DON Bentley was beginning to feel he had been in newspapers too long. Increasingly he was coming across journalists who reminded him of individuals of old and this troubled him because one face seemed to merge with another. It was as though all the journalists were being recycled and coming round again, 30 or 40 years on.
It was scary and some nights Bentley would have to take himself out of the messroom at the Chronicle and wander over to Mahoney’s, alone, for a stiff drink, to gather his thoughts and put names to all these people, and places, so that they would not become one individual in his memory.
Making conversation with some of his colleagues some nights, it was as though he was talking to another person from another time. Reporters were easier to place, either because they tended to be more flamboyant and individual or because of the beat they covered. Reporters were often in stereotype, in the way newspapers describe people in headline jargon: dashing news hound, erudite court correspondent, rustic rural reporter.
Sub-editors were a more complex bunch, or so it seemed to Bentley but this viewpoint could have been influenced by the fact that he had spent the past 10 years as a sub-editor and had limited contact with the younger reporters.
The sub-editors’ section of the newsroom, even in the fast-paced world of the internet and the newspaper web page, remained the last redoubt of the social misfit.
There is a standing joke in newspapers that the journalists who work on them do so because they could never find employment anywhere else. Bentley had always agreed with the sentiment. There were people who had come into journalism with the driving ambition to be journalists. Equally, newspapers were littered with journalists who had failed in their initial chosen careers. Over the years Bentley had known failed Church of England curates, failed teachers, failed doctors, failed lawyers, a failed chiropodist and even a failed airline pilot.
At least this is how it had been. The journalist of the 21st century was far from a social misfit, a failed this or that, a reformed or still practising alcoholic, or even a user of far more dangerous, and illegal, substances.
The journalist entering the industry today was a graduate with a communications degree, or one in law, or economics. The journalist today was a corporate animal, with across the board multi-media skills. The 21st century journalist would file first for the internet site, do feeds for radio and television, and only later turn his or her attention to the print report as the newspaper deadline approached. It was all so much harder these days, and all this hard work, and the requirement to remain focused (which ruled out drink) took away all the fun.
Or so it appeared to Bentley.
Luckily, the Chronicle and its eccentric ways remained with one foot in the past, and its website was not yet the main driver of news. It was in the newspaper each morning that the Chronicle’s news first appeared before it was put on the website later that morning.
Among the misfits who sheltered in the shade of the Chronicle, away from the glare of the new media, rising over the industry like the fiery and bright early morning Australian sun, was Tessa Starkey, who had drifted down to Hobart some years previously from her home town of Launceston, where she had started her career as a cub reporter on a newspaper there.
For the first few years Tessa Starkey had reminded Bentley of someone. Her flame-red hair, style of clothes that could be described as sensible and practical instead of adventurous and imaginative, the horn-rimmed glasses, the loud and confident (some would say aggressive) manner; they all sent Bentley’s mind scrambling to retrieve fragments of information from years gone by. His fragmented picture was like a jumble of pixels on a computer screen, coloured squares that had not yet been arranged to complete an image, a picture that would link Tessa to another age.
Tessa’s life appeared to revolve around the Chronicle. A woman in her mid-30s, she could not have known the times that clearly influenced her style of dress, of long-pleated skirts like those worn by the screen goddesses of the 1950s. The wavy shortish, fiery hair was in the style of Marilyn Munroe but Tessa had made no attempt to develop, or maintain, the full rounded figure of those screen sirens.
Tessa’s body had gone to seed well before she had reached her 30th birthday. The heavy horn-rimmed glasses were also a tad out of tune with the look of the flame-haired bombshell, but Tessa had tried contact lenses once and had complained they gave her face a wide, staring countenance, like that of an enraged barn owl. So she turned horn-rimmed glasses into a fashion statement, buying one pair that were adorned with wings. She resembled at times a red-haired Billie Jean King, the leading female tennis star of the mid 20th century who also wore glasses on court.
Tessa lived alone out in the suburbs of Hobartwith two white cats but this life away from the office rarely featured in conversation, beyond the antics of her cats. It was the goings on in the office, gossip from the advertising department or rumours of an affair on the editorial floor, that formed the focus her interest each day. That and complaining loudly of the incompetence of all those around her, particularly the young and inexperienced reporters trying their hand at colourful feature writing whose copy she had to edit as part of her duties as a day-shift features sub-editor. She was being particularly loud one day when Bentley arrived for work. Pictures she had sent down to be scanned by the printers had been lost and she was berating the picture scanning department down the line yet again.
It was on this day that Bentley suddenly remembered that person who was seemingly Tessa’s double, that face from the past – June Sparrow, the reporter with dreams of journalistic stardom recruited to the Woking Herald, the rival of Bentley’s first newspaper, the Woking News and Mail. Yes, June Sparrow, Bentley said aloud one night and the memory of Sparrow flashed on to his mental screen, the pixels coagulating. And the memory of the time Sparrow tried to get Don Bentley the sack.
From the moment June Sparrow arrived inWoking she would turn the lives of the young reporters at not only the Times but the News and Mail upside down. She was ambitious. She had worked as a high-powered secretary and thought she could make more of her life with her immaculate shorthand note and her typing. The Times editor, Alf James, had been impressed during her interview, especially with her shorthand, and had given her a trial run and then a job. She was older than the rest of the trainee reporters, of course, and looked in disdain at their unkempt appearance, long hair and their habit of vanishing into the Red House pub at every opportunity. She also didn’t approve of News and Mail reporter John Gerard’s guitar, which he could sometimes be seen carrying in the street, taking it to the Red House for a jam session. She called Gerard a hippie.
This may have been the swinging Sixties, but there was nothing swinging about June Sparrow. All the same, Sparrow drove a Triumph sports car, not a head-turning car of the time, like an E-Type Jaguar or an Alfa Romeo, but head-turning all the same for the junior reporters on the News and Mail and the Times because they were still riding bicycles and catching the bus.
Alf James was not a man to go out on stories, he was an editor after all, but all of a sudden he showed an interest in getting out and about, especially in the passenger seat of June Sparrow’s sports car, and especially on warm summer days with the hood down.
Because she regarded herself as senior to the trainee reporters, on account of her age and experience in the world of business outside of Woking, Sparrow adopted a superior attitude. It was best not to speak to Sparrow unless you were spoken to.
June Sparrow always took the best seat at the cramped reporters’ bench in the magistrate’s court, the one close to the window which also had an uninterrupted view into the dock where you could see the defendants clearly, and their grimace when they were sentenced. She laid claim to it from day one, saying she needed the light from the window to read her Pitman’s shorthand, with its light and dark strokes, and dots, written with HB sharpened- pencil.
“You’re in my seat,’’ she complained to anyone sitting in the position near the window. After one of the more senior reporters of the News and Mail had refused to move one day, she started to arrive at court half an hour early so she could put her coat or her bag on the seat. She would then go off for a coffee at a nearby cafe.
Sparrow was never seen with a boyfriend and rumours of a love affair between her and Editor James were constantly circulated by the reporters. If the truth be known, it was June Sparrow’s shorthand note that had stolen Alf James’ heart. Although the relationship between Sparrow and her mentor fell short of the office romance speculated upon by the younger reporters, there was clearly a mutual, genuine affection between them. To show his, James would present Sparrow during the summer months with one of the prized roses grown in his garden, a rose she wore proudly on her ironed and starched blouse to court each week.
Having been turfed out of the best seat in court on numerous occasions, loudly by Sparrow who drew attention to the fact that Bentley’s alleged shorthand was just scribbled writing that he would not be able to read in any light, Bentley finally lost patience with Sparrow. He decided he would hit back.
Bentley was still a teenager, with limited powers of revenge. The only weapon he had in his armoury was the schoolboy prank.
Bentley may have been on the first rung of a career in journalism, but his lowly position still combined those of messenger boy and copy runner. He had other ancillary matters to attend to early in the morning that had nothing to do with journalism. Before making tea in the early morning he was also expected to clean out the mouse traps of dead mice which he had set the previous evening. The Victorian building that housed the News and Mail, with a labyrinth of tunnels under decaying floorboards, had proved a welcome home for mice over the years, much to the discomfort of female staff during the day.
Bentley hated this duty more than any other – even going out on obituary rounds – because he had kept mice and hamsters as a child and could see the rodents had in fact endearing characters. One morning Bentley was delighted to find that one of the mice had escaped death in the trap he had set, and had merely been caught by the tail. It was alive and kicking and he had found an old shoe box to provide it with a temporary home until he could release it later in the day.
This mouse, Bentley had decided, deserved an even chance.
Then a wicked thought appeared to Bentley. Why not release the mouse in the court room, somewhere close to June Sparrow?
Bentley knew that Sparrow had phobias that embraced what appeared to be all living things, including most humans. She hated not just fresh-faced young male reporters like Bentley and Gerard, but flying insects, spiders and, above all, mice.
Reporters from the Times told a story with glee which involved Sparrow noticing a dead mouse on the floor of her car. She was driving at the time, and amid screams and panic, she had driven into a traffic bollard. For a time her younger colleagues hoped she would be charged with dangerous driving, or at least driving without due care and attention, so they could report her case but the police had accepted this was an accident beyond her control.
Sparrow had, in fact, blamed persons unknown for leaving the mouse in her sports car – which was often parked near the court with the canvass roof down – and there was much debate about whether if might have been a defendant in court angered by Sparrow’s reporting of his case. Bentley, however, had never forgotten her minor run-in with the law. A mouse, or spider, had long featured in his plan of attack. He now had the opportunity because on the day he discovered the live mouse, he was also due in the magistrate’s court to report on its weekly session.
Later that morning Bentley went to court with the mouse in an old briefcase he had found on top of an equally ancient filing cabinet in the News and Mail office. Sitting next to Sparrow, he waited for an appropriate moment to release the mouse, when a case involving shoplifting was in full flight, and so was June Sparrow with her frantic shorthand note taking. As her HB pencil raced across the page, she did not notice Bentley reaching into the briefcase, and the mouse being released from his half-closed hand. The mouse stood for a moment, bewildered, rising on its hinds legs to look about it and sniff the air. At this moment Sparrow saw it, and she let out an ear-piecing scream which echoed around the court room, bouncing off the magistrate’s raised bench, the public gallery, the witness stand; before travelling full circle to hit the reporter’s desk. The shriek was so loud, so ferocious, that its shock-wave appeared to travel around the court a second time.
All eyes had fallen on Sparrow, and she felt the full glare of the spotlight. She was embarrassed. Embarrassment, a red flush to the cheeks, was a sensation Sparrow had not felt before. Quick action was needed to divert attention from herself.
“Mouse,’’ she exclaimed, pointing to the windowsill along which the mouse had dashed before dropping to the floor. Then the defendant, an elderly woman accused of stealing underwear from a departmental store, let out a shriek. There was uproar in the court.
“Case adjourned,’’ shouted the magistrate, Lord Sowerdon, banging his gavel. “And find that mouse.”
Sparrow, thinking during the adjournment about what had transpired, had her suspicions about Bentley and his mouse but she was not about to report Bentley to the court authorities, accusing him of disruptive behaviour before Her Majesty’s bench. Sparrow had something on Bentley and she had been biding her time to use it.
Sparrow in previous months had written an account of a young Woking woman doing voluntary service overseas, inAfrica, and Bentley had stolen the story, rewriting it as a brief item for the teenage news page he edited each week after he had run out of stories of his own.
Sparrow wrote to the editor of the News and Mail accusing Bentley of plagiarism. The editor summoned Bentley and Bentley confessed, saying that, as the story had already appeared in the Times, he thought it was in the public domain. The editor, praising Bentley for coming clean, lectured him about plagiarism, and naiveté. He would not take the matter any further, if Bentley phoned Sparrow to apologise. Sparrow enjoyed receiving the call and enjoyed hearing Bentley’s groveling apology.
Sparrow went on to bigger and better things in her career. Covering court cases inWoking, and using her editor’s contacts to sell them on to national newspapers, she was finally offered a post on the London Evening Standard. Unfortunately for Sparrow, her immaculate shorthand might have made her an ace court reporter, but it didn’t always help in the wider sphere of reporting which required not just attendance at court, but initiative and drive to dig out “off-diary” news stories. She had boasted loudly about her new position, and how she was leaving the amateurs of weekly journalism behind. When she was let go by the Standard a few months later, she felt too humiliated to return toWoking. She joined another weekly newspaper in northernSurreyinstead.
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
Tessa was in dispute with one of the sub-editors one afternoon over the chair she claimed as her own. Desks and chairs were shared at the Chronicle between night and day shift sub-editors but Tessa had been given a chair for her exclusive use, one with arm rests which she said eased backache.
The chair was not the only a constant bone of contention. Because she used the same work station each day, unlike the night sub-editors who used the first desk to become available when they arrived, she had also adorned this with ornaments, postcards and pictures of her cats. Along with the ornaments was a note stating firmly: “Do not touch.”
Several times a week, after she had arrived for work, Tessa would complain that someone on the night shift had used her chair. Tired of her complaining, the night shift sub-editors likened Tessa to one of the bears in the Goldilocks and the Three Bears fairy story. “And who’s been sitting in my chair,’’ they would call out after Tessa had left the office and the chair-swapping exercise was in progress.
Tessa arrived at work one morning to find that someone had not only used her chair, but had removed the drawing pins that held her postcards and pictures of her cats to the partition that separated the sub-editors’ work stations, leaving the pictures in a pile on her desk. The Chronicle’s union representative, the father of the chapel, was the obvious culprit. He was often to be seen pinning notices about union matters on the staff notice board. She berated him when he came in to work, ignoring his protestations of innocence. It was the second time in a week he had had a run-in with Tessa, the first time over using her chair.
He was not a man to be shouted at in public, but he kept his cool. It was only Tessa after all and everyone knew her to be difficult. As the evening wore on, though, his anger increased, more over Tessa’s reluctance to believe him than any humiliation he might have suffered in public when she shouted at him. She was in fact calling him a liar.
There was only one thing for it. He was sitting at Tessa’s desk again, and he reached for his black fineliner pen …. and drew moustaches on the faces of her cats.