Eric's big story

I came into our office one morning to find Eric Leggett looking ashen. Actually, ‘ashen’ was an understatement. He looked like one of the undead from an ancient Hammer Horror film.

As he was normally so jokey and bubbly, I was shocked.. “Whatever’s the matter?” I asked him. “You look as though you’ve been given two weeks to live.” “It might come to that,” he muttered.

“Why? Are you ill, then?”

Eric said: “No, it’s not that. The Editor’s given me a story to do.”
“I must admit that is terrible, “ I sympathised. “After all, it’s not as if we’re working on a newspaper or anything, is it?”

“Yes, well, there are stories and stories.” It must have been twenty years, at least, since Eric, as a long-serving deskman, had actually gone out of the office and done a story.

“What kind of story, then?” I asked.

He moaned again. “Interview Christina Onassis.”

“Who?” I thought he must be having me on.

He repeated it. At the time, Christina Onassis was one of the most famous yet elusive women in the world. Fat, ugly, troubled, much-married, vastly rich, this ultimate poor little rich girl’s predilection for attracting wildly unsuitable men had provided newspaper fodder for many years. But at the same time, Christina, who was supposedly now running her late father Aristotle’s shipping empire, was notoriously uninterviewable, and not even the finest journalistic talents in the world had managed to nail her down.

All kinds of famous interviewers had tried to get hold of Christina to persuade her to open her heart in their newspaper or magazine, yet she had refused all requests. She didn’t need the money, she didn’t need the publicity. She had plenty of both without having to court the press.

So how was Eric Leggett, of all people, going to pull off what nobody else had ever managed?

“Christina Onassis, eh?” I persisted. “So how are you going to get hold of her?” “It’s all arranged,” he moaned, as if he’d just been told that his reprieve had not come through and he would be shot by firing squad in the morning.

“How? Has she agreed to be interviewed by you, then?” It sounded unlikely.“No, she has not.”
“So? How are you going to make it happen?” I felt like laughing, but Eric’s hands were shaking. He was clearly badly frightened by the prospect of this assignment.
“In a couple of days’ time, she is going to board an aeroplane for Barbados,” he told me. “I’ve got a ticket for the same flight.”

“What, first class?”

“Of course.” Eric managed to regain a little of his pomposity as he said this.
“You’ll be sitting next to her, then?”
“I don’t know. But I shan’t be far away. The idea is that I have to make contact with her on the plane.”

“So why have you been asked to do this story?” I wondered.

“Because I’m not a known showbiz writer, or member of the press pack who’s been following her for years, the Editor thought I’d have a better chance. She might feel so sorry for a poor old man like me that she lets slip a few words, lets me into her confidence a bit.”

Well, it was remotely possible, perhaps. Stranger things had happened.At least Eric wouldn’t deliberately antagonise her by dogging her every footstep and making a nuisance of himself, as our bolder, brasher reporters might, never taking no for an answer. But I was still puzzled. Why did we want to interview her anyway? “So what’s the story, Eric? Why are we trying to get her?”

“I don’t think there’s any particular story as such,” he said “other than that she’s divorcing that Russian husband. But somehow we had a tip-off that she would be on this plane, and then staying in this hotel in Barbados. I’ve got to ask her what her plans are for the future, how she sees her life developing, and so on.” “You think you can get her to talk when nobody else has, then ?” “I suppose I can but try,” he said sadly. “The idea is that I’m a nice guy, not one of those nasty Sun journalists.”

“Even so, you’re from a nasty paper,” I reminded him. “At least, in her eyes.”
“Yes, I know. I’ve tried saying that to the Editor, that even if I seem like a nice chap, there’s no reason why she should want to appear in our paper. But he won’t take no for an answer. “

“And you’ll be staying in the same hotel in Barbados, will you?”
“Yes. I’ve got a few days booked there.”“I must admit, my heart bleeds for you,” I said. “There you are, booked on a first-class flight to Barbados, and staying in a zillion-star hotel. But seriously, it’s got to be better than just sitting here in the office playing office golf, hasn’t it?”

“No.” Eric contradicted me forcefully. “I’d far rather be sitting here reading my paper and researching my next book.” He meant it. Eric had written his previous book, The Corfu Incident, published by Leo Cooper, husband of Jilly, largely in office time and saw no reason why he shouldn’t tap out his next book in the same way. It was by far the best way to be an author – get paid a huge salary for doing no work, plus being able to use all office facilities such as telephone, typewriter, library, for nothing. If I’d been in his shoes on this current assignment, I would have been wildly excited, however remote the possibility that I’d get anything worth having from Christina Onassis. At least I would have met her, have travelled first-class and stayed in an international hotel.

But of course, Eric was past all that. The days when something like this would have been an exciting challenge for him had long gone, and he now only wanted a quiet life - so long as it netted him lots of money, of course. Now he was overcome by sheer, simple terror. He sighed, grumbled and moaned, then got the huge thick cuttings file on Christina Onassis down from the cuttings library and carefully read through each one, making notes as he did so. The following day he came into the office still wearing the same expression of gloom and despair, we all had a farewell liquid, or mainly liquid, lunch at The Stab and then he disappeared to Simpson Piccadilly to buy some tropical- type clothes for the trip, on expenses of course. Then he was gone.

While he was away, we heard nothing. We tried to imagine Eric, in his new lightweight clothes, sitting next to big Christina on the aeroplane and making gentlemanly chat.

Almost a week after he had left in such fear and trembling, the now international jet- set traveller returned, safe and sound. He was lightly tanned and even looked rested and relaxed, with a rather self-satisfied I’ve-got-it-in-the-bag expression on his face.

“Well?” we all asked. “What happened? Did you see her? Did you get her? What did you say?”

“Oh yes,” he said airily. “I nailed her allright. They don’t call me the man the stars talk to for nothing..” He told us that during the flight, when he was sitting next but one to Christina, he had the bright idea of passing her a note, rather than addressing her directly. He thought it would be less intimidating. It was also, we knew, because he funked talking to her direct.“And?” we all wanted to know. “She granted me a unique audience,” he said, fishing out a piece of paper from his briefcase. “Me, I can charm the birds off the trees.” He handed it for us to read. It looked hastily scribbled on the first piece of paper that came to hand, and read, in English:
“I will not talk to you. Please don’t ask me any more. Christina Onassis.”
We stared at the piece of paper, analysing the handwriting.
“That’s it?”
“That’s it.”
“Whatever kind of story are you going to get from that?” I asked.

Eric was supremely unconcerned. “Watch this space,” he said. He rolled a six-part carbon into his ancient typewriter and began to type as we stood there looking:
“For all her wealth, Christina Onassis is a sad, lonely woman. How do I know?
Because she opened her heart exclusively to me during the six hours we sat next to each other on a first-class flight to Barbados last week. Sipping champagne during our intimate conversation, she told me ....”

Gentlemen Ranters web site - April 2008