A Walk on the Wilder Side
The walk to the police station on College Street is only a five-minute walk from our office on Standish Street. It’s an old building and rumour has it that it’s going to be demolished next year to be replaced by something more modern and no doubt more outlandish. The craze for demolishing everything in sight and replacing it with concrete over the last ten years is not yet wearing off sadly. So, it remains to be seen what kind of monstrosity they will build to replace the police station. Indeed, talking of change, it was only last year that the St Helens force became part of Lancashire Police, much to the disgust of many in the town.
I walk in and say hello to desk sergeant Ernie James, a jolly, rotund man, in his forties with red cheeks and an unruly moustache. I have often thought he would make a superb Father Christmas but have never said so because being called that rather implies you are fat and not everyone appreciates it!
‘Have you recovered from yesterday,’ he says, eyeing me sympathetically while reaching for the phone. I tell him I will have nightmares for months which is quite true. I will. The sight of that head, or what remained of it, will be with me for a very long time.
‘I suppose you want to see the guvnor,’ he asks. I nod. I ask him if his wife is any better. I heard she had gone down with the flu which has been striking people down for almost eighteen months. ‘Yes, she is over the worse. Thanks for asking.’
Just then, DI Lamplight pokes his head around the door and nods for me to follow him. I wave goodbye to Ernie James and follow him along the corridor to what passes for an interview room, a grim place calculated to make offenders feel guilty whether they are or not.
As I sit down behind a table pockmarked where numerous fag ends have been stubbed out over the years, Lamplight asks if I would like a cuppa. This is VIP treatment, I think, as I thank him. When he returns, I mention Ernie James’ wife recovering from flu.
He strokes his pencil thin moustache and grimaces. ‘It’s been a bugger. We still have people off with it. His wife Sheila is one of the lucky ones. She survived. Many didn’t. It can’t go on for much longer I would have thought.’
He has a point. The epidemic began late in 1968 and ravaged the country last year with around 30,000 people dying from it. We have reported on many stories of local people who have lost loved ones. Sad really that death from flu is no longer news; such is the nature of journalism.
I tell him, thoughtfully, that we should be grateful it isn’t as bad as 1918/19. ‘That’s not much consolation if you’ve lost your wife, or sister or a child,’ he replies grimly. He’s right, of course and I can think of nothing to reply to that. Instead, I ask him what he wants me to do. He produces a statement pad and a Biro and asks me to write everything I can think of about the caller; what he said, how he said it and if I could hear any background sounds that might give a clue as to where he was calling from. He leaves the room telling me he will be back in ten minutes.
Police stations are never really quiet. There are always voices talking, laughing, arguing, sometimes shouting with doors being slammed and phones ringing and typewriters clacking away. I can hear a real racket in reception and sounds of a scuffle. ‘Somebody helping police with their inquiries,’ I think mischievously.
When he returns, I hand him the statement and he nods his satisfaction. I tell him that I will be taking a reporter out this afternoon to do a bit of doorstepping around the farm to find out what people have to say about Mr Jenkins. While I’m at it we will be asking if anyone has noticed any strangers hanging around in the days before his death. I tell him that if we hear anything of interest, we will pass it on to him.
I knew he wouldn’t object because people are often happy to talk to us where they are reluctant to talk to the police, or ‘filth’ as some local lads call them, especially coal miners who regard the police as being in the pay of the mine owners. St Helens was historically an important part of the Lancashire coalfield.
Back at the office I spot Dot Sykes, one of our trainees, busily typing away. She is our glam reporter and everyone fancies her, including me! I ask her what she is working on and she says it’s a short from magistrate’s court about somebody convicted of a string of burglaries. I tell her she can finish it later and to get her coat on because we are going on the knocker, as it’s called, around Bluebell Farm.
‘I’ve never done that before,’ she says excitedly. ‘What do I do?’ I tell her she will be with me and I will ask most of the questions and she can take a note of what people say. Dot has all the qualities to make an extremely competent reporter and I have no doubt she will go far. She is in her early twenties, intelligent, resourceful and her shoulder-length blonde hair, shapely legs and egg timer figure are enough to turn any head.
We head outside and I stop when we get to the Capri. She has hurried on and turns when she realises I am no longer at her side. She stares at the car and then at me. ‘This is yours?’ she asks, wide-eyed. I grin modestly and tell her that I don’t have many weaknesses but one of them is cars.
‘I bet you pull the girls with this,’ she says laughing.
I don an innocent expression and tell her it never even crossed my mind. She laughs again. I rather think she has sized me up.
We head off. Fortunately, she does not pursue the finer details of my sex life. Instead, she chatters away about how much she is enjoying her training. She is on the final year of a two-year NCTJ course (National Council for the Training of Journalists). I ask her why she wanted to come into the industry. It is, after all, not the highest paid of professions. The hours can be long and varied with bosses who are often unfeeling arseholes. I suppose in some ways you have to slightly stupid to be a reporter.
‘The last thing I wanted was to be in a 9 to 5 job,’ she says. ‘I would hate to be stuck in an office doing some boring, meaningless, job. I know girls whose only ambition is to get married, have a couple of kids and be a housewife. Not for me. No thank you.’ She says it very assertively. I glance at her and smile. I can see her as editor of Vogue one day.
‘Why do you do it?’ she asks.
I smile wanly. ‘When I was at university, I wanted to change the world, in between smoking pot of course. It took a few years for me to realise that the world is not going to change so I decided on journalism because if I can’t change it, at least I can write about it.’
‘That’s a bit cynical,’ she says.
I shrug. ‘That’s the way it is.’
We arrive at a row of semi’s just down the road from the farm. I tell her that I will ask the questions and she can take a note. A man answers the door, ignores me and stares at Dot. When I ask him if he knew Mr Jenkins, he shakes his head and says that he has never spoken to him but has seen him in the neighbourhood from time-to-time. ‘Why did he kill himself?’ he asks. I tell him that it is looking more like murder and then I stare up and down the road and ask if he has noticed any strangers hanging around recently. Cars parked up for no apparent reason, that kind of thing. He shakes his head, saying he works shifts so he wouldn’t necessarily notice.
We work our way down the row; one lady says she had spoken to him a few times saying that she thought he was lonely after his wife left; another man said he thought he had financial problems.
‘What makes you say that?’ pipes up Dot.
He stares at her quizzically. ‘He used to be a regular at the local pub, The Swan, and then, quite suddenly he stopped going.’
‘Perhaps he went somewhere else,’ she suggests. He shakes his head.
‘Don’t think so love. He had also been selling stuff as well, I heard.’
‘What kind of stuff?’ she insists.
‘Paintings, for one thing. He used to be a bit of an art lover.’
As we move on down the road, I congratulate her. She smiles: ‘I’m not just a pretty face,’ she says. I tell her she can take the lead at the last house in the row. We stop at the door and she rings the bell. A man opens and Dot launches into the usual questions treating him to a winning smile. Like other locals he ‘knew’ Jenkins, but he didn’t, ending with regrets about his death. But then, when she asked him about suspicious cars or people, the man, whose name was also Jenkins, looked thoughtful.
‘Interesting you should ask that,’ he says.
‘There was one car that was parked up just down the road a couple of times last week. I noticed it because it’s a car I fancied but could not afford.’
‘What was it?’
‘A Rover 3.5 litre Coupe. Dark blue. Quality motor,’ he says enthusiastically. ‘I’d have to win the pools to buy one.’
‘I don’t suppose you saw the driver or took a note of the number?’ Dot asks hopefully. He shakes his head. And then, just as we are about to walk away, he says: All I can tell you is that he must be tall.’
‘How do you know that?’ I ask.
‘Because I was looking through the rear window and I could see his head almost touching the roof.’ He grins at us. I tell him he should be a detective. He likes that and laughs.
As we walk down the road towards the Capri, I tell Dot I will pass that information on to Lamplight. It’s very sensible to stay on his right side, I tell her, because when it comes to tips of what is going on, it is us he going to talk to… hopefully.
‘What is so important about the car?’ she asks. I tell her that the Rover 3.5 is a very expensive car and is usually driven by company directors or senior managers.
‘So, there can’t be that many about,’ she says.
She’s right. Dot catches on fast.
Chapter Four will be published next Saturday