Late Night Final by Lucie Brownlee
The city had stories to tell, and the idea was to get to them before all the other hacks did. And the streets were crawling with the hacks, all doing what they could to outwit their rival – bribing coppers, vicars and councillors; ripping the voice boxes from public telephones so they couldn’t phone a story back to the office. They’d pay off whores and beggars, set up false leads.
But none of them outdid Ray Marr. Ray was always one step ahead. For Ray had me.
“Son, get dressed.”
“It’s still dark out, Dad.”
“It would be, it’s two in the morning. Now get your kegs on and come with me.”
“Where we going?”
“To my office.”
I bunked up alongside him in his beaten up Austin A30 with its footwell full of old newspapers and stinking cigar butts. The city was a charcoal sketch on the other side of the river, and we rumbled over the bridge towards it. The river was low and tarry; choked up under the moonlit sky. A car chassis glinted in its silt-bank grave.
During the day, on the arm of my Mother, the city was a vivid and raucous place. Now it was monochrome and muted. There were hookers and hawkers and drunks slumped in doorways and down alleyways, sometimes staggering in front of the car as we drove past.
We pulled up round the back of the Conservative Club. Dad got out and stood with his hands on his hips. He looked up at the twelve-foot wall.
“Is this your office Dad?”
“After a fashion, yes.”
“What are we doing here in the middle of the night?”
“Remember how I told you that nothing comes in the way of a good story?”
“Not even the facts, you said.”
Dad tapped the side of his nose. “Correct. Well earlier today someone torched the old flour mill on the quayside. Now the chief fire officer’s in the Club here drinking and I’ve missed closing time. He’ll have had a few whiskeys and his tongue will be nicely loosened.” He signalled for me to come forward. “See this gate? I need to you open it.”
“How do I do that?”
He looked once over each shoulder then hoisted me up on top of the wall. “You jump down and unbolt it.”
I was shaking from cold and from fright, but I jumped, just as he’d said and felt the hard cobbles of the yard through the patched soles of my boots. I fell forward and scraped the skin off my kneecaps, but the air froze the pain before I felt it.
“All right?” Dad whispered, his hot breath coming through the slats in the gate.
I scrambled to my feet and pulled at the heavy metal bolts which secured the gate at the top and bottom. I lifted the sneck and the gate swung open. Dad straightened his tie and stepped into the yard. He pulled a half-smoked cigar out of his waistcoat pocket and lit it with a match. A balloon of smoke engulfed his face and when it subsided he was smiling.
“Go and sit in the car. Lock all the doors and don’t move until I come out. I’ll be an hour or so.” He turned and pulled open the back door to the Club, making out he was just coming in from the toilet. A waft of malty, laughter-infused air escaped as it slammed shut behind him.
An hour later we were on the quayside in the Austin watching the sun rise behind the trawlers as they rolled back to the docks with their catch. Dad was scrawling on his notepad in what looked like hieroglyphics, chewing on his unlit cigar. He turned to me and smiled. Ray Marr had got his story.
And he got exclusives every week thanks to my nimble fingers, angelic face, fleet foot; and the city’s endless capacity to provide them. Together we secured the front page on the infamous Wedding Day Murder. A bridegroom was stabbed in the neck with a broken bottle and died at the wedding reception in a pub near the city walls. His distraught bride wouldn’t speak to the press – until a lovely little laddie brought a consolatory bunch of flowers to her door and gave Ray the foot in he needed.
For a time, the city was ours. I could close my eyes and know its streets by the sway and bump of the Austin. A series of sharp turns? Pilgrim Street. Bouncing suspension? Dobson Street. A lurch into the footwell? Grey Street. I came to know the people who lived in it, worked in it, skirted its peripheries like famished wolves. The loony who counted traffic. The aged whore with the fuzzed-up hair. The businessman who fed his lunchtime crusts to the pigeons. And everyone knew Ray Marr. He’d strut up Northumberland Street in long socks and plus eights, his vast belly shackled into a chequered waistcoat which was always speckled with cigar ash. He wanted to be noticed in order that I wasn’t.
“To win the game, you have to understand the players,” he told me. “You’re learning that, son. One day you’ll be the best of the lot.”
I was eight years old and believed I would be. Ray Marr himself said it so it had to be true.
Strobe lighting from the nightclub opposite makes the shadows dance along the alley behind the Club. The old Renault shudders as it comes to a halt. We get out and I look up at the wall. Twelve foot high with a break in the line of glass jags, just to the left of the gate.
The city has different stories to tell since Ray Marr was last here; they’re no longer his to write. They’re mine.
I look once over each shoulder and say; “Go on son. You know the routine. Over you go.”