James Tyrone
Back to Forfeit


Order a copy

UK Edition

US Edition

Extract From Forfeit


The letter from Tally came on the day Bert Checkov died. It didn't look like trouble; just an invitation from a glossy to write an article on the Lamplighter Gold Cup. I flicked it across the desk to the Sports Editor and went on opening the mail which always accumulated for me by Fridays. Luke-John Morton grunted and stretched out a languid hand, blinking vacantly while he listened to someone with a lot to say on the telephone.

'Yeah... yeah. Blow the roof off,' he said.

Blowing the roof off was the number one policy of The Sunday Blaze, bless its cold heart. Why didn't I write for The Sunday Times, my wife's mother said, instead of a rag like The Sunday Blaze? They hadn't needed me, that was why. She considered this irrelevant, and when she couldn't actively keep it quiet, continued to apologize to every acquaintance for my employment. That the Blaze paid twenty-eight per cent more than The Times, and that her daughter was expensive, she ignored.

I slit open a cheap brown envelope and found some nut had written to say that only a vicious unscrupulous bum like myself would see any good in the man I had defended last Sunday. The letter was written on lavatory paper and spite oozed from it like marsh gas. Derry Clark read it over my shoulder and laughed.

'Told you you'd stir them up.'

'Anything for an unquiet life,' I agreed.

Derry wrote calm uncontroversial articles each week assessing form and firmly left the crusading rebel stuff to me. My back, as he constantly pointed out, was broader than his.

Eight more of my other correspondents proved to be thinking along the same general lines. All anonymous, naturally. Their problems, I reflected, dumping their work in the waste basket, were even worse than mine.

'How's your wife?' Derry said.

'Fine, thanks.'

He nodded, not looking at me. He'd never got over being embarrassed about Elizabeth. It took some people that way.

Luke-John's conversation guttered to a close. 'Sure... sure. Phone it through by six at the latest.' He put down the receiver and focused on my letter from Tally, his eyes skidding over it with professional speed.

'A study in depth... how these tarty magazines love that phrase. Do you want to do it?'

'If the fee's good.'

'I thought you were busy ghosting Buster Figg's autobiography.'

'I'm hung up on chapter six. He's sloped off to the Bahamas and left me no material.'

'How far through his horrid little life have you got?' His interest was genuine.

'The end of his apprenticeship and his first win in a classic.'

'Will it sell?'

'I don't know,' I sighed. 'All he's interested in is money, and all he remembers about some races is the starting price. He gambled in thousands. And he insists I put his biggest bets in. He says they can't take away his licence now he's retired.'

Luke-John sniffed, rubbing a heavily freckled hand across the prominent tendons of his scrawny neck, massaging his walnut-sized larynx, dropping the heavy eyelid hoods while he considered the letter from Tally. My contract with the Blaze was restrictive: books were all right, but I couldn't write articles for any other paper or magazine without Luke-John's permission, which I mostly didn't get.

Derry pushed me out of his chair and sat in it himself. As I spent only Fridays in the office, I didn't rate a desk and usurped my younger colleague's whenever he wasn't looking. Derry's desk held a comprehensive reference library of form books in the top three drawers and a half-bottle of vodka, two hundred purple hearts and a pornographic film catalogue in the bottom one. These were window dressing only. They represented the wicked fellow Derry would like to be, not the lawful, temperate, semi-detached man he was.

I perched on the side of his desk and looked out over the Friday morning clatter, a quarter-acre of typewriters and telephones going at half speed as the week went on towards Sunday. Tuesdays the office was dead: Saturdays it buzzed like flies squirted with DDT. Fridays I felt part of it. Saturdays I went to the races. Sundays and Mondays, officially off. Tuesdays to Thursdays, think up some galvanizing subject to write about, and write it. Fridays, take it in for Luke-John, and then for the editor, to read and vet.

Result, a thousand words a week, an abusive mailbag, and a hefty cheque which didn't cover my expenses.

Luke-John said, 'Are you or Derry doing the Lamplighter?'

Without giving me a second Derry jumped in. 'I am.'

'That all right with you, Ty?' Luke-John asked dubiously.

'Oh sure,' I said. 'It's a complicated handicap. Right up his street.'

Luke-John pursed his thin lips and said with unusual generosity, 'Tally says they want background stuff, not tips... I don't see why you shouldn't do it, if you want to.'

He scribbled a large OK, at the bottom of the page and signed his name. 'But of course,' he added, 'if you dig up any dirt, keep it for us.'

Generous, be damned, I thought wryly. Luke-John's soul belonged to the Blaze and his simple touchstone in all decisions was, 'Could it possibly, directly or indirectly, benefit the paper?' Every member of the sports section had at some time or other been ruthlessly sacrificed on his altar. For cancelled holidays, smashed appointments, lost opportunities, he cared not one jot.

'Sure,' I said mildly. 'And thanks.'

'How's your wife?' he asked.

'Fine, thanks.'

He asked every week without fail. He had his politenesses, when it didn't cost the Blaze. Maybe he really cared. Maybe he only cared because when she wasn't 'fine' it affected my work.

I pinched Derry's telephone and dialled the number.

'Tally magazine, can I help you?' A girl's voice, very smooth, West Ken, and bored.

'I'd like to talk to Arnold Shankerton.'

'Who's calling?'

'James Tyrone.'

'One moment, please.' Some clicks and a pause. 'You're through.'

An equally smooth, highly sophisticated tenor voice proclaimed itself to be Arnold Shankerton, Features. I thanked him for his letter and said I would like to accept his commission. He said that would be very nice in moderately pleased tones and I gently added, 'If the price is right naturally.'

'Naturally,' he conceded. 'How much do you want?'

Think of a number and double it. 'Two hundred guineas, plus expenses.'

Luke-John's eyebrows rose and Derry said, 'You'll be lucky.'

'Our profit margin is small,' Shankerton pointed out a little plaintively. 'One hundred is our absolute limit.'

'I pay too much tax.'

His sigh came heavily down the wire. 'A hundred and fifty, then. And for that it'll have to be good.'

'I'll do my best.'

'Your best,' he said, 'would scorch the paper. We want the style and the insight but not the scandal. Right?'

'Right,' I agreed without offence. 'How many words?'

'It's the main feature. Say three thousand five hundred, roughly speaking.'

'How about pictures?'

'You can have one of our photographers when you're ready. And within reason, of course.'

'Of course,' I said politely. 'When do you want it by?'

'We go to press on that edition... let's see... on November twentieth. So we'd like your stuff on the morning of the seventeenth, at the very latest. But the earlier the better.'

I looked at Derry's calendar. Ten days to the seventeenth.

'All right.'

'And when you've thought out how you'd like to present it, send us an outline.'

'Will do,' I said: but I wouldn't. Outlines were asking for trouble in the shape of editorial alterations. Shankerton could, and would, chop at the finished article to his heart's content, but I was against him getting his scissors into the embryo.

Luke-John skimmed the letter back and Derry picked it up and read it.

'In depth,' he said, sardonically. 'You're used to the deep end. You'll feel quite at home.'

'Yeah,' I agreed absentmindedly. Just what was depth, a hundred and fifty guineas worth of it?

I made a snap decision that depth in this case would be the background people, not the stars.

The stars hogged the headlines week by week. The background people had no news value. For once, I would switch them over.

Snap decisions had got me into trouble once or twice in the past. All the same, I made this one. It proved to be the most trouble-filled of the lot.



Derry, Luke-John, and I knocked off soon after one and walked down the street in fine drizzle to elbow our way into the bar of The Devereux in Devereux Court opposite the Law Courts.

Bert Checkov was there, trying to light his stinking old pipe and burning his fingers on the matches. The shapeless tweed which swathed his bulk was as usual scattered with ash and as usual his toecaps were scuffed and grey. There was more glaze in the washy blue eyes than one-thirty normally found there: an hour too much, at a rough guess. He'd started early.

Luke-John spoke to him and he stared vaguely back. Derry bought us a half-pint each and politely asked Bert to have one, though he'd never liked him.

'Double scotch,' Bert mumbled, and Derry thought of his mortgages and scowled.

'How's things?' I asked, knowing that this too was a mistake. The Checkov grumbles were inexhaustible.

For once, however, the stream was damned. The watery eyes focused on me with an effort and another match sizzled on his skin. He appeared not to notice.

'Gi' you a piesh o' advish,' he said, but the words stopped there. The advice stayed in his head.

'What is it?'

'Piesh o' advish.' He nodded solemnly.

Luke-John raised his eyes to the ceiling in an exasperation that wasn't genuine, for old-time journalists like Bert he had an unlimited regard which no amount of drink could quench.

'Give him the advice, then,' Luke-John suggested. 'He can always do with it.'

The Checkov gaze lurched from me to my boss. The Checkov mouth belched uninhibitedly. Derry's pale face twisted squeamishly, and Checkov saw him. As a gay lunch, hardly a gas. Just any Friday, I thought: but I was wrong. Bert Checkov was less than an hour from death.

Luke-John, Derry, and I sat on stools round the bar counter and ate cold meat and pickled onions, and Bert Checkov stood swaying behind us, breathing pipe smoke and whisky fumes down our necks. Instead of the usually steady rambling flow of grousing to which we were accustomed, we received only a series of grunts, the audible punctuation of the inner Checkov thoughts.

Something on his mind. I wasn't interested enough to find out what. I had enough on my own.

Luke-John gave him a look of compassion and another whisky, and the alcohol washed into the pale blue eyes like a tide, resulting in pin-point pupils and a look of blank stupidity.

'I'll walk him back to his office,' I said abruptly. 'He'll fall under a bus if he goes on his own.'

'Serve him right,' Derry said under his breath, but carefully so that Luke-John shouldn't hear.

We finished lunch with cheese and another half-pint. Checkov lurched sideways and spilt my glass over Derry's knee and the pub carpet. The carpet soaked it up good-temperedly, which was more than could be said for Derry. Luke-John shrugged, resignedly, half laughing, and I finished what was left of my beer with one swallow, and I steered Bert Checkov through the crowd and into the street.

'Not closing time yet,' he said distinctly.

'For you it is, old chum.'

He rolled against the wall, waving the pipe vaguely in his chubby fist. 'Never leave a pub before closing. Never leave a story while it's hot. Never leave a woman on her doorstep. Paragraphs and skirts should be short and pheasants and breasts should be high.'

'Sure,' I said sighing. Some advice.

I took his arm and he came easily enough out on to the Fleet Street pavement. His tottering progress up towards the City end produced several stares but no actual collisions. Linked together we crossed during a lull in the traffic and continued eastwards under the knowing frontages of the Telegraph and the black glass Express. Fleet Street had seen the lot: no news value in an elderly racing correspondent being helped back from lunch with a skinful.

'A bit of advice,' he said suddenly, stopping in his tracks. 'A bit of advice.'

'Yes?' I said patiently.

He squinted in my general direction.

'We've come past the Blaze.'


He tried to turn me round to retrace our steps.

'I've business down at Ludgate Circus. I'm going your way today,' I said.

'Zat so?' He nodded vaguely and we shambled on. Ten more paces. He stopped again.

'Piece of advice.'

He was looking straight ahead. I'm certain that he saw nothing at all. No bustling street. Nothing but what was going on inside his head.

I was tired of waiting for the advice which showed no signs of materializing. It had begun to drizzle again. I took his arm to try and get him moving along the last fifty yards to his paper's florid front door. He wouldn't move.

'Famous last words,' he said.


'Mine. Naturally. Famous last words. Bit of advice.'

'Oh sure,' I sighed. 'We're getting wet.'

'I'm not drunk.'


'I could write my column any time. This minute.'


He lurched off suddenly, and we made it to his door. Three steps and he'd be home and dry.

He stood in the entrance and rocked unsteadily. The pale blue eyes made a great effort towards sobering up, but the odds were against it.

'If anyone asks you,' he said finally, 'don't do it.'

'Don't do what?'

An anxious expression flitted across his pallid fleshy face. There were big pores all over his nose, and his beard was growing out in stiff black millimetres. He pushed one hand into his jacket pocket, and the anxiety turned to relief as he drew it out again with a half-bottle of scotch attached.

''Fraid I'd forgotten it,' he mumbled.

'See you then, Bert.'

'Don't forget,' he said. 'That advice.'

'Right.' I began to turn away.


I was tired of him. 'What?'

'You wouldn't let it happen to you, I know that... but sometimes it's the strong ones get the worst clobbering... in the ring, I mean... they never know when they've taken enough...'

He suddenly leaned forward and grasped my coat. Whisky fumes seeped up my nose and I could feel his hot breath across the damp air.

'You're always broke, with that wife of yours. Luke-John told me. Always bloody stony. So don't do it... don't sell your sodding soul...'

'Try not to,' I said wearily, but he wasn't listening.

He said, with the desperate intensity of the very drunk, 'They buy you first and blackmail after...'


'Don't know... Don't sell... don't sell your column.'

'No,' I sighed.

'I mean it.' He put his face even closer. 'Never sell your column.'

'Bert... Have you?'

He closed up. He pried himself off me and went back to rocking. He winked, a vast caricature of a wink.

'Bit of advice,' he said nodding. He swivelled on rubbery ankles and weaved an unsteady path across the lobby to the lifts. Inside he turned round and I saw him standing there under the light clutching the half-bottle and still saying over and over, 'Bit of advice, bit of advice.'

The doors slid heavily across in front of him. Shrugging, puzzled a little, I started on my way back to the Blaze. Fifty yards along, I stopped off to see if the people who were servicing my typewriter had finished it. They hadn't. Call back Monday, they said.

When I stepped out into the street again a woman was screaming.

Heads turned. The high-pitched agonized noise pierced the roar of wheels and rose clean above the car horns. With everyone else, I looked to see the cause.

Fifty yards up the pavement a knot of people was rapidly forming and I reflected that in this particular place droves of regular staff reporters would be on the spot in seconds. Nevertheless, I went back. Back to the front door of Bert's paper, and a few steps farther on.

Bert was lying on the pavement. Clearly dead. The shining fragments of his half-bottle of whisky scattered the paving slabs around him, and the sharp smell of the spilt spirit mixed uneasily with the pervading diesel.

'He fell. He fell.' The screaming woman was on the edge of hysterics and couldn't stop shouting. 'He fell. I saw him. From up there. He fell.'

Luke-John said 'Christ' several times and looked badly shocked. Derry shook out a whole lot of paper clips on to his desk and absentmindedly put them back one by one.

'You're sure he was dead?' he said.

'His office was seven floors up.'

'Yeah.' He shook his head disbelievingly. 'Poor old boy.' Nil nisi bonum. A sharp change of attitude.

Luke-John looked out of the Blaze window and down along the street. The smashed remains of Bert Checkov had been decently removed. The pavement had been washed. People tramped unknowingly across the patch where he had died.

'He was drunk,' Luke-John said. 'Worse than usual.'

He and Derry made a desultory start on the afternoon work. I had no need to stay as the editor had OK'd my copy, but I hung around anyway for an hour or two, not ready to go.

They had said in Bert's office that he came back paralytic from lunch and simply fell out of the window. Two girl secretaries saw him. He was taking a drink out of the neck of the bottle of whisky, and he suddenly staggered against the window, which swung open, and he toppled out. The bottom of the window was at hip height. No trouble at all for someone as drunk as Bert.

I remembered the desperation behind the bit of advice he had given me.

And I wondered.