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The Star Reporter

Have you ever had that one moment when you know that if you do something, it will change the rest of your life? I don’t mean saying yes’ when somebody asks you to marry them, but maybe I do mean that as well. Have you ever had one of those moments when you know that what you are going to do next will change the rest of your life? Have you ever been in that position? If you have, then you will understand what happened to me.

I had a friend, well not really a friend, just a girl I used to talk to in the students’ union bar, and she was on holiday once in southern Spain. She was about eighteen at the time, working in Spain during her gap year after school and before coming up to university. She was on a bus in Granada, waiting for it to leave, and this guy tapped on her window. She said that he was the most beautiful man she’d ever seen, a traveller, one of a band of musicians - she could see their van. And he gestured for her to get out of the bus and go with him. And she wanted to, but she didn’t. And she said that she’d never forget that moment and I know that she’s right. She won’t. You see you don’t get that many moments in a life.

I know. Because my life has changed. Completely. And this is how it happened.

The day had started well. It was Tuesday morning and I was in the Student News office for an early meeting. I’m sure you’ve heard of Student News. It’s been the winner of the University Newspaper of the Year award for ten years in a row; three former editors have top jobs on major newspapers. It’s the newspaper every Media Studies student wants to write for. That’s why many of them choose this university. And I was the award-winning news editor - voted the student most likely to succeed after uncovering a big property fraud in the city last year. I was the star reporter.

So there I was with the rest of the team in the tiny cupboard we called the office: two big filing cabinets, a table with a couple of computers, and some chairs that looked as if they had lost their cushions halfway through the last century; walls covered with grey paint with bits missing where people had stuck things up, a view through the window of concrete and dustbins - you know the kind of place. But none of that mattered to us. We weren’t there to admire the view, but to show how clever we were.

I’d already had a few articles in the Independent and the Sunday Times, and everyone knew that I’d been promised a job as soon as I finished my degree later that year. This had made the editor really furious.

Angela. That was our editor’s name, a real reporter, a bit like those tough American reporters I used to watch in old movies. I’d never liked her much, but I did respect her. She was a good editor. She had a nose for a story, as we say. She could always smell a good story. She had a feeling for things that excited people. You could see that she would become a good journalist. And that is what she wanted after university. She was desperate to get a job in one of the tabloids.

Let me explain. There are two kinds of newspapers:

First, there are the serious newspapers, the broadsheets, the big newspapers that you can’t open in a bus without hitting the person sitting next to you. You’re talking about the Guardian, the Independent, the Telegraph, The Times and their Sunday editions. Some people call them ‘the heavies’, and not just the poor delivery boys and girls who can only bike around with half a dozen copies because they weigh so much. No, it’s because they are said to be intellectually heavyweight. And compared to the other kind of newspaper, they are.

Second, there are the tabloids. These are small papers which have huge headlines, sometimes only one word that almost fills the page. This is great because they are not intended for people who actually want to read. They contain stories about soap stars and other famous people, and about the events in soap operas and the weekly issue. This is what they think is news. They take a story and decide what the issue is and then demand that the government do something about it immediately. It is quite possible that they demanded the opposite a few months ago, but they assume that their readers don’t remember such things, and they are usually right. When it rains, the tabloids scream, ‘Stop this flooding!’ and when it doesn’t rain they scream, ‘Where’s the water?’ They love crime because then they can have full-page headlines that shout, ‘WANTED!’ or show some face and scream, ‘Is this the face of the most evil man in Britain?’

I’ve always hated the tabloids and the way they react to the news. They are like two-year-olds who scream when they are hungry or lose a toy. I’ve never thought that their attitude to world affairs was grown-up. Today I feel differently. I think that what they do in order to increase their readership is actually evil. But then I would say that, wouldn’t I, after what happened?

Angela had always wanted to work for a tabloid newspaper. But because Student News won awards funded by a broadsheet, the tabloids weren’t interested in her. Not then, anyway.

So, it was another Tuesday morning, another ordinary editorial meeting. Or so I thought. I was only half listening to Angela, who was dominating the meeting as usual.

‘Is everyone here?’ she asked. ‘I don’t know about any of you, but I want to get back home soon; I’ve got a lot of work to do.’

‘She just wants to get home to watch the soaps on television,’ my friend Laura, the features editor, whispered to me. I laughed and Angela frowned at me.

‘I hope you’ve come here with a few good ideas for next week’s top story, Mike.’

I hadn’t really thought much about next week’s issue. I had been working on an essay until late the previous night. I still had to get my degree. However, I wasn’t going to let Angela know that.

‘Yes.’ I smiled at Angela. ‘I’ve got a great idea,’ I said.

And I had. It had just come to me right then.

‘Good,’ said Angela. ‘Can you share it with us?’

‘Sure,’ I said. ‘You know how the university sold off some land near the river for building last year? For building a new housing estate? Well, think about all the floods we’ve been having. There’s a real danger with land that close to a river. Actually, I wouldn’t be surprised if the area used to be a flood plain - you know, where fields beside rivers were kept empty because they flooded every year, and that stopped the river flooding the town.’

Angela nodded. I knew she was interested.

‘A few families have moved into the new estate,’ I continued, and I think the river may have flooded already. And I bet no one told them that their new houses were likely to flood. I bet no one told them that the houses were on an old flood plain.’

‘I like it,’ said Angela immediately. ‘Mike, you go and interview the families and take Sue with you to do the photos. John, you look on the Internet and see if you can find some old maps that show the area. If you can’t find what you need online, then go to the library in town. They have a local history section. Sue, I want you to find some good pictures of other estates built on flood plains that have flooded recently. We’ll make it a two-page news special.’

That’s what Angela is like. I told you she was a good editor. She knows what makes a good story and she knows how to make sure that every detail of the story is properly shown.

And so that was how it started.

I went down to the new estate with Sue, our photographer. There were only about six finished houses and five families had moved in. The river had come up as far as the front doors and there was thick mud everywhere. It was awful. And it smelt. Goodness knows what was in the river, but it certainly wasn’t clean water.

As we arrived, a young mother was trying to lift a buggy with a baby inside over the mud. She’d been to the supermarket and was carrying several bags of shopping.

‘Here!’ I said. ‘Let me help you!’

‘Wait,’ said Sue. ‘That’s a perfect shot!’

She took a picture, but as she did so, the mother, who wasn’t much older than me, heard the sound.

‘No!’ she shouted, and put her hands over her face. She dropped the buggy and if I hadn’t jumped forward, I think the baby would have fallen sideways into the thick mud. I lifted the buggy out of the mud and put it inside the doorway of her house.

‘It’s OK,’ I said gently. ‘We didn’t mean to upset you. We’re from the university. We’re doing a story about the flood for the student newspaper.’

‘You’re students?’ asked the mother. She seemed relieved. She looked around at the sea of black mud. ‘And you just want to write about this?’

‘Yes,’ I said. But wheels were turning in my reporter’s head. ‘What other story is there?’ I was wondering.

‘If you don’t want to be photographed, it’s not a problem,’ I said. Sue gave me a dirty look. ‘It was just that the baby in his buggy made a great picture. It really shows people what you have to put up with here.’

‘It’s been terrible,’ the mother murmured. ‘Ever since it started to rain last month. I thought the water was going to come right inside the house. But it didn’t.’ She smiled. She looked much younger when she smiled.

‘Do come in,’ she said. ‘My name’s Carol. And this…’ she stroked her baby’s cheek… ‘this is Robbie.’

‘Why don’t I talk to Carol while you see if some of the other families will be willing to let you photograph them?’ I suggested to Sue.

‘OK,’ agreed Sue, though I knew that she still wanted to take more shots of Carol trying to lift her baby over the mud.

‘Some of the other families may have small children, too,’ I added.

Sue went off and I helped Carol take her shopping indoors. The house was almost empty. You could see that Carol didn’t have much money, but everything was spotlessly clean. She clearly spent all her money on her baby, and apart from baby food, one of the things in her bag was a new toy for Robbie. It was a round container with different shaped holes - you know - round, square, triangular. And a bag full of round, square and triangular blocks. Robbie loved it. You could see that. He took each block and tried to get it through each hole in turn.

‘It was a bit expensive,’ Carol confessed, ‘but I thought he’d enjoy it. And it would help him learn things.’ It was clear just how much her baby meant to her.

I liked Carol. Let’s get that straight. And I could see that she was a marvellous mother. So I could have just asked her a few questions about the flooding and walked away. But I didn’t. There had been something about the way she’d reacted to Sue that bothered me.

She didn’t want any pictures. And she didn’t like journalists. Something had happened to her in the past; I was sure of it. I decided to find out who she was.

It wasn’t difficult. The building company had a record of all the people who had rented the houses and Angela had already emailed it to me. Number 4, the house we had visited, had been rented by Carol Peterson.

The name Carol Peterson didn’t mean anything to me and I couldn’t find anything on the Internet. But then I typed Carol Peters and hit the search button too soon. It was just a mistake. But it told me who Carol really was. She was Carol Peters. There was loads of stuff about her.

At the time of the trial, I was only ten years old, but I do remember people talking about it. I suppose that everyone was talking about it. Carol was eleven years old then. It was revealed during the trial that she’d had a terrible childhood herself: her parents drank and were violent. She’d been a lonely child, never made any friends. But she loved looking after children. And even though she was so young, lots of mothers let her look after their babies. I think that’s why they were so angry. They all felt that it could have been their baby who died.

No one ever found out exactly what had happened. Carol said that she’d put the baby on a slide and he’d fallen off and smashed his head. But the blood was on the other side of the park, near a wall. So the police thought that she’d hit the baby to stop it crying. She said that she’d taken the baby over there after the accident. She’d wanted to hide away.

The jury didn’t believe her. They decided that she’d murdered the baby. She was sent to a prison for young people and stayed there until she was sixteen. After that, no one knew what had happened to her.

I was reading one final report when Angela came into the office. The article had been written by a tabloid reporter who had waited for her to leave the prison, but missed her and then wrote that Carol was a monster who should stay in prison for the rest of her life. Angela read the article over my shoulder before I noticed she was there. It took her about two seconds to make the connection between Carol Peters and Carol Peterson.

‘How long have you known about this?’ she a’sked me.

‘I’ve only just discovered it,’ I told her.

‘And were you going to tell me?’ she enquired.

‘Of course,’ I lied.

I knew what was going to happen next: Angela would ring up one of her new contacts at one of the tabloid newspapers. And that is exactly what she did. The tabloid press had a great time.

‘WE FIND CHILD KILLER’S SECRET HOME!’ they screamed.

‘IS THIS CHILD SAFE?’ they asked about Robbie. The law in Britain protects children, so they weren’t allowed to mention his name or take pictures of him. They took pictures of a teddy bear in the garden instead. It wasn’t even Robbie’s teddy bear; one of the tabloid reporters had put it there. Near the front door. It made a great picture - a sad lonely bear in the mud. That’s how they do it.

Soon local people arrived and demanded that this ‘evil child-killer’ be taken away. They didn’t want her near their children. The next day the police and social services arrived and took Robbie away. For his safety, they said. Carol hadn’t told anyone that she’d got a son. She’d managed to hide away from the police and social services. She’d got a new identity and had started a new life on her own. And, until I arrived, she’d been doing very well.

She left a few days later. And so I never saw her again.

I resigned from the Student News. I knew I was never going to be a reporter. I never wanted to write for a newspaper again. I decided to become a teacher and go abroad. I wanted to go away, as far away from England as possible.

It all happened two years ago and today, although I live eight thousand kilometres from England, I am still back there. I can remember Carol’s face as she watched Robbie finally find a circle and drop it through the circle-shaped hole. I remember that moment of happiness between them, and I can hear her screaming as they took Robbie away.

You see the thing is, when Angela rang the tabloids, they already knew about Carol. Because I had already emailed them. I had to get the story in first, didn’t I? I was the star reporter.

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