Chapter 1. Last Chance.
“Sit down Gregory,” the editor said. When he called me “Gregory” instead of “Greg,” I knew there was trouble brewing.
He sat looking down at some papers pretending to read; definitely a sign of trouble.
After a couple of minutes of this he looked up at me, unsmiling, and came straight to the dismal point.
“We’ve all had our women troubles but we don’t let it interfere with our work performance.”
This statement didn’t seem to call for any response from me so I sat there abjectly with head bowed in what I hoped looked like humble submission.
After another pause as he bored through me with his sharp green eyes he went on, “I’ve counselled you twice already.”
“Counselled” is a management euphemism for “A bawling out.”
He picked up a piece of paper from his desk. Without being able to see it I knew my name was on it.
“Late arrival, failure to turn up at all, sloppy writing,” he intoned. “You’ve reached the end of the line. I should sack you right now my boy; can you think of any reason why I shouldn’t?”
I couldn’t think of any reason but I stammered out the same excuses I’d used before during the “counselling” sessions.
“Well, sir,” – I thought I’d better “sir” him for the occasion – “I…er…haven’t been feeling so…so…”
“That’s bloody obvious,” he growled, “but as I say, we’ve all had our women troubles but we get over them and it’s long past time you got over yours.”
I think the “sir” must have had the desired effect because insofar as he was capable of it, he took on a benign look and said, “You started out very well, excellently in fact, and I thought you had the making of a good journalist.”
He paused as if expecting a response, but I didn’t know what to say.
“Now look here Greg,” – “Greg,” that was a good sign – “I don’t want to ruin a young man’s career but there’s no room on the City Daily for the sort of sloppy work you’ve been producing, that is, when you deign to make an appearance at all, but I’m going to give you another chance.”
“Thank you sir,” I gasped, feeling the knot in my stomach unravelling.
He raised his hand to stop my flow of gratitude. “I’ve arranged to have you transferred to The Hill Weekly.”
“No need to thank me, my boy, I just thought I’d take a risk and give you another chance.”
Thank him! “Bloody hell,” I thought, “why doesn’t he shoot me and be done with it?”
The Hill Weekly was an offshoot from The City Daily and to be sent there was like being cast into the outer darkness of weddings, funerals, church bazaars and the local flower show.
Sir returned to his former sternness. “Don’t think your going to get an easy ride, Gregory. Old Ned runs a tight ship and won’t put up with sloppy behaviour or work, so just get that into your head. You start next Monday so you’d better get ready to move. Now, I’ve got someone for you to meet. He’ll be taking over from you, his name is,” he consulted a piece of paper; “Ah yes, Ian Foster. He’s being transferred from The Hill Weekly and you’ll be replacing him there.”
My first reaction to all this humiliation was to resign on the spot, but I quickly had second thoughts. With my recent work performance and the sort of reference I was likely to get, who else would employ me? No, better to swallow my pride and await my time – see what the future would bring.
He said something into the intercom on his desk and sat back in his chair. “I suppose you’ll need time to tie things up, so today and tomorrow you can show the new boy the ropes, and then take the rest of the week off. I’ll tell my secretary to arrange some temporary accommodation for you at The Hill. You’d better start for it on Sunday, so we’ll take it from there, okay?”
“Yes,” I mumbled, omitting the “Sir.”
A young guy about my own age came in his face wreathed in a simpering smile. He was a thin seedy looking specimen, but with that eager go-getter glitter in his eyes. I hated him.
We were introduced and shook hands, his was hot and dry.
I was once more instructed to “Show him the ropes,” and I thought, “I know what sort of rope I’d like to show him.” Then we were dismissed, or partially so since as I got to the door I was called back.
The editor was benign again. “Listen Greg, get that bloody woman trouble of yours sorted out, do a good job on The Weekly, and you might end up back here again.”
I thought I’d better lay the ground for the future, so I said, “Yes sir, and thank you.”
He waved me out of the office.
That day and the next I spent showing the enthusiastic rat the ropes. I think he must have known about my situation because he was very truculent; boasting of his triumphs on The Hill Weekly and then crowing over his imagined literary conquests into the future.
In the meantime I had to try and settle things ready for my departure. The lease on my rented flat still had a couple of months to run so I had to forfeit my original deposit. There was my furniture to put in store and the canlı bahis rest of my things to pack. I also had to face mum and dad.
I managed to make my transfer sound like promotion; this would give my mother something to boast about with her church women’s group. My dad was a bit more cynical and muttered something about, “It’s that bloody girl.”
That “bloody girl” was Celia, my late fiancée. Two weeks before we were due to get married she had not simply called the whole thing off, but had disappeared with some guy who was going mountain climbing in Nepal or somewhere.
Imagine the chaos with most of the wedding arrangements made; and add to that my mortification, and while I’m at it I suppose I might make a further addition, my sexual deprivation. All added up to what I suppose was depression – a black despair; and now the final degradation of being transferred to The Hill Weekly.
Chapter 2. To The Hill.
I’d visited The Hill briefly once; a mining town set in the middle of an arid plain, a town populated by descendents of the Cornish miners who had come originally to work the mines for silver, lead, zinc and tin. Short, stocky and tough, and avid adherents of the trade union movement; what we call “Battlers” who had made The Hill there own.
The place looked like an older city suburb dropped down in the middle of nowhere. Dominating the city is a giant mullock heap, the waste of more than a century of mining; and would you believe, they’ve built a restaurant on top of it.
Like it or not, that was my current destiny; and like it I did not.
Sunday morning; the old Toyota heaped up with my gear, and me still seething with resentment centred on erstwhile Celia and a hardhearted editor I set off to meet my fate. Through the suburbs and the vineyards beyond, and then the wheat and canola growing country. Three hours drive and I reached the last frontier of civilisation – “Goodbye cruel world.”
Another five hours drive; sheep, a few cattle. Red earth, salt and blue bush with the odd tree struggling to survive in the infertile, dry clay, emus staring at my car insolently before springing away; the carcases of dead kangaroos and wallabies littering the road, killed by passing vehicles in the night as they stood mesmerised by the headlights.
“Just the place for a journalists’ concentration camp,” I thought.
And then a couple of hills that bore a distinct resemblance to very firm female mammary glands with erect nipples; then The Hill itself and the Hillorama Motel – who the hell thinks up these names?
The bright receptionist wearing her “Welcome” face but behind it a lack of interest. A motel room that looked like most other motel rooms, impersonally clean and tidy, its sole contribution to art being a picture entitled, “Bluebell Glade,” a scene not to be seen anywhere near The Hill, or anywhere in the entire country for that matter.
An odd choice of picture come to think of it; you see the mines were beginning to run out of things to dig up, and the city was having to consider its future. The tourism mania, that standby of many places losing their original reason for existing, had given rise to two main attractions; mining museums and a school of art known as “The Inland School.” Art galleries abound in the city, so why not a locally produced work of art instead of one from a far country on the motel wall?
I was travel weary and tired, so I took a shower and spurning the motel restaurant went in search of a pub that served meals. I didn’t have far to go because the city abounds in pubs as well as art galleries. They served a massive steak with vegetables (the pub not the art galleries), and after that I was too tired and melancholy to do anything but set my little travelling clock to wake me at seven thirty and go to bed.
Ting-a-ling-ting-a-ling. Bloody hell, surely it had to be the middle of the night, but no, it was seven thirty. I got up, showered again, shaving with great care and then putting on a suit; well, my only suit, to be honest; I had reluctantly decided I’d better make a good impression.
Breakfast in the motel restaurant and then my entry into The Hill Weekly before me.
I’d got the address of The Hill Weekly Office but you know what it’s like in a place you’re not familiar with. I found the street after wrestling with a motel provided city street map, but “Where the bloody hell are the offices?”
I was used to the concrete and glass offices of the City Daily so I suppose I was expecting to find the same; I was misleading myself. What I was looking for turned out to be a two story building that must have been built not long after the city was first established with something of that much favoured nineteenth century pseudo ancient Greek temple look about it.
I found a parking space with amazing ease, parked my car, then it occurred to me; had I known where the office was I could have driven there in two or three minutes, unlike the drive from my suburban flat to the City Daily, which involved heavy traffic and endless traffic lights. At least that was a plus bahis siteleri for The Weekly.
I entered into a dark panelled reception area to be greeted by a singularly attractive young lady; “Another plus,” I thought, until I spotted the engagement and wedding rings.
She looked up at me and smiled. “Gregory Price to see Mr. Hargraves,” I announced.
Her smile broadened, “Oh, yes, I’m Angela, you’ll be the new staff member we’re expecting; welcome to the weekly.”
Her welcome was like a bright ray of sunshine lighting up what had been a long period of dark clouds. I stammered my thanks and was told, “Ned is expecting you, but he isn’t in yet, there are some magazines over there; go and sit down until he arrives.”
For a few minutes I pretended to read one of the magazines while surreptitiously looking around at the scenery, especially Angela. I hadn’t too long to wait. Suddenly a mountain erupted into the reception area.
The mountain failed to spot me and went to the reception desk. “Gregory Price is here, Ned,” Angela said, pointing in my direction.
The mountain turned and looked hard at me for a few moments, then approached with extended hand rumbling, “Welcome ter The Weekly.”
Crunch; I’ll remember that hand clasp for a long time. “I…er…thank you.”
“Come inter me office young fella,” the mountain rumbled.
We passed through a door that led from reception into the main office and then into a glass fronted office that I was to learn was known as, “The Sanctum.” The mountain seated itself in a massive old-fashioned swivel chair behind a paper strewn desk.
He studied me for a few seconds with shrewd looking blue eyes then asked, “What do they call yer?”
“Right, I’m called Ned.”
He took out a packet of cigarettes and extending the packet asked, “Smoke?”
“Er…no, I don’t smoke.”
“Good thing too.”
He took out a cigarette and lit it. There was something like a volcanic eruption that began somewhere deep inside him, finally emerging as a series of explosive coughs and gasps.
“First one…cough…gasp…of the…wheeze…day…cough, cough…gasp…always gets me…cough…wife won’t… gasp… pant…let me smoke at…cough…home.”
“Gawd, that feels better. Now…splutter…cough…your replacing young Foster.”
He fumbled through the pile of paper on his desk and finally selecting a piece, turned his attention to it. I knew it must be the report about me from the city editor.
“Had a bit of trouble back there, son?”
His first-cigarette-of-the-day paroxysm seemed to have subsided. “I…er…yes.”
“Yers, well, we don’t need ter go inter that, eh, old son?”
“Er…no.” That was a relief.
“Fresh start ‘ere son. Now…young Foster covered the City Council, and any city and regional stories along with Steve. Steve covers sport as well…I’ll introduce yer shortly…. Are yer up with the arts?”
“Well, at university I…”
“Good, good, yer’ll be the arts critic; local drama group, visits by the State Orchestra, art exhibitions, that sort of thing, okay?”
“Got somewhere ter stay?”
“I’m at the Hillorama Mo…”
“No good fer a young bloke. Yer need a home environment.”
He lit another cigarette and went into a modified series of coughs and splutters.
“Got a Mrs. Martha Tregilgas, a widow; we’ve used ‘er before. Young Foster stayed with ‘er and young Fletcher before ‘im. Fletcher gave ‘er a good report but Foster was always complainin’, but then, ‘e’d complain about anything. Very reasonable charges, good plain food so Fletcher said. I’ll give yer ‘er address and yer can go and see ‘er. I’ve told ‘er ter expect yer, okay?”
He scribbled something on a piece of paper and handed it to me asking; “Are yer religious?”
“I…er…did go to Sunday school.”
“Well just watch yer language because Martha’s tied up with the local church and she’s something of an influence in this town; got it?”
“Good, come on, I’ll introduce yer ter Steve an ‘e can introduce yer ter the others.”
He heaved his bulk out of the chair and led the way into the main office. There were several people working there and I was taken to a pleasant looking guy who proved to be Steve. We shook hands and I got another “Welcome to The Weekly.”
After making the introduction Ned asked, looking at Steve, “I suppose Foster managed ter tie things up before ‘e left?”
I saw Steve raise his eyebrows despairingly but he said, “Yes, in his own way.”
Ned humphed and said to me, “Yer’ll need time ter settle in son; take a look at Foster’s desk and then take this afternoon and termorrer off, okay?”
“Thanks, thanks very much.”
“Introduce ‘im around, Steve.” With that he lumbered off, not to his office but in the direction of reception.
Steve, seeing me watching Ned, grinned and said, “He’s off to pick up the latest gossip; its opening time.”
“The pubs; come bahis şirketleri on and meet Sylvia, she covers weddings and women’s organizations.”
I breathed a sigh of relief; no weddings or bazaars for me.
Sylvia was another decorative woman of about thirty who unfortunately also sported an engagement and wedding ring; “All things do conspire against me,” I thought. I got the “Welcome to The Weekly” again and a big pearly smile. We went on to Geoff, a man who looked as if he was in his fifties who covered the local advertising.
The other member of the staff present was a girl, Stephanie. She was seated behind a computer and proved to be Ned’s secretary. “Another possibility?” I wondered, but then saw an engagement ring. “Not a good outlook,” I thought gloomily.
“Come and see Foster’s desk,” Steve said; “have a look at what he was up to and by then it’ll be lunchtime. We usually have lunch over at the pub when a new member of staff arrives, a sort of welcome and getting-to-know-you session; our treat. You’ll meet some of the others.”
“Well thanks very much,” I said, feeling a bit overwhelmed.
I was taken to the desk that had been Foster’s and looking at the neat piles of paper I said, “I suppose I’ve got some pretty big shoes to fill.”
Steve looked at me for a moment, then burst out laughing; “Who told you that, not Ned I’ll bet?”
“No, but…but I met Foster before I left The Daily and he told me…”
“I’m sure he did,” laughed Steve, who was joined by Sylvia who had overheard our talk.
“There was one main problem with Foster,” Steve went on, “His mouth was bigger than his brain. We tried to cover for him for a while but Ned knew what was going on; he was glad to get rid of him.” He laughed again, “Ned’s a cunning bugger, he gave Foster a good recommendation in the hope that the Daily would take him, and they fell for it.”
“But he’s left everything well organised.”
“You can thank Sylvia and Stephanie for that,” Steve said, “They didn’t want you coming here to find chaos.”
I called out my thanks to Sylvia and Stephanie, feeling relieved that I wasn’t treading in the steps of a journalistic Messiah, then settled down for what was left of the morning to see what Foster had been working on.
Come lunch time I was escorted across the road to a nearby pub. As we went through the bar to the dining room I spotted Ned, apparently engrossed in deep conversation with an antediluvian grey beard.
“That’s Old Snoop,” Steve explained.
“Odd name,” I commented.
“Yes, we don’t know his real name, but somehow the old bugger gets hold of all the local scandal; you know, whose getting into bed with whom, whose taking bribes on the City Council or which trade union official is in cahoots with the bosses. For a couple of drinks he’ll spill the goods. Be a good idea to cultivate him.”
“I’ll remember that,” I replied.
We entered the dining room; I’d expected maybe four or five people, but there were more than a dozen seated at a long table.
“They couldn’t all come,” Steve explained, “the lunch hour is staggered, but you’ll get to meet the others in time.”
The drinks waiter came and we ordered our drinks. After him came the food waiter with menus and more orders were given. There were introductions but I couldn’t really remember all their names at the time, except for those I’d met before lunch.
Half way through the meal Ned stuck his head round the dining room door and called out, “A round on me,” and then withdrew.
“He must have got some hot gossip from Old Snoop,” Sylvia commented, “and he’s feeling pleased with himself.”
The atmosphere was very convivial and I couldn’t help contrasting it with my departure from The Daily. When a staff member was leaving The Daily it was usual for there to be a speech, a few drinks and the odd cold chicken leg. I had crept away unacknowledged. I must admit this welcome to The Weekly made me a bit tearful.
Chapter 3. Number Seven.
After lunch it was time to go and see Mrs. Tregilgas. I took out the paper Ned had given me and saw the address; 7 Trafalgar Avenue. Steve gave me incomprehensible directions on how to get there, so back in the car I studied the street map, and after getting lost a couple of times I finally got to Trafalgar Avenue.
Number seven was what must have been one of the early miners’ cottages, mostly built of corrugated galvanised iron and with odd additions tacked on over the years. There was a front veranda with a rather savage looking creeper growing over it.
I fought my way through the creeper to the front door and thumped on it with the lion headed cast iron knocker. There was a pause, then the sound of approaching footsteps.
I’d wondered what Mrs. Tregilgas might look like. The mention by Ned that she was very religious and a widow gave me the general impression of a thin, wrinkled, elderly lady of stern disposition; what I saw did not comply with that image in the slightest.
The first impression, and one that was born out on closer acquaintance, was that of a woman whose age might have been anywhere between thirty five and forty five. Dark haired, dark eyed and sparing the details, voluptuous of figure and ripe of lip. She did not look like the desiccated nun I’d expected.