I was tucking into an early lunch in downtown Rio de Janeiro when the call from London came through.
On the line was David Smith, an Observer reporter and former editor of the Leeds student newspaper, who I knew from the paper’s annual reunions at the Cheshire Cheese pub on Fleet Street.
David asked if I had heard the reports about the man killed on the London Underground. Word in London was that the victim was a Brazilian, he said.
Knowing I had recently moved back out to Brazil to work as a reporter, David suggested I prepared to pounce, ‘like a coiled tiger”. I rushed home, picked up my map and put in some calls to try and found out more.
An hour or so later I had pinpointed the hometown of the dead Brazilian, now being named as one Jean Charles de Menezes, an electrician from the tiny rural town of Gonzaga in Minas Gerais state. I threw my laptop and a change of clothes into a bag and headed straight for Rio’s bus station.
It was a sleepless night, spent clattering over the potholes and around the endless curves along the road that links Rio to Governador Valadares, the nearest city to Gonzaga. From time to time, as the vehicle rounded another mountain range, my mobile phone would come back into range, loudly announcing answer phone messages from foreign editors in Australia who had by now got wind of the story.
At every bleep my sleepless fellow passengers grunted with irritation. Twelve long hours later, at just after 5am on Sunday morning, the bus pulled into Valadares bus station. I hailed a taxi and raced off into the rolling hilltops in search of the de Menezes’s farm.
Several hours later, after narrowly avoiding several head-on collisions with drunken revellers driving home from a nearby rodeo, I pulled up at a petrol station on a ridge directly above Gonzaga. Word about Jean Charles’s death had clearly got around and the pump attendant directed us immediately to a small dirt trail that led to the family’s home in an isolated area known as Corrego dos Ratos.
Driving through the front gate, I could see the front room was already crowded with local journalists, photographers and relatives.
Before them, on a narrow red sofa, sat Jean Charles’s parents, red-eyed, confused and weeping. I began to note down the first of many words I would write about the Menezes family over the coming months.
‘I never thought it was my son when I first heard on the TV,’his father, Matozinho, sobbed. ‘How could it have been?’
‘I told him to take care [in England]… but he laughed,’Jean Charles’ mother, Maria, went on, uttering for the first time a line she would repeat constantly over the following months. ‘[He said:] ‘It’s a clean place, mum. The people are educated. There’s no violence in England. No one goes around carrying guns. Not even the police.”
The following day, Monday 25 July, the words and faces of Matozinho and Maria were stamped across front pages all over the world.