SHE came one morning, like a star from the films the reporters liked to watch at the Gaumont, the Ritz and the Odeon.
She had long, shiny blond hair and ruby-red lips. Her name was Marion Simpson but she could have been Veronica Lake from the golden age of Hollywood. She had finally brought sophistication, erudition and designer fashion to the office of the Woking New and Mail.
Or, as ace reporter John Gerard put, it: she had a touch of class.
Not that she would wear haute couture to work, of course. She wore short denim skirts set off by white blouses and moderately high high-heel shoes that gave her legs a leggy shape.
Marion Simpson had been sent against her wishes to Woking from the county town of Guildford six miles distant. The powers that be at head office of the Woodbridge Press Group said it would give her reporting a hard edge. A hard edge Woking certainly had. It was a town born of the railway age, a mere 100 years previously. Guildford went back at least 2000 years. It had culture and history.
Woking had never been more than a dormitory town for the commuters who worked inLondon, 25 miles to the east. A smattering of light industry, mainly plastics factories and a giant state housing estate for London’s population overspill, gave it its abrasive edge, to say nothing of its architecture that had moved on from Victorian red brick to 1960s functional, grey concrete.
In contrast, the ancient market-town of Guildford boasted the most beautiful high street in England, cobbled and framed by a Medieval town clock.
Woking may have lived in Guildford’s shadow, but the staff of the News and Mail were not always prepared to take Marion Simpson’s criticism of the town lying down. The editor especially, who had never lived anywhere else, was quick to point to Woking’s virtues, and the virtues of his staff. Why, he boasted, his woman’s page editor had been to university and had a bachelor of arts degree in English literature to prove it. And what’s more, she had a husband in pubic relations.
Marion Simpson, however, as Gerard noted, was in a different class.
She came from a family of lawyers who lived in Guildford’s stockbroker belt, an old-money family who were the principal backers of the local symphony orchestra. She often lamented that law was the way she should have gone. Journalism seemed more adventurous, however, but a year on from joining the profession, here she was doing the police rounds in suburban Woking with nothing more adventurous to report on than a suspect making off with garden gnomes in the night; a serial gnome thief.
The young reporters especially – those still in their teens like Don Bentley and John Gerard – loved Marion Simpson not just for herself and her good looks and her sophistication: she also brought the sophistication of Guildford to their daily lives and the air of a woman they had never known or experienced before. She had not only stolen their hearts but let them known there was another world that was not beyond their reach, a world beyond Woking.
Even the coffee Marion Simpson drank had style. Not for her the granules out of a tin that was served up at the cafe next to the office, stirred with the proverbial greasy spoon. Whenever Gerard and Bentley, and some of the other younger reporters smitten by the new recruit, asked if she wanted a take-away coffee at mid-morning, she sent them off to an Italian establishment that had recently opened at the other end of Commercial Road, Woking’s high street.
Even though the cafe required a lengthy walk and the coffee was tepid by the time the reporters returned, Marion Simpson did not complain. Gerard and Bentley surmised that was the way she liked it, to drink tepid coffee must be all the rage in Guildford, a coffee called a cappuccino at that, that came with a froth, not unlike the froth you got on a pint of best bitter at Gerard and Bentley’s favourite haunt out of office hours, and sometimes during them, the Red House pub.
Gerard and Bentley got to enjoy the cappuccinos that brought with them not just milky froth, and a sprinkling of chocolate powder on top, but the sophistication of Guildford, and for that matter, Italy. The journalists who hovered around Marion Simpson, though – the ones that trudged halfway across town to buy her coffee – knew in their hearts they would never win hers.
Even Peter Pigeon, who had been to private school and spoke with a cultured accent not unlike Marion’s, had tried and failed. He had let it be known in the office, because of what he termed his “breeding’’, he was more on Marion’s social level, and her wavelength – more than the likes of the others, especially Bentley and Gerard who had not long been out of school, and state secondary school at that. He invited Marion to the office Christmas dinner shortly after her arrival but it was a “date’’, following much crowing by Pigeon, that ended in disaster for him and caused him great embarrassment and loss of face.
Marionhad spotted a young lawyer friend at an adjoining table in the restaurant and spent the whole evening talking to him. After the main meal, when a dance band started up, she even left the News and Mail table and joined the lawyer and his lawyer friends. It didn’t occur to the young Bentley and Gerard that her behaviour was rude and selfish, not just towards Pigeon, but her other colleagues. The whole point of the Christmas dinner was a social occasion where partners and wives would meet the other members of staff. Bentley and Gerard remained smitten. They had not taken partners themselves anyway, hoping there might be young women to meet during the dance that followed when the restaurant turned into a night club. There was also a notion that the pompous and snobbish Pigeon had got what he deserved.
Marion’s rudeness, though, was not lost on the editor, Ronald Sweatman. He demanded loyalty from his staff and fidelity and fealty from their partners, however loose the arrangement of a “date”. Sweatman would not say it openly, but his frown when he viewed Marion Simpson turning her back on her colleagues to shout to the nearby lawyers’ table, said as much. No doubt he would have much to say about the behaviour of Marion Simpson to Mrs Sweatman, his wife of 35 years, in the privacy of their home later.
Marion did not have to tell the staff of the Woking News and Mail that her eyes when it came to love were not fixed in the direction of mere journalists. They were firmly directed at the legal fraternity. Marion Simpson had her eyes on a young man who was working in the office of the clerk to the magistrate. The term clerk was misleading because the office belonged to legal officers prosecuting on behalf of the local authority and the police when it came to summonses, and the crown in more serious matters. The young lawyer was known to the male members of the newspaper, not because of the occasional appearance he made before the magistrate, leading evidence on behalf of the police in minor traffic matters, but the shiny, red Triumph TR4A sports car he parked outside the court each sitting.
The motor vehicle had drawn admiring glances from both Gerard and Bentley because they had not yet progressed to sports cars. In fact, they had not yet progressed to cars of any kind, and were still riding push bikes on their journalistic rounds.
The young lawyer, recently graduating from law school in London, could be described as dashing, like his sports car. Gerard dubbed him “Dan Dare’’ after a hero in the boys’ newspaper, The Eagle. He certainly was handsome; chiselled features, tall and athletic with the required nicks and scars to show from his exploits on the rugby union field atWokingGrammar School and subsequently with the old boys’ team.
Keen blue eyes, fair hair going on flaxen; the young lawyer Keith Blundell was indeed a stereotype of a cartoon-strip hero. He was not of Woking and its dreary suburban streets. He belonged to somewhere like Guildford, and Marion Simpson told him so.
Marionhad just progressed to covering the court from her police round duties and she immediately caught Blundell’s eye, as he did hers. They spent much time staring at each other and then smiling, before Blundell introduced himself and invited her out for coffee at the Italian establishment that served the only cappuccinos in town.
It was not long before romance was in the air, not that the eagle-eyed staff at the News and Mail could confirm it because the couple appeared to be conducting their relationship in the sophisticated, cultural environment of Guildford.
Blundell might not be seen out and about with Marion, but he was certainly seen out and about with the clerk of the magistrate’s court. They were frequently seen playing the roulette tables at Woking’s lone casino, the Telstar, late at night. The presence of the clerk, William Brown, at the casino had long been the subject of discussion among the staff of the News and Mail. In the way that Blundell was a stereotype of the young, dashing ambitious lawyer, Brown cut a fine figure as a small-town member of the legal profession. He was never seen out of a sober blue pin-striped suit, with Woking Grammar School old boy’s tie sitting in a dazzlingly starched white collar, secured in turn to a light blue shirt with a collar stud. He was of short stature, bald with a ring of thick brown hair like a monk’s. Brown had beady and alert eyes in a round chubby face that appeared to have never seen the sun.
To observe the clerk to the magistrate in the environment of a casino, perched at a roulette table, seemed curious to the older members of the News and Mail staff, those unlike Bentley and Gerard who had ventured into that outside world, not just to Guildford but to the gambling joints of London where small town solicitors were never to see seen wagering at the tables.
The life of Mr Brown appeared something of a mystery between the hours of the court office closing, and the opening of the roulette tables in the late evening. Did he have a wife and family in a comfortable home in one of Woking’s better suburbs? Did he travel up to Londonsome nights for the theatre, or a classical music concert? Did he go on Mediterranean cruises for his holiday, with stop-offs to study ancient ruins? This was the sort of life a small-town solicitor was supposed to have but as for Brown, the staff of the Woking News and Mail would never know.
Despite the interest shown in the private life of William Brown, the focus of attention at the court, beyond the court cases that had to be reported, remained not the clerk but his young assistant. Was he or wasn’t he dating Marion Simpson and having his way with her? The thought of the latter made ace reporter John Gerard slurp his cappuccino and drawl over his pint of best bitter in the Red House.
About the time of Marion’s arrival in Woking strange things began to happen at the Woking Magistrate’s Court. It was nothing tangible. nothing anyone could put their finger on but from time to time the workings of the court system appeared to be less efficient than had been the case in the recent past.
The magistrate himself remarked so one day, when vital court papers had been mislaid and could not be produced. What was of more concern to the magistrate, Lord Sowerdon, was the large number of defendants appearing before him for alleged non-payment of fines. Cases of unpaid fines were not uncommon but all of a sudden there appeared to be an epidemic. Most of the people appearing before the magistrate claimed they had paid their fines, saying they had either handed them directly to the clerk’s office in person, and not been given a receipt, or posted cash in an unregistered envelope to the court.
Lord Sowerdon rejected these claims, but all the same one day lectured at length on the foolishness of sending cash in the post, or paying bills without requesting a receipt.
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It was a lovely spring morning and Marion Simpson was certainly full of the joys of spring. Marion was in love, with a lawyer at that who had already been introduced to her family and had won their approval. There was even a hint from her father that perhaps one day Keith Blundell might join the family law firm.
Blackbirds sang lustily from the hedgerows and it seemed to Marion that in their excitement they were not just celebrating the coming of spring, they were twittering “Simpson and Blundell”, in not just anticipation of a union but a brass plaque on the wall of the family firm of solicitors. Marion had chosen to walk the short distance to the court and not take the bus as she usually did. Dew still sparkled on the sports ground of the Woking Grammar School on the route to the court, the droplets of water catching the rays of a pastel-yellow early morning sun.
At the court Marion could see that Alfred James, the court reporter from the rival Woking Herald, had a big, bright crimson rose in his lapel, a rose clipped that morning from his own prized bushes. When she admired it, and smelt its fragrance, James said he would bring her one later in the week. Marion Simpson had also won the hearts of the opposition journalists and as she took her reporter’s notebook from her spacious designer handbag, Alf James looked at his rose and thought that its fragile beauty could be a metaphor for Marion Simpson herself.
By now Marion Simpson had lost interest in roses, and the promise of one later in the week. She looked about the court for Keith Blundell, but she looked in vain. He could not be seen and she was puzzled by his absence. She had been with him the previous evening, and he had shown no sign of illness or given any other indication why he would not be in the court the following day. Marion recalled, however, that Blundell had seemed distracted, and had mentioned he had a meeting with police the next morning, about a matter he did not go into.Marionhad merely thought it was something to do with work and had not given it any more thought.
The court clerk started with the first case without looking across to the press bench to see that everyone there was ready with their notebooks, as he usually did at the start of proceedings. He was the old school of lawyer who firmly believed that justice in his court should not only be done, but seen to be done.
On this morning he did not appear his usual, confident self. Cases were mixed up, and the wrong defendants and police witnesses called. Marion put this down to the absence of the clerk’s trusty number two.
But at the end of the morning session Marion Simpson, putting away her notebook, could not have been prepared for what was to come next. A brief statement by the clerk ensued. The clerk of the Woking Magistrates’s Court rose to inform the magistrate there would be a special session of the court that afternoon. One Keith Blundell would be answering a charge of theft and embezzlement. The case concerned alleged theft from the clerk’s office, and police would be seeking a remand in custody.
Marion Simpson returned to the office in shock. She sat at her desk for a time, and ignored Gerard when he asked if she would like a cappuccino from the Italian coffee house along Commercial Road.
She finally went into the editor’s office, telling him she was feeling unwell, feeling faint and would like to take the afternoon off to return to Guildford.
Editor Swatman was firm in his response, and did not display his usual sympathy regarding illness, even in minor cases of colds and flu for which he would have no hesitation in sending a staff member home to bed.
Editor Swatman told Marion Simpson she would have to see out the day in Woking. There was work to be done, particularly an important case coming up before the magistrate that very afternoon and she would be required to cover it.