Jonny McCambridge: The best story I have ever written

The daily life of a working journalist can be relentlessly busy, filled with the necessity to remain ever alert to react to a fast moving and evolving news agenda.

Wendy Smith and Echo
Wendy Smith and Echo

One of the results of this is that it can be easy for the immediate importance of some things to pass you by.

Like any professional, you can become to some extent inured against the impact of your working environment. Stories are recognised, processed and dealt with. Then you move on to the next one, and the one after that.

So it was last week as the routine of filling the newspaper ground incessantly forward. I received an email about a potential story and read the first few lines quickly. It was about a dog owner who credited her pet with helping her battle back from Covid.

I checked the photo, decided it was page three material and sent it on to a reporter to make the calls and place the story. Then I moved on. There were many other pages to be filled.

It was much later that evening, when the urgency had seeped out of the day, that I took the time to read the article properly.

The woman was Wendy Smith, and the dog was her golden retriever Echo. Wendy was struck down with Covid-19 last year. She said the unconditional love of Echo had helped her through the dark days.

I read on. Wendy, a diabetes sufferer, had lost her low blood sugar awareness following an operation. Echo has been trained to alert her when her blood sugars become too low or high by barking or putting a paw on her knee. If she is in bed, Echo will bark at her husband.

Wendy said: ‘I have no doubt Echo has saved my life countless times.’

I sat back in my chair and thought about what I had read. A dog which is trained to save its owner’s life. I found that I wanted to tell someone so immediately called out to my son in the next room.

The story impacted on me for a couple of reasons. First, there was the ingenuity of the human and canine achievement, and the fact that it had been channelled to create something so overwhelmingly positive.

The second reason was more deep-rooted. It reminded me of something, of a story and a memory which stretches back into the last millennium.

I was a young and hungry reporter at the time, desperate to make a name for myself in the industry. I had just landed my first job in a regional weekly paper and was already impatient to progress.

For one of my first tasks, I was given a story about a blind pensioner who had been awarded a certificate to recognise her long service as a guide dog owner. It is fair to conclude that, eager as I was to become a journalist of renown, I was less than excited by the assignment.

I went to the woman’s house to do the interview (I am ashamed to admit that I no longer remember her name). It was clear that it was important to her that her local paper was taking an interest. She had invited her grandson to witness the chat and served me coffee and biscuits.

Then we sat down and she began to talk. She told me how she had been one of the first people in Northern Ireland to get a guide dog, and how it allowed her to regain independence, allowed her to leave her house and get a job in an office in Belfast. Her dog accompanied her on the train ride into and out of the city every day.

She told me that she had worked in Belfast throughout the worst of the Troubles, when bomb scares and security checks were as regular as the rain.

She told me of one particular day when the city centre was paralysed by a bomb warning.

She was evacuated from her office and tried to make her way to the Europa train station so she could go home.

But the streets were in a state of chaos and her usual route had been sealed off by police.

She tried to ask for help, but was instead pushed down another street. This woman, completely without vision and in the middle of a panicked crowd, was utterly lost and terrified.

She told me what happened next. She knelt down and whispered an emergency phrase which her dog had been trained to recognise. In her case the phrase was ‘find the way’.

She told me that the dog set off, guiding her in an unknown and unfamiliar direction.

She said that they walked for some time, her guide dog making several changes of direction.

Eventually the dog stopped. The woman did not know where she was. Then she heard a voice.

‘Can I help you?’

‘I’m sorry,’ she replied. ‘Can you tell me where I am?’

‘You’re at the ticket booth at the Europa train station. Where would you like to go love?’

I went back to the office later that day and wrote up the story. I hope to God I did it justice.

In the years since then it is fair to say that I have achieved many of the things that I dreamt about when I was that young, impatient reporter. The truth, though, is that of the thousands of stories I have worked on, none has stayed with me in quite the way that the one about the elderly lady and her guide dog has done. There is no other that I think about nearly as much.

Just like the story about Wendy and Echo last week, it reminds me that the important thing is the people, and the privilege we have in telling their stories. It is the best part of this job.

In the frenzied existence of working life, it is easy to become disorientated, to allow yourself to become pushed or pulled occasionally in the wrong direction. That is when I tell myself that behind the stories there are always people, and that helps me to find the way.

* Jonny McCambridge’s new book, Afraid of the Dark, published by Dalzell Press, is available now on Amazon

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