The obituaries came thick and fast this night. It was winter after all, when most people seemed to die; or so it appeared to Don Bentley. He had 40 years experience in either writing or editing obituaries and he would always say you could virtually use the “births, deaths and marriages” notices in a newspaper as a calendar. Deaths in winter; marriage in spring and births in summer and early autumn.
Obituaries generally were written to a certain style, a style all reporters were taught early on, and from a sub-editor’s point of view they required little editing or rewriting, except to check names were spelt correctly and consistently. There was nothing worse for a newspaper, and indeed a family in mourning, than to recall a life of achievement and then misidentify the achiever.
The occasional spelling mistake might also slip from the reporter’s keyboard and make a nonsense of the solemn tone of the obituary.
Four decades on from first treading the minefield that is the obituary, with a obit on his screen at The Chronicle, Bentley had spotted a silly mistake. A reporter had spelt mourners as ‘‘moaners ’’, and Bentley was having a quiet chuckle to himself when he pictured the scene at the graveside with family members complaining they had been left out of the will.
Bentley pointed out the mistake to the overworked reporter and the sub-editor had a story to tell of the days when he started on the obituary rounds himself.
John Gerard, the ace reporter on the Woking News and Mail, was never afraid to look death straight in the face. Gerard would not flinch when the editor handed out a list of calls to be made on bereaved wives and husbands after the town’s undertakers had supplied a list of death notices to the newspaper at the start of the week.
The families of deceased citizens who had played a role in the life of the town always warranted a call from the young news hounds. Those not so important were sent a form to be filled in, in which they stated details of the departed and the names of people attending their funeral.
The young Bentley didn’t warm to the obituary calls from the first time he had to make one.
His first did not involve an old-age pensioner, as was usual, the family commemorating a long life, a full life, a life well lived, with just a little pain and grief at the end. My first obituary call was to the parents of a young aircraft engineer killed in a light plane crash just a few days previously.
Gerard, already cutting his teeth for a life as a reporter on a mass-circulation newspaper, had given Bentley a briefing on the ‘tricks of the trade’, as he put it. This drew in part on the experiences of an old hand at bereavement, a tabloid newspaper journalist who had been in town a year previously, reporting on a tragedy involving a young child drowned in a swimming pool.
“Pictures, pictures, pictures,” Gerard would say. “Always concentrate on the pictures.”
By this he meant obtaining pictures of the victim by fair means or foul, because it was the pictures that generated the biggest fee from the popular newspapers in London. Pictures in the popular press sold papers, in the same way that names sold weeklies, like the Woking News and Mail.
“Bentley,” Gerard said, giving me my first briefing on visiting the bereaved, “Don’t let emotion get in the way.”
Gerard had a vested interest because he was now an established stringer for at least two major London newspapers, earning a side income from lineage to go with his News and Mail wage.
“Your first port of call is the mantelpiece”, he continued, a glint in his eye like a pirate eyeing an unopened treasure chest. “There’s always pictures on the mantelpiece.”
The routine was to politely introduce yourself on the doorstep when first making the call. Politeness and sympathy – “Can I first say, how sorry I am for your loss” – was the key to entering the home, and the key to the lounge room where the mantelpiece would be situated. Having quickly assessed what pictures were on the mantelpiece, it was important to get grieving family members to open a picture album and, with a little luck, they would allow the reporter to make a selection, always with a promise, of course, to return the pictures to the family by registered first post. If other newspapers were on the scent of the story it was always handy to take the entire picture album to keep it out of rivals’ hands.
“But what if they don’t want to give you any pictures?”, Bentley asked Gerard on the eve of his first obituary call. “Well, Bentley, just think mantelpiece. When they’re not looking, just snatch a picture, They’ll never notice amid all the grief.”
Bentley protested that perhaps his journalistic ethics – that thing they had mentioned on his day-release journalism course at the Guildford Technical College- might not allow this.
“Bentley, this is the new world of tabloid journalism,” Gerard would say. “Forget the broadsheets, this is what the people want, and the people have a right to know.”
Bentley was in sombre mood when he returned from his first obituary call, having endured the pain of two heartbroken parents for a good hour. Yes, he did notice the mantelpiece. A crying father rested his arm on it, as if needing its support to stop him collapsing. It was a winter’s day, dark to match the mood in the room, not that you would notice the weather and the time of year from inside the terraced red-brick home on one of Woking’s backstreets. The curtains were drawn.
The plane-crash victim, working at a nearby aerodrome, had taken a test flight in a light plane and it had come to grief – to quote one of Gerard’s puns – in the Surrey hedgerows, killing him and the pilot. Bentley didn’t need to scan the mantelpiece for a picture of the young man. His parents had already plucked one from an album, their only son, their only child, beaming at the photographer from under the propeller of a Spitfire at an air show.
“Listen to that,” said the father, finally moving away from the mantelpiece, and gazing at the ceiling. A silence fell over the room momentarily, before the distant drone of an aircraft, probably an airliner leaving Heathrow Airport 10 miles to the north-east, could be heard.
“Our boy would be able to tell you what plane that was, what engine it had, just by the sound,’’ said the father, suddenly bursting into tears as he realised he was referring to his son in the past tense. The mother said nothing, gently weeping into her cup of tea, the glow from a coal fire catching the tears rolling down her checks.
The accidental death of a young aircraft engineer did not have sufficient news value to interest the national press, and so did not interest Gerard. Bentley sat at his typewriter determined to do the young life of the aircraft engineer justice with his obituary. And after a copy was made of the precious photograph, he went down to the post office to send it back promptly, registered mail so it would not be lost. Bentley hadn’t the stomach to return the photograph personally, even though the victim’s parents lived on his way home.
“Buck up, Bentley,” Gerard called across the newsroom, seeing Bentley bent over his typewriter in thought. “Can’t let this sort of thing get you down.”
Gerard the ace reporter’s turn for an obituary call came a little later in the week. A former council official had died and the editor, Ronald Sweatman, felt he warranted more than the usual obituary form delivered by post.
“Won’t take long,” Gerard said to Bentley as he left the office. “Don’t forget to set them up down the Red House. I’ll go straight there afterwards.”
The widow’s home was only a short walk from the town centre and Gerard eschewed his usual bus trip for any journey of more than five minutes’ duration.
Snow was beginning to fall as he strode out determinedly, taking a short cut across a small park on the edge of Woking’s business district. When he reached the widow’s door, he knocked softly, and was full of pleasantries as it opened. He was practising for more important fish, when the call came from one of his clients in London to catch a big one, pictures as well.
“I’m John Gerard from the News and Mail, I spoke to you earlier on the phone, ” he started, a well-rehearsed solemn look on his face, the professional solemnity of an undertaker. “Let me start by saying how sorry we are at the newspaper about your loss. I’m told your husband was part and parcel of the fabric of this town.”
The widow gave Gerard a weak smile, thanked him for his consideration and then invited him in. The News and Mail already had a picture of the obituary subject in its files so there was no need for Gerard to scan the mantelpiece, but he did so anyway, out of habit.
“Now give me all the details about Mr Shawford,” Gerard started as he got out his notebook and settled into an armchair. “Where did Mr Shawford go to school, when did he start in accountancy, join the council, all that sort of thing. Just take your time.”
As the widow went for tea, Gerard looked about him. He had never seen a house so immaculate, so clean, there was nothing out of place. It was almost like an over-the-top set for a play at the amateur dramatics that Gerard was so keen on reviewing. It was like a set from Charlie’s Aunt. The room had a Victorian air. Lace headrests on comfortable high-backed armchairs covered in a material that resembled velvet. Thick curtains, with lace drapes under them. Oil paintings in heavy gilt frames hanging from a thick picture rail running around the entire room.
A smell of polish permeated the air, or it did until another more pungent, almost animal smell seeped into the room and struck Gerard in the nostrils. Gerard sniffed and looked about him. It smelt like a dead rat, or cat, but that would be impossible. Not in this house, with floral wallpaper and with a carpet so clean you could eat a digestive biscuit off it.
A terrible thought crossed Gerard’s mind, that perhaps the body was in the house, in the front room in an open coffin, but then he remembered the widow saying she had viewed her late husband that very morning in the funeral home, to make sure he was wearing his best suit, a pin-striped blue one, his favourite and the one he had worn to his retirement do. The widow obviously had taken great pride in her husband’s appearance, as she did their home.
Behind the grief, the shock at loss and facing life without her partner, Gerard detected a strength about her. She was so strong in fact, eyeing Gerard’s suit that had cigarette ash on its lapels, that she made him nervous. Gerard had already noticed that the husband in the photos on the mantelpiece did not have a smile, more a long-suffering expression that said on that very day of being photographed for posterity he had been admonished for leaving bristles from his shaving brush in the sink.
Gerard suspected he was hen-pecked, and his distinguished career serving the local authority as first an accountant in the housing department, and then council auditor, had been an escape from a suburban confinement in polish and sheen.
Looking out of the bay windows, Gerard could see the garden was as immaculate as the inside of the house, even if the lace drapes only presented him with an outline of impossibly manicured lawn and pruned rose bushes. He could imagine the husband being nagged to keep it in order, when he might have preferred to have been at the cricket, in all probability as scorer. Or chatting among friends in the clubhouse, sinking a nice cool pint
Gerard had wandered in thought and he was brought back to the present by that dreadful smell, which had now wafted across the entire room, indeed through the whole house. The widow had gone to the kitchen for a fresh pot of tea and when she returned, she started to sniff at the air herself, discreetly at first but then with a twitching nose. Gerard remembered a mouse he had seen that very morning, scampering about the room at the News and Mail where the reporters made tea and toast. The mouse, unafraid of his presence, stopped every few scampers to raise its head and stiff the air. The widow was doing the same thing.
The smell had now become so overpowering, Gerard felt he could not stay another minute. The interview was virtually complete and he made excuses to leave, saying he must get back to the office to write up his obituary, the more time he spent on it, the better tribute it would be to its subject.
As Gerard made his way to the door of the lounge, he spied what looked like dog’s muck on the carpet. He dodged it discreetly and, looking down the long hallway leading to the stained-glass front door, he saw there was a trail of dog’s muck along its entire length. The brown stains formed boot-prints neatly matching Gerard’s lengthy stride. He had clearly trod in dog’s muck out on the street and brought it into the home on his shoes.
Gerard hurried down the hallway, keeping to one side of the footprints and avoiding a grandfather clock partly obscuring his way, but as he tugged at the brass doorknob to gain access to the street, a voice called out from behind him.
“And where do you think you’re going?” said the widow, her voiced raised well above the quiet, measured tone she had used in describing her husband’s worthy life, and his contribution to the community of Woking. Gerard tugged at the doorknob again, with a view to making a dash for it, but the widow shouted out again. “Not so fast, someone’s got to clean up this mess.”
She was reaching into a cupboard under the stairs of the house. Out came a bucket and mop, and Gerard was going to be delayed reaching the pint Bentley had set up for him at the Red House.