Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Dinner and an excerpt

Just concluded a nice evening with Clare where I made supper and succeeded in not poisoning anyone. I can cook two meals pretty well. One is Macaroni and cheese and the other is chicken parmasian. I went with the chicken dish this evening and Cathy made a blueberry cake for dessert.

So a good time was had by all. There was lots of intelligent conversation, plus we gossiped about all the northern bloggers. Yes, all of you. Why? Because we are are old men, plus elder Nunavut bloggers (we have been blogging for more than three years. In Nunavut blogging years, that makes us about 80). If Nunavut blogging was the Mafia, we would be the godfathers.

So appropriate fear and dread should be in order now.

Anyway, one of the things Clare mentioned when he was here at the penthouse (we've moved from a chateau to a penthouse) was that he wanted to read some of the book I've mentioned for more than a year.

The book, for those who don't know, is called "Paper Trails". It's the story of Derek Prescott, a journalist with a community newspaper, who is trying to find a bit of redemption from a series catastrophic mistakes 10 years earlier when he was editor of a student newspaper. Mistakes both professional and personal. Now he's chasing the biggest story of his career while a few old ghosts come back to visit.

The story is set both in modern times and a decade earlier. This excerpt is from Chapter 4, set in early 1994. And please remember, this is an early draft, so there are likely mistakes. Constructive criticism welcome, abusive anonymous comments will never see the light of day.

***

By the time I stomped through the door of the Gateway office I was soaked to the skin. My coat could handle cold and snow, but its designers clearly had never designed it to handle what was falling outside today. I took it off and draped it along a heater that ran along one wall. It wasn’t the first coat there and the office already had a stale, damp smell.

I could feel the beginnings of a cold creeping into my system. This kind of weather breeds sickness. Half the staff would be down by the end of the week. The other half would be down by the middle of next week. It was going to play havoc with trying to get a half decent paper out. One more things to put me in a bad mood.

I glanced around the office. It looked like a bomb had hit it, which is to say it looked perfectly normal. A few people always tried at the beginning of each academic year to keep the place tidy, but they were so ruthlessly taken advantage of they normally gave up after a few weeks. The place eventually reached critical mass when the maintenance staff refused to come in and clean the floors until the rest of the place was tidy. At that point Megan did what the rest of the staff referred to behind her back as a “Krakatoa” and threatened to kill people if the place wasn’t cleaned within the hour.

It resulted in a mass purging of fossilized pizza boxes, abandoned lunches, piles of papers and other refuse quickly being cleaned. However, it was too early in the semester for Megan to have gone off yet.

I looked at my watch and saw that I had five minutes to make it half way across campus to my class. I was soaked and in a foul mood. Instead I marched over to a cubicle on the wall I had claimed as mine, grabbed a towel I kept for such occasions and dried off my hair. Fuck the class. My next one was at one. I needed a couple of hours to get in a better mood before hitting classes.

There were only a few people in the office. A couple I didn’t know, but they were over chatting with Rich, who was the paper’s main photographer. He was probably also the paper’s most popular person, or at least he was with the female staff members. The long blonde hair tied back in a pony tail just seemed to trigger some sort of hormonal response with them. He also had a steady stream of girlfriends, about a half dozen since last September. A “likeably rogue” as Megan described him. I didn’t recognize the couple of girls he was chatting with, but neither of them were the girl I saw him with at New Year’s. I shook my head and glanced around.

The only other person in the main office was Jim, the paper’s film reviewer. Barely 20 years old, his red hair was already showing signs of thinning, something that annoyed him immensely. He had put on weight since he took over the position in September. He blamed in on all the popcorn and candy he was eating at the theatres. Since he got in for free, he could take the admission money he saved and blow it on junk. It was as good a theory as any.

He was in the corner, sitting on one of the paper’s beat to shit couches rereading an old movie magazine. I walked over and sat on the couch near him. He looked up.

“Remind me again the merits of a post-secondary education,” I asked him.

“It increases our chances of gaining meaningful employment after graduation,” he said.

“Ah,” I said. I paused a moment. “So, how are your English courses going this semester?”

“Pretty good. I’m currently skipping early 20th Century Canadian literature. How’s your poli-sci classes?”

“Wouldn’t know. I’ve managed to miss them all so far this semester.”

We both started laughing quietly.

“Fuck, we’re doomed,” I said.

“Nah. One day you will run the local newspaper and then I will come grovelling to you for a job as a movie reviewer.”

“I’ll expect kickbacks.”

“Naturally.”

I shook my head. It was weird how many people on staff just assumed I was going to end up working as a journalist in town. I had managed the rare feat in the last six months of selling a couple of freelance stories to the local daily. Most of the staff volunteered their time or worked for the small pittance that editors got for working extra hours. A few hundred bucks a semester. The idea that you could write and people would pay you for it was something that many of them had difficulty getting their brain around.

Then again, it had taken me awhile as well.

It was only after I was getting comfortable in the couch that I noticed one of the two office doors across from the couch was closed. Along with the main office there were two smaller ones. One contained a trio of computers that belonged in a museum, yet still functioned barely well enough to allow people to write stories on them. They were dubbed Lenin, Stalin and Mao by a former member of staff who had a strong socialist bent. No doubt he intended them as some sort of tribute.

I just viewed them as fitting. Communists were evil. So were these computers. It worked.

The other office, the one with the closed door, was the editor’s office. The door was normally left open since it also contained the bound volumes of old editions that people needed to reference. It also had one of the few useable desks and a phone with a jack to plug in tape recorders. However, Megan also used to close it from time to time when she was having a meeting.

“Is Meg in there with someone?” I asked.

“Oh yeah,” Jim said. “Some newbie walked into the office this morning and said she wanted to join the paper. Meg took her into the office to chat about what she might like to do. They’ve been in there about 20 minutes I guess.”

New staff members in January was a bit weird, but not unheard of. The majority of staff joined in September. You might get 20 or 30 new people interested in working for the paper. If you kept a third of them, you would be lucky. Some found out it wasn’t for them or they were misled about how much free stuff there was. And then there were the inevitable personality conflicts. Someone would get on someone else’s nerves and that was that.

I managed to drag myself off the couch and stood up. “Well, I suppose I should go and introduce myself. Maybe I can recruit a new person into writing news.”

I paused. “Did you say she?”

Jim didn’t even look up from his magazine. “Yup.”

“Cute?”

“I’ve got a girlfriend, remember.”

“Yes, and I’m not asking you to betray her. I’m asking you, as a man, to assess the physical attractiveness of a member of the opposite sex. You remember how to do that, right?”

Jim had been seeing his girlfriend since Grade 11, so it was questionable whether or not he remembered. But he managed to dig deep and come up with an answer.

“Yeah, she’s cute.”

“Cool,” I said. I went over and knocked on the door. Megan shouted from the other side to come in.

I opened the door and stepped into the office. I then promptly stopped dead in my tracks. Megan was in her usual spot, sitting on the desk with her feet resting on the chair she was supposed to be sitting in. Sitting in a black office chair nearby and partially facing the door was Kate Ellis.

I’d been doing my best the past month or so to put the incident with Kate out of my brain. I was alternating between feeling guilty over what I did to her father and rage over having beer tossed at me. Seeing her in the office, evidently sharing a laugh with Megan, all I managed was what I imagined was a look of complete bafflement.

“Problem, Derek?” Megan asked.

I managed to gather my wits enough to ask, “What is she doing here?”

“I’ve decided that the best way to address something you’re upset with is to go and try and fix it. That’s why I’ve decided to join the paper,” Kate said.

The bafflement was quickly evaporating and rage was nicely sliding in to fill the gap.

“The paper needs ‘fixing,’ does it?”

“Evidently so,” said Megan. Normally that kind of derogatory comments about the paper got Megan’s ire up. Instead, she just looked vastly amused. She was bouncing her feet on the chair, as if that might contain her glee.

This was rapidly getting out of control and I needed to try and stop it before it went completely off the rails.

“Moment of your time, Meg?”

She seemed to be expecting that. She slid off the desk, walked out of her office and into the computer room next door. I followed behind her and pushed the door ajar behind me as it never been able to close properly.

I will not blow up, I thought to myself.

“You know who she is, right?”

“She’s Kate Ellis, Professor Ellis’s daughter. She seems quite nice…”

My voice popped a bit a louder than I would have liked. “Really. Quite nice. Did she tell you about our little run-in downtown last month?”

Megan was bouncing quietly on her feet again. She was trying very, very hard not to break out laughing and not even remotely succeeding. “She might have mentioned it…”
And then she did lose it and doubled over, laughing.

“For fuck’s sake, Megan, she threw a pint of Guinness at me!” I shouted.

“Who threw a pint of Guinness at you?” Jim called out from the outer office.

“That would have been me,” I heard Kate say through the door.

“And you are?”

“Kate.”

“I’m Jim.”

“Lovely to meet you. I’ve just joined the paper.”

“Excellent.”

“She has not just joined the fucking paper!” I shouted, throwing the door open.

“I think I might have some say on who can and can’t join this paper,” Megan said. She had managed to stop laughing and was trying to look stern, but only partially succeeding. There were still tears in her eyes from laughing. I took a deep breath and tried to regain some composure.

“Look. Remember how we said that it would be really, really nice if we could spot some of the crazy people before they joined the paper and weed them out before they did any damage? Well, here we go. Normal people do not throw pints of beer at people.”

The fact is, we did attract our share of crazy people with the newspaper. Those who would come in and rant about some conspiracy or some group on campus that was evil and needed to be exposed. We tried to give them as little to do as possible, once we realized they were crazy in the hopes they would go away. It took time, but it normally worked.

I didn’t think Kate was crazy. But I did think she was going to make my life exceedingly difficult over the next few months if I couldn’t get rid of her. Unfortunately I wasn’t fooling Megan for a second

“First, we both know she’s not crazy. Second, we both know you had that coming,” Megan said. I started to protest, but she cut me off. “You wrote a story that embarrassed her father. Karmically speaking, she owes you a lot more than just a pint of Guinness to your face.”

“Really?” Kate said. “Does anyone have a tin of pop I might be able to borrow?”

Jim got up from the couch and began angling towards the door. Across the hall was a vending machine that sold Coke.

“Buy her a can of Coke and Julia Roberts will win an Oscar sooner than you’ll get to review another movie for this paper,” I said, pointing a finger at him.

Jim stopped in the doorway. He hated Julie Roberts with a fiery passion and for reasons I’ve never been able to figure out. I didn’t have the power to back up what I just threatened, but the thought of losing his precious movie reviewers pass froze him in place. Either that or Megan was gesturing behind my back for Jim to please sit back down.

Kate, meanwhile, was looking around the office with some curiosity. Rich had stopped paying attention to the couple of women he was with and smiled at her. Kate smiled pleasant back at him and began to review the list of possible stories for this week written on the white board.

I was about to go over and say something to her, when Meg grabbed my arm, pulled me back into the computer room and pushed the door to. The mirth was gone and she was being serious again.

“Look, I know this isn’t going to be easy for you…”

“Are you kidding?” I said.

“…but we need her and I want you to do this. We both know there aren’t enough women on staff and with the exception of the occasional news story I find time to write, there are no women writing news. And we both know that’s bad. It’s a perspective that we’re missing.”

I flopped down into one of the chairs in front of a computer. It creaked ominously.

“You’re killing me, Meg. She’s going to make my life absolute hell for the time she’s with the paper. Which won’t be long. She’ll get off on making my life miserable for a few weeks, get bored and leave.”

Meg grabbed one of the other computer chairs, turned it around and straddled it so she could face me.

“I don’t think so.” I started to protest again, but she held out her hand. “Look, I was talking to her for 20 minutes. She’s clearly very bright, quite articulate and she even brought writing samples. She’s working on a History degree. They’re a touch too academic for the newspaper, but she at least understands that she’s going to have to adapt her writing style for it to work in the paper.

“And I don’t think she’s going to quit. I think she’s genuinely curious about the paper. Once you get her up to speed and give her a few tips she’s going to make a good reporter.”

I was defeated and doomed and it must have shown. Megan stood up and put her hand on my shoulder as she was walking past. “Cheer up, Derek. I think this is going to work out really well.”

“Oh, you mean she isn’t going to make my life a living hell for the next three to four months?”

Megan stopped before heading out the door, turned around and smiled brightly. “Oh, I’m quite certain she is. Just not in the ways you’re expecting.”

And with that, Megan walked over to wherever Kate was standing, welcomed her to the paper and told her there would be a staff meeting at 2 p.m.

“I’m looking forward to it,” I heard her say.

Last Five
1. Hey Jude - The Beatles
2. Let's get it on - Matthew Good Band
3. Undertow - Bowling For Soup
4. Subcity - Tracy Chapman
5. New Favourite (live) - Allison Kruass and Union Station

13 comments:

Ferry Tales said...

I imagined that taking place in the newsroom at the college in Stephenville. I liked your description of Jim.

Way Way Up said...

I'm pretty sure you and Clare have been around the Nunavut blogosphere the longest. I MIGHT be #3 but I'd have to go back and check.

Liked the excerpt too, by the way. Having done my fair share of band and choir work over the years, I appreciate what a mammoth, but ultimately rewarding, task a big project like this can be.

Angie said...

Interesting read - definitely left me wanting to read more so I'll look forward to seeing the book on store shelves in the future.

chair said...

Please tell me that somewhere in that book is a description of a room whose walls are made entirely of newspaper. And office-chair jousting.

Anonymous said...

I can't wait til they go on an ARCUP conference together...

All jokes aside, this is good stuff, it was brave of you to put it out there. Letting your fiction go into the world is difficult.

towniebastard said...

There was a chair racing scene, but it got cut to a reference for space. And alas, I couldn't really find space for the office made of newspaper flats.

I was planning on having a scene with some of the characters going to a CUP conference (CUP - Canadaian University Press, ARCUP - Atlantic Region, Canadian University Press), but once again, length is a factor. So the scene got switched to a house party downtown. Unfortunate, but I didn't want to waste a lot of time setting up what CUP is and what one of the conferences is like. That's practically a book in itself.

Thanks for all the kind comments, folks. Although I've already spotted at least two typos since posting this. sigh The editing never ends...

WJM said...

I was going to say "It resulted in..." sounds a little bureaucratic but then - d'oh - realised this is in first-person, which makes it sound OK.

I have a tin ear for Made-Up Stuff Books, though.

Prescott Westcott? ;)

towniebastard said...

Wescott is a character too large to be encompassed by my limited writing skills. However, he should write his own damn book. I even have the title for him.

"I'll burn that bridge when I get to it - My life in journalism" by Craig Westcott.

I'll buy it, that's for sure...

Jackie S. Quire said...

I spotted the two typos as well :P
Apparently underneath all that radio journalist there's an editor.

But I quite like it. It's very much how I remember The Charlatan - - even though I only did a couple articles for them.

The atmosphere, the dinosaur computers, the dilapidated couches... it fits.

And I really like the "voice" of the main character. It's that semi-snarky but rational tone that draws me into characters... probably because that's how I see myself.

Anyways, long story short: I like it.

Megan said...

I like it, too. I want to see more.

Anonymous said...

Read it last nite.. I thought it was well done and I was left wanting to read more.

Hopefully in the next chapter there will be a description of the overabundance of 120's players hanging around in the near vicinity of the offices..lol Brings back memories.. That TSC was a cross between the Hoyles Home and a casino...

Clare said...

Arrgghhh. Blogger lost my pithy comment. Never mind.

Kate Nova said...

I like it. Also reminds me of the Humber newsroom.

Also, I love it that you guys gossiped about the blogosphere! Sounds like me and Jackie when we met up in Rankin and she fed ME dinner.