A Sort of Homecoming

 

February 1999

Jane pushed open the frosted glass door of the Coach and Horses pub. As she stepped into the saloon bar, her glasses steamed up and she wiped the lenses with her thumb. She’d picked up some freelance shifts with the Daily Mail, and having filed her first big story, she’d agreed to meet Jeff Hotton – the Mail’s photographer – and some of his pals for a drink. She unwrapped her scarf and swept her black, collar length hair behind her ears and replaced her glasses.

Only a month earlier she’d arrived in the UK hoping for a fresh start. An infuriating career in New York newsrooms and a short, scrappy marriage to a self-absorbed, self-described ‘novelist’ had left her cynical and depressed.

As an American, Jane knew she was supposed swoon at the chimes of Big Ben and the quaint, bell-like dome of a policeman’s helmet, but neither these nor the tragic death cult of Princess Diana, appealed to her as much as the English public house. There is just something so reassuringly British about a West End ‘boozer’, she thought, using the colloquialism Jeff had translated for her a couple of hours earlier.

The pub’s oak bar ran the whole length of the left side of the room. The patrons, mostly twenty-something worker bees in off-the-peg chain store suits, politely squeezed up against each other at the bar. After a working in nearby shops and offices in London’s busy West End all day, they’d made their way through the crowds of early evening theatre-goers and tourists, to arrive slightly damp but nonetheless cheerful. Here, in the pub, they could talk freely about football and crap television and drink strong continental lager until their last trains swept them away to bedsits and shared houses on the outskirts of London.

Jane slowly worked her way through the narrow passageway between those seated and those at the bar. Through the archway at the end of the bar in a dark corner of the pub, she saw three men slumped, under a fog of cigarette smoke.

It was the end of the first day of a high profile libel action at the Royal Courts of Justice. In a feud that had simmered for years, the British Member of Parliament, Nigel Templeton, had accused Mohammed Al Saqir, the owner of a chain of up market department stores, of libeling him in a BBC interview. At the end of the day, both men and their entourages of flacks and lawyers, spilled out onto The Strand to answer to the waiting media. Jane, Jeff, TV crews and other reporters and photographers crowded around them. They jostled and traded curses with each other to question the two men.

In the pub, on the table in front of the photographers, sat laptops and a pile of expensive gaffer-taped cameras with squat, broad-faced lenses, the first generation of digital cameras that would soon eclipse 35mm film as the industry standard.

Black wires curled out of flashguns, LED’s blinked red and green and the weak light from computer screens lent a bluish sheen to the photographers’ faces. In the gloom of the alcove, they looked like alien mechanics laboring over a doomed machine.

Their day was not yet complete. With their photographs downloaded to laptops, they processed their pictures. Captions and color adjustments were added in Photoshop software and the final images were dispatched through via the 56k modems in their mobile phones, tethered to their computers, to nearbyservers at national British newspapers.

Jeff Hotton put his hands behind his head, nudged his black watch cap low over his eyes and leaned back against the wall. He nodded to Jane as she appeared from the crowd.

“Hi Jeff,” said Jane.

Jane hovered at the table; Jeff grinned at her.

“Andy, Mark, this is my scribbler, Jane,” he said.

Next to Jeff in the center of the alcove, Andy, a pale, gray-haired man with large brown eyes and a long Roman nose, made a disapproving sucking noise through his teeth. On Andy’s left Mark Gibson olive-skinned, with curly black hair and a round boyish face looked up and smiled at her.

“Don’t mind him,” said Jeff, “grumpy bastard… Andy’s with the Guardian, and Mark’s with the Indy.”

“Hi,” said Mark.

“’Allo,” said Andy without looking up.

“Cluster fuck, eh, Jane?” Said Jeff.

“Excuse me?” She said.

“It’s what we call a cluster fuck,” he said slowly, as if talking to a child, “that scramble outside court just now? All the shoving and yelling? It’s called a ‘cluster fuck’.”

“Oh, right.” Said Jane.

Jane had seen her fair share of ‘cluster fucks’ during ten years on the metro desk for the New York Post, but diplomatically, she let Jeff’s explanation stand. The other two men had stopped what they were doing and were staring at her.

If she said a single stupid thing, Jane thought, they’d riddle her with the sharp, barbed sarcasm they reserved for each other. Worse, they might dismiss her. She was, after all, a female a Yank and a writer, three states of being they had little time for. As the new kid in town Jane thought she’d be safe for the time being, but she’d have to find her way into their good graces before they used her for target practice, but fast.

Andy narrowed his eyes at her through the blue cloud of cigarette smoke. She panicked.

“I’ll get a round in, shall I?” She asked brightly.

“Nice one,” said Andy.

It was the right move. One thing that could get Andy onside, was free beer. Jeff was smiling at her like a puppy waiting for a ball, he had crush on her for sure, so that just left Mark. OK, she thought, so far so good.

A Guinness for Mark and Stellas for Andy and Jeff. Once they were sure Jane had the order committed to memory, they turned back to their screens, scanning for errors in transmission.

Jane kicked herself for offering to buy the drinks. Although she knew it had been the simplest way out of the impasse, she had fought hard to be treated equally in this most patriarchal of industries. Buying a round relegated her to the rank of serving wench. It was also going to cost her the best part of ten quid. And despite the conservative charcoal suit she’d put on that morning for court, she knew they’d all stare at her backside as she walked away.

“Nice bird, your blunt,” said Mark.

“I know!” Said Jeff.

“Nice arse too,” said Andy.

After a long wait with at the bar, Jane returned to the table with two brimming glasses of beer, a vodka and tonic for herself and a packet of cheese and onion crisps dangling from between her teeth. She set the glasses down carefully within the nest of cables and cameras and opened her crisps.

“Where’s mine?” Said Jeff.

“I’ve only got one pair of hands,” she said, “it’s at the bar.”

When Jeff opened his mouth to say something Jane scowled at him. Instead, he got up to retrieve his drink. Jane felt a twinge of guilt challenging Jeff like that, but with Mark and Andy’s chuckle the American received a tacit seal of approval. Not that she needed approval, she said to herself, but it was nice nonetheless.

One by one the men closed their laptops and sipped their beer. Jane buried herself in shorthand notes. She reread the piece she’d filed over the phone with the copy-taker 20 minutes earlier.

Two rich middle-aged men slinging insults at each other across the front pages of tabloids and broadsheets had only limited appeal, so far as she could see. She closed her notebook. She suspected no matter how long she stayed in this country, there would always be parts of British culture she’d never understand.

“Fucking Sky TV got right on my tits today,” said Andy, “they showed up late and climbed all over my spot when Templeton came out.”

“You know what you should do?” Said Jeff, picking at Jane’s open packet of crisps on the table, “remember when I had a feud with that bloke from the Beeb? That big bastard with the beard?”

Mark and Andy stared at him blankly. Jane looked up from her notes and winked an apology at Jeff. He beamed back at her.

“You know! Last year we door-stepped that West Ham footballer’s wife, what’s her name? Come on… somebody got hold of a video of her shagging three blokes in Chelsea shirts?”

His friends nodded.

“I wrote F-U-C-K on the back of my flashgun in Tippex – big white letters! I stood in his front of him, right in his fucking shot as much as I could. I’m sure they couldn’t use a second of footage.”

Mark sniggered.

“The fuck you came up with that!” Said Andy.

“That was Jack Callahan did that in the 80’s. It was his thing,” said Andy.

Andy was ten years senior, with a longer career and a longer memory than Jeff.

”Oh God here we go,” said Jeff.

”No! Not, ‘here we bloody go’,” snarled Andy.

Mark rolled his eyes at Jane.

But Jane didn’t mind, in fact, she loved these stories of previous generations’ adventures, a sort of journalists’ folklore.

“Was Jack Callahan the snapper who fell asleep in front of the Pope at Westminster Abbey?” Asked Jeff.

“Nah..,” said Andy.

He settled back into the stained cushions at the centre of the alcove and began to roll a cigarette from an old tobacco tin.

“That was Stewart… the french bloke, what’s his name? From AFP… 1979, or thereabouts. No, Jack Callahan was the bloke who tried to photograph the Jennifer Francis murder scene from a small plane near Southend-on-Sea and nearly killed ‘imself.”

Andy squinted as he tried to recall the date.

“What happened?” Asked Jane.

The Londoner, stalled by the female cadence, glanced at his audience. Quickly, he slipped back into storytelling mode, pleased he had the rapt attention of his comrades and a pretty American journalist to boot.

“Nasty business…”

He took a long drag on his roll-up.

“…I remember I got a great arrest picture out of it, right up against the paddy wagon’s window, front page!”

He squirted out a thin jet of blue smoke.

“Bloody muzzy though wasn’t it?” Said Mark.

Andy shot Mark a withering look.

“Muzzy?” said Jane.

“Out-of-focus,” whispered Jeff.

“Fuzzy, soft, not sharp,” said Mark, “the most embarrassing thing that could happen to a snapper is to have a photo published that isn’t sharply focused.”

“Nobody fucking noticed though,’ said Andy, “coz it was a fucking good shot!”

“Probably not the readers, and the picture editor obviously didn’t give a shit…”

“Yeah! Because… it was a GOOD, FUCKING, PICTURE!” Andy bellowed.

Jeff stepped in.

“It was good, Andy. You’re not wrong. Got a Picture Editors’ award didn’t it?”

“Yes! Yes, it did!” Said Andy, suddenly remembering the commendation.

Mark was showing off, thought Jane, she caught his eye and frowned.

“Fair play, mate,” said Mark, “I’m just winding you up. It’s actually one of my favorite arrest pictures.”

“Yeah?” Said Andy.

“Absolutely,” said Mark, “of course I was fucking 15! But it stayed with me.”

“Prat,” said Andy standing up, “why don’t you tell the story, Mark? I’ve told it enough times, you probably know off by heart don’t you?”

“Where are you going?” Said Mark.

“I’m getting a whiskey.”

He stalked away muttering under his breath. Mark raised an eyebrow at Jane, which she ignored.

“Let’s hear the story, then Mark.” She said, raising her own eyebrow.

“Well as it’s been related to me, Ken Smith raped and murdered his step-daughter Jennifer — she was 13. He buried her in a valley in West Sussex. But he didn’t give up the location to the cops, they were digging for a week until they found her. When they did find her, they sealed off the valley and that, basically, shut out any chance of making a picture.”

Andy reappeared from the bar.

“Who’s got a fucking quid? I’m short.”

“But your mum loves you,” said Mark pushing pound coins through a puddle of beer on the tabletop.

“Fuck off, and I’m keeping all these.”

“So… with no access,” said Mark, “a photographer from Today, the now defunct and first full colour, British newspaper.”

Jeff removed his cap, held it to his chest bowed his head. Jane shook her head at the pantomime. They had their routine down pat; was this show all for her benefit?

“It wasn’t Jack Callahan, by the way, it was Tom Grant from Today,” said Mark, “who managed to talk Rob O’Connell from The Daily Mirror into to flying his plane over the valley. You remember Rob, Jeff?”

“I should! He’s my bloody picture editor now!”

“So…Tom hung out of the window taking pictures of the scene that they planned to divvy up later.”

Andy sat down again as more drinks arrived courtesy of the Mike, the pub’s landlord, an ex-bailiff from the High Court. Mike knew these lads and many like them, from his own lonely vigils, standing guard at the gates of the High Court. He had developed a peculiar affection for them all. At least ‘peculiar’ according to his wife Mary, who stood glaring at them from behind the bar.

Mark lit a cigarette. Jane watched the light from his Zippo lighter throw shadows across his weather beaten face. He glanced up at her as he snuffed the flame with a flick of his wrist. They stared at each other for a moment until Mike leaned between them to collect empty glasses.

“Keep it down tonight will you lads?” Said Mike, “the Ayatollah’s on the warpath… Arsenal playing at ‘ome, know what I mean?”

The big man nodded apologetically at Jane as he realized his gaffe. She had no idea what he was talking about, which by the sheepish looks from her companions was probably a good thing.

Mike put empties on the tray and placed a vodka in front of Jane.

“I can’t!” She said.

Andy leaned over, picked up her new drink and poured it into the dregs of the old one.

“Drink it!”

Jane rolled her eyes, locking on to Mark. He winked at her. She turned away and hid behind a long sip, as commanded. Damn, she thought, she knew that look, she was going to have to be careful with this one.

“So!” Said Mark, “where the fuck was I?”

Andy leaned in.

“You were telling us my story about the Jennifer Francis murder. The plane? Remember?”

“Ah yes,” said Mark.

Jesus, what a mess! Thought Jane, how could this be Fleet Street’s elite?

“So, up they go!”

Mark zoomed his hand over the table, like a child mimicking a plane.

“Now, this plane is about the size of a Volkswagen Beetle, and Rob O’Connell wasn’t supposed to fly at night or in bad weather, but they get the pictures without any trouble, surprising a couple of dozing coppers and a few sheep with their fly-past. They zip along the coast using the cliffs to guide them, until they pick up the main road back to the airstrip, except they ran into fog and got lost.’

“So, they buzz around for a bit, and after a while it starts to get dark, and they start shitting themselves. Then Rob says: ‘There! There’s the airstrip! I can see the lights!’ ‘Thank God!’ Says Tom, ‘I thought we brown bread for a minute!”

Jeff turned to Jane, “he means ‘dead’, Jane. Rhyming slang, ‘brown bread’ rhymes with ‘dead’.”

“Uh-huh,” said Jane.

She understood the principle of cockney rhyming slang but she was curious about something else.

“How do you know what they said?” She said, trying not to slur.

Mark drained his glass.

“Artistic license.”

A lopsided grin slid across his face.

“Right,” she said, “go on, go on.”

“Anyway, they get closer to the lights and Rob looks at the compass and he says: ‘wait a minute this doesn’t look right, that’s not the airfield! It’s the pier! That’s Southend bloody Pier!’”

Mark slapped his hands down on the table hard enough to rattle cameras and topple glasses. Jane jumped up to avoid pint pots as they fell to the carpet with a thump.

“Pipe down!” Screamed Mary.

“Oh! That’s funny!” She said, “what happened after that?”

She nudged at her eyeliner with a knuckle.

“Who cares?” Said Andy.

“What do mean?” Said Jane.

“It only matters that they fucked up. We can all relate to Tom and Rob up in that tin can trying to get the jump on the competition.”

He waved his hand at the motley crew slouched in their corner, grinning.

“You know what I mean?” He said.

Mark and Jeff smiled. Mark stood up.

“Time for a pee,” he said.

He smiled at Jane and put his hand on her shoulder as he squeezed past her. She liked that he was tall. Her ex-husband was shorter than her and she always felt a little awkward when they held hands walking down the street. Mark was a little heavier too but he wears it well, she thought, and with that cute half smile he gets away with it. Then there’s that accent of course, estuary English with a touch of what? The North of England… Wales, perhaps? Clearly Andy and Jeff admired him. Andy probably wouldn’t admit it, but after all, he’d taken Mark’s compliment about his prize-winning picture to heart immediately.

“What’s his story?” Jane asked casually when Mark was out of earshot.

“His story? Oh! He’s got the best story,” said Andy.

“Easy Andy, not sure that’s…” Said Jeff.

“This is his story,” said Andy.

Andy’s face loomed down at her like a planet slipping its orbit.

“When he was 16, he photographed his father’s suicide.”

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