Short story by Michael Botur
Weekend editor Mike O’Donnell leans forward on his desk and aims his index fingers at you like a gunbarrel. He’s a fussy, fit 55 year old who runs marathons and never sleeps. The clock – which you’ve been checking every five minutes– has limped past midnight. Down on the black street, people are howling, partying. You’re supposed to be over at Gonzo, sweating through your suit jacket, keening your ears, spending your tiny paycheque on glasses of wine to get the senior reporters pissed enough to spill their secrets. Anything to get ahead.
The clock passes 12.29 and you’re still stuck in an office with a man who cuts you off every time you try to feel proud about anything. 12.30, now. May as well call it 1am. May as well call it next week. You’ve been in the newsroom for two days, well, two dates, at least. You’ll get out of here when you get that scoop, but first you have to stand in front of the wisest man you know and try win an argument. The sharpest mind in the city is trying to tell you that whether you actually defamed the All Blacks by publishing a quote you don’t have a recording of, or whether the All Blacks’ PR fuckwit is just bluffing about suing your paper, either way you have to back down. No proof of quote? Apologise and retract and save the jobs of everybody in the building. It’s a Schrödinger’s Cat-type deal, O’Donnell is yelling, not quite standing, though his bum has detached from his chair. You’re yelling back that if we’re going to use a terrible analogy like Schrödinger’s Cat, sir, then the analogy tells us the fact is as right as it is wrong, SIR.
‘Call their bluff, sir. Please. Pretend I did get a recording. It’s half-true. It’s a superposition. It’s as true as it is untrue.’
O’Donnell doesn’t blink. ‘Don’t Schrödinger me, son. Our scientist friend said the cat would be living and dead in equal parts until it is observed. Want me to fetch my dictionary of quotations and bop you over the head with it?’
‘I got a duty to correct inaccuracies. Sorry to, like, contradict you and stuff. The way people use the analogy isn’t even what Erwin Schrödinger intended. He was talking about the superposition of wave particles and– ’
‘STOP, son, stop.’ Your editor still hasn’t broken eye contact. ‘Kindly file your last story and bugger off to the pub, cadet. And don’t forget to use that Dictaphone of yours. Record EVERYTHING.’
It’s now 12.45 Saturday night – no, Sunday morning – and he has to hit the APPROVE button on the paper at 2am so it can be proofed at 3am, printed and loaded into trucks at 4. ‘Go on. I’ll get the All Blacks on the phone. I’ll handle D-Day.’
‘But it’s NOT Defamation Day and it’s NOT accurate for the coach to deny he told me off the record that he wouldn’t have selected Sonny Bill Williams had he known Sonny Bill wouldn’t play matches during May and June each year on account of his religious beliefs. Just because my Dictaphone wasn’t on, doesn’t mean he didn’t say it, sir.’
Michael O’Donnell, winner of two Canon Media Awards and a Voyager, laces his fingers and begins talking slowly. ‘If. We. Publish. A. Potentially. Defamatory. Quote. Which. Cannot. Be. Verified. We’ll. Have. Astronomical. Sunday. Sales… .’ He raises his hand and shows you his palm. ‘BUT. It. Will. Be. SALES. Of. Our. Final. Edition. Capisce?’
You stand there a second longer, hoping he might tell you you did well today.
‘Didn’t I tell you to take your righteous arse to the pub already?’ He crumples a Sunday Slime and biffs it at your head. There have been nights he’s asked you to drive to the Slime’s printing depot and snatch the rival paper from the loading bay at 3 in the morning so you can beat their scoops by dawn. At least you don’t have to do that tonight. ‘And if you see that bunch of pinkoes who comprise our so-called opposition government: buy a future minister a drink. Hit up that flaky Bourne Whatsisname for some goss. The ethnic one. The nice gay fella. The man’s full of stories. Might get yourself a scoop you can actually prove.’
Heels clopping on floorboards. Chinking glasses. Palms slamming tabletops. Snorting espresso machines. Widescreen rugby. Hens. Tradies. Cheers.
Battling through the din, you search the three floors of Gonzo, creeping side-on past that BBC guy and his entourage, and that high school wunderkind from Shortland Street people won’t shut up about, and even Bourne Tamakaroro, opposition list MP and eccentric leader of Studentspeak, the army of 200,000 student voters every politician must court. He’s standing on a couch, sloshing his margarita and reciting Byron to a gaggle of admirers. His voice is commanding. There’s no looking away from the big-bellied mincing Bourne Tamakaroro with his ebony eyeglasses. Even when you head into the urinal, you can hear his preaching through the door. Just last week you saw him raining grocery vouchers from the balcony onto the homeless people below, calling ‘Eat, my lovelies, eat,’ while his entourage applauded. You eyeball yourself in the mirror and pledge to get a story out of him, tonight, this morning, whatever god damn time it is. Bourne Tamakaroro is generous and talented and he’s a fearless leader of his people and a million times braver than you. Maybe the story IS Bourne Tamakaroro. He does seem too good to be true. Fake identity, perhaps? You fantasise about writing a prizewinning takedown for just two seconds before you stumble into the senior reporters from your paper, hunched in a corner, all pissed. They’re each clutching three drinks because it takes so long to get served at the bar. These are your gods. There’s Finkel the crime reporter, Blair on arts and culture, Cooke who got kidnapped in Timor and ended up with all those awards. Glass and Newton have their arms draped around one another’s shoulders and are doing a limerick about the Prime Minister’s cunt of a press secretary, kicking up their legs in a can-can, sloshing their pints.
You’ve cleared your throat and you’re trying to think of something that doesn’t sound immature when Cooke burns your face with sour cigarette breath.
‘LATE ENOUGH FOR YA?’ she shouts over the din, ‘WHAT ARE YOU, 21? BEDDY-BYES FOR YOU, MATE.’
Cooke only got out of the newsroom at midnight after doing 15 hours. She keeps pushing her silver-streaked curls aside to squirt eye drops in. You’ve worshipped Cooke ever since the school internship when your job was to flip through the electoral roll for her. ‘I thought O’Donnell was never gonna let you go, little cadet. Thought I might have a child kidnapping scoop.’
‘NOT THAT WE CAN EVER EMBARRASS THE PAPER,’ you suggest, sweating. ‘YOU’D NEVER WORK IN JOURNALISM AGAIN, RIGHT?’
‘It’s barely journalism as it is,’ complains Glass, two-time runner-up Maori Affairs Reporter of the Year.
‘Fuck it’s annoying when you’ve got dirt on someone and you can’t use it,’ you continue. ‘Like, I’ve got this quote from that All Blacks coach guy that’d probably get him sacked for discrimination. But they’ve just won 33 games in a row and they put all these wraparound cover ads in the paper and… .’ You sigh. ‘Sometimes it’s, like, just less stressful to give up and say you’re wrong about something, even when you know you’re right.’
Blair, soaked in wine and staggering, brushes his fingers along your cheek in a mock-slap. ‘Little Boy: NEVER let anyone who’sh not a journo tell you you’re wrong. I get the government, hic, the opposhishion, PR, all of them trying to grab the shteering wheel on a daily basis, dude. That Bourne Tamakaroro, Mister Future Minishter for Ethnic Whatever with his bow ties and Moriori blessings, that loudmouth from the Chathams busting out show tunes in the corner?’ Blair squits beer through his teeth towards the huge gay teddy bear across the room. ‘You find some dirt on Mr Moriori, what he’ll do is he’ll drown you in, he’ll, scuse me, he’ll drown you in sugar and – hup – he’ll invite you to one of his orgies, right, Posh and Becksh, Rihanna, fuckin… Bonzo from U2… Next day you’ll be praising the cunt.’
‘He’s not Moriori.’
They tilt their heads at you like you’re a talking toddler.
‘It’s not technically a Moriori name. I’m no expert but, like, Tamakaroro is the name of some famous Moriori kid who died like 300 years ago. I think it’s a nom de guerre like Stalin or something? Doesn’t it sound made-up to you guys?’
‘How. The fuck. Could you KNOW that?’
‘I just read heaps, is all.’
There’s a silent second before they all burst out laughing. Cooke shrugs on her coat and Finkel checks his watch and everyone agrees it’s late.
‘You’ve just done a two-dayer, kid,’ Glass says, hugging you. ‘You gotta switch off. C’mon. Tamakaroro’s just having a drink with some friends. He’s harmless. No takedowns.’
‘Go doorstep some one percenters instead,’ Finkel says with a wink.
‘What’s doorstepping? What’s a one percenter?’
They look at one another. After five seconds of silence they explode into laughter.
‘Young Padawan: you’re in for a treat.’
Doorstepping means knocking on the door of the hysterical, sobbing, frying pan-wielding mother of a Filthy Few gang member who was blasted with a shotgun on the Tauranga expressway and slammed into the steel cable known in the industry as ‘cheese-cutter,’ severing his helmeted head from his body, which continued to tumble down the expressway for another hundred metres, propelled by the headless hand gripping the throttle.
You could do a story on the Transport Agency’s decision to purchase cheap, sharp, deadly steel wire from a country that’s supposedly trade-embargoed. You could wrap your story around that supposedly private Tweet by that Ministry staffer saying the death of the gangster ‘would have delighted Darwin.’ Or you could take a sick day and spend all your pay on petrol to drive four hours from Auckland to Mt Maunganui and try find a better angle. An angle that’ll win you a Voyager Media Award and a place on a red carpet.
You need the scoop from the dead man’s mum bad enough that you knock on her door a second time after she slams it in your face. When she reopens the door, she has morphed into a stepdad wearing a leather vest on bare skin. His face is covered in green tattooed letters and his squinting eyes are mummified with smoke. You try to keep your voice level as you introduce yourself. He unchains two pink and white things that look like hyenas, sticks two fingers in his gums and whistles.
The pigdogs chase you to the car. Their claws leave scratches in the paint.
You cool down with a Fresh-Up at a dairy in Papamoa, pressing the dewy can against your temples while you listen to your heart rate slowing.
‘Guess they’re a bit sensitive bout their kid bein a flamin faggot,’ says the old man behind the counter, arms folded in his flannel shirt.
‘What? What did you say, sorry?’ You press the red button on the screen of your cellphone. RECORD.
‘Oh, yeah. They’re dripping with shame, that family. You musta known he was a poofter? His dad told the Few and he got his patch tooken then they shot his arse. Didn’t deserve to die, in my humble opinion, but a poofter’s a poofter. Dollar-eighty for the can, mate.’
You race back to the home and hover on the driveway. You wind your window down a crack while the dogs’ noses snuffle and steam up the glass. You keep your foot on the accelerator so you can escape if he tries to kill you again. The stepdad doesn’t deny he asked the Few to sort things out. ‘Ropata’s fault for bein bent,’ the stepdad says. ‘One of your bum-chums, was he?’ The stepdad rests his bourbon on your bonnet while you wave your cellphone around, hoping you can trap his words. ‘How come you care so much, anyways?’
You race to an internet cafe at 120 kilometres an hour. You can’t type quickly enough so you just get Finkel on the phone and dictate the story to him then send the audio files from the cellphone clenched between your legs while you wobble across the motorway, hooning north back towards the Sky Tower. You HAVE to file the scoop before anyone else does.
Gang Dad Killed Gay Son is a page one story with legs. It leads to a national march of outrage and an inquiry into how police handle hate crimes. It begins a trend of reporters confronting tough guys about homophobia in gyms, jails, locker rooms. Within two weeks there’s a trend sweeping the country of hardened gangsters branding their motorcycle clubs Hatred Free and putting on poker runs sponsoring Rainbow Youth and posing in anti-bullying photos with cops. Hashtag: #ForRopata.
Public relations creeps used to tell you every request you made to the government was subject to the Official Information Act and a response would take 28 days. Now they seem afraid. They give you what you need within the first day. They pre-emptively apologise for things you didn’t even know they were guilty of.
The newsroom is almost always a hundred backs turned against you in an endless office wide as a warehouse. It’s almost always old men looking agonised as they type, half-out of their chairs, phones held against their ears with hunched shoulders. Except now they look up for a moment as you pass. They wink and smile. O’Donnell whistles as you tiptoe past his office. He tells you he looked up the quote, the Schrödinger thing. You were right and you were wrong, son.
There’s the Ngaruawahia kuia with the drinking problem who meets you on the summit of her maunga and tells you, in the dripping bush, peering down a cliff, that her entire Waitangi Tribunal claim is based around a hapu she made-up. She forged the ancient deeds, the whakapapa, the tukutuku panels, all of it. That story has legs. There’s the scoop with the Police admitting they hacked into the Facebook of the anti-1080 protest organisers. There’s the white supremacists building that castle overlooking Queenstown who let you hand round DNA swabs and everyone gets tested. Vindex – their leader, apparently, who narrowly missed out on being elected to parliament for the Clutha-Southland seat – claims to be purer than his girlfriend and she smashes a bottle on his head and everyone laughs and brawls. It’s weeks of worry before the results come back. Vindex’s supposedly pure Afrikaner blood is actually one eighth Mbundu, from Angola.
Every story is huge for a morning, but by the midday bulletins, Newshub and Newsroom and RNZ have made your work look old, darkening your words in the shadow of their scoops. It’s always time to move on to the next story.
Christmas through to New Years is a seven day shift. You spend most of it stalking Vanessa Hollands and her club of young rich kids on Twitter, trawling ten year old tweets for epithets, slurs, political incorrectness. The Sunday Slime want you to write for them full time. They let you up in their corporate box for the Joseph Parker fight but you spent the night trying to snap a photo of the tiny R-KOI tattoo behind the ear of Ponsonby Princess Vanessa Hollands. R-KOI means Rich Kids of Instagram. Ar-Koi, Arkois: the term used to be insulting. Now it’s been reclaimed and used as a weapon against critics. The rich kids love to pretend to be persecuted. It makes them feel like the “Colourful People” they try to be photographed with. The scoop is that their R-KOI membership fees go towards an investment pot with extremely high returns because that investment fund has been put into shares of a company that makes fluticasone and salmeterol oral inhalers, leading to a doubling of the price of relief for people with respiratory diseases. People in crowded homes with bronchiectasis now have to pay $36 a week for a prescription which used to be free. The rich kids are killing the poor. You file your story, crawl under your desk at 4am and parachute into sleep.
Fire at the airport. Norovirus in the Beehive. Korean popstar threatening to jump off the Harbour Bridge. A factory owned by an MP’s sister is polluting the pristine water of a marae downstream. You phone and type and yawn and Google. Latte, long black, Americano, green tea, black tea, Pepsi, vodka, Red Bull, Burger King, Burger Fuel, Murder Burger, Velvet Burger. Your face melts into the palm holding your head above the keyboard. Half-asleep, half-wired, you spot a tweet – briefly surfacing before it’s drowned in a torrent of words– inviting influential people to a party at Bourne’s Bordello. That’s the second time you’ve heard the phrase ‘Bourne’s Bordello’ in two weeks. You’re pretty sure you know the place.
You take an Uber and find the big loud teddy bear standing on a street corner with a bottle of red wine in one hand and tequila in the other. Bourne Tamakaroro – weekday immigration advisor, weekend opera singer, board member of the country’s largest brown pride activist group Colourful People, Studentspeak secretary, commentator, licensed wedding celebrant, columnist and hugger – invites one and all into his house party. People in furs step out of Ferraris; homeless people make a village in Bourne’s garden.
‘Come for kai, come for company!’ Bourne is yelling at the street like Santa Claus, ‘Pera hoki ra whakatere katoa ki te rangi, brothers and sisters!’ Polls suggest his party could have a majority when election results are returned three months from now, so long as Bourne personally schmoozes everybody in the country.
You join a train of people Bourne blesses as they file into his mansion. You’re each greeted with some sort of kiss on the forehead and inward breath, vaguely like a made-up hongi. It is impossible to have a private conversation with Bourne, he’s busy hoisting Bryce Dallas Howard above his head and twirling her around while she shrieks, so you hang out with his house instead, whispering into your Dictaphone, making notes on the art, the fridge, the fruit bowl.
After you embarrass yourself trying to explain to a pissed-off Lorde why, in Craccum, you gave her album a four star review instead of five, which is actually a more considerate and meaningful rating, you go and hang out in line for the toilet instead. Six toilets in the palace, all occupied. You’re jostled by literati and cognoscenti, art dealers, novelists, reviewers, actors, leftists, libertarians, plenty of LGBTQ+ people. Alexis Pritchard is demonstrating right hooks and left hooks to Beauden Barrett in the library. Steven Adams is reading from his autobiography to five Silver Ferns sipping spirulina. All beautiful, all influential, all brought together under Bourne. There’s a trio of Kanak activists, a prince from Mangaia, that anti-war playwright who sat on top of that flagpole and swallowed laxatives then drizzled shit on Willie Apiata during his ANZAC Day speech. That jetpack guy, whatsisname. MasterChefs, Survivor rejects, Next Top Models, three Bachelors and The Block.
The night is rushing by like a movie on fast-forward. There’s too much sex and ecstasy happening in the spa room and your glasses fog up so you move to the basement. You find yourself in a rec room with Japanese swords across the walls, and a gang of people from Sticky TV playing Strip Ping Pong. ‘You’re soooo not gonna get a headline out of Bourne,’ says Lorelei Ross, Commonwealth Games 1500m bronze medallist, sagging and swaying. ‘Bourney boy can be whoever he wants to be.’
Bourne strides into the room, belches, says ‘Oh, hallo!’ and puts his drunken hands tightly on both your shoulders. He sniffs you, cranes his head 90 degrees and decides, ‘You’re harmless,’ kisses you on both cheeks, ducks into the nearest bathroom with that amputee breakdancer from Wellington and you see the two of them embracing, but then Bourne does something sexual to his friend with one hand, steadying his fly with the other before washing his face, pushing a paper towel into his nose and gums and exiting, refreshed.
You hide behind a curtain until you’re certain the host has gone outside, then dash into the bathroom and lock the door. You pick up the last few crumpled white paper towels, hoping Bourne’s is the top one. Your hand stammers with disgust as you tuck the moist paper into the pocket of your suitjacket.
You buy a Glad Bag of weed off that chef who does those overpriced food boxes, shake the drugs out, leave the party with a sealed plastic bag of gooey DNA.
According to Chapter One of his memoir, The Arrogance of Hope, my six foot three extrovert comes from a hardy people who live on chilly islands on the edge of the world. He’s angled the book so international audiences can understand it. That’s where his future will take him, Bourne writes – The Hague, likely, or perhaps the NZ embassy in DC. According to the preface of The Arrogance of Hope, Mr Tamakaroro is the only descendant of the sole survivor of an 1835 massacre of Moriori by Māori of the Ngāti Tama tribe. Now that his father and mother have passed on, the revival of Bourne’s people rests solely with him. Inspiring stuff – except, he isn’t and hasn’t and they don’t. You’ve got a feeling, and that feeling could swing the election. When the courier package arrives from DNA Diagnostics, you tear it out of the delivery man’s hand. No time to sign. They’ve tested the mucus-soaked tissue. There’s a scoop here.
Bourne’s mitochondrial DNA haplotype is Scandinavian and Balkan; his uniparental Y DNA haplogroup is entirely Celtic. There’s a drop of Ashkenazi Jewish in him. Nothing Polynesian. Except for his beard, which is presumably dyed and curled, the leader of Colourful People is Northern European. He’s white. Veeeery white.
The plane to the Chatham Islands costs $1200. That’s two weeks’ pay gone instantly. You should be stopping on the way to the airport to buy gumboots and a jacket but you’d rather freeze to death than be late for this scoop. The flight is jerky and deafening and a little urine trickles out of your dick when the plane lurches, buffeted by winds in the middle of the ocean. The real thing you’re worried about is Sunday Slime getting aboard the plane and stealing your scoop. This is your story. You will not fuck it up.
Finally the plane carves a hole in the clouds and lands on a thin runway and the door hinges squirt chips of rust as the door opens. The wind punches your head then reaches down your socks to tickle your ankles. You take three steps before squelching in a puddle.
‘You’ll need a good set of gumboots round here mate,’ the pilot says, kicking the belly of the plane to indicate you should open it and pull your own bag out.
There’s no taxi but it’s not far to walk to the pub-hotel in some village called Waitangi. It’s foggy inside and people’s wet backs steam with body-heat and there are manly women, or men with breasts, it’s hard to tell, hunched in Swanndris against the bar with race slips and twenty dollar notes in their hands.
‘TĒNA KOE!’ you shout over them. You have to say it twice to be heard by a crusty woman with jagged chunks of paua shell in her earlobes. ‘I’m wondering if there’s a marae I can visit? For the Moriori people?’
‘If you want, yeah, Kopinga’s up the road. Be closed at this time of day.’
‘How can I find some Moriori elders?’
‘You’re looking at em.’
‘Oh. Um… I just thought there would be, like, a tribal village?’
‘Hey Candice!’ she shouts into the steaming shoulders, ‘You had half the village inside you last Saturday didn’t you, ya cheeky wench. Nah, in all seriousness: all the Maoris’ve got a bit of Moriori in ‘em and vice versa. Folks all muck in together.’
You fish out your phone, hit record and hold it in front of the lady/man. The wind is shrieking outside and the fireplace groans.
‘Listen, what brings me here is I’m doing a story about a guy from these parts, or so he claims – famous dude by the name of Bourne Tamakaroro?’
‘Don’t you guys get the news here?
‘Not really. Anyway, it’s Bwrrrn, you want. He ain’t native.’
‘He’s not from here?’
‘He’s from here, just not one of them natives. Maoris.’
‘Not Maori… So he’s Moriori?’
‘What? Shit no.’
It sounds like the woman has said Bowron or Bowen. ‘His name, though, it’s Bourne, surely?’ you correct her. These islanders seem to have the wind in their ears constantly. The manly woman sees the horse she’s bet on come in fourth, shakes her head, yells at the TV then takes a mouthful of her pint.
‘You’ll be wanting Deano Courtenay. His old man.’
You pinch the bridge of your nose. Fucking hillbilly. ‘Not Courtenay. Ta-Ma-Ka-Roro. The family I’m looking for, this is going to sound stupid, I guess, the son’s like this flamboyant kind of lefty leader? Big guy with a beard and hipster glasses? Always singing at garden parties? He’s on the Labour list and he’s going to be given a pretty freaking significant portfolio if his people come into power next month… ?’
‘He oughta stop telling porkies, sounds like. Take it up with his old man.’
The island is flat and cow-trodden. You can see the Courtenay homestead 15 minutes before your quad bike jerks to a halt on the crest of a hill. A man and his dogs are shouting at cows.
‘Yo,’ you say, voice thin with exhaustion and travel wobbles, switching the engine off. ‘Are you Bourne Tamakaroro’s dad? I’m a journalist, from Auckland, sorry, hi, haven’t introduced myself and, um, shit: I guess I came all this way to, like, meet the man’s family? If he’s going to be a future cabinet minister? Sorry to dump all this on you but, like, we got an election on and I guess I’m here to do a profile on his origins and stuff?’
Fuck off he might say. What the hell are you doing on my land? or Go back where you came from. Instead Bourne’s father whistles at the dogs, orders them to take control. ‘Mainland’s 600 miles thataway,’ he says, frowning, then a smile dawns on his face, radiating from his few teeth, ‘You’ll be knackered. Let’s get you a cuppa.’
Deano Courtenay’s creaking, shadowy Victorian manor is filled with paintings of pale ancestors. The portraits all have a film of dust on them and the walls are dotted with borer holes. Mr Courtenay explains how the Courtenays, Carlsens and Poniewoziks came to the Chathams via Dunedin, Batavia and Cape Town, and Europe before that. The boy’s mother would explain if she were here, ‘But she ain’t. Bowe was real keen on letting mumsy have the place. When his mother died, it changed our boy profoundly.’
‘Ayup. What’s our boy callin himself these days then?’
‘Um, Bourne. Bourne Tamakaroro.’
‘Heeeee’s actually quite important? Are you following the news? His team are going to form a government. They’re going to win the election.’
‘Is that a fact? Boots off, if you wouldn’t mind.’ A cow licks the window as Mr Courtenay gives you a tour of the house, he in slippers, you in socks. ‘Boy never writes. I hear about as much from him as a beetle’s fart. Doesn’t even ring on his mum’s anniversary.’ A needle of wind pokes through a gap in the walls, fluttering a stack of yellowed newspapers. You trudge up the stairs.
In the attic is Bourne’s bedroom, left perfectly intact like a museum display. The untucked bedspread has a pattern of brave women on it – Helen Keller, Marie Curie, Harriet Tubman.
It’s obvious Deano Courtenay would gladly have his boy back. There’s no resentment in the man, just weary remorse.
Every wall is stacked with books and there are pyramids of TIME magazines on the floorboards. His son, whose name is Bowen, he insists with a dismissive snort, read too many spy novels when he was a lad. TV used to be shit out here, Mr Courtenay explains, so Bowey Boy reached for the most exciting books he could get his hands on. John le Carré, Frederick Forsyth, Ian Fleming and especially Robert Ludlum. ‘Jason Bourne discovering his identity and whatnot. Big influence. Real excitement in them books. Boyo never had nobody to play with. Most likely it’s cause he was too pooftery.’ Mr Courtenay leans in, one loose suspender of his overalls flapping towards you. He looks smaller than he did outside.
‘Any changes on that front, d’you happen to know?’
‘Like, do you mean is he still gay, or… ?’
‘I mean does he have anybody to play with?’
You gulp, look for an exit. ‘I’m his friend,’ you lie.
Some colour comes back into the man and he starts moving again, relieved. ‘The playing-alone thing, that’s how come you’ll see so much of his mum’s hair brushes and nail files in his toy chest over here.’ There are dolls, frilly hair ties, ponies and pink skipping rope, and there are plastic box-set models of the Reichstag, the White House, the Kremlin. The wind follows you around the creaking room. You keep having to duck so you won’t whack your head on rainbows and moons hanging from the ceiling. You look out across trampled muddy grass, cabbage trees sizzling in the wind, hills covered in gorse and karaka trees. A dark, angry ocean takes bites of the beach, foam on its lips.
‘You’ll be wanting to read this.’ He tilts his head towards a Dinky Diary. The diary is all pictures and stickers and silliness, but the 10 year old Bourne, or Bowen, has crammed it full of extra ruled pages.
I’m beginning to see the world as full of haves and have-nots, the writer has recorded. If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.
Malcolm X, eh? A picture of the young activist is forming in your head. The painfully conscientious 13 year old future leader was becoming interested in subjugated people. You picture him wincing over his social studies homework, huddled in an oilskin, counting his precious free seconds of self-expression before he has to go back to cows and mud and dogs.
As you slide into Bourne’s homework desk and pull your camera out to take pictures of his diary entries, his father brings you a tray of tea, biscuits, water, milk, spoons, even jam, which he tells you is a real treat on the island. Stir some jam into your tea and it’s damn near good as a milkshake, he reckons.
Shadows settle on the farm. The room becomes blue and you find your nose occasionally touching the cold pages of the diary, half-awake, half-asleep. You can’t stop reading, though. You’re entering Bourne’s high school mindscapes. Bowen, that is.
I don’t want to be Bowen any more. I don’t want to be Barry neither. I want to be re-born. I hate it here. I HATE HATE HAAAATE TAKING MY SHIRT OFF 4 SWIMMING. god aaaargh I want 2 scream. This island = death camp. I HATE HATE HATE school. If Jason Bourne were here he would totally stick a limpet mine on the pool & blow off 1 side so the whole thing totally floods.
I’ve been playing Two Truths and a Lie at school + THE BOYS HAVE NO IDEA EVERY DAY IS A LIE FOR ME!!!
By age 17 – which is covered in the third diary, which you read using a caving headlamp after midnight– Bowen’s plot is revealed. This is quotable stuff.
From this day on I am Queequeg. I am a mystery native island man. I’m the last of my kind. Mum said I can be anything I want in this world so FUCK YOU. nobody questions u anyway and all those old fogeys remind me of DAD DAD FUCK YOU DAD.
Roger Taniora keeps picking on me @ lunch time on the netball court but I’m counting down the days til he’s history. Got my scholarship + in 2 months I be at Rongotai in Wellington and I’MMMMM going to be a PREE-FEEEECT cause my dad told the school I’m queeEEEErrr and they said I can be a role model for rainbow youth and seriously I’m gng 2 start the revolution so yayyyy YIPPE!! START FRESH! YEAR ZERO LIKE POL POT, MOTHER FUCKAAAARRRZZZ!
You fold the diaries closed only when Deano knocks on the door and insists you come down for the best smoked eel breakfast on the island. He’s lit the house somehow with daylight coming in the –
Shit. It’s morning. You’ve been inside Bourne’s mind all night. You eat eel on toast with the old man while he talks rugby. Rugby and only rugby.
You double-check you’ve got photos of every single page of the boy’s diary before you collapse and sleep for two days.
The week is a trek through the tussock between marae, dairy, hostel, kitchen tables, the TAB, the dock and the council office, trying to squeeze a damning quote out of somebody who feels deceived by the Chathams’ prodigal son. You can’t get anyone to see it that way, though. They don’t see the Courtenay kid’s diary as a document that’ll keep the conservatives in power and change the course of history. People mostly shrug and ask if you’ve got yourself a good pair of gumboots yet. You oughta stick around and work here, they tell you. Best seafood, best views. Free roots from Alison the shearer. Scampi boat needs a cook. Motel needs a cleaner. DOC’s always looking for someone to shoot white-tailed deer. You tell them thanks but you really must be getting back.
Everything you’ve grabbed in your net – generations of Courtenays, centuries of genocide, the fates of people that control an entire country – it all fits inside an SD card and a laptop computer you clutch like a gun. You’ve got the quotes, the diary entries, one or two vox pops. Time to bail on this godforsaken backwater.
The pilot gets the plane started. Two blades chase each other in a blurry circle. It’s the sound of escape, the sound of landing your story. You ask the pilot to wait a few minutes, though. One last thing. You’re going to send your story out ahead of you. The story will land before you do. It’ll change everything and you’ll walk off the plane onto a red carpet.
First you have to file your story using the internet at the public library. It’s in a shipping container – computers down the front, books and puzzles down the back. You get a login and begin a story which will take down a government. On the walls is a want advert asking for “Typist/brainbox/ knows computers” to publish the island newsletter for $200 a week including accommodation and food up at the Solomons’ pad. Applicant must supply own gumboots, the ad says.
Whatever. You’re not usually supposed to suggest headlines for your story but you can’t resist. Minister’s Colourful Race Claims begins with paragraphs tossing Bourne up in the air as shadow Ethnic Affairs Minister then smashing the claim away with the revelation that Bourne’s ancestry doesn’t include Moriori, Maori or anything considered indigenous.
You fill the story with two explosive truths: One, his father is alive and loves him, and Two: he lied about his background.
You adjust it on the screen, proofread and correct typos three times, then hunch your arms.
1200 words. 1200 explosive revelations. You email the story to yourself. Maybe one last tweak before you drop the bomb on your editor.
You go for a stroll on this boardwalk through peat bog and tussock, chewing the insides of your cheeks, cricking your knuckles, thinking hard. Something is missing: quotes from the man at the centre of the story. You find a quiet bench in a karaka grove, bend your phone til you’ve got a signal, dial Bourne’s assistant, tell her who you work for and hope she gets the hint: Take my call or be damned. The hood of your jacket flaps against the phone creating slamming sounds, but sure enough, the assistant puts Bourne on.
‘Hi? Can I ask you a few questions, sir? So I’m just over on the Chatham Islands right now.’
‘Mr Tamakaroro? It’s me, that journalist who was at your party? Remember? You still there? So I’ve been checking out your story and there’s a few gaps. HelloooOOO?’
‘Honey, I’m at Wearable Arts. My time is precious. How can I help?’
You can hear the plane humming. There’s a blue patch in the sky which stretches all the way back to the mainland. A path for the king of scoops.
‘I just wanted you to know that I’ve talked to your dad, he’s helped me understand your genealogy… I read your journal, Bowen. He showed it to me. And I think you need give me the true story. Exclusive.’
‘I have people to entertain, Mister Reporter.’
‘I just want you to know I have proof that you’re not a Person of Colour, sir. And you’re not Moriori. And you’re not a Tamakaroro. Dude.’
Bourne is silent and you have to double-check he is still there. Finally he takes a huge sigh and responds in a voice so quiet you’re not sure you really heard him.
‘I was tired. Tired of me.’
‘You do understand this is on record? You’re saying you were tired? Of claiming to be from another culture? You’re agreeing you’re not … all those things I said? I can quote you on this, you understand?’
‘I do understand.’
‘And you… want this to end your career?’
‘No, Mister Reporter. I’d rather you didn’t end my career. That would be a tad inconvenient for the thousands of people I help day to day. I’d rather my life continued as it were.’
‘But you have to comment on the allegations. The decisions you make today could completely change the way your life goes, sir.’
‘I could say the same about you.’
There’s a lot of silence, but Bourne, or Bowen, the boy from the motherless attic looking over the howling sea, is comfortable. He’s weathered a lot in his life, you suppose. He’s the only politician who’s never shouted at you and hung up.
‘It’s just, you’ve positioned yourself as something you’re not… ?’
‘Again: the same could be said of you. Good luck with your story. Bye, now.’
Fuck him. You get it down and get it in.
A senior opposition candidate has admitted lying about his race for political advantage.
Bourne Tamakaroro, who has been promised the Minister of Ethnic Affairs portfolio in the cabinet of what it likely to be a left-leaning coalition, has admitted he changed his legal name in 2000 after leaving his home near Waitangi, Chatham Island. Mr Tamakaroro, whose birth name is Bowen Dean Courtenay, claimed to be a representative of the Moriori indigenous Polynesian culture and used this claim when leading the Colourful People lobby group to campaign for the controversial 50/50 brown-white co-leadership policy within the Labour Party….
You wait for the dial-up internet to attach your story.
You drum your fingers on the desk. Bourne – Bowen, whatever – isn’t fighting back. It’s maddenning.
Time for some edits.
Mr Tamakaroro claimed to be a representative of the Moriori indigenous Polynesian Melanesian culture and used this claim when leading the Colourful Coloured People lobby group, WHICH KNEW about Mr Tamakaroro’s lie when he was appointed its spokesperson.
You get your story over the line, then sprinkle in enough inaccuracies to make it unusable. A bunch of typos, misquotes, proper nouns slightly off, and something about the last herd of moa roaming the island.
Much better. You hit SEND. On the day the story breaks, if Labour wants to rip the story to pieces, you’ve left them some good hand-holds – because you’ve just filed Schrödinger’s Scoop. You’ve inserted mistakes, fabrications, invented quotes and misquotes, got names wrong – and it’s still half-true. The story is exactly on the line between forgiveable and unforgiveable. The nation could unite against the flamboyant fake, or your paper could get sued into annihilation. Bourne will die or thrive. He can fall on his own sword if he wants. Everything is possible at once. The cat in the box is simultaneously dead and alive.
There’s a humming outside, banging metal. The pilot sticks his head in. He’s sucking a bottle of Listerine.
‘I’m heading off. You coming?’
‘Last thing: I’m still hoping to get the most senior Moriori on the island to confirm if the tribe is outraged?’
‘You’re looking at him,’ the pilot says. ‘Life’s too short to act outraged about everything, son. Save it for stuff that actually matters. Are we away or nah?’
You shrug your bag onto your shoulder, log off the computer.
The steps to the plane are a couple of stacked pallets floating in mud.
You can still be a stranger if you get out of these islands promptly.
Or you can dump your bag on the wet gravel instead.
‘You sure you’re not getting on?’ the pilot asks, rolling a smoke. ‘Gonna stay with us, are ya?’
‘I just… .’ The wind whips your words away. Bourne’s tiny, feeble voice tickles your ear. I was tired. Tired of me. ‘Do you know where I can get some gumboots?’