(Shortish short story, 953 words)
The hotel belonged to the nineteenth century when size was a synonym for luxury. Ceilings in the bedroom corridors were abnormally high, apparently supported by huge wood-panelled columns. Despite the grandeur Potterton couldn't help feeling the decor had been left behind, found wanting, irrelevant. He wondered – but only idly - whether the columns were called pilasters.
Archie sat in one of the bar’s easy chairs holding a glass containing what looked like fizzy water. But then he’d been an austere youth and Potterton hadn’t been surprised to learn he’d spent the last decade doing PR in Geneva. Switzerland seemed to fit.
Potterton ordered a pint of Tetley not because he liked it but because it was part of a tradition they were here in Bradford to celebrate.
“I wouldn’t say I’m sentimental,” he told Archie, “but joining the Telegraph as a tea-boy changed my life.”
Archie who’d gone straight into the reporter’s room nodded sympathetically. “They worked you like slaves.”
“Long days, long weeks. I got home exhausted. But I didn’t care. It wasn’t school.”
“School, eh? Not the happiest, gladdest days?”
Potterton scowled. “I never got the hang of it: superiors and inferiors, masters and pupils, clever-clogs and dumbos. What’s more nobody ever told me why school mattered. A new world when I found myself among people who read books, talked about ‘news', wrote ‘stories’. I didn’t need telling those things mattered.”
“Do you remember the smell when you came in through the front entrance?”
“I always thought it was printing ink. Perhaps the presses themselves.”
“For me it was fear,” said Archie.
And Potterton was sure he’d been right to buy the train ticket.
Before the meal the deputy editor read out messages from those unable to attend. One of Potterton’s tea-boy contemporaries, now editing a newspaper in the Midlands, faced a budget meeting. A puckish sub-editor, long retired, had condemned clichés by acting them out; used his letter to rate others according to their acting ability.
As he ate the unexceptional meal Potterton listened to a retired sub-editor and the Halifax district reporter reminiscing about stories they’d handled, witty headlines, people who had wrecked their lives with drink. During a pause Potterton mentioned, concisely, he’d edited an industrial magazine in London for several years. The reporter ignored him; the sub – who had always tended to behave oddly – looked at Potterton vaguely, then resumed talking about writing errors. Later, Potterton bought the sub a Scotch to engage him in conversation but the glass was lost amidst others on the table, some empty, some half full, and it was doubtful the sub knew the Scotch was his.
Potterton looked for other faces he’d known as a tea-boy before he moved from Bradford to Bingley as a trainee reporter. One was a handsome, rather languid man who’d gone on to anchor regional television news in the south-east, becoming a minor TV celebrity. Potterton couldn’t imagine tempting him with industrial factoids; in any case he quickly paired off with another minor celebrity, a former reporter who’d adopted a Scottish name in order to write thrillers.
As conversations were intensified by drink, breaking in got harder. Men, and they were mostly men, who had joked with Potterton when he’d gone out into the city to buy them packets of cigarettes or battered-fish sandwiches from the canteen looked at him, frowning, unable to place him, and in the end not caring. Their behaviour, Potterton realised, was a byproduct of their specialised skill – the ability to decide within seconds what was important and what wasn’t, and thereafter ignore anything that lacked substance.
In the summer he and Archie had met for their own personal reunion and Archie had mentioned tonight’s event. Potterton looked around and saw Archie, animated despite his glass of fizzy water, the centre of a cluster of faces all moderately familiar. He decided trying to join Archie would be disruptive, would break up the bonds Archie had established.
The evening reached its unproductive nadir when Potterton bumped into Vic who’d arrived after the dinner. Vic had been a high-speed typist taking copy over the phone and had had nominal responsibility for the tea-boys. He looked questioningly at Potterton, then shook his head. “Sorry, I don’t remember.”
Potterton ordered himself a Scotch and sat apart from the noisy chat. His expectations had been high. He’d wanted others to help him re-live that magical moment when he’d ceased to be a schoolboy and stepped into the trade he knew, then and now, he was fitted for. But it was clear he’d passed through the Bradford headquarters at a lower, almost invisible level, before moving to Bingley. Tea-boys weren’t important; didn’t linger in editorial memories. His epiphanies were his and his alone, they weren’t shared.
Walking up the ludicrously wide staircase to his bedroom he paused. Descending the stairs slowly - he must by now have been in his seventies – Fred too paused. Then smiled. “Hello Potto. Busy evening. We haven’t had time to talk. Next time perhaps.” Some of the warmth Potterton had hoped for flooded through him. In a subs’ room charged with competition, rapid decisions and incipient humiliation Fred had always been one of the good guys. For years he’d given up Sunday afternoons to teach tea-boys and trainee journalists the basics. Once he’d awarded Potterton a humbug for a quick 150 words on the subject of fog. Potterton raised his hand in salute as they parted and remembered how Fred, of Welsh stock, had pronounced “accurate” as “ackerut”. An essential word.
Along the upstairs corridor Potterton now noticed other anachronisms: wide mahogany doors, fluted brass wall switches, deep complex cornices. A corridor immobilised in time and space. A good conduit to an editorial reunion.