At death's door

At times like this, when there is so much death everywhere, I’m
thankful not to be a reporter any more. I’m too old and tired to enjoy
intruding on people’s tragedies.

But it wasn’t always so. Years
ago, when I worked on regional newspapers, I was known as the Death
Knock Queen. If you’d had an even mildly interesting death in the
family, chances are I would show up unannounced on your doorstep,
offering sympathy while warbling some inanity about wanting to do a
“tribute”

to your uncle Archie, who died ten minutes ago in a tragic lawnmower accident.

I’d
invite myself into your grief, trample around your tortured soul, grab
a photograph, and zip back to the office to bang out 300 words of
tastefully titillating obituary.

You’d think that after
repeatedly barging into bereaved relatives’ houses, demanding photos of
the deceased, and staying until I got at least one killer quote (pardon
the pun) out of the living people, that most of these death knocks
would stick in my memory.

But they don’t. I worry that I may be a psychopath.

There are really only three of my death knocks that are memorable: the Dog Guy, the Nutter, and the Pointless Baby.

The
Dog Guy was one of the first death knocks I ever did, as a cub reporter
on a daily paper in theWest of England. Although the surrounding
countryside was beautiful, the county town was a grimly nasty little
hole, full of pebble-dashed boxes housing surly inbred refugees from
life’s big trailer park.

The Dog Guy lived in one of these boxes,
and one late wintry night I turned up on his doorstep, like the Grim
Reaper’s afterthought.

I didn’t know he’d turn out to be the Dog
Guy at that point. To me, he was a 19-year-old motorcyclist and victim
of a fatal hit and run accident.

I gave the old spiel, “Sorry to
bother you… blah, “When the door was answered by a glassy-eyed
elderly man displaying his penis through the open crotch of a pair of
trousers held up by string, I knew this would be beyond even my
superpowers.”

blah… difficult time… blah, tribute… blah,
blah… can I come in… blah, blah,” and was led into a tiny, hot,
dimly-lit living room. It was packed full of silent bereaved people –
who were staring at me. I began to sweat, and not just from the heat.

I sank into a sofa and started babbling questions about the dead guy. And that’s where I ran into trouble.

After an hour and a half of solid questioning, here’s what I knew about him: He liked motorbikes.

And video games.

He had no girlfriend.

Had no other hobbies.

He didn’t play a sport.

He’s never been a Cub Scout.

He had no distinguishing characteristics whatsoever.

He would be missed. But not by anyone articulate, apparently.

They
were bereaved, but I was anguished. I could not find one interesting
thing this poor guy had ever done, and none of the 30-odd people in the
room could say anything interesting about him, either. I was looking at
the newspaper equivalent of dead airtime.

Eventually I had to
admit defeat, and asked for a photograph – always a prelude to leaving.
The dead guy was heading for an extended picture caption on page seven.
The family got out a photo album and leafed through it as I tapped my
mental foot impatiently and dripped sweat on their violently-patterned
carpet.

“Here’s one with his dog,” the mother said, handing me a
photo. “He loved his dog. Poor thing died of a broken heart three days
after Mark was killed. Just curled up in his basket, refused to eat,
and faded away.

We’re putting his dog lead in Mark’s coffin so they can always rest together.”

Ker-CHING!

Now
that’s a story, madam. Quite worth the wait. It made a page three lead
and an excellent addition to my clippings file. The Nutter was also a
hit and run victim. He was a man in his sixties who’d been knocked off
his bicycle.

I was sent to his address, which was in a
particularly seedy part of town. The reason I remember the Nutter is
pretty self-explanatory. He was a nutter. And so were his friends,
although I didn’t know that when I knocked on his door at 7.30am one
rainy Saturday.

But when the door was answered by a glassy-eyed
elderly man displaying his penis through the open crotch of a pair of
trousers held up by string, I knew this death knock would be beyond
even my superpowers.

And it was.

After listening to him
gargle incomprehensibly, studiously avoiding looking at his penis, I
left. No photo – which was a bad thing. My news editor eventually
stopped berating me after I discovered the address was a halfway house
for elderly men who were learning disabled and mentally ill. That’s a
heavy burden.

I’m sure my cyclist is now at peace. That made page three, too, but it wasn’t a lead.

And
so to the Pointless Baby, which happened in a similarly small,
poverty-stricken hole of a town. This one was in Wales, so there was
even more pebble-dash about the place.

I suspect some readers
would be appalled to discover the common practice of advertising
department executives giving editors sneak previews of the birth, death
and marriage notices. They do this so the editors can get advance
notice of any interesting deaths and dispatch a reporter to add to the
festivities.

The reporter is usually told not to call before
going, because the grieving family might have the courage to say
no.Most editors know people are usually too polite to turn away a
visitor from the local newspaper, and even more so when their minds are
muddled by grief.

On one such occasion, my news editor gave me a
freshly paid-for death notice and told me to drive to the address right
away. The notice was for a baby, but offered no clue as to the cause of
death. I suggested that this might be an even more unwarranted
intrusion than usual, and that we should call first, but I was
overruled. Back then, I was young and stupid and always did what I was
told, so off I went.

On a squalid housing estate I was ushered
into a dark, hot room where five or six people were sitting in silence.
They turned to look at me. I thought nervously of the Dog Guy, but I
plunged ahead with my comforting psycho-babble introductory speech,
followed with an earnestly sympathetic, “Can you tell me what happened?”

At
this, the mother burst into tears and rushed from the room, followed by
a few other people. The remainder glared at me accusingly.

I tried the uncle. “So. Can you tell me what happened?”

He
tried, but after three words, burst into tears and left the room. This
left the dad and a couple of bling-laden, shaven-headed lovelies,
clutching beer cans and staring at me menacingly.

Finally, the father spoke. And here, in nine words is the story, pried from his gritted teeth of grief.

Cot death. The baby lived a week, then died.

(But
I got a photo, so that was okay.)n It made a small, extended photo
caption on page five. Not juicy enough for page three, I’m afraid. I
marched back into the office that day and had the only stand-up row
I’ve ever had with a boss in my entire career. The gist of it was that
invading someone’s grief for no good reason when there was no damn
story was a despicable act that should never be allowed to happen again.

I
finished up screaming: “What next? Shall we death-knock stillbirths?
Miscarriages? How about unusually heavy menstruation!?” The news editor
had the grace to look sheepish.

Even though the Pointless Baby’s
uncle called me the following day to thank me for the “sensitive” piece
I’d written, I never did another death knock again. I’d lost the taste
for it.

Geraldine Hayward is an
editor at Star magazine in the US. She left the UK in 2001 but prefers
that the regional newspapers she worked for remain nameless.

This article previously appeared in bistromedia.com

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