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Villain in the Newsroom

The man was short, with close-shaved hair, stocky build and a barrel chest, a black leather jacket and jeans. The close-shaved head was shorthand for the ultra-right wing National Front at that time in Britain.

But white men also wore it to look hard, to fit in with the villains.

This man had asked to speak to a reporter covering Tottenham. In our newspaper, the advertising and editorial departments were behind locked chrome and plate glass windows, like a bank. The receptionist phoned my desk in the newsroom. As I walked down the steps, I had no idea who I’d meet next.

Seamus complained that he’d come home from Tesco with plastic bags full of shopping, and had taken the lift to the 14th floor of his tower block.

There, a man with a rifle had appeared in the corridor and chased him, Seamus said. He’d had to run for his life and dropped all his shopping; his bananas were ruined. “The police and the council aren’t interested in helping me. Can you do a story on it?”

As he gave me his details, the heavy steel door to the advertising department opened, and one of the reps pushed her way through. She wore a short black skirt, white blouse, white pumps, and her hair done up in a pineapple.

As she left with a plastic shopping bag stuffed full of the week’s takings, she called out to her friends: “Just going to the bank! I’ll be back in a tic!”

My contact looked at his watch. “Quarter past three,” Seamus commented. “Does she do this every Thursday?”

“Don’t you dare,” I replied. “I’ve got your name and I know where you live.”

After the paper had gone to bed and the reporters worked on their features, I took Seamus’ odd story to my editor, a tubby guy with a bushy beard and twinkly eyes like Santa.

“I’ve got this guy, lives in Dylan Thomas House, says a man with a rifle came after him and the police won’t help. This is the only story to come in, so far.”

“Go have a look,” he said. “See what’s what.”

Since I earned a measly 8,400 pounds per year, and lived in a bedsit, I made my own clothes on a Brother sewing machine. That day I had chosen a little red tartan skirt, a red wool bolero jacket, and a pair of flat-heeled black boots — always in case I needed to run.

As I pulled my little green 850 Mini up to the car park at Dylan Thomas House, the concrete sky rise made me think of the depressed poet. Was it ironic, or fitting? Only the dead Thomas could say for sure.

In the sharp urine-smell of the lobby, I moved carefully toward the lift, watching for needles. On the way up to the 12th floor, I didn’t think there was a story here, since Seamus couldn’t give a good description of the man with the rifle. All the doors along his corridor were shut like clams. Seamus himself had said no-one saw him. I couldn’t write an article based on gossip, the un-verified account of one man, but here I was, just in case.

As I walked along a silent corridor, alone, I remembered I hadn’t given my editor Seamus’ address, or his name. In this newsroom, mostly men, we’d say what story we were chasing, but never gave details before we left on a job.

Seamus’ flat smelled clean, and aired. The white-and-black tiled lino floor, the low refrigerator, and gas stove had all been wiped down. Tidy.

He led me into his small sitting room, to a black leather overstuffed sofa that rested on what he’d pointed out was a hand-knotted Turkish carpet. “No thanks,” I said to his offer of a beer. “I don’t know how much I can do for you. It’s really a matter for the police.”

“I can’t go to the police. I’ve been in the ‘Ville [Pentonville Prison]. Besides, I know who’s after me. They’re jealous of what I got.”

My eyebrows lifted at mention of the ‘Ville, but I wasn’t surprised. “There isn’t really a story here,” I said. “Unless — are you thinking the council should provide more security?”

“I know too much, like. I know who did that Dairy job. I know who blew up the Bookman. That’s why they’re coming after me. Listen,” Seamus said, changing the subject. “Do you want a new winter coat? I can get one for you. Off Oxford Street. Sheepskin. You’d look good in that.”

“No thanks,” I replied. “I have your details. But I can’t promise this will make a story.”

Seamus ushered me to the door. As he pulled back the bolts, I glanced up, and then pretended my heart didn’t race.

Between the light switch and the door jamb rested a wooden-handled knife with a thin, five-inch steel blade.

“Goodbye,” Seamus said as I walked out. “You will let me know?”

“I’ll be in touch,” I said, and flipped my notebook shut, trying not to show my rattled nerves as I walked to the lift and prayed that Seamus wouldn’t follow me.

Seamus’s spilled shopping, and the man with the rifle, never did make it into the pages of the Tottenham Journal. Strangely, we stayed in touch. He’d call the office, or we’d go for tea in the cafe. He’d tell me about his steal-to-order business and tidbits of villain’s gossip fresh from the ‘Ville. He talked about his Irish childhood in borstal.

One day he said it was time for me to get out of news and start a family, and I realized that he felt protective toward me.

But the most protective thing he’d done was let me see that knife, kept handy by the door should the rifle man return. Never again would I go to someone’s residence without giving the name of the contact, the telephone number, and address to a newsroom colleague.

That day, I was lucky that Seamus was simply an honorable thief, and I didn’t become the story, five thousand miles away from home.

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