Widows and Orphans: Extract

In the opening chapter of the novel, Duncan Neville, editor-proprietor of the Francombe & Salter Mercury, reflects on his own life and the lives of his staff on the morning after fire has destroyed the town’s pier.

Of all the campaigns Duncan had launched in nearly thirty years at the helm of the Mercury, the one to secure the future of the pier remained closest to his heart. After three years during which the structure had been left to rot, the paper had set up the Save Our Pier petition, attracting the signatures of almost a fifth of Francombe’s residents; given away 10,000 stickers that had been plastered on windows, windscreens, walls and the Diamond Jubilee statue of Queen Victoria; and organised a Day of Protest in September 2009, which saw more than 2,000 people march on the Town Hall to demand that the Council take immediate action to purchase the pier from its absentee owners.

The march, extensively reported in the national media, achieved its objective. After a further two years of legal wrangling and a costly programme of emergency repairs, the Council assumed control of the pier. Meanwhile, the Francombe Pier Trust was established with the aim of restoring and running the pier as a viable local concern; but, although the Trust was awarded an £85,000 feasibility grant by English Heritage to conduct a structural survey and draw up architectural plans, it failed to obtain capital funding from either the Heritage Lottery or the EU.   This bitter blow was compounded in May 2013 when the Council announced that, in view of both the Trust’s inability to raise finance and the assessors’ estimate that a sum in excess of £25,000,000 would be needed to repair the fabric, plus a similar amount to resume operation, it had agreed to sell the pier to Weedon Investments. Duncan, who attacked the decision in a series of hard-hitting editorials, had never given up hope that the sale might be revoked – until the fire.

For Duncan, the pier had always been the best of Francombe.   At school, his home town had been derided by boys who, if they holidayed in England at all, headed for the more refined reaches of Cornwall and Suffolk. Even in its Victorian heyday, it had never enjoyed the prestige of its neighbouring resorts.   While Brighton, Eastbourne and Worthing attracted the affluent middle classes, Francombe catered to ‘clerks and other working people’ from London’s East End. By the 1960s, any lingering claims to gentility had been abandoned in a welter of binge drinking and gang warfare. But amid the bug-infested guesthouses, grimy pubs, litter-strewn beaches and vomit-splattered pavements, one monument remained unsullied. From the octagonal tollbooths and glass-covered Winter Garden to the multi-domed pavilion and horseshoe arcade, the pier stood comparison with any in the country.

The midget photographer with the monkey that never blinked; the gypsy fortune teller with the aniseed-scented booth; the sad-faced silhouettist with scissors as adept as a brush; the flea circus boasting ‘the smallest big top in the world’: these formed the pattern of Duncan’s childhood memories, as they did for so many in Francombe.   Then in 1969 when he was five years old, there was the unforgettable celebration of the Mercury’s centenary. His father hired the pavilion for a banquet attended by his entire staff, past and present, and a host of local luminaries. Duncan, pledged to be on his best behaviour, sat rigidly through the profusion of speeches, disgracing himself only once when he asked in a piercing whisper why the Mayor was wearing a necklace. He danced with his mother, his sister Alison and, as she had never ceased to remind him, his father’s young secretary, Sheila. He watched the fireworks, which magically spelt out Mercury and 100 Years across the night sky. Then, lulled by the swash of the waves against the columns, he fell fast asleep.

Emerging from his reverie with an acute sense of loss, Duncan was tempted to approve the dummy front page with its one-word headline, ‘Gutted’, above a photograph of the pier head smothered in smoke and looking eerily like St Paul’s at the height of the Blitz, but he shied away from the twin offences of sensationalism and sentimentality. Now, more than ever, he was determined to stick to the standards for which the paper was known – and, in some quarters, ridiculed.   So, having settled on the more sober ‘Francombe Pier Inferno’, he signed off the page and put the paper to bed.

He walked into the reporters’ room, which as ever contrived to look both cluttered and depleted.   Despite the eight empty desks, Ken, the news editor, sat facing his two reporters, Rowena and Brian, at a single desk in the centre, with Stewart, the sub, and Jake, the sports editor, at desks on either side. While Stewart’s was obsessively neat, with even the pens in his tray graded according to size, the others were in varying states of chaos. Files, books and papers were scattered across every surface, along with a hairbrush, make-up bag and headache pills (Rowena), an electric-blue T-shirt and large tub of protein powder (Brian) and, ominously, a spike full of invoices (Ken). Although Mary, the cleaner, made sporadic raids on the news desk, Jake had berated her so often for disturbing his filing system that she had given up on sport, with the result that two half-eaten pizzas rested on a pile of football programmes as if he were preparing a feature on botulism at the ground rather than analysing Francombe FC’s prospects for the new season. Four ancient computer monitors gathered dust beside the packed bookshelves. Slumped over one was Humphrey, a giant teddy bear who had been left unclaimed after a competition and adopted as the office mascot. Much prized for his soothing presence, he was regularly called on to mediate in staff disputes. Whatever layers of irony had once informed Rowena’s You don’t have to be mad to work here but it helps poster had long been worn away.

Although he lacked his father’s easy conviviality, Duncan prided himself on running a close-knit team. Foremost among them was Ken, not only the paper’s news editor but his deputy, a role that had been nominal for the past three years during which he had not taken a single day’s holiday or sick leave.   Having, in his own words, ‘fallen in love with journalism’ on his paper round, Ken had been hired as a junior reporter straight from school in 1970.   His starting salary was £6 a week, of which he paid £2 to his mother for his keep, £1 on travel, and 30 shillings to the retired secretary who taught him shorthand and typing; sums that seemed as comical to the generations of juniors to whom he described them as did his lifelong dedication to the paper itself. Unlike them, he had never seen the Mercury as a stepping stone to Fleet Street but remained passionately committed to a strong and crusading local press. He had kept the faith for more than four decades, but in recent years it had been severely tested, first by the paper’s relentless struggle to survive and then by his only daughter’s death.   In the one human-interest story he chose not to write, he had donated a kidney to her, which her body rejected. ‘It’s a good thing it wasn’t his liver,’ Rowena had said when she found him drunk at his desk.

Rowena herself had been with the paper on and off for almost twenty years, the ‘off’ being the three years she spent at home after her daughter was born: the daughter who, on her parents’ acrimonious divorce, had elected to live with her father, a move that Rowena imputed solely to his greater spending power. This in turn fuelled her resentment of the editor-proprietor who consistently undervalued her. She was forty-five years old, a fact that Duncan acknowledged guiltily, given her objections to the frequency with which women’s ages were printed in the paper compared to men’s.   Since her divorce, she had been reluctant to cover anything that might be considered women’s issues, be they jumble sales, zumba classes or multiple births. Meanwhile, she relished every chance, however inopportune, to highlight male hypocrisy, as in a recent piece on a golden wedding when she caustically pointed out that the husband’s claim of not having looked at another woman for fifty years had been ‘flatly contradicted when he fondled my bottom as he showed me out’.   She then turned her fire on her male subeditor when the line was cut.

Stewart, the subeditor in question, had been at the paper almost as long as Rowena, although he could not blame his lack of advancement on the demands of childcare when it was the absence of children that had blighted his life.   Having struggled for years, first with the stresses of IVF and then with the hormonal changes that the treatment produced in his wife, Gillian, he had finally left her for Laura who, as fate would have it, also failed to conceive. Their hopes of adoption were dashed by Gillian’s damning testimonial. In company he made light of it, citing their greater disposable income, but in private he dropped his guard; Duncan had found him in tears over the story of a woman and her three young children burnt to death by a fallen candle after their electricity was cut off. His emotions were heightened by having to check copy, devise headlines and input pictures for the entire paper. The increased pressure led to errors, such as the once exemplary Mercury printing a photograph of the new Lady Mayoress under the caption ‘Mystery Beast Spotted in the Woods’, eliciting furious protests from the Town Hall.

Like Stewart, Jake had joined the paper as one of a department of three but, unlike Stewart, he relished the chance to run it single-handed. Duncan, whose involvement in sport had ended when he left school and whose interest in it waned after Alison retired from professional tennis, was happy to cede responsibility for the four back pages to a man who was a passionate enthusiast for every kind of game except cricket, for which he displayed such aversion that he insisted on covering it under a pseudonym. A classic armchair enthusiast, Jake was large and lumbering, the balls of paper around the bin a token of his ineptitude. During his first years at the Mercury he lived with his mother, who sent him to work every day with a packet of fish-paste sandwiches. When she died following a massive stroke, he discovered that she had changed her will, leaving her house to the long-estranged sister who had come to nurse her three months before.   Duncan was one of many who urged him to contest the will but he refused, preferring to rent a room from an elderly widow, who cooked and cleaned for him, and even made him fish-paste sandwiches. On evenings when he wasn’t at work and she at bingo, they watched television together.   Duncan, who had dinner with his mother twice a week, found their domesticity a threat. Brian, on the other hand, claimed that they were conducting a torrid affair. ‘You’re a gerontophile,’ he said, with all the relish of one who had just learnt the word.

Jake’s pained expression made it clear that the idea of such an affair (or, indeed, of any affair) had never occurred to him. ‘What do they teach you at school these days?’ he asked.

This was a question that had long exercised Duncan in respect of his youngest member of staff.   Like Ken, Brian had joined the Mercury straight from school, but the intervening four decades had given him a very different outlook. In his three years at the paper he had shown both a genuine desire to learn and a tacit contempt for his teachers. It was impossible to fault either his commitment or his work. Despite the lurid tales of his nightly exploits, which Duncan suspected revealed a talent for fiction as much as for reportage, he was at his desk by 8.30 each morning.   He embarked on every assignment that Ken gave him, from Council meetings to ‘death knocks’, with the same enthusiasm that he did his various dates, insisting on the need for experience before he respectively specialised and settled down. He was the one writer who never complained of the extra work involved in maintaining the website (while regularly complaining of the flaws in the site itself). His confusion of brashness with charm would land him in trouble should he ever secure the Fleet Street job he so desperately craved.