It’s the job that every trainee reporter on a local newspaper has to do sooner or later, and it’s the one that every single one of them hates the most. It’s called the “death knock”.
Here’s what happens: word comes in, usually via the police or the ambulance service, that someone has died. Usually in an RTA (Road Traffic Accident). Having confirmed that the next of kin know already, the news editor (the person who decides which stories get covered, and who’s going to cover what) tells a reporter to go and knock on their door and get a story about the dead person.
It is, without doubt, the shittiest job I have ever had to do.
I can remember doing three death knocks, although there may have been more.
The first was after a young lad, about 19 or so, had come off his motorbike and died instantly. I had to do deep breathing exercises as I sat in my car around the corner from the family’s house, trying desperately to summon up the courage to approach them.
To my astonishment, they were delighted to see me. The whole family was there in the living room, weeping. They looked like they’d been weeping all day. The father blinked at me when I said who I was and why I had come, but then he put a gentle arm on my shoulder and said: “Yes, son, come on in. We’d love to tell you about him.”
And they did. They told me all about this young lad, about everything he’d done as a kid, about the bright future they’d all imagined for him. The dad wanted the world to know what a wonderful boy he had lost. The mum wanted all the other young lads on motorbikes to learn from her son’s death, and to take extra care on the roads. The dead boy’s sister didn’t say a word, she just sobbed and sobbed.
The second death knock was more more like what I had expected. This time, I had to call on a woman who had lost her husband. She lived in a remote farmhouse. I parked my car in the deserted farmyard and knocked at the door, perhaps feeling over-confident because my first death knock had gone so well.
The woman’s tear-stained face appeared round the edge of the door.
I told her my name and that I was from the local paper, then she interrupted me.
“Go away,” she said, and shut the door. It wasn’t angry, she didn’t shout or swear at me. But as I walked away I was on the verge of tears myself. I couldn’t begin to understand the horror she was going through, but I knew exactly how shameful and embarrassed I felt about the whole thing.
The third death knock was the worst, and the one that has remained in my mind ever since. The dead person was a little boy – four, perhaps five years old. About the age my son is now.
He lived in a quiet street in a quiet village. He’d been crossing the road with an older sibling when a car turned the corner, doing fractionally over 40MPH in a 30MPH zone. The older lad was missed by inches; the younger one was thrown into the air.
Again, the family were surprisingly welcoming when I called. They wanted to the world to know what had happened – perhaps it felt easier to tell everything to one dumb newspaper reporter than it was to tell all their friends and relations the same story, over and over. They told me all about the little boy’s short life, even offered me a photo of him for us to publish in the paper. It was heart-breaking.
Speeding rips holes in families. Newspaper reporters come along and try to justify their need for a headline with phrases like: “We’d like to help the community come to terms with this terrible tragedy.” The reporters can go home, go to the pub with their mates, get over the shame and the guilt. For the families, the hole doesn’t heal, and the tears don’t stop flowing.
(23rd March 2007)