The other day I was going through some manuscripts I wrote years ago. The story below was among them. It is loosely based on an experience I had when I was a local news reporter in my early twenties. I was working during the quiet period between Christmas and New Year and only the one sizeable news event took place (a tragic death was involved but the circumstances outlined below are fictitious). With little other news to place on the front page, I was put under huge pressure to bring this story in.
I had completely forgotten I’d written this tale but I think it is a realistic portrayal of how journalists operate. I have updated it to reflect the pressures of modern day reportage; twitter, sat navs and updating websites being something you didn’t really have to worry about in the twentieth century.
Asking a distraught woman about her deceased daughter’s love life is not normal behaviour. It’s even more abnormal when she’s been dead for less than 48 hours and is rumoured to have died of a suspected heroin overdose and you have every intention of telling the world what happened.
In this case the deceased woman is 19 year old factory worker and casual drug user Gillian Hedges. According to various sources, she passed away on Christmas Eve while in bed with her married lover, a man in his late thirties known as Max. Needless to say, Max was not married to Gillian.
The person trying to establish the facts surrounding her death is David Northcote, junior reporter for the Minsterford News. Having only been at the paper for seven months, all the senior reporters pulled rank and forced David to work over the festive period.
It is eight am on Boxing Day and David is driving to a village several miles outside of Minsterford. His aim is to confirm the few facts he has and hopefully build on them so his paper could make this sorry and pitiful tale public property.
Being a bank holiday the paper’s deadlines have been brought forward. David would usually have until today to get the story off stone, an archaic journalistic phrase that means print ready. Today, however, he has until 10:45am to get to complete the task. He’d also have to send out a couple of tweets and write something for the paper’s website if there were any updates later on in the day.
Under normal circumstances, one of the senior reporters would have handled such a sensitive news event. These guys all knew to avoid working over Christmas as there is no news. As a result, any minor news event is flogged to death to ensure a strong front page.
The isolation David feels on his way to Minsterford is immeasurable. His plan is to find the house where Gillian’s mother lives. The most likely outcome is that she’ll refuse to talk. That being the case, David must record as many details as possible; the clothes she is wearing, the state of the house, the tidiness of the garden, the make of the car in the driveway. He’d only been a reporter for a short time, but David knew these tiny bits of seemingly useless information could be strung together to create a news story when an individual refused to talk.
On the other hand, Gillian’s mother might invite him in, tell him everything and hand over treasured photographs of Gillian. Such things did happen, although morally David was more comfortable with the former scenario. Invading someone’s grief was part of the job, but it didn’t seem right.
The reporter covers five miles in eight minutes. The sat nav tells him there are a further ten miles to go. He speaks to himself, rehearsing what he might say.
“Hello, I’m sorry to bother you at this difficult time. My name’s David Northcote and I’m a reporter for the Minsterford News. My condolences for your loss. Could I trouble you to answer a few questions for the newspaper?”
David would normally have researched the mother’s name but, with the early deadlines, he hadn’t had time. This made things all the more tricky. He didn’t know who to ask for by name and couldn’t run the risk of asking for “Mrs Hedges”. If she was divorced or widowed and used a different name, she could take offence and refuse the interview. He’d heard of this happening to other reporters so would need to proceed with caution.
As a new boy, David had never called upon the bereaved before. Journalists refer to it as the death knock. It’s considered a rite of passage, especially among local news reporters. In days of old, news editors would often dispatch their most junior and inexperienced reporter to undertake the death knock. The aim was to toughen them up.
It helps if someone opens the door and speaks to you. If they don’t, well, you’ve still proved you have the nerve to do the job. For this reason David will see this task through, although he thinks it is a morbid assignment.
The mood on the news desk earlier in the morning had been excitable. Gillian’s death was the paper’s one shot at a sexy front page. If David can’t locate the mother or she fails to speak, there’s every chance he’ll be asked to find Max. David won’t offer to do it, but if he’s asked, he’ll have a go.
Although David doesn’t particularly wish to speak to Max, the thought brings a smile to his face. The young reporter hates the predicament he is in, bothering the bereaved, but Max, wow, he really is in trouble.
David pictures Max with his wife in their living room, a brightly lit Christmas tree in the corner. The wife is in tears as Max tries to explain how he ended up in bed with a dead woman almost half his age and, more to the point, how she died. David has a dark sense of humour and imagines the words Max might use while explaining himself; “she must have fallen off the ceiling….I was really drunk and thought it was you….dead person, what dead person?”
Back in the real world, Max was undoubtedly in very serious trouble. It was quite possible he was in police custody. It would be straightforward for a news reporter to get this confirmed, but it would be very difficult to hide from a cuckolded wife. Having reported from the local court on many occasions, David knew Max would be facing a manslaughter charge if he had supplied the heroin. Even if he was innocent, the police would need to establish the facts. There would be searches of Max’s family home and considerable time spent “down the station”.
“This can only end in divorce,” said David out loud to himself.
At long last the sat nav told him to pull off the main road. He took two right turns and a left turn and then his mobile phone rang. It was the office and so David pulled over to take the call.
With no introduction, Anabelle, the news editor, spoke.
“David, how are you getting on with this dead smack head?”
“I’m in the village, just a couple of streets away I think.”
“Try and get this story back as soon as, yeah? We’re going to ask the landlord of the Feathers to reserve us a large table and we’re going to do an alternative, drink-fuelled Christmas lunch, to which you are, of course, invited. Thing is, we want to be there from pub opening at 11 so we can make a day of it.”
“Oh, er, okay. I’ll do my best. Thanks for the invite.”
“Great, gotta go, other phone’s ringing.”
With that Annabelle rang off.
The idea of getting drunk appealed to David, although he didn’t appreciate being rushed with such a delicate task. He released the handbrake and drove on, shaking his head with disapproval.
All too soon he found himself in the cul-de-sac. It was like a million other dreary, British cul-de-sacs. There were red brick houses, cars parked outside and a turning circle at the end.
David parked up as close as he could to the house and checked his notes. According to the electoral role, Gillian’s mother lived at number 48.
He got out of the car and walked up the road. He found the house soon enough and gave it a quick once over for signs that someone might be in. It was impossible to tell. Some curtains were drawn, some were not. Vicious canines being the pet hate of both postmen and journalists, David was pleased to note there was no kennel or beware of the dog sign.
Out of habit, David went to straighten his tie but found it wasn’t there. In the stress of the moment he’d forgotten that he’d removed it. He always did in these situations. It was a safety measure. A reluctant interviewee with violent tendencies could always make a grab for a tie and so it was best not to wear one if you were going into a sensitive situation.
David took a deep breath, pushed open the gate and walked up the garden path. Once at the door he paused and listened for voices or the television but heard nothing. With no idea whether anyone was in, or the response he’d get, David knocked on the door and waited.
Copyright, John Adams, London, United Kingdom. First written in May 2002, edited and published for the first time in December 2014.