The mail flashed up on my screen:
The old duck phoned.
Cut the sentimental crap –
Focus on her – See my edits.
PS – stick to carving knife
I stared at it glumly, then opened the attached document. He’d deleted almost everything I’d written, even replaced my headline and inserted one of his eye-catching specials.
I sighed. The first interesting story I’d been given to cover, and all that remained was a few measly paragraphs. All focussing on Winifred Whelan.
Mrs Winifred Whelan. I hadn’t liked her much. The heroine of the hour. The feisty pensioner. And didn’t she know it.
‘Sam,’ she’d said to her husband, ‘make this young lady some tea.’ Mr Whelan had shuffled off in his brown leather slippers. ‘Now what can I tell you?’ she’d asked, patting the wire basket of her grey hair. I didn’t like her eyes. They were cold and sharp. When she looked at me I felt ten years old again, standing on the carpet in the headmistress’s office.
‘Shouldn’t we wait for Mr Whelan?’ I’d asked. ‘Didn’t he also apprehend one of the intruders?’
‘Sam?!’ She barked a laugh into the fusty air of the front room. ‘Well, yes, I suppose you could say he did, if you call tripping over those ridiculous slippers of his and falling on top of the other lad an apprehension.’ Her voice was quick and clipped. ‘No, this is what happened …’
She’d reached the part where she’d decided to take action, when Mr Whelan returned with a tea tray. ‘Milk?’ he asked me quietly? ‘Sugar?’
‘Thanks, Mr Whelan. Milk, no sugar.’ I smiled at him. ‘You must have had quite a scare.’
‘Oh, my.’ He shook his head. ‘It all happened so quickly. One moment I was lying fast asleep, the next Win was poking me in the side.’
I could imagine the scene: Sam, a skinny, plucked chicken of a man, snoring in his blue and white striped pyjamas, his Adam’s apple poking sharp as a prune pip from his stringy neck. I saw Mrs Whelan’s gnarled forefinger jabbing his ribs.
‘Yes, well …’ Mrs Whelan interrupted.
‘Just a minute, Mrs Whelan.’ I smiled at her sweetly. ‘I’d like to get Mr Whelan’s side of the story, and then we can continue with yours.’ Her lips set in a firm line and she clattered her cup on its saucer. I looked at Mr Whelan. He glanced quickly at his wife and continued.
‘When Win poked me, the first thing I thought was she wanted a glass of water, or I should close the curtains, or open the door. Win usually needs something done in the middle of the night. But this time, just as I was swinging my legs over the bed, reaching for my slippers, she hissed at me. Ssshhhh Sam. Listen.
‘Yes, yes,’ snapped Mrs Whelan. ‘I’ve already told her that bit, about how I heard the noise and knew there was something happening downstairs.’ Mr Whelan smiled at me apologetically and closed his mouth.
‘As I was saying,’ said Mrs Whelan, ‘my hearing’s sharper than Sam’s. Of course he couldn’t hear a thing. There’s someone down there, I said to him. Listen.’
‘And then, even I could hear it,’ said Mr Whelan. ‘The sound of wood splintering. They’d broken in through the downstairs toilet window.’ Mrs Whelan leaned forward, but I kept my attention focussed on her husband. After another a quick glance at his wife, he continued. ‘I reached for the phone. The children made us put one in the bedroom last year, just in case one of us took a turn in the night.’
‘She doesn’t need to know that, Sam.’ said Mrs Whelan, ‘Get on with the story!’
‘Win grabbed my hand,’ said Mr Whelan. ‘Sam Whelan, she whispered, what do you think you’re doing? Phoning the police, I said. Put that down, Win said. If they hear your voice they’ll murder us in our beds. No Sam, she said, we have to take care of this ourselves. Well, my heart sank, I can tell you. Win’s a great go-getter, she often says she rushes in where everyone fears to tread.’ I nodded at him, as his wife preened. ‘But me, well I tend to be a little more cautious. Anyway, there she was sitting bolt upright in bed, her hair everywhichway –’
‘Sam, I told you, keep to the facts. That’s what these reporter people want, the facts, not how I look at two in the morning.’
‘Sorry Win,’ Mr Whelan said. ‘Shall I also leave out the bit where you put your teeth in?’
I kept a straight face. I was determined to get Sam Whelan’s story if I had to threaten Mrs Whelan with a knife to do so. ‘And then?’ I prompted.
‘Well, then Win said to me, don’t switch on the light Sam, and follow me. I reckon they’ll go for the sitting room first, TV, DVD, all those things, and then they’ll be up here to see what they can get. We must forestall them, Sam. I sighed a bit when she said that.’
‘Yes,’ said Mrs Whelan, ‘can you believe it? Win, he said to me, are you sure we shouldn’t call the police? And after I’d already told him we couldn’t do that. If we phone the police, Sam Whelan, I said, we’ll be dead in our beds before they get here.’
‘Gosh, Mr Whelan,’ I said. ‘I can quite understand that you’d want the police. I mean, who knows what was happening downstairs? The news is full of stories of pensioners being robbed, killed in their own homes.’
‘My point exactly,’ said Mr Whelan. This time, the glance he darted at his wife held a small air of triumph, but he looked away quickly when the shiny pink skin of her forehead corrugated in a frown. ‘So then, she jabbed me in the ribs again, and said, now listen to me, Sam Whelan, and do exactly as I say. And she’s slipped out of bed, all quiet like, all I can see is her bottom in her pink nightie, and she’s rummaging at the back of cupboard. I know it’s here somewhere, she whispers. And the next thing I know, she’s got this enormous scimitar thing in her hand. I know they said on the radio that it was a carving knife, from the kitchen, but they got that wrong. Didn’t half give me a turn seeing that massive blade in Win’s hands.’
‘My Dad brought it back from his travels,’ Mrs Whelan said. ‘I hid it away years ago, when the children were small. The moment I heard that noise, I knew I’d need a weapon.’ She took a deep breath. ‘I held it tightly, and crept …’
‘I think I know the rest, Mrs Whelan,’ I said. She glared at me, and I smiled sweetly again. ‘As Mr Whelan said, it was on the radio this morning,’ I said. ‘You confronted the burglar in the kitchen, quoted a line from Crocodile Dundee, and Mr Whelan managed to restrain the other intruder.’
‘Well! If you knew all that, why did you bother coming here?’ Winifred asked me sharply.
‘I’d like to do a feature story on this,’ I said. I was hoping to get some details, not just what everyone is reporting. You know, make it interesting – your teeth, your hair, how you described Sam tripping on his slippers. Things that make for a good story.’
I turned to her husband again. ‘Tell me, Mr Whelan, I asked, ‘how did it feel, subduing such a large and obviously dangerous criminal? I hear he was the bigger and more threatening of the two?’ Then, facing Mrs Whelan I said, ‘You must be incredibly proud of Mr Whelan. After all, you had the advantage of having the knife, while he managed barehanded. Didn’t you think of finding him something to use as a weapon too?’
‘Oh go on then, Sam.’ Mrs Whelan glowered at me. ‘Tell her everything she wants to know. I’m going to phone that nice young man from People Magazine. He’s left three messages already this morning.’ She stood up and looked down at me. ‘You’ll see yourself out?’ she asked. She marched off, leaving Mr Whelan and me alone.
‘I don’t think Win much liked that,’ Mr Whelan said worriedly.
‘Never mind, Mr Whelan,’ I said. ‘I’m sure there’ll be plenty more reporters to write her story. Now, you were going to tell me about how you dealt with the other man …’
Yes, Sam Whelan was the hero of the hour and I’d written a great story about him. Nothing like the one that was printed in the newspaper the following day:
Feisty pensioner shows masked intruder that size does count
|LONDON: With Australian outback hero Crocodile Dundee as her inspiration, an 80-year-old British pensioner foiled a knife wielding burglarwith an even bigger blade of her own. When woken by a masked man holding a knife, Winifred Whelan screamed and ran downstairs to the kitchen. Grabbing a giant carving knife she told the startled intruder “you call that a knife? This is a knife.” In an echo of the famous scene in one of the Crocodile Dundee films when actor Paul Hogan confronted a New York mugger. As she took on the intruder, her husband grappled with his accomplice. Recalling the incident on the day the burglars were jailed for the break in, Whelan told the Liverpool Echo, “I said to the robber, ‘You call that a knife?’ His was around ten inches long and I had a carving knife measuring around 14 inches. “I pointed it at his belly and added ‘This is a knife!’” Reuters|
I’m sure Winifred Whelan was happy when she read it, even though Dad’s scimitar had been replaced with a carving knife.