Chapter Twenty-Three


The Star Agency, St Helens

January 28


It is Wednesday and half day closing for many shops: one of the oddities of English law dating from around 1912, I believe. Not all councils strictly enforce it, but they do around here to prevent shop workers having to work a six-and-a-half-day week. Newsagents and shops that sell perishable food as well as chemists are open so smokers can get their fags and the starving downtrodden masses can get their bread. The other category of shops that are exempt from closing are shops that sell aircraft supplies; I kid you not. Only in England!

   I have just arrived at the office and am studying the diary to see what we have on today. Looks like it is promising to be another busy day. As I study the list of priority events, top of the list is a particularly brutal murder of a girl on Windle Hill and there is also the latest in a string of post office robberies. I will assign a reporter to each. There will be a press conference at 10:00 am over the murdered girl and the latest PO robbery victim is willing to talk; so is the Post Office you won’t be surprised to hear as staff demand better security. Then my mind turns to Dot. It will be interesting to hear how her interview went and I think I will let her get on with that this morning. Later, I will ring up one or two of the qualities, as well as Lancashire Life, to see if they are interested in the feature and to whet their lascivious appetites, I will fax them a picture of one of Dianne Routledge’s saucy paintings. If they are interested, I will courier them a couple of prints with a promise of copy to follow which means that Dot will have to pull her finger out.

   We have had a fax machine in the office for around two years I believe, which must have been remarkably go-ahead for Jerry Reynolds, The Star’s owner, because they are not cheap. It does not, of course, replace the tried and trusted way of reading copy over to copy takers on the telephone, but the fax is useful for transmitting pictures and other urgent information. The transmitted pictures are nothing like good enough for publication – unless they have come from the Moon – but they can give a general idea. It can also take at least five minutes, so it’s no use if you’re in a hurry!

   Someone from the mail room arrives with everything addressed to the news editor. It’s a great pile, mostly press releases which I put to one side. I will go through them later and hang on to the ones which we may be able to use after a re-write. The remainder will go on the spike and the pictures, which have no doubt cost someone a great deal of money, will simply be dumped.

   Richard Armitage is the first to arrive. He looks careworn and weary. I feel sorry for him and ask how things are at home. He simply shrugs and says that life must go on whatever little problems are thrown at us. Something of an understatement I thought to myself grimly. He asks how Dot’s interview went and I replied that we can ask her since she is literally walking through the door.

   She walks up to the desk and treats us both to an expansive smile. ‘She’s great,’ she says before we can ask. ‘It was an easy interview to do. She was so cool and laid-back. We went for a coffee first and we basically had a good long chat, just like you suggested,’ she says turning to me. ‘I took the odd note as we went along and then we went into Bluecoat to see her studio and we continued there. I really have loads of material.’ She gets out her notebook and shows us her notes, all in her pristine Pitman’s shorthand.

   Richard looks at me, a half-smile indicating his approval. ‘You keep an excellent note young lady and I have no doubt you will have no difficulty transcribing it. Keep up the good work.’ He gives me a final smirk and walks away. I call after him and ask him to cover the murdered girl conference. He had better get going or he will be late. It’s at St Helens Town Hall.

   I turn to Dot and tell her that she has done well but that the bad news is that she has to produce approximately 1200 words by about 11.30am which gives her around two hours. She blanches at that and I grin at her and tell her it will be fine and that she should think about how she is going to structure it before she starts then it will all come together quite quickly. I tell her I don’t want a school essay and suggest that she starts by describing the most shocking picture she saw and the impact it will have on the public as well as what it is supposed to mean or say. Then to talk about the artist and why she is producing work like that, working in biographical details as she goes along. She could also work in some detail about Bluecoat and end with where the work can be seen.

   She is taking notes as I am talking. I end by telling her that while she is doing that, I will be ringing one or two of the quality papers, maybe the weekend supplements, as well as Lancashire Life and that if they are interested her copy could be faxed this afternoon. A feature-length piece could be read over to copy takers, but only if a features editor requests it. Reading over a feature is very time consuming so I will probably fax it: Since we have a fax machine we might as well use it. What I didn’t tell her is that however good her copy is, the subs at whatever papers buy it will no doubt have a field day editing it to comply with their individual style sheets.

   As she is about to walk away, she turns and says with a slightly puzzled expression. ‘Oh yes, while I was there this older man arrived and I was introduced to him. When I told him who I worked for he said to give you his regards. He said his name was Colin Parker. Do you really know him? There was something about the way he looked at me that I didn’t like.’

   I tell her I have only met him once and that he is Amy’s neighbour and I leave it at that. Could it be yet another coincidence that he turns up at the Bluecoat at the same time as my favourite reporter? I don’t believe in coincidences. Maybe I should investigate Mr Parker’s circumstances to see what I can uncover about him. I seem to remember that he told Amy he was a draughtsman electrifying the railways, so the place to begin is BICC who are doing the work. They have their offices on the Kirkby Industrial Estate so that would be the place the start. I make a note on my ‘to-do’ pad and turn my attention to all the other stories that must be covered.

   Two hours later and Dot is still typing furiously. I decide to leave her alone even though she is bouncing on the deadline I gave her. I don’t think she realises just how sacrosanct deadlines are, especially on newspapers. I realised after I told her when I wanted the feature that it was a bit of a tall order for someone new to it. Another reason to go easy on her.

   I have completed my ring-around of features editors and sent off half a dozen faxes and I have two firm orders for the feature, including pictures. They are on their way by motorcycle couriers and I have to supply copy by around 3:00pm. I think they want to publish in the next day or two or possibly at the weekend: feature pages are usually prepared days in advance.

   Dot glances at me. She must have read my mind. ‘It will be with you in five minutes,’ she yells as the typewriter carriage bells rings as she slams it to one side.

   While I’m waiting, I leaf through the press releases I have put to one side and begin marking them up ready for re-writes. I will hand them around later when people are looking for something to do.

   Dot rushes up to my desk and slams down her copy, looking at me anxiously. ‘Sorry I’m late. It took me longer than I expected.’

   I give her a wry smile and glance at the clock on the wall. ‘Fifteen minutes over deadline. It’s a hanging matter.’ She chuckles. I wave her away as I separate the blacks and begin reading. She has done a good job. There are a few things I would have done differently but as a first effort it is very creditable. I call her over.

   ‘Well done Dot. That is a really good first effort. There are a few things I would have done differently, and I expect the subs to have fun with it so don’t be surprised by what they have done when you read it in the papers.’

   I tell her that two papers are going to use it, probably for the weekend and her face lights up as though I have given her a Christmas present.

   ‘Will I get a by-line?’

   I tell her that she should and that I am going to fax the copy with her by-line. I also tell her that I will try and put the squeeze on Jerry for a bonus. Then I bring her down to earth by asking to do a couple of re-writes of press releases.

   As she walks away my phone rings. It is Lamplight who tells me that there has been a development in the Jenkins case. He says that uniformed officers arrested a drugs dealer on the outskirts of town and that during questioning he was persuaded to co-operate which he did by talking about Jenkins.

   According to him Jenkins had started to get greedy and was doubling the price for the weed he grew. He had also threatened to sell to a rival gang which had seriously angered people.

   Naturally, he was asked if he knew who murdered Jenkins. At first, he vociferously denied knowing anything about it but as time went by his questioners became convinced he did know more than he was telling. Lamplight says he will keep me informed and tells me that there is something he wants to tell me in confidence in the next day or two.

   I am intrigued. What on earth could that be?

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