The mystery of the biro with no ink
By Peter Bartram
Author Editor Journalist
My girlfriend Shirley was already into her second glass of white wine by the time I arrived late at the Sussex Grill.
I hustled into the restaurant, hurried over to the table and sat down. I leaned over and kissed Shirley.
“Sorry I’m late,” I said.
“Don’t mention it, cobber.” Shirley raised her glass to toast me. “I’ve been running up your bar bill.”
“I’ll help you,” I said. “I need one.”
I signalled to Roderick, the waiter, to bring me my usual gin and tonic (one ice cube and two slices of lemon).
I took a quick look around the place. A trio of suit-and-tie types were tucking into large steaks a couple of tables to our left. Over the far side of the room two young women negotiated their spaghettis like they were knitting a pair of socks. A solitary diner – bald head, walrus moustache – at the window table was picking through a bowl of moules marinière. The succulent aroma of roasting meat wafted through from the kitchen.
Shirley said: “You look like a guy who’s just gone three rounds with a boxing kangaroo.”
“I feel it,” I said. “There was trouble with the early edition today. Sidney Pinker, the entertainment reporter, fouled up in the piece he wrote about last night’s rock concert.”
“Yeah, I heard about that gig. At the Dome, wasn’t it? Some crazy rock band called The Witch Finders.”
“Hard metal stuff. Not my mug of Earl Grey,” I said. “But, anyway, in his piece today Sidney listed the four members of the band – Fred Grunge on guitar, Bert Spludge on bass guitar, Mike Plunger on vocals and Ernie Cretin on drugs.”
“On drugs?” Shirley spluttered into her white wine.
“Pinker should have written ‘on drums’ but he made a mistake and it slipped through the proof readers. The misprint got into the Midday Special edition of the paper. Worse was to come. Some eager-beaver at the cop shot spotted it, and before you can say ‘handcuffs’ the cops were round to Cretin’s hotel, hauling him out of bed and arresting him.”
“I’ve been down at the cop shop most of the afternoon sorting out the mess.”
“Why not Pinker?” Shirley asked.
“Frank Figgis, the news editor, wouldn’t let Pinker near the cop shop. Besides, as crime correspondent, I know the cops better than anyone else on the paper.”
Roderick appeared at the side of the table and placed a glass in front of me. It fizzed encouragingly with tonic. I took a good pull at it.
Shirley said: “I guess Ernie will be suing the paper.”
“I managed to persuade him it would be in his best interests not to. After all, he pops pills like they were Smarties.”
“So Pinker was accidentally right?”
“It’s probably the only thing that will save his job.”
We picked up the menus and studied them for a few moments. Roderick returned to the table and took our orders – lemon sole for Shirley, chicken casserole for me.
Shirley said: “Have you ever had trouble with a misprint?”
“Not in quite the same way,” I said. “But I did have rather a bizarre experience about a year ago.”
“Tell me about it while we wait for our food,” Shirley said.
So I did.
The trouble about getting a reputation for solving mysteries is that you’re expected to come up with an answer for anything that seems a bit strange.
It was a wild November night. A gale was blowing in from the south west and rattling the windows in the newsroom at the Evening Chronicle.
The weather matched my mood. I was mad because Figgis had been on my back about a misprint in one of my stories about burglar sent to jail. I’d typed “the accused was sent down for three years”. The comps had set it in type as “the accused was sent down for free beers”. The brain-dead proof reader had failed to realise that the courts don’t serve beer – free or paid-for.
I’d just finished typing a correction when the newsroom doors banged open and Stan Reynolds stood framed in the doorway. His clothes were wet. His hair was wind-swept. His eyes were wild with worry.
He hurried over to my desk and said: “Colin, I need your help. It’s my Marlene. I think she’s in big trouble.”
Stan was one of the comps – the compositors who set the type (when they’re not working to rule) – that I’d just been cursing. But I don’t bear grudges. So I said: “Today it looks like I’m a trouble magnet. What’s your problem?”
It took me a couple of minutes to calm him down and get the story. He’d arrived home after work to find his wife Marlene had left a beef stew in the oven and gone out. She’d propped a note written on the back of an old envelope against the salt cellar on the kitchen table. It said: “Stew in oven. Turn down gas at seven. Have gone to see the rapist.”
I frowned at Stan. “So who is this rapist?”
He buried his face in his hands. “She’s never spoken of a rapist. What kind of hold does he have over her? You’ve got to help me. I simply don’t know what to do.”
I had to admit that a woman who puts a beef stew in the oven and then goes to meet a rapist was a first for me.
I thought about it for a few seconds and then asked Stan: “Apart from this, has Marlene been acting normally?”
“She’s been a bit edgy, but that’s because she’s trying to give up smoking. The old girl was gasping her way through 40 Park Drive a day. She’s got some counselling help to kick the habit.”
“So there’ve been no unexplained absences from the happy home? And no previous talk of rapists?”
“None. ‘Course I don’t know what she gets up to while I’m at work.”
“While you’re typesetting errors into my copy. ‘Three years’ to ‘free beers’ – was that one of yours?”
Stan grinned sheepishly. “Sorry about that. I know misprints give you trouble in the newsroom.”
“And some,” I said. “But let’s look at Marlene’s note again.” Stan handed it over.
I studied it closely. Marlene had printed the note in block capitals using a blue Biro. In a couple of places, she’d gone over the same letter twice because the ink was running out. It seemed to have given up completely towards the end. She’d got a new pen to write the last word – rapist. The ink was a darker blue because the pen was full rather than empty.
I read the text again: “Stew in oven. Turn down gas at seven. Have gone to see the rapist.”
I smiled: “This time, Stan, you’re the misprint victim.”
“You’re not still going on about that ‘free beers’ business?”
I made a small fold in the envelope. “Marlene had to change pens to write the last word because the ink ran out. She made a mistake by leaving a space that shouldn’t be there between two letters.”
I handed Stan the folded envelope and said: “Look, Marlene didn’t mean to write ‘the rapist’ – she meant ‘therapist’.”
Stan looked blank. I explained: “You mentioned Marlene’s having help to quit smoking. My guess is she’s been seeing a hypnotherapist. I expect she left the note because she’d forgotten to tell you about her appointment.”
“They can get her off the cancer sticks?”
“So they say. You’ve got nothing to worry about.”
Stan glanced at his watch and made for the door. “That’s what you think,” he said over his shoulder. “It’s twenty past seven and I haven’t turned down the gas on the stew. Marlene will kill me.”
“The first good news I’ve heard today,” I said. “I haven’t had a decent murder to write about for weeks.”
Roderick appeared by the side of the table holding two plates. He put the lemon sole in front of Shirley and the chicken casserole in my place.
Shirley said: “It’s weird how a simple slip can change meaning completely.”
“Yes. I suppose one of the most famous examples is the Sinners’ Bible.”
“Never heard of it.”
“It was published in 1631, back in the reign of King Charles the First. The printers had set up the Bible in type and printed it, but they’d made a mistake in one of the most famous passages – the Ten Commandments.”
“They’d only included nine?”
“Worse than that. In the sixth commandment, they’d left out the word ‘not’.”
“So it read: ‘Thou shalt commit adultery’.” Shirley laughed.
“King Charles was furious and ordered all one thousand copies of the Bible that had been printed to be recalled and burnt. Most were. But there are still a few around. If you ever found one, it would be worth thousands of pounds.”
Shirley raised her glass: “I’ll drink to that.”
“The Sinners’ Bible or adultery?” I said.
Shirley kicked my leg playfully under the table.