A quiet Saturday shift …
then in sails Mrs Yellow
with death on her mind


Like the unfortunate scribes from "There's Someone in Reception," I also remember having to administer the gentle biff-off to uninvited callers offering tall tales. The most bizarre came one summer's afternoon in 1979 during a Saturday shift at the News of the World.

As many will recall, these Saturday stints were generally a cushty number. With most of the paper already put to bed, you would be paid a goodly sum for, mostly, holding the fort with perhaps a gentle rewrite of PA to earn your keep. (Mind you, you might also end up at a Brixton riot, but that's another story).

This particular day was proving extra easy-peasy, to the extent that I was happy enough to relieve the boredom when it was agreed by the more experienced hacks around me that it was my turn to handle the woman in reception.

It wasn't the hottest summer on record but it was bright and sunny outside. So I didn't expect to be greeted by an elderly lady kitted out in fluorescent yellow oilskins, not just the Sou'wester, but the full head-to-toe John West, complete with canary wellies.

The little woman came straight to the point. "My husband's been murdered and no one wants to do anything about it."

What could I do, but listen? Her husband, she reported, had worked for the government but was retired. One morning, late last year, he had been standing at the bus stop, when he dropped down dead. " And how old was your late husband," I enquired gently.

"Seventy-nine, but never had a day's illness in his life," she insisted.

It so happened that the previous September, the Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov, had been assassinated in the infamous poison umbrella case, a microscopic platinum pellet shot into his leg on Waterloo Bridge. (A few years later, I was to see the murder weapon on display at Scotland Yard's Black Museum, so astonishingly small that it needed a magnifying glass the size of a car tyre to make it visible).

Anyway, Mrs Yellow had got it into her head that her old man must also have been a victim of communist killers. I gave her time and assured her someone would look into it — but there was more.

It seems "they" were trying to force her out of her flat, sending pulsating noises through the walls late at night. "Who?" I asked, knowing I shouldn't have. "McDonald's," she cried. 

It was all a bit sad, and I found myself saying: "Oh no, I don't think so really, do you?" or words to that effect. "Aha, I knew it — you're with them, you're out to get me too!" And with that, she flounced out in a rustle of rubber.

Later I was to reflect that I had been called a few things in my time, but never before had anyone accused me of being a hitman for McDonald's.

14 June 2024