The lined foolscap sheets were yellow at the edges and the writing was faded but legible. The paper was stapled in three lots, headed SESSIONS I, II, III and dated September 19, 20, 21, 1955. I read from the top sheet: “Present: Mr Schofield, Alan, Frank, Jerry, Maureen.” And suddenly I remembered – it was that spook business we got into, three nights with the alphabet and the glass tumbler, nights that fascinated and finally terrified us.
There was always a dead hour after midnight for the sub-editors on our provincial daily. Last copy had gone down but we could not leave until 1 am. Usually the cards came out but that night we just smoked and chatted, feet up on the desks. How we got onto the Hereafter I do not remember, but Maurice Schofield said he had done it before and had achieved remarkable results. And our chief sub-editor was a serious man. He said you didn’t need an Ouija board with a pointer that people joked about, just the letters of the alphabet in a circle and an upturned glass in the middle. The late-shift copy-taker was Maureen — on the Echo the telephone girls were well-bred young ladies hoping to advance to secretarial positions — and she obligingly scissored A to Z and 1 to 9 from a paper offcut and agreed to sit outside the circle and take notes. Not that we expected anything to happen, it was all too absurd for words.
I had found the transcripts in a carton now at my feet marked “The Echo Years” from my days on that paper. I winced, how pompous! There were Royal Society of Arts test papers in Government and Economics, notebooks filled with early, clumsy shorthand, a text book on law for journalists and a framed award in my name, a Certificate of Proficiency in Journalism. A long-expired trade union card had a jokey drawing of a head where the member’s photo should be and there was a packet of stained and bent greetings cards from my mates — “To Jerry on your 20th birthday, Good luck, pal.” Mostly they were of a comic nature about beer and busty women, though there was also an expensive, beribboned card, “To a Loving Son from Mam and Dad.”
A pink folder held a letter of appointment as a trainee reporter at twenty-eight shillings per week, a five-year apprenticeship contract — red-tape-bound, Gothic-scripted and entitled Articles of Agreement; a letter of commendation from the Editor with an eight-shillings-per-week pay increase, and an instruction to transfer from district office to head office, from reporter to sub-editor.
That I was sitting here knee-deep amongst these fragments of my past was due to my wife, Marjorie. I had, she pointed out, concluded a long and successful career in journalism (or “the media” as she modishly called it, an expression I try to avoid). I had played roles of some importance in great national events across more than half a century, I had known the great and, if not the good, then the powerful, I had been honoured by the monarch and I was privy to secrets that perhaps now could be brought into the light. In other words, it was time to write my memoirs. She even had a title: JEREMIAH BANKS: Fifty Years Before the Masthead.
I wasn’t sure about Marjorie’s title (who knew about sailing before the mast these days, or indeed what a masthead was?) but I could see her point. The first two years in our rural retirement home had been exciting — planning and supervising extensions to the cottage, landscaping our six acres and the fine stand of Scots Pines, plus frequent expenses-paid trips to conferences and seminars in London and overseas where the opinions of a respected retired editor were welcomed. Except after a while, the invitations slowed. The new breed of electronics-oriented media men (sometimes I have to use the M word!) were now in charge and newspapers became vehicles of infotainment which I could no longer recognize. Eventually, the letters and the phone calls stopped coming— just occasionally a book to review, a polite request to meet with a Ph.D. student, even once, sadly, a vicar’s invitation to open a garden fete where nobody knew who or what I was. At least Marjorie knew: I was a dinosaur!
“Take a long holiday somewhere,” she said. “Money is not a problem. Go on your own, take all those boxes of yours, work at your own pace, write your book. You did some fine things. They deserve to be recorded.”
So here I was on a luxury cruise, not yet writing but researching sporadically, recovering memories, occasionally astonished, more often puzzled by events half a century old. The chummy Echo years were good ones for us young men — discovering the true range of our talents, enjoying our comradeship in relative poverty, stingy landladies, countless cigarettes, expending excess energy by jumping over pillar boxes upon our 1 am release into the darkened streets. Alan Thompson nearly always won those competitions. He was spry, sinewy, restless, crew-cut (to the Editor’s distaste) and a Londoner — to our distaste until his quirky, generous personality won us over.
The last I recall of him before we all split up for National Service or moved to other jobs was a letter from Canada. Alan had gone to work in some distant silver mine. One sentence stuck in my mind: “We never sleep on Saturdays until the last beer crate has been emptied and the last waitress laid.” I suppose I remembered because his life was so excitingly different to mine, where laying waitresses was rarely on the agenda.
Now, on an impulse, I Googled his name, guiltily conscious that I had never made much effort to keep in touch with the old gang. None had achieved my eminence in the industry though back then several had been my equals, if not my betters. I had moved early into foreign reporting and links were geographically broken, not my fault, I reasoned.
Alan’s very common moniker produced 13.3 million results. I refined my search, using such autobiographical facts as I could recall, and suddenly, shockingly, it was there: “Alan Thompson (1934-1958).” The report was fragmentary, from the archives of a long-folded Alaskan newspaper, but it referred to his London (Dulwich) origins and journalistic work in the north of England. After the silver mine, he had worked on small newspapers in Canada and North America before signing on as a trawler hand fishing for king crabs in the Bering Sea. Unusually foul weather blew up and his vessel, Country King, managed to transmit a single radio message reporting serious icing-up. An empty life raft was discovered 10 days later. The trawler and its 20-strong crew were never found. Alan’s name was 20th on the official death toll.
I was stunned. Not so much that he was dead at 24, more that he had been dead so long. My mind wandered back. Maurice Schofield, dead, too, of course — our boss, our talented, highly-strung CSE. There had been a Press Gazette obit, I remembered, killed by a stroke in retirement. Still, he was a generation older than the rest of us. But also dead, quite recently, my best friend from that time, Frank Arthurs, as I had learned from his widow only a few months after we corresponded for the first time in years. Frank, aged 76, cancer. He knew when he wrote, of course, which is probably why he interrupted our long silence, a farewell really.
Maurice’s clipped, bossy tones came back to my mind like yesterday. At his instruction, we placed our fingertips lightly on the upturned glass and the giggling subsided. But when he raised his head and with immense solemnity inquired, “Is anybody there?” a roar of laughter went up and we nearly broke up on the spot. How I wish we had! But Maurice was unamused and this feisty little man was not to be crossed. Either be serious or we all go home, he demanded. So we put our fingers back, suppressing our giggles, and Maurice sought again and again to raise the dead.
Most of us were wearily supporting our right arms on our left elbows when the glass twitched. I looked directly across at Alan. He appeared startled. It was not so much movement, it was as if energy had invaded the glass. Maurice asked again: “Is anybody there?” This time the glass did move. Slowly, painfully almost, it left the centre of the circle and dragged across the desk, searching, it seemed, among the ring of letters before heading towards Y. With what seemed like growing energy, it back-tracked to E, then finally S. YES.
Maurice apart, we were dumbstruck, our fingertips still on the tumbler. No-one said anything, but one thought was uppermost in all our minds: This could not be true, so who was pushing the glass? I was only certain about one thing: It was not me.
I check Maureen’s ancient script for that very first dialogue.
Who are you? ROBERTMANNERS
How did you die? PLAGUE
What year? 1348
The silence was intense. Maureen, pale under her dark hair, a row of pens laid out before her, stared at her pad. We looked at Maurice. He went on: Did many die?
Did you have a family? WIFEANDFIVE
Did they die, too? FORJESUSSAKE
We looked at each other. Was that anger, an exclamation of impatience, or was it a prayer?
Where are you now?
The glass remained immobile, not a tremor under our fingers.
Are you happy?
Can we help you?
The glass felt dead, inert. Robert Manners had gone. We rested our arms.
“They don’t like being asked that question,” Maurice said, “about where they are. I shouldn’t have raised it.” The rest of us were looking at each other. Frank held up his hand: “I absolutely swear I was not pushing the glass.” “Nor me, nor me,” from everybody. “How about pulling it?” someone asked. Couldn’t be done, we all agreed. It would tip over.
We were keen to go again. Once more the glass came to life.
Who are you? SUSIE
How did you die? UNDERANOMNIBUS
When did…? TOOMUCHCHAMPAGNEDANCINGINSTREETSOGAYDANCINGWITHOURBEAUX
This was the longest single sentence we had yet received and the glass seemed to gather speed, or maybe knowledge of where the letters were positioned.
What year…? IWASALWAYSTHECHATTYONEANDTHEPRETTIESTEVERYONESAIDSO
And abruptly, chatty, pretty, gabbling Susie left us. The glass just sat there. “What happened?” somebody asked, startled. “You mean now or then?” said Maurice. Now, was the question in my own mind. Where did she go and why? Was there an authority, a time-limit, a rota, God help us a queue, out there, up there? Maurice addressed the then. “I think she may have been a flapper, a debutante in the 1920s, out dancing in some Mayfair street, drunk on champagne. And beaux, meaning boyfriends, nobody uses that word now. Nor omnibus, either.”
Beaux had caused problems for Maureen. Indeed making sense of the glass’s literary output was difficult. There were no punctuation signs; we whispered the letters as the glass touched them and Maureen tried to separate them into words, racing to keep pace with the glass. Thus she had, “Too much champagne, dancing in street, so gay — dancing with our beaux.” And, “I was always the chatty one, and the prettiest, everyone said so.”
We were excited, desperate for a third contact, but it was after 2 am and Maurice, long-married and a creature of habit, said we could try again tomorrow night. Meanwhile, why not learn a bit more about the plague and the Charleston?
Twelve hours later, over lunchtime beers in the Golden Fleece, three of us met to discuss the bizarre events of early that morning. The nervy jokiness quieted as Alan reported on the researches we had asked him to make in the town library: “In two years, the Black Death, a form of bubonic plague, swept like a forest fire from China through Europe and into medieval England, killing 1.5 million of this country’s total population, then estimated at 4 million. The disease was carried aboard merchant ships by flea-ridden rats and first made landfall in southwest England, probably Bristol.”
I remember Alan looking up from his notebook and asking, “So when . . . ? ” We looked blank. He answered himself: “Thirteen hundred and forty-eight . . . and where?” By then we had guessed. Melcombe? “Correct, then known as Melcombe Regis in the county of Dorset. The home town of Robert Manners.”
There was either nothing to say or too much. Eventually, somebody mentioned Susie. Alan’s investigations into the flapper era were less successful but contemporary reports said that night-time dancing in the streets of London’s West End by bright young things awash with champagne was a regular occurrence. An accident with an omnibus seemed not only possible but inevitable.
We sipped our pints in the familiar back room of our favourite pub, trying to come to terms with this thing. Sure, any one of us could have been to the library, just like Alan, and mugged up about the plague and Melcombe to bluff our mates. But the session had happened spontaneously, entirely unplanned, and we were not history buffs or academics who would carry such dates and names in our heads. With Susie, maybe it was different. The flapper period was not so long ago and an imaginative reporter could dream up a yarn of equal vagueness. Still, both stories sounded convincing. As for the glass, somebody HAD to be pushing it, we agreed. But one by one, we solemnly raised a hand and declared our innocence. Even if one of us pushed, the letters were in a circle and while that person could possibly guide the glass away from him or to his right or left, he could not pull it forward without it tipping over. Alan suggested that the glass seemed to move better when Frank placed his finger on it, something I had noticed without its really registering. “What do you mean,” Frank said sharply, “we touch it together!” Which was not quite true, there was no military precision involved and when Frank’s finger came on, I could swear the thing came vividly to life. We looked at him. “Well,” he said slowly, “my grandmother was a medium, they said she had the gift.”
Maureen prepared a new, improved version of the letters ring, with YES and NO as complete words, plus an ampersand, a period and a comma. She looked less nervous than last night but refused emphatically when somebody suggested she might like to take a turn on the glass. This time there was no laughing when Maurice demanded: “Is anybody there?”
It took about five minutes. The glass slid directly to YES.
Who are you? BAGGYTHEYCALLUSGEORDIELAD
You’re a Geordie? What happened to you? KILLEDINTHEMONTYWITHMEMATE
Sorry, killed what . . . ?
(“Nineteen-twenty-five,” hissed Frank, startling us all. “Montagu pit disaster, Scotswood on Tyne.”)
The glass moved: 1925MONTYPIT38MEN&BOYSWATERFROMTHEPARADISEDROWNEDORGASSED
(Frank whispered to Maurice: “Get his full name, we can check the death toll.”)
But the glass went on: NOTNICEFUCKINGDYINGUNDERGROUND
Maybe it was the shock of the swear word, but Maurice broke his own rule:
Can we reach you somewhere, help you?
Immediately, the glass died.
“What have we got?” Maurice asked briskly, taking charge but flustered by the F-word, glancing sideways, apologetically, at Maureen. Alan huddled with her, slashing pen marks between her letters, making words.
“What we’ve got is a Geordie lad nicknamed Baggy who was drowned in a pit disaster in 1925 with his mate. It seems there were 38 men and boys, all dead, I suppose. He says it was not a nice experience. I think he’s in Paradise.”
Frank broke in testily: “Not Paradise, not Heaven… he means Paradise Pit, it was next to the Montagu, a sealed off coalmine, worked out, abandoned. Somebody put a charge or a pick in the wrong place and broke through into the old seams. Foul water and black damp poured into the Monty. Miners near the inrush didn’t have a chance.” He looked up and explained: “That’s where we come from, my family, Newcastle. My father and grandfather were both on that shift but far away from the break and they got out. Everybody knows the story, my dad knew all the dead. A pity you didn’t get his name, Maurice. ‘Baggy’ doesn’t tell us much.”
Maurice ignored this remark and suggested the spirit’s claims would be easy to check in the newspaper archives. Frank was dismissive. “There’s nothing to check. What he said is perfectly correct.” In the silence that followed I wondered why we were all getting so tense, what was this experience doing to us? I suggested we move on, fingers back on the glass.
Peter Smith, aged 14 (TRIEDTOREACHAGULLSNESTBUTFELLOFFTHECLIFF); Jane, a serving girl from Yorkshire (ITHINKICOUGHEDANDCOUGHEDMYWHOLELIFE); Reverend Edmonds from a poor parish in Worcestershire (IWASPHYSICIANMORETHANPRIESTTHEIRDISEASESKILLEDMEFINALLY). An old lady, no name, came and went (YOUARENOTWISETODOTHIS).
Finally there was Seaman Flack, dreadful Seaman Flack. With a wavelet of distantly remembered fear, I checked through the transcript:
What happened to you? BOMBEDNORTHATLANTIC1942
What was your ship? CITYOFBUNOSARESS
City of Buenos Aires? YOUTHINKIMLYING
No, no… was it a warship? BLOODYKIDSGOINGTOAMERICA
Out of where? LIVERPOOLOFCOURSE
Were the crew British? STINKINGLASCARS
What was your job? WHAT
Your position, rank? SIGNALMAN
Who was your Master? FUCKINGQUESTIONSKEEPOUTJUSTFUCKINGKEEPOUTJUST
Shocked as we realised what the glass was spelling out, instinctively we lifted our fingers and it stopped moving immediately. Moments later, it was clearly inanimate.
Maurice turned to Maureen, who was near tears. “I’m terribly sorry about that, the anger and, er, the language. It wasn’t us.” He looked around. “I think that’s enough for tonight.”
It was a subdued huddle next day in the Fleece. We no longer debated if one of us was cheating. At times, the glass became so alive, so apparently eager to move that it squirmed under our fingers, twisting on the spot in a way that no fingertip could engineer. More disturbing was the language. None of us in 1955 would dream of using the F-word in front of a girl. To require Maureen to write down swear words letter by letter was simply beyond us.
So were we genuinely in contact with the spirit world and if so, why? “It’s so pointless,” complained Frank. “Nothing happens, we get nowhere . . . a few short sentences, some information about the past which we confirm in the library next day, then what?”
That became the focal question: Why did they communicate with us? We had all read mystery stories which talked about the release of restless spirits. There was none of that, just inconsequential, aimless facts. They did not ask for anything. They did not reveal anything. They did not look into the future (“or tell us who will win the Grand National,” interpolated Alan). Most exasperating, they did not stay, they shut down (or were shut down) the moment reference was made to their present state.
It was Frank who expressed the fear growing in our minds: “Can they harm us?” Then, “For God’s sake, how could they! But they do seem to be getting nastier. Flack is evil. And remember what the old lady said, ‘You’re not wise to do this.’” We wondered, should we call it a day? As rational young men, we did not want to admit we were scared of phantoms. We were also curious, we wanted answers.
Alan particularly seemed disturbed by Flack and we decided he should replace Maurice as the question-master tonight and that whatever happened, this session would be the last.
All these years later, my memory of that final meeting with the spirits was deficient in specifics but vivid with emotions. And the dominant one was fear. I reached for the final transcript. Alan started.
Is Seaman Flack there? Seaman Flack? Mr Flack will you speak to us?
The glass stayed dead.
Mr Flack, we mean no harm, we are interested in your experiences.
The tumbler jerked, receiving that unique energy charge we had come to recognise, then revolved steadily.
Mr Flack, thank you. You were on the City of Buenos Aires when it was bombed in 1942? YES
You said you were a signalman? YESYESYESCHRISTSAKE
Mr Flack, why are you lying to us?
The glass remained immobile, but pulsing, alive. We tensed, looking at Alan.
Mr Flack, there was no such vessel as the City of Buenos Aires. There was a City of Benares, but it was torpedoed, not bombed, and that was 1940 not 1942. It was carrying child evacuees from England but they were going to Canada not America. Seventy-seven kids lost along with 121 crew members including the Master, whose name you could not give us. But you were not one of them, were you? A full list of crew members exists, both survivors and the dead. There was never a signalman named Flack, indeed there was no-one of that name on board.
The glass moved speedily away from the centre. To nobody’s surprise, it headed for the letter F.
Mr Flack you were never on that ship. Who were you? You were a Liverpool docker and you heard the story, did you not, how the U-boat crew wept when they heard they had torpedoed children . . . ?
Completing the four-letter word, the glass raced to the letters: IWASTHEREIDIDBLOODYDROWN
It paused briefly then: IDROWNEDLIKEYOULLDROWNIKNOWITYOULLDROWNTOO
The transcript was messy, jittery, arrowed and scribbled, but it showed Alan pressing on: Why are you lying, Flack? Where are you? Are you in hell? Is Satan there? Is the devil with you?
The glass was now zooming back and forth repeatedly to the same letters as we sought vainly to keep track and Maureen scribbled frantically: DROWNDROWNALLDROWNALLFUCKINGDROWN
I just remembered thinking, “This glass is getting hot, my finger feels it.” Again and again it spelled out the same furious cry: YOULLALLDROWNYOULLALLDROWNYOULLALLDROWN
Suddenly, Maureen screamed. Alan ducked. I froze and so did Maurice. The glass hurtled from our fingertips out of the ring of letters, flew from the desktop, narrowly missed Alan’s head and shattered against the wall. Maurice swore later that the glass fragments quivered on the floor, as if in rage.
The shock of the violence was intense. My heart pounded. Maureen wept softly and Maurice put an arm round her shoulders. Alan’s voice was brittle as he tried to joke. “Well at least we know how we’ll all die.” Maureen whispered something and Maurice said, “No, no, no, not you, pet, you were outside the circle, it’s us he means, the dabblers.” I gathered up the paper alphabet and crushed it into a ball, then swept up the glass shards — they were just bits of a broken tumbler again — and thrust the lot into the caretaker’s rubbish wagon. I must have picked up Maureen’s transcripts, too, and taken them home. I have no memory of it.
Did we discuss the events of the night later? Surely we must, there had to be a post-mortem, some agreed justification for our foolishness. But I remember none. Alan had clearly wanted to show up Seaman Flack as a fraud. But what did that demonstrate? That the spirits were liars, deceivers, bores, blow-hards and show-offs? Just like us? Hardly worth three nights of growing tension, fear and violence. Or was the whole thing a fraud, elaborately engineered by one of us? That was the one scenario none of us accepted.
Smoothing out the transcript now, I wondered just how I was supposed to fit this bizarre episode from my early life into Fifty Years Before the Masthead? We had caught some long-dead nobody in a pack of lies and he tried to frighten us with prophecies of our deaths. Already, it was clear, time had proved him wrong. Three of the gang were gone and though certainly Alan drowned, Maurice did not and neither did Frank, as for me, I had come safely through years of amateur sailing which I fully intended to continue.
Vaguely, I wondered if the shock of that night had affected Maurice’s health. He was never the most robust person and if I remembered aright, he had not enjoyed a long retirement. On impulse, I went to my laptop and quickly found obituaries in the national trade press. But sub-editors are the grey unknowns of media land, no headlines for them like the celebrity editors and the star writers. So the obits were respectful, sympathetic and short. Maurice Schofield had retired in 1965 after a lifetime with the same group of regional newspapers, rising from junior reporter to chief sub-editor on the group’s flagship daily; in March 1967 he had suffered a stroke which rendered him partly disabled; in March 1969, a second stroke took his life.
I searched for the Echo’s own obituary. It was longer, more fulsome, with a formal photo of Maurice wearing a rare smile above his gingery moustache. But the accounts of his death were equally sketchy: discovered by his wife after the second stroke, rushed to hospital, dead on arrival. Was it a reporter’s instinct that left me dissatisfied? There must have been an inquest, I thought. Googling further, I discovered a website, Coroners’ Reports, Northeast England, 1969, which offered links to individual inquests. It took me only seconds to find Maurice Hays Wood Schofield, May 21, 1969. Swiftly I scrolled through the jargon-heavy report. Then I came to the following and froze: “It is assumed the stroke took place whilst Mr Schofield was standing in his bath taking a shower and that he struck his head on the edge of the bath when he collapsed. He was found by his wife semi-submerged in bath water and swiftly removed to hospital, where he was pronounced dead.” How long he had lain half under water was not stated but a post-mortem showed that there was a considerable quantity of water in his lungs. The overwhelming probability, the Coroner concluded, was that of three elements involved in his demise – the stroke, the blow to his head, the ingestion of bathwater – the third was the overriding causative factor, justifying a verdict of Accidental Death. No matter how often I read it, the meaning was clear: Maurice died in his own bathwater; he drowned, just like Seaman Flack said he would.
It was clear now that both Alan and Maurice drowned, but statistically that was not impossible, and then there was Frank — no water in his demise. I remembered his letters to me . . . noticing red in his urine, ignoring it, finally going for tests and then getting the verdict, advanced kidney cancer. Then Daphne’s infrequent messages about his treatment, his lack of progress, a last wobbly letter from Frank himself enclosing some photos from Echo days, and finally from the widow a death announcement and the funeral details, with a heavy hint that I should not bother traveling all the way to Cornwall.
Why suddenly did I feel so deeply saddened? I had long known of his death and we had not seen each other or spoken in years. Perhaps because he was the last link to a better time, with his cackling laugh and his quick wit. They were good times. Seeking other names from the past, I picked up Maureen’s transcripts and scanned them for clues, unconnected persons perhaps dropping by as witnesses to our sessions. It was then the fear struck, real fear, deep and paralysing. Maureen had headed Session III in the same way as she did the others, by noting the participants: “Present at Session III: Mr Schofield, Alan, Jerry.” Just the three of us, Maurice, Alan and me, no Frank, he had missed the last night! The fact that Frank died of cancer was irrelevant. He was out of it anyway. He was never cursed. When Flack screamed, “You will all drown,” he meant Alan, Maurice and me.
I don’t know how long I sat, immobile in my luxury stateroom, pondering the implication of our past inquisitiveness. It was only when the Astoria’s massive engines began to throb seven decks below my feet that I came out of my reverie. It had been Marjorie’s idea to book a cruise on a luxury liner. Go round the world, she said, don’t stint, get yourself a penthouse, check your research, you have email, telephones. Don’t bother calling home, write your memoirs, the world will welcome them. Good, sensible, down-to-earth, ever-protective Marjorie. Trouble was, she could not protect me now.
The sudden dip and yaw of movement, detectable even on a 90,000-ton floating monster like the Astoria, reminded me that there had been a weather warning earlier that day. And now I noticed that metal shutters had been lowered over the portholes. The Super-Class butler had been reassuring. We were a day out of Hong Kong in the East China Sea, he said, heading into the Pacific and towards the east coast of Japan. There were numerous modern harbours we could run for if the weather turned really nasty. Wasn’t Japan prone to earthquakes and did not earthquakes cause tsunamis? I asked, only half-joking. The butler laughed. “I think tsunamis are the last thing we need to worry about, Sir Jeremiah. Will you be dressing for dinner or do you want to take something in your suite?” Later, I said, I might have something later.
Now I sit before my laptop, fingers poised above the keyboard. Finally I click and click again and download a current-to-the-minute weather situation map for the East China Sea. Observing the furiously gathering storm that lies in our path, I can only conclude that my long-appointed watery reunion with Alan, Maurice and Frank (and doubtless Seaman Flack, too) will not be long delayed.