Chapter 1

Tomorrow’s Anecdote

A mystery thriller

To Lauren. My very own force of nature.


To my former sub-editor friends in provincial journalism whose names I recall (and in no order whatsoever) without whom I would never have got away with it for so long: Chris, Piero, Hugh, Christopher, David, Steve, another Steve, Annie (see, there were women subs), Clive, Ian, Graham, Gerald, Peter, Dave, Helen, Alex, Judy, Mark, Ruth, Nige, Bob, Pete, Paul, Frankie, another Steve, Tony, another Tony, and another Tony, Margaret, Mike, Lew, Neil, Raelene, Sheelagh and, of course, Bert.

And even to the others, who shall remain nameless, without whom I would never have got out as soon as I did.

Chapter 1

No-one could have seen the line of trees falling like dominoes as they toppled towards the A36 under cover of darkness that Thursday evening. One minute, I was driving back in a rental car from Brighton to the West Country, my shoulders aching with keeping it on the road as a crosswind buffeted. The next, I was slowing down to tackle a tricky bend when a giant tree trunk landed on the bonnet with an almighty thump.
As the car juddered to a standstill, I rammed on the brakes out of instinct. The seatbelt cut into my neck as I lurched forwards, then back, just like a test mannequin. For a moment, I sat there, pulse palpitating, still gripping the wheel. Then I counted to ten, opened my eyes and found myself staring out at a confused mass of branches and yellowing leaves. They glowed oddly in the light of my remaining headlamp. It was like being upside-down in a tree house, but much less fun.

If I’d arrived at that spot a split second later, the tree would have landed plum on the roof. And me.
My chest hurt. I realised the steering wheel was crushing my sternum. The crash had shunted my seat forward. Hands shaking, I fumbled for the belt release, and pinged it loose. Wincing, I bent down and yanked at the floor-level bar, shoving backwards with the balls of my feet. Nothing. Grunting with the effort, I tried again to no avail. The sliding mechanism must have jammed in the crash.
At that point, the electrics gave up and everything went black. My forehead ached. I must have hit my head against the steering wheel. Darkness seeped into my mind and I slumped in my seat, semi-conscious. My brain seemed to float away from my body and I began to relive the past three days I had spent in a ghastly Portakabin where I had endured the vilest form of professional torture … that most feared phenomenon of all, The Management Course.
“Let’s do some role play,” said Denise, with a bright smile.
Let’s bloody not, we all thought, cringing, averting our gaze like naughty school kids.
It was Tuesday, the first morning of what was laughingly referred to as a professional development course. All I was developing was a stonking headache.
We were a select crew; myself, one Clare Forester, a single-parent features sub with aspirations. I was employed at The Clarion, a modest newspaper in a market town in Somerset. Over the past decade, it had been buying out a dozen smaller provincial titles and had centralised its production in Wellsbury Spa, where I now lived.
Then there was Malcolm from a Carlisle daily, a portly middle-aged sports editor with lugubrious jowls and purple bags under his eyes.
Next to him sat Frankie, hot off the press from a Glasgow tabloid, a stocky chap with a fierce gaze and twitchy fingers that never stopped tapping biros on the desk.
At the opposite end of the journalistic spectrum was our final victim, Nigel, an acne-spattered youth from an obscure tri-weekly in Yorkshire who I reckoned was looking forward to his 15th birthday. He was only there because his boss had shingles.
A more motley set you wouldn’t find in any other line of work, yet we were all united in one thing: our loathing of the fragrant Denise.
There she sat, legs crossed at the ankles in her lacquered poodle perm, sharp heels, sensible but well-cut skirt, padded shoulders, crisp shirt with collars sufficiently starched to resist the barbs of provincial journalists. We are the absolute worst. We absolutely are. Thwarted in our aims of becoming anyone important in Fleet Street, we hang around in dusty newspaper offices, smoking, drinking, complaining. Provincial journalists drive me insane, up the wall, over it and into East Berlin. Christ, I hate them all – and I’m effing one of them.
I have a particular loathing for those in management. Pompous, flappy-tongued, drunken, philandering, obese, narcissistic …
“Miss Forester? Clare?”
I started guiltily. “Sorry?”
“I think you should begin.” Denise produced some photographs from a neatly labelled folder. She was so organised I wanted to spit. “This is the scenario I’ve chosen for you.” Terrific. “Imagine you are the editor, and a junior journalist turns up an hour late, dressed like this.” She placed the photo on the table as though it were a significant tarot card.
“Well, Denise,” I flannelled, looking at the picture of Madonna in her “Who’s that girl?” outfit. Micro skirt. Backless black top. Boots. Fishnets. Bleached hair. Leather biker jacket. Ideal for nipping off to Gateway for a bottle of plonk and a packet of digestives. “I’m not sure.”
“Tell us, at least, what you’d be thinking.”
Shit. She was enjoying my discomfiture. Cow. I sighed. No escape. “Um, I think it would be something along the lines of … ‘Bohemia, or whatever your name, you might be the youngest junior reporter on The Clarion, but what the hell do you think you’re doing strolling in at this time of day when the rest of us poor buggers have been here nursing our hard-earned hangovers since half-seven this morning’. Oh, and I’d probably add ‘dressed like that’.”
Malcolm snorted and buttoned his lip as Denise fired off one of her looks at him. Don’t men just love it when two alpha females (in this case, the only two females in the room) lock horns. Well, clipfiles, perhaps. Denise and I were total opposites. She was bottle-blonde, thick-waisted, dumpy and corporate. That’s corporate, not corpulent. I am brunette, narrower, above average height … and of an independent style of thinking that can get me into trouble if I don’t keep my lip buttoned.
“But, of course, I wouldn’t actually say that,” I added hurriedly. “For I am the queen of discretion.”
Frankie chuckled and hid it with the rasping cough of the 40-a-day newsman. It made me feel a bit better and I assumed a meek expression as should befit someone attending a training session, even if it was headed by a petty bureaucrat with no clue about how newspapers really worked. She was a complete prat. A total bureauprat. Now, that would make a good headline. I smirked inwardly, but kept my face straight as she launched into a lecture about management pyramids or some such nonsense. I suppressed a yawn and wondered how my daughter Evie was getting on. She was staying at a friend’s, which was convenient, but left me with a lingering sense of foreboding. I wondered if she would attempt at least some homework in my absence. First year of A-levels and I wasn’t sure the significance of her future being on the line had sunk in.
Denise blathered on. Then, alarmingly, she fixed me with her piggy gaze. “But Miss Forester, Clare, going back to your approach. Imagine. As editor, you must say something more constructive. After all, if Bohemia, as you call her, can get away with unseemly behaviour, then so can anyone.”
“Um.” I hated confronting people about anything. I couldn’t imagine telling off a junior reporter, although in my day, my former news editor in Bristol, never had any problem with tearing a strip off anyone he felt like. Bastard. “Maybe I’d ask her if she’d had a problem with the buses or something?”
Denise tutted. “That, I fear, would just give the girl the excuse she needed. Malcolm? Share your approach, if you would be so kind.”
The sports editor shifted. “Depends on my mood. I might let it go once, then I’d probably ask one of ladies at the front desk to have a quiet word. You know.”
“Women, not ladies,” corrected Denise. “Oh, dear. If your staff realise you aren’t prepared to discipline them yourself, you command no respect.”
Far be it from me to admit it, but Denise was tough, in her own brittle way. People who run training sessions for tired hacks need to be made of stern stuff. So, there she sat at the training centre in Brighton, for Christ’s sake. Why Brighton? What is the point of going to the seaside for training when you’re going to be bloody well stuck indoors all day while the waves prance playfully on the shingle from nine to five? And then, when the sun’s setting poetically on molten lava-tipped waves amid a freshening briny wind, you’re wedged against a slot machine in a naff bar that smells like cat litter while the crappy sound system plays some Tears for Fears. I like them, actually. Well, they’re West Country boys and almost local – but that’s beside the point.
After being on the wrong end of a filthy look, I wondered if Denise was endowed with super hearing. She uncrossed and recrossed her ankles and spoke again. “You are entitled to your opinion, of course, but one, slightly more professional option would be to ask to have a ‘word’ with said Bohemia, but an hour after most people have finished. She would spend the day considering her behaviour. Management and motivation,” she added in a smug tone, “the over-arching yet underlying point to the course.”
I shuddered, thinking it sounded more like manipulation, almost pitying our wayward Bohemia, agonising through the whole day, fearing she’d get the sack, and wondering if her mascara would run if she did. Then it struck me what the whole damned farce of a course was all about. It wasn’t intended to motivate us as managers at all. Glancing at the others, I realised we were all beyond hope of promotion. No. It was a sneaky way to see how we’d respond to constructive dismissal. We were a bunch of loose cannons, slowly being dismantled.
“Clare? Are you quite well?”
Swallowing the bile in my throat, I went for the sympathy vote. Always a useful trick if you’re in the middle of an interview and your subject dries up, or you realise you need to be back in the office in ten minutes. “Sorry, yes. It’s just … I’m sorry. My cat died last week, and I just get these terrible pangs …”
The cat idea was just genius. As you can probably guess, I do not have a cat. I’m a dog person. To the marrow, you could say. Mongrels, of course, and yes, I do have one of those. Straggly, brownish-grey shaggy gangly girl called Poppy with chocolate eyes and long eyelashes and a daft tail. She rules our house, of course. I used to try and assert control, but I normally resort to an “oh, dear” tone, that really doesn’t work. But back to Denise and the cat diversion. I tried to squeeze out a small tear.
Sensing she was about to be upstaged, Denise finally turned to Frankie. “How would you deal with Bohemia?”
He winked at me and cleared his throat. “I think Clare’s on the right track. Only, I’d bloody let rip and say it out loud. Tell her to sort herself out or expect a reprimand, then the sack if that didn’t work. Sometimes, you just have to clear the air. No point in beating about the bush. I’d chuffing well tell Bohemia what for, and keep my own blood pressure down below 200 thingummies.”
Denise looked horrified, but Nigel nodded eagerly. “I think I agree. I mean, if you don’t let it out, you can end up shouting at the wrong person. You know, like your mum, or a policeman, or something.”
“Aye.” Frankie nodded, enjoying his politically incorrect bomb shell. “Quite right, laddie.”
“But, but–” sputtered Denise. “Is an outburst really the best thing?” She injected a patronising note so thick it dripped on the lino. “Remember what I just talked about? The stress bucket, yes? Only you can stop it from overflowing.”
Stuff the sodding stress bucket. “I know what you’re trying to say,” I continued, beginning to get annoyed, “and I rarely if ever let rip, but I have to admit, it makes me feel better. Even if it’s fiction and inside my head.”
She threw up her hands. “Back to Frankie. How can you expect to motivate people if you criticise them in public?”
“I don’t know about you, but I am bloody well motivated, thank you very much, and I’ve been shouted at for yonks. I work in newspapers, for f-, for crying out loud.” See? I was trying to be polite.
Denise winced. “But that’s the point!” She looked piqued and she turned to me. “At least you admit you wouldn’t actually have a rant, Clare.”
“I might, if pushed.” I felt rebellious.
“You don’t look like an angry person.” Denise wrinkled her over-plucked brows in consternation.
If only you knew. I took a breath. “Don’t get me wrong. I always give praise when it’s due,” I ploughed on, trying not throw caution to the freshening briny wind, “but I do feel that if you really are forced to tackle a problem instead of just avoiding it, you have to be yourself. Let off some steam. Shout. Kick the cat, well, not your own cat.” I coughed. “Someone else’s. The ‘I’m sorry you feel like that’ management-speak approach can backfire in real life.”
Denise opened and closed her mouth. I’m guessing she didn’t understand the concept of real life. Or maybe I’d cocked up the cat thing.
“Well,” said Frankie in a tone that suggested he’d had quite enough. “Nothing wrong with a bit of a rant, then you have a laugh and go to the pub. Well,” he added, grinning. “Worked for me and the boys when we went on strike over that chuffing new technology. New technology my arse. Have you seen that Today rag?”
We clapped and stamped our feet, cheerful in our mutual derision. Sorry, we’re journos.
“Look likes a comic,” agreed Nigel. Well, he would know.
“Computer photosetting.” Frankie sniffed. “It’ll never last. Give me hot metal every day.”
“That’s what the wife says, ’n all.”
And so it went on. Denise fell silent, no doubt vowing to herself that she would not be beaten by a bunch of reprobates. She stacked up her notes and let us out early for lunch. With a modicum of joshing and Anglo-Saxon banter, we slouched off to the pub.
After much swapping of macho stories, Frankie handed me my second pint. “You a union member?”
“NUJ.” I took a slug. “For what it’s worth.”
Frankie passed along the rest of the drinks. “Better than nothing. Things are going to get tough.”
“They’ve already asked me to sign a personal contract.” Malcolm dabbed beery foam off his top lip. “Thin end of the wedge. Don’t know if I can refuse.”
Young Nigel watched us all carefully from over the top of his half of lager and lime.
“We’re not so badly off in Scotland,” Frankie went. “Stronger union presence and all that. Some of our guys’ wages aren’t half bad, but our Father of Chapel reckons the bosses’ll start targeting smaller chapels – Aberdeen and such.”
Malcolm nodded. “They’re not just trying to cut salaries, either. They’re gunning for all our perks. Expenses, holidays, sick leave …”
“Sick leave’s a right, not a bloody perk,” muttered Frankie.
“Will there be a strike?” Nigel sounded rather thrilled at the prospect. Oh, callow youth.
Frankie grimaced. “Aye, probably. But it’ll only work if the printers do a work-to-rule. They won’t go on strike themselves, especially as that’s been outlawed by Thatcher.” He drained his beer.
Christ, I thought. Was my paper a likely target? The Clarion was a modest newspaper in a market town in Somerset. Over the past decade or so, it had been buying out a dozen or so smaller provincial titles and centralised production in Wellsbury Spa. It might have been a daily, but it had one of the smallest circulations in the country. Our editor tried to make a virtue out of it.
Frankie turned to me. “What’s your union like? Bunch of tossers, or what?”
“Mike, our FOC, is quite militant, I suppose. Single guy. Lives in a caravan, so I suppose he can afford to be. But the editor, deputy and news editor are all IOJ.”
“Institute of Journalists,” translated Malcolm for our youngest member.
“I knew that,” protested Nigel. “And the printers are NGA, aren’t they?”
Malcolm turned back to me. “Well, Clare.” He turned to me. “Not looking good, is it? Told you this new technology’s a double-edged sword – those IOJ bastards could still get the paper out if you lot downed tools.”
“He’s right.” Frankie nodded. “Those chuffing upstart pseudo-intellectual militants in the NUJ think just because they can handle new technology, they have the power to stop the presses. They don’t.”
“But how would the IOJ get the paper out?” Nigel’s eyes were like dinner plates. “How would they fill the pages?”
“A few local titbits, padded out with syndicated copy for the rest. Big pictures, lots of cross-heads. Words are cheap, my lad. Words are bleeding cheap. Remember that.” His voice was doom-laden.
The conversation strayed on to other matters. An hour and a half later, we trooped back, smelling of ciggies and ale, feeling edgy and embittered, dreading our afternoon torture session. True to form, it was excruciatingly deadly. Which begins with a D, which turned out to be rather apposite.
Denise, rather misguidedly in our mellow view, tried to introduce us to the four Ds of time management. Do, Ditch, Delay and Delegate. Drinking wasn’t on the list. She even drew a graph, with axes of urgent versus important. I tried to add the current favourite strategies of my own editor – Dither and Disappear – but she wouldn’t have it. So, I dopily dozed in a dullish dream, making sure I used as many D words I could think of. Demotivating, demoralising, dreadful, desperate.
Finally, it ended, not with Death, but more torture. A gusty wind, which must have originated in chuffing Reykyavik, tore at our clothes as Denise marched us off to a “resto-pub”. After refusing some no-doubt toxic house red, I opted for a lukewarm coke and a dodgy steak tournedo that was aptly well named, judging by the speed it was already whirling through my digestive tract. I finally escaped and battled along the seafront back towards where I’d parked my rental car. Dodging a leering drunk, I climbed in with relief and headed back to Somerset.
As I headed west to pick up the A36, I came to the mournful conclusion that the past three days had undeniably been the most depressing days of my professional life so far. And I was only 37.
The wind picked up, and the journey seemed endless. Knowing I really should have gone via the motorway, I trundled through every sleepy village between Chichester and what seemed like Milford Blinking Haven. I longed to be home, seated at my trusty Amstrad, a humungous gin and lime with bugger all ice at my right hand to help the creative juices. Except this time, I wasn’t starting on my stunning début novel about corruption in the newspaper industry, I’d be writing my sodding resignation.
So much for Man Management and Motivation, I thought with a snort.
That’s when the tree fell.
I don’t know how long I was out. The storm must have raged as I sat oblivious in the dark. Then my brain suddenly kicked in and I stirred. Forcing my eyes open, I peered outside. It was still dark, but after a few seconds, my eyes adjusted. The car straddled the road at a jaunty angle. One tree lay across the bonnet and another across the rest of the road.
My life. A sodding car wreck.
Thank God it was a quiet road. What if someone had been behind me, or coming the other way? Since the bulbs had blown I couldn’t warn anyone by flashing my headlights. I pressed the horn and a harsh parp sounded. Thank God. At least I could warn other passing drivers. I had to stay conscious, but it was a struggle to keep my eyes open.
Anger seemed a good way to keep awake, so I composed my resignation in my head. I started with “Dear Mr Mundy”. I mentally crossed that out and replaced it with “To Whom it May Concern”. After half of dozen attempts at pithy prose, I’d got it down to “I quit, you bastards”.
They don’t call me Chopper Forester for nothing. I can cut a 500-word treatise on fly-tipping penalties down to 50 words in seconds – and come up with a witty headline (“Another fine mess”, springs to mind), while eating a bacon butty and drinking tea by the pint.
I contemplated my less-than-shining career. More recently, I’d been promoted to assistant features editor at The Clarion. Actually, there were only two people in the features department at The Clarion, so it’s not as fancy as it sounds. However, the features chief was always swanning off on mysterious meetings, business lunches, interviews with celebs in the latest “as seen on TV” play in Bath or Bristol – and rarely subbed a bloody page. When Kenneth Branagh passed through to do Shakespeare, we didn’t see the bugger for a week.
So, I did the lot and kept features afloat – flat plans, commissioning, subbing, picture searches. Sometimes I even wrote the damned copy myself. TV listings, interviews, every feature imaginable, you name it, I subbed it. No wonder Terry Pratchett quit newspapers and went to write books about wacky worlds and flying turtles. Good for him.
Every few weeks, I was obliged to join the newsdesk reprobates on Saturdays in lieu of a day off mid-week. I normally got stuck with the splash story (“Crisis as [insert appropriate noun] hits’) because I wasn’t safe with sport. I never knew what the game was – or who won. Bit of a handicap, that.
So, that was my life. Work and my daughter and the dog.
No husband, you might have noticed. Evie did have a father. Well, obviously, I’m not that smart, and there was no test tube involved. There was this bloke. It was hot and heavy for a bit and I got pregnant. But before she arrived, and just after our graduation, he buggered off to join a rock band. It was the Year of our Lord 1971, before you judge. Terribly handsome he was (my ex, not the Lord), in that floppy-haired dark academic way, and brilliant, but a stranger to commitment. I – we – were better off without him. And I mean that in a financial way. He had a way of going through other people’s money like a tramp through a wheelie bin. We’d lost touch – my choice – so goodness knows who he was sponging off now.
I sat in the dark and considered my life sans homme. To all intents and purposes, it looked calm enough. A steady job in a nice newspaper office. A nice house (one of those three-up, three-down terraced houses). Great kid, even if she end up watching that awful new soap, EastEndersWithTheUnnecessaryCapitalLetters. Rubbish. It’ll never last.
Actually, it wasn’t strictly man-free. We’d acquired a nice lodger, Colin, a tall, anxious chap who stayed in the garden flat – a one-bedroomed semi-basement apartment with en-suite and a kettle. He spent a lot of time in his room doing “programming”, listening to music (Hall and Oates, I reckoned) on his headphones. He emerged to run workshops at the university or buy food. When the printer or the video were sulking, he would fix them with a bemused smile. He always, always paid his rent on time. Good man, Colin.
I tried to picture the scene when I got back home safe and sound, which of course I would. Wouldn’t I? I felt stiff and I still couldn’t move my legs. Jesus. What would happen if I really did resign? Fear turned my blood cold. Could I manage? Perhaps, for a few weeks, but after that? We’d be done for. What if I were badly injured in this crash and couldn’t work? My chest tightened in panic.
Not thinking about it, not thinking about it.
Then, just like it happens in films, faint lights glowed in the distance. Headlamps. I jabbed at the horn with numb fingers, willing it to sound louder. The lights got nearer. Miraculously, they slowed. A large black taxi screeched to a halt, a few yards short of the fallen tree.
A man in an anorak flung open the door and climbed out, his face looming white in the reflected beam as his thin hair blew crazily in the wind. He ran over and tugged open the car door. “Miss? You all right?”
“Think so.”
“If you hadn’t sounded your horn …. Crikey. Can you climb out?”
“Seat jammed.” My voice cracked. “Legs stuck.”
“Can you move your head? OK. Hang on. Should be safe.”
He climbed into the back. “Push the release bar. I’ll pull. Gently, now. On three. One, two, three.” The seat flew back. “Ouch.”
“Only me knee. Got another. Reminds of the time I delivered twins off the A4. Come on, let’s get you out. Can you walk? Good. I’ll call it in.”
With help, I hobbled stiffly back to his cab and sat in the back while he took over. In a while, blue lights scythed through the shadowy woods alongside the road. “Busy night?” Terry, my saviour in a taxi, spoke to the ambulance drivers.
“Not over yet, mate? Seen the forecast?”
“Horrible. I was just on my way home to tuck myself into my bed and let it blow over.”
“All right for some.”
As they quipped, kind, warm hands eased me through the windswept night into the back of the ambulance and I was wrapped in a blanket. Someone handed me a plastic cup of sweet tea. They checked me over. “She’ll be all right,” someone said. “No sign of concussion. Minor cuts and bruises. Just fainted at the shock. Lucky.”
Terry caught my eye and addressed the crew. “I’ll take her home, all right? Can’t leave a good-looking lass like you anywhere near this lot.”
I nodded, almost weeping with relief. Lass. He’d called me lass. How quaint. All I had was a small cut on my leg, a bruise on my forehead, a broken fingernail – and a desire to do something different with my life.
It was the night of October 15, 1987. The Great Storm. People still ask if you remember what you were doing at the time. All I wanted to do was forget.

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