I got the call the day before press day, when I had a hangover and my editor was insisting on changing the word ‘boss’.
“We’re not a tabloid,” he said. “Put Chief Executive.”
“But boss fits,” I said. “It looks better.”
He squinted at me through his glasses. “It’s cheap.”
“It’s snappy,” I protested. Ben, when he’d been news editor, would have backed me up. But he was gone now, to a high-flying job at a national paper, and the junior reporters weren’t going to step in. It was almost a relief when the phone rang.
“We’re going with Chief,” my editor mouthed at me, and stalked off with the proofs. On the phone, a hoarse male voice said: “Excuse me, is this Rachel O’Neill?”
“I hope you don’t mind me calling out of the blue like this, but I’ve got a document that might interest you,” the man said. He spoke in bursts, as if struggling against an instinctive reserve. “My name can’t be associated with it. That’s the condition. I hope you understand.”
One of those calls. Occasionally exciting, but usually from the lonely pensioner or the mentally ill. “We never reveal a source,” I said. “Still, it would be helpful to know who I’m speaking to.”
“Of course, of course,” the man clucked. “But I’m afraid it’s not possible. Excuse me. I’ll send you the document.” The line clicked. I put down the phone.
“Who was that?” my editor asked. Now he had his way on ‘Chief’, he had adopted an expression of Buddha-like calm.
“Just someone being paranoid,” I told him. An email had popped up on my screen. Something about the odd address – email@example.com – told me it was him. Sure enough, when I clicked on it, I found it only contained an attachment. It was a scan of a letter, with the title: CONFIDENTIAL – DO NOT SHARE.
That was more like it. Maybe my caller had a reason to be paranoid after all. I kept on reading:
Due to the difficulties of raising credit in the wholesale market, we are facing a severe lack of funds. In addition, the number of impaired loans has risen sharply in the past year. These circumstances require a damage limitation solution. All senior executives are expected to attend a meeting in Board Room 4 on Wednesday 11 June. Please be aware this is restricted information. Your departments should be following a business-as-usual communications strategy.
What did they mean, a severe lack of funds? Where had this letter come from, anyway? I glanced at the address, and my headache got a little worse. The bank in trouble was Harrogate. And Harrogate meant Tamsin.
I started my first job in London in the early noughties, when the boom was just beginning. The job was in Soho, where restaurateurs had begun to jostle with pimps for business and every shop window promised a different kind of decadence – French pastries, Chinese silks, lingerie. Which was just as well, because I wrote for a property finance magazine.
I never discovered a passion for the subject, but I liked working in a neighbourhood of publishing houses, and I grew to love my morning walks through the maze of market stalls, and the evenings of pub philosophy with Ben. We started at the magazine in the same year, which gave us a clean slate in terms of office politics, and the freedom to be frank with one another. We respected our editors, but hated their stuffiness. We would improve things, we said, when it was our turn. On rainy nights, fluorescent light dripped on the hooded passers by, and I saw they were mine – my rivals, my friends, the PRs.
There were PRs everywhere. Most were just out of university, with fluffy blonde hair and names like Lucy and Tora. Trinkets, Ben dubbed them. He used to try to get the two of us invited to a lunch every Friday. We’d do the air kisses and fake hellos and check out the menus. The housing market roared, my editor doubled his team, and we became the old hands. With each promotion, we joked, the quality of the restaurant got better. Our favourite restaurant was a glittery diner patronised by the wives of Russian oligarchs. Each booth was equipped with a champagne tap. We would dare each other to press the button, and then tell the hapless PR our fingers slipped.
After Ben left, I tried keeping up the Friday lunch tradition, but it wasn’t quite the same. Anyway, I had the still-vacant news editor role to think about. My editor had not mentioned who would take over Ben’s responsibilities, but as the most experienced reporter, I could only assume it would be me. I spent more time in the office. I waited one week, then two weeks, then a month. My editor dodged my requests for a meeting. We continued to share out the extra work. It seemed drearier and drearier. And then, just as I was beginning to feel restless, Tamsin arrived.
I first met her in the ladies’ toilets at a strip club. She had a coffee-coloured bob and heavy-lidded eyes with just the first hint of age circling beneath them, and she was the only other woman there wearing clothes. I nodded at her in the mirror, and she smiled back before entering a cubicle. I waited. A dancer with meringue-stiff breasts came in, added a line of lip-gloss, and left. Finally the toilet door opened.
“Who are you with?” she said.
“RBS,” I said. “But I’m a journalist. You?”
She smiled. “Your rivals, maybe. I’m a PR for Harrogate Bank. We have some journalists from the trades.”
“Sleazy bastards,” I said.
“Sleazy us, for inviting them,” she said. “But why are you here, if you don’t mind me asking?”
It was a good question. I’d finished up at a City dinner and then boozed some more. Ben had been there, and I couldn’t resist staying to chat. He said it was strange to look back and see that part of his life with a start and an end, packed up as if in a box. I asked him if he missed us. He said yes. I asked if there was anyone in particular, but at that point our hosts jumped up and the whole crowd spilled out into the street. One of the brokers flagged down a cab and as we climbed in, I realised Ben was no longer there. When the cab stopped, and two neon buttocks flashed out of the dark, I almost turned around. But there was nothing else waiting for me, except a cold room in a shared flat, and so I followed them in.
My new clothed friend was still waiting. “Making contacts,” I said. “Well, that was the intention. They’ve had two lap dances so far. I don’t suppose I could join your table instead?”
Two days later Tamsin called and invited me for a coffee meeting. The lender she worked for was small, if ambitious, and I didn’t expect to write much about it. But I liked her, and so I said yes.
“Tamsin?” my editor said when I put down the phone. He shook his head. “Charming girl, but the press releases she sends out are terrible. I mean, there are apostrophes everywhere. Speaking of which, I’d like you to have a second look at page five-”
“I’ll pass on your regards,” I said.
Tamsin was charming. “It’s a free market,” she said when we met at the patisserie round the corner from my office. “Is anyone forcing our borrowers to take out a mortgage? Why shouldn’t someone take a second chance on them?”
The afternoon sun chopped the cafe into squares of light and shade. She continued: “Anyway, enough talking shop. I’ve brought you an exclusive.”
“That’s very generous of you,” I said as I took the paper she offered. “We’ve only met once.”
“Believe me, you were the best company I had that evening,” she said. “It’s pretty straightforward. We’re making it easier for the self-employed. All they have to do is declare they’re earning what they’re earning – and boom. Mortgage.”
I tucked the press release into my jacket. Nice and easy. A story. Or, at least what passed as a story. Something to fill the back page of the magazine.
Tamsin’s bag trilled. She reached in and pulled out a phone. “Excuse me,” she said. Then she glanced at the screen and frowned.
“Your boss?” I asked.
She shook her head. “My boyfriend. My ex-boyfriend. We broke up last week.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I shouldn’t have asked.”
Tamsin prodded the phone. It stopped. “My mistake for giving him my work number,” she said. “One of these moments of infatuation.”
I laughed. “How romantic.”
Tamsin rolled her eyes. “I wish,” she said. “We only lived together four months. Now he’s trying to get his hands on everything. Today it’s the vacuum cleaner.”
The phone began to ring again. “Don’t you know when you’re not wanted?” she told it. A waitress was hovering nearby.
“Have you been to Samuel’s Wine Bar?” I said.
“It’s just round the corner. It’s got wine. And last time I was there, I couldn’t get a signal.”
Tamsin suffocated the phone with a scarf and dropped it in her bag. The charming voice returned. “Well, then,” she said. “Let’s go.”
Except for the mid-afternoon sun leaking through the door, the wine bar was empty. We found a table in a dusty corner.
Tamsin ordered two glasses of red wine. She gave me one and raised the other. “Enjoy voicemail, sucker,” she said. “How about you? Anyone to toast?”
Ben had disappeared into the mists of Wapping. I shook my head. “Nothing solid.”
“A boyfriend would be a drag in your job,” she said. “All that travelling abroad.”
That made me laugh. “It sounds glamorous, but I spend most of my time sitting in conference halls. What about you? How did you get into PR?”
“I studied Art History,” Tamsin said. “My thesis was on maidservants in early modern Dutch painting. Then a communications course. I wanted to work for a charity, but I couldn’t work in London for free. So I got a job at a financial services agency. I thought I’d be there for a few months, then move on. But, well, here I am.” She smiled.
“With a corporate credit card,” I said, lifting my glass.
We clinked. “There’s no way my ex is getting his paws on that,” she said. We drank, and laughed at our miserable love lives, and Tamsin ordered two glasses more. The hours passed. Shadowy suits stole into the bar to down liquor. Old mates bought rounds. The bar resonated with after work chatter, until we had forgotten exes and brokers and charitable ambitions, and the sun was a single golden nail clinging to the edge of the Thames.
Five years as a reporter had left me with a large contact book and plenty of familiar faces, but Tamsin became an ally. In 2006 the market picked up further, and parties bloomed in dusky summer evenings – small talk to meander through, drinks to sip, wandering hands to avoid. Operation Squeeze, we called it. If a broker leaned in too close, she’d haul me out of his grasp with a few words. “Oh, I’m so sorry. Just have a little fact to check, talking shop, back in a moment.” Then we’d sneak outside for a drunken cigarette and a laugh. It was just part of the strange world we inhabited, a world turning faster and faster all the time. If the night was messy, we’d dissect over coffee the next day.
The heavier the party, the nicer the coffee. A few missing hours of sleep, and we’d be sampling mille-feuille with a latte. Nausea required an artisan roast. Aching headaches led us to a Viennese-style coffee house with dark panelling and a marble floor, where minor celebrities talked discreetly under low lamps
Watching them, we vowed to turn a new leaf. “I’ll look up charities this weekend,” said Tamsin.
“I should copy Ben,” I said. “Get out. Do something new.”
“The Economist?” Tamsin said. “Financial Times? I could see you writing the City diary at a national.”
In autumn we played truant and walked by the bruised brown river to the Tate. It was Tamsin’s kind of place, really, but I liked how the need for small talk died away as we trudged through piles of tawny leaves. She knew more about the exhibition than the brochure. “Ended up a prisoner of war,” she said of one artist, whose interwar Berliners squatted in their frames. As for a minor Surrealist: “Killed his wife in a sex game.”
As the days got darker, the parties stacked up again, and they were more lavish than either of us remembered from previous years. All the chosen journalists turned up, and I saw old faces – a former features editor, a mentor, Ben. At the third party, on a City rooftop, he put his arm around a black-haired journalist from The Daily Mail and introduced her as his lovely Nadia.
“The Mail, for Christ’s sakes,” Tamsin said as we huddled under the rattling umbrella outside. “He is deluded, Rach. Deluded. There’s a chap at The Independent. He’s a real catch.”
Wind scooped rain out of the night and threw it at my face. Beyond the roof, the city bled with sodium and the red trails of the traffic. “I know, I know,” Tamsin said. “It’s hard to shake off a habit. Bloody Mail.”
In December the parties disbanded and its guests disappeared to their separate Christmases. By the time I returned to the office, 2007 had entrenched itself in the flat plans. I tried to corner my editor about a promotion, but he always just had a meeting to go to. And there was a lot going on. House prices were rising at their highest ever rate and banks were pumping out mortgages. Spring sped past and the market grew and grew.
Now, sitting in the office, I re-read the Huff and Puff email several times. Across the desk, my editor was pecking away at his keyboard. I could pass the email onto him, but that would mean giving up my claim to the story. Not to mention subjecting Tamsin to a pedant. I’d handle it myself.
“That time again?” she said when she picked up the phone. “There’s a new afternoon tea service over at the Broadwick Street Hotel. Thai-British fusion, apparently. The waiters are supposed to be gorgeous.”
“I’m actually calling about a story-”
“Do you need something? I’m sure I can get a view out of Jeff on house prices.”
“I’ve already got something,” I said.
“Yes?” Tamsin said, and something changed in her voice at that moment, very slightly, like an instrument tuned up one notch.
“I hear you’re out of funds,” I blurted out. “I mean, Harrogate. Not you, obviously. Anyway, it sounds serious. They’re talking about damage limitation.”
There was a silence. I waited warily. But when Tamsin spoke it was in a soothing manner. “Well, Rach, the thing is, we’ve had a bit of a reshuffle. I wasn’t exactly going to press release it, but the management had to let a couple of people go. Middle managers, cutting out the flab, that sort of thing. And you know what happens. They get a little bit upset and because they’ve talked to the press once or twice in the past, they start spreading rumours.”
“I suppose it’s possible,” I said.
“You sound like you don’t believe me,” Tamsin reproached me. I pictured the afternoon we could have be having, the handsome waiter serving us cupcakes on a tiered plate. “Look,” she continued. “I’m just thinking about you. I know you’re under pressure. But surely you want your stories to be accurate? It’s all very well some former employee mouthing off. You’re the one printing it. You’re the one who takes the hit if it turns out not to be true.”
A few lines of corporate speak from an unknown caller – it did sound shaky. I couldn’t contradict her. When I didn’t speak, she laughed. “All this philosophy,” she said. “Look, I doubt any of the redundancies are high profile enough for you, but I can talk to Jeff if you want names. Just let me know.”
“Thanks,” I said, and put the phone down. A perfectly professional conversation. But something about it left me unsatisfied. Was Mr Huff and Puff really Mr Laid Off? I dashed off another email.
The phone call came later on, while the rest of the team were at lunch. “Didn’t my email arrive?” It was him. I put down my sandwich. “I know things can get lost sometimes,” he was muttering. “Can’t trust email. Not like the post.”
I pictured a grey-haired man, an old computer, a living room. “It arrived,” I said. “But there’s a whole lot more I need to be sure about before we can publish anything.”
The man sighed. “I suppose I could send the accounts. ”
“The accounts,” my caller repeated. “Will that do?”
“You have access to them?” I said.
“Well, I work here, don’t I?” Mr Huff lowered his voice. “Now, I really don’t want to leave a paper trail. This didn’t come from me. Do you understand?”
“Understood,” I said. So Tamsin had been lying to me, after all. He hung up and I sat staring at the phone in my hand. A few minutes later another email arrived. And I was looking over the accounts of Harrogate.
I might have spent most of the decade drinking away my brain cells, but I still had an eye for news. It didn’t take me long to realise the man was speaking the truth, and the bank was haemorrhaging money. They had lent it to almost everyone, and almost none of them could pay it back. For the first time in a long time, I felt like I was touching a real story. I could picture the reaction in the newsroom. My editor would interrogate me for evidence. The others, inspired, would reach for the phone. And after the story had been signed off, we would wait like children for the freshly printed magazine, and the headlines in bold.
Then I could sit down with my editor. How could he refuse me the promotion? The story made it mine.
Through the window I could hear the sound of drunken laughter. I looked down and saw some journalists and businessmen hailing a taxi. They climbed in and swept away. It was June 2007. Harrogate’s annual reports would not come out until February. But in between now and then, the bank could easily go bust.
Tamsin suggested the same patisserie where we first met. It was another summer day, but clouds had swallowed the sun and the light filtering through the window was grey. She ordered a cafe latte; I green tea.
I found myself talking in the passive tense. “This caller has sent the magazine some Harrogate accounts,” I said. “The bank will go bust in a few months, unless it can find more funding. And it’s not clear that’s the case.”
“This is all based on a stranger’s phone call,” Tamsin said.
“It’s based on some very convincing accounts,” I said. “And the testimony of someone still working at the firm.”
Tamsin didn’t say anything, but her eyes narrowed in a way that suggested she knew I was calling her a liar. I continued: “It’s very unfortunate, but there must be a way the parties can deal with this in a civilised manner. Obviously the magazine will include a full response from Harrogate, and put in plenty of context about the general business environment. But it has got to run the story. There’s no two ways about it.”
Tamsin took a sip of her latte, put it down and said: “But there is.”
“What do you mean?”
She passed me a piece of paper. A press release.
“I wrote it up for you,” she said. “All the juicy parts of the restructure, plus a new product launch, plus a great quote. Go back to your office. Delete those emails, forget the phone calls ever happened and run this.”
I stared at the piece of paper. “I’m serious, Tam.”
She drained the latte before replying. “So you publish,” she said. “Some people will read it. Most will forget about it the next day. The others? OK, one or two will get outraged, and then they’ll forget about it too. The only person who will really care is my boss, and the first thing he stops is this.” She pulled out her credit card and waved it at me. “No coffees, no lunches – nada.”
“This isn’t about cupcakes,” I said. “We’re talking about meltdown here. There are implications for the whole financial sector.”
Rain speckled the cafe window. Tamsin leaned forward. Her voice had a hard edge. “Implications for you, as well, I suppose?”
I shrugged. “You always said I’d be a good news editor.”
“This isn’t some kind of golden ticket,” she said. “If you were going to be news editor, you’d have got it by now. Your future is here.” She picked up the press release from where I’d dropped it. “Haven’t I always given you stories? This one will go down well. All you have to do is tinker round the edges.”
She was thrusting the press release at me again. I batted it away. “Don’t you patronise me,” I told her. “I’m an experienced professional journalist.”
“An experienced professional,” Tamsin repeated. “Sure.”
The mockery in her voice jerked me to my feet. “I tried to be fair,” I told her. “I’m writing the story, comment or no comment. Tough.”
Soho was a blur. I concentrated on my feet crunching through the rubbish. Your future is here. Is that what she saw me as? The soft touch. The backdoor to the magazine. The dutiful writer of her wretched press releases. I remembered her remark about the Independent hack. A catch.
We had laughed, drunk, bitched together. Well, I was about to end it all.
The office had all its usual mid-afternoon sounds – the chatter of keyboards, the swish of paper, the clatter of mugs. My editor’s chair was empty. The reporters giggled among themselves.
I sat down at my desk. I had the crucial documents, and anyway, Tamsin’s defensive reaction had confirmed all my unanswered questions. The firm was in deep trouble. I began typing the story before there was time for regret. Senior Harrogate bankers are facing a crisis in funds. New paragraph. The bank’s business model is typical of a new breed of mortgage lenders. Should it collapse, this could have repercussions for the whole banking sector.
The phone rang. I ignored it. Just as I was finishing the draft, my editor came over. “Rachel,” he said, “Could I have a word?”
In the meeting room he polished his glasses, then cleared his throat. The silence was unnerving. I waited.
“I’m aware I may have neglected you in the past months,” he began. “What with Ben leaving, and all the new journalists to train. You know how it is.” He forced a smile. “Anyway, it’s high time you got more recognition for your work. How would you like to be news editor?”
His words filled me like a glass. For a moment, I felt giddy. “Thank you,” I whispered.
“I have of course been thinking of it for some time,” my editor mumbled. “But, ah, there’s a lot of paperwork to sort out first.” He shot me a smile, and I felt a sudden affection for his awkward tics.
He was putting his glasses back on. “There is one additional point,” he said. “Now, I’m, ah, certainly not trying to quell your reporting spirit. But as an editor, you have to think carefully about our commercial interests.” He coughed. “This, ah, Harrogate story, for example.”
The glass cracked. So this was it. How quickly had Tamsin reached for her phone?
“I’m on top of it,” I said. “I’ve given them right to reply. It’s a great-”
My editor waved his hand to stop me. He said: “I’ve had the press release written up, Rachel. It’s already with production.”
“But the story-”
He stood up. “ I’d like you to have a second look over the article, just in case there are any more mistakes with punctuation. You know how the young reporters can be.”
I wasn’t going to let him get away with this. “You’re not spiking the story because of one phone call?” I demanded.
“They’re a big advertiser,” my editor said. He paused: “I’m sorry, Rachel.”
The door clicked shut. I stayed slumped in my chair. Soho’s market chatter sauntered through the open window. But I felt no urge to peer out. It was all for the tourists these days, anyway.
News editor. The words had meant so much to me, and now they meant so little. Only press releases. And coffee after coffee, each one a little more bitter than the last.
Mairead Dixon asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work