Short story by Michael Botur
Weekend editor Mike O’Donnell leans forward in his chair and laces his tiny fingers on his desk. He’s a neat, upright, trim 55 year old with the physique of a 35 year old. He runs marathons and never sleeps. The clock – which you’ve been checking every five minutes– has limped past midnight and the streetlights are leaking in through the windows, lighting up an office that’s black apart from your glowing monitor. And your boss’s. 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. May as well call it 1am. May as well call it next week. You’ve been in the newsroom for two days now, 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 a cynic’s dark desk til you win the 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. 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 stretches, his fingertips almost touching the spines in the bookshelf behind him. ‘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 12.35 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.’
You stand there a second longer, waiting for him to tell you you did well today.
‘Didn’t I tell you to take your righteous arse to the pub already?’ He crumples the Sunday Slime, the rival paper, into a ball and biffs it at your head. ‘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 on tabletops. Snorting espresso machines. Screaming hens. Widescreen rugby. Cheering tradies in thick workboots.
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 take-down for just two seconds before you stumble into the senior reporters, hunched in a corner, all pissed. They’re each clutching three drinks because it takes so long to get served at the bar on Saturday nights. 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 and 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 yells 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.’
You find more gunk to clear out of your throat. ‘NOT THAT WE CAN EVER EMBARRASS THE PAPER,’ you suggest, ‘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, sagging, stinking of wine, 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, you’ll meet everyone. Like, EVERYone. Posh and Becksh, Rihanna, fuckin… Bonzo from U2. EVERYone. Next day you’ll be praising the cunt.’
‘He’s not Moriori.’
They tilt their heads at you like you’re a talking toddler.
You gulp. ‘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. You don’t have to destroy him.’
‘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’ 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 ‘cheese-cutter’ steel cable, severing his helmeted head from his body, which continued to rumble 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 leaked memo from the 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 award and 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 slamming phones and looking agonised as they type, half-out of their chairs. 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.
That’s the first 1000 words.
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