I had my first brushes with the nationals about two months before my first party-conference season, during a missing-child case that turned into a search for a body and then, about six months later, into a murder case. (It was the stepfather. Imagine everybody's surprise.) The story would normally have been out of my league at the paper, as a new arrival, but I had written the initial "Where's Little Jimmy?" item and so I stayed with it, on and off, until I left. The London hacks were all over it from the start, richer and pushier and yobbier than I had expected, though the man I met and became friends with, Bob Berkowitz, was none of those things. He turned up at the office one day looking for Ken, an old mate from the Brighton Courier, now The Argus's chief reporter. I looked up from my manual typewriter--there's a Flintstones-era detail--and saw a short, shy man with dark curly hair and glasses, carrying a coat and looking tactically bewildered; bewildered in that way people look when they want you to notice and offer help.
"Can I help you?" I asked, almost certainly in a not very helpful way, a twenty-four-year-old girl scowling over a desk.
"Is Ken around?"
"Out on a story."
He looked at his watch, frowning. "But the pubs are shut," he said. I gave him one of those laughs you do to show you appreciate the effort someone's made in making a joke, and we got talking.
Berkowitz was a cut above the usual reptile--that was part of the signal he sent. He wrote longish reportage for The Toxic and was out-of-the-closet-except-to-his-mother- who-probably-knew-but-it-was-never-spoken-about gay. One evening at his flat near Tower Bridge he told me he was "an intellectual," thus becoming the only working journalist I ever heard use the word about himself. We hit it off right from the start.
"It's not so much a piece about the kid's disappearance per se," Berkowitz explained to me later, across the road, in the pub we called The Dead Brian. (Real name, The Red Lion.) "I'm interested in the effect of these crimes on people and on communities. The aftershocks. What happens in the time when the story isn't on the front pages anymore? How do people get on with their lives?"
I was able to help him out with some contacts and background stuff, and he was nicer about asking for it than people from the nationals usually were; they tended to come over all smarmy and "We're all in this together" when they needed a favor, and the rest of the time act like they had it on good authority that their own shit didn't smell. This was something I got a good look at during that conference, Kinnock's second as party leader, the one after the one when he fell on his bum in the water while trying to walk along the beach looking dignified and visionary. That conference has happy memories for me, because it was the occasion of my first break. I went out for a few drinks on the last-but-one evening with Berkowitz and a couple of his London friends. One of them was a broadsheet hack, another was a Tory apparatchik, a back-room boy for one of the big shots, in town for a bit of spying and to write a think-piece for one of the right-wing papers. Berkowitz left early to file some copy, and the rest of us ended up at my flat, where we got exceptionally drunk. I don't remember how the evening finished, other than being sick and going to bed at some point around five, having somehow called a cab for the apparatchik before passing out. The hack was on the sofa, having conked out a while before.
Gosh, how I don't miss so many things about my twenties. I had to work the next day. The morning was heavy going. I kept sneaking off to the loo and dry-retching. At lunchtime there was a buzz from Reception saying someone had come to see me. It was the Tory back-room boy. He was wearing dark glasses and looked as hungover as any human being I had ever seen. At close range I noticed he was trembling slightly. He had changed his suit but still smelled of drink.
Copyright 2002 by John Lanchester. All rights reserved. This book, or parts therof, may not be reproduced in any form without written permission.
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