. I am about to end the call when a voice asks for Keith Wilding.
‘That’s me,’ I say, wondering how the caller knows my name.
‘You’re the news editor, aren’t you?’
I say I am and ask how I can help. There is another silence, eventually broken by the voice, which seems somehow detached and unnaturally quiet, asking me if I have ever heard of Bluebell Farm. I haven’t and I tell him so. Another long silence ensues and then the voice says it is on the way to Moss Bank just off the A571. I am beginning to get a little impatient with all this and ask what it is he wants to tell me. The voice sinks to almost a whisper and I can hardly hear him as he says that there is something strange going on there and I should go and take a look. I take a deep breath, and patiently ask what is so strange and why he can’t tell me himself.
‘Just take a look thyself lad. It’ll be worth thy while,’ says the voice in its Lancashire accent, suddenly louder and then there is silence and the line goes dead. I replace the handpiece and sit there wondering whether it’s just somebody taking the piss or if indeed it is worth pursuing. I think of the alternative. It is midnight and the pubs will have been closed since 10.30pm. It’s possible the office ‘local’ will be having a ‘stay behind’ but I couldn’t depend on it so it would be home to a cold bedsit. I decide to drive the Capri to Bluebell Farm to see for myself. If it turns out to be somebody having a laugh at my expense, I will bloody well find out who and they’ll be wearing their guts for garters.
I turn off the A571 and can see farm buildings at the end of a track through fields. As I get closer, I can see lights, a lot of them. The caller was right; the place looks like a bloody Christmas tree; every light is turned on. I stop and stare. I don’t like it. There is something wrong. Why are all the lights on? My instincts tell me to get the hell out of here, but I’m a journalist; a seeker after facts; after the truth, aren’t I?
I switch off the engine and climb out of the Capri and walk slowly towards the front door. When I reach it, I see it is slightly open.
I rap on the door shouting ‘hello’ but there is just silence, a menacing silence. I look around thinking that perhaps the occupant has gone out to get some coal but there is no movement anywhere. It has also started raining heavily. I am not going to hang around in the rain, so I decide to push the door open wider. It creaks dramatically. I shout out again.
I walk along a hall which has one or two paintings of country scenes gracing its walls. I notice a small table with a phone on top and directories underneath. There is a door to the left. I walk into what must be the dining room which looks like it is hardly ever used judging by the musty smell and the dust everywhere. I call out, but again there is just an oppressive silence, somehow more menacing that it was before or is that just my imagination. I am back in the hall. In front is another door which is open. I can see a cooker and cupboards and a sink full of dirty dishes.
There is one more door to the left. It is closed. I rap on it, calling out yet again. I press the handle down and slowly push it open. It is a sitting room with a sofa and two easy chairs facing the fire where embers are glowing. A sideboard sits solemnly along one wall and on the opposite wall are shelves full of books waiting patiently to be read. There is a strange smell I can’t identify.
I look at the two easy chairs. They both have high backs which face me. It is then that I notice a hand dangling on the left of one of them. My heart begins to beat wildly. I creep up to the chair and peer round.
A man is sitting there, a shotgun resting between his legs. His face is turned towards me, his eyes wide open staring at me, blood still dripping down the sides of his face and jacket forming a pool in his crotch. The top of his head has vanished. It is only then that I notice the ceiling which is a mass of blood and grey bits.
At first, I can’t take it in and then it hits me. I can feel bile forming in my throat. I rush out and manage to reach the doorstep before throwing up.
Chapter Two will be published next Saturday.