EXCERPT - BELIEVING THE LIE
Zed Benjamin had never been called into the office of the editor before, and he found the experience simultaneously disconcerting and thrilling. The disconcerting half of it resulted in massive sweating of the armpits. The thrilling half of it produced a heartbeat he could actually feel, for some reason, in the pads of his thumbs. But since from the first he’d believed it essential to see Rodney Aronson as just another bloke at The Source, he attributed both the sweating of armpits and the pulsing of thumbs to the fact that he’d switched from his one summer suit to his one winter suit rather too early in the season. He made a mental note to change back to the summer suit in the morning and he only hoped his mother hadn’t taken it out to be cleaned once she saw he’d made the switch. That would be, Zed thought, exactly like her. His mum was helpful and earnest. She was too much of both.
He sought a distraction, easy enough to find in Rodney Aronson’s office. While the editor of the newspaper continued to read Zed’s story, Zed began to read the headlines on the old issues of the tabloid that were framed and hung along the walls. He found them distasteful and idiotic, their stories a form of pandering to the worst inclinations in the human psyche. Rent Boy Breaks Silence featured a piece on an automobile encounter between a sixteen-year-old boy and a member of parliament in the vicinity of King’s Cross Station, an unseemly romantic interlude unfortunately interrupted by the advent of vice officers from the local nick. MP in Sex Triangle with Teenager preceded the rent boy breaking his silence and MP Wife in Suicide Drama followed hard on its heels. The Source had been on top of all these stories, first on the scene, first with the scoop, first with the money to pay informants for salacious details to juice up a report that in any legitimate paper would either be written with discretion or buried deep inside or both. This was particularly the case for such hot topics as Prince in Bedroom Brouhaha, Kiss and Tell Equerry Shocks Palace, and Another Royal Divorce? all of which, Zed knew very well from gossip in the coffee room, had topped The Source’s previous circulation figures by over one hundred thousand copies each. This was the sort of reportage for which the tabloid was known. Everyone in the newsroom understood that if you didn’t want to get your hands dirty sifting through other people’s nasty bits of laundry, then you didn’t want to work as an investigative reporter at The Source.
Which was, admittedly, the case for Zedekiah Benjamin. He definitely didn’t want to work as an investigative reporter at The Source. He saw himself as a columnist- for-the-Financial-Times kind of bloke, someone with a career providing enough respectability and name recognition to support his real passion, which was writing fine poetry. But jobs as respectable columnists were as scarce as knickers under kilts, and one had to do something to put food on the table since writing excellent verse wasn’t about to do it. Thus Zed knew it behooved him to act at all times like a man who found the pursuit of the social gaffs of celebrities and the peccadilloes of members of the Royal Family journalistically and professionally fulfilling. Still, he liked to believe that even a paper like The Source could benefit from a slight elevation from its usual position in the gutter from where, it had to be said, no one was gazing at the stars.
The piece that Rodney Aronson was reading demonstrated this. In Zed’s mind, a tabloid story did not have to swim in lubricious facts in order to capture the reader’s interest. Stories could be uplifting and redemptive like this one and still sell newspapers. True, stories like this one weren’t likely to make the front page, but the Sunday magazine would do, although a two page spread at the center of the daily edition wouldn’t have gone down bad either, just as long as photographs accompanied it and the story made a jump to the following page. Zed had spent ages on this piece and it deserved a gallon of newsprint, he thought. It had exactly what readers of The Source liked, but with refinement. Sins of the fathers and their sons were featured, ruined relationships were explored, alcohol and drug usage was involved, and redemption was achieved. Here was a feature about a wastrel, caught in the deadly embrace of methamphetamine addiction, who at the eleventh hour of his life—more or less—managed to turn himself around and live anew, birthing himself through an unexpected devotion to society’s lowest of the low. Here was a story with villains and heroes, with worthy adversaries and enduring love. Here were exotic locations, family values, parental love. And above all—
“It’s a snore.” Rodney Aronson tossed Zed’s story to one side of his desk and fingered his beard. He dislodged a flake of chocolate therein and popped it into his mouth. He’d finished a Cadbury bar while he was reading and his restless eyes took in his desktop as if seeking another indulgence, which he didn’t need, considering a girth barely hidden by the overlarge safari jacket he favoured for workday attire.
“What?” Zed thought he’d somehow misheard and he rooted round in his mind for anything that rhymed with snore as a means of reassuring himself that his editor hadn’t just condemned his piece to the bottom corner of page twenty or worse.
“Snore,” Rodney said. “Snore as in sleep as in put me to sleep. You promised me a hot investigative piece if I sent you up there. You guaranteed me a hot investigative piece, as I recall. If I went to the expense of putting you up in a hotel for God knows how many days—”
“Five,” Zed said. “Because it was a complicated piece and there were people who needed to be interviewed so that the objectivity one wants to maintain—”
“All right. Five. And I’m going to want a word about your choice of hotel, by the way, because I’ve seen the bill and I’m wondering if the bloody room came with dancing girls. When someone is sent the hell up to Cumbria for five days at the expense of the paper, promising that a whiz-bang story will be the outcome…” Rodney picked up the piece and used it to gesture with. “What the hell exactly have you investigated here? And what in God’s name’s this title all about? ‘The Ninth Life.’ What is this, something from one of your high brow lit-ra-cher classes? Maybe creative writing, eh? Fancy yourself a novelist, do you?”
Zed knew the editor hadn’t been to university. That was part of the coffee room gossip as well. ell. Sotto voce had come the advice soon after Zed’s joining the staff of the The Source: For God’s sake and for your own good, don’t cross Rod with anything that reminds him you have a first or a second or a whatever in something even vaguely associated with higher education, mate. Cannot cope and thinks you’re taking the piss, so keep it shut when it comes to that kind of thing.
Thus Zed trod carefully with his reply to Rodney’s question about the title of his piece. “I was thinking of cats, actually.”
“You were thinking of cats.”
“Uh…having nine lives?”
“Got it in a basket. But we’re not writing about cats, are we.”
“No. Of course not. But…” Zed wasn’t sure what the editor wanted, so he altered direction and plunged on with his explanation. “What I meant was that the bloke’s been eight times in recovery, see, in three different countries and nothing worked for him, and I mean nothing. Oh maybe he’s been clean for six or eight months or once for a year but after a bit it’s back to the drug and he’s wasted again. He ends up in Utah where he meets a very special woman and suddenly he’s a new man and he never looks back.”
“Presto, change-o, that’s about it? Saved by the power of love, eh?” Rodney’s voice sounded affable. Zed took heart from this.
“That’s exactly it, Rodney. That’s what’s so incredible. He’s completely cured. He comes home, not to the fatted calf but—”
“The fatted what?”
Zed backpedaled swiftly. Biblical allusion. Obviously a very bad way to go. “Stupid remark, that. So he comes home and he starts a programme to help the unhelpable.” Was that a word? Zed wondered. “And not who you’d expect him to help: young blokes and girls with their lives ahead of them. But rejects. Old blokes living rough, society’s detritus—”
Rodney glanced his way. way.
Zed hurried on with, “Social rubbish getting its next meal from the inside of wheelie bins while they spit out their rotting teeth. He saves them. He thinks they’re worth saving. And they respond. They’re cured as well. A lifetime of booze and drugs and living rough and they’re cured of it.” Zed took a breath. He waited for Rodney’s reply.
It came evenly enough but the tone was suggestive of a lack of enthusiasm for Zed’s defence of his reportage. “They’re rebuilding a bloody tower, Zed. Nobody’s cured of anything and when the tower’s finished the lot of them will go back to the street.”
“I don’t think so.”
“Because it’s a pele tower. And that’s what gives the story its power. It’s a metaphor.” Zed knew the very idea of metaphor put him onto dangerous ground with the editor, so he madly rushed on. “Consider the use of the towers and you’ll see how it works. They were built for protection against border reivers—those nasty blokes who invaded from Scotland, eh?—and, for our purposes, the border reivers represent drugs, okay? Meth. Coke. Hash. Smack. Blow. Whatever. The pele tower itself represents redemption and recovery, and each floor of the tower, which in the past contained something different and by this I mean the ground floor was for animals and the first floor was for cooking and household activities and the second floor was for living and sleeping and then the roof was for fighting off the reivers by showering them with arrows and oh I don’t know hot oil or something and when you look at all this and take it to mean what it ought to mean and could mean in the life of a person who’s been on the street for what…ten or fifteen years?...then—”
Rodney’s head dropped onto his desk. He waved Zed off.
Zed wasn’t sure what to make of this. It looked like dismissal but he wasn’t about to slink off with his tail between…God, another metaphor, he thought. He crashed on, saying, “It’s what makes this story a cut above. It’s what makes this story a Sunday piece. I see it in the magazine, four full pages with photos: the tower, the blokes rebuilding it, the befores and the afters, that sort of thing.”
“It’s a snore,” Rodney said again. “Which, by the way, is another metaphor. And so is sex, which this story has none of.”
“Sex,” Zed repeated. “Well, the wife is glamorous, I suppose, but she didn’t want the story to be about her or about their relationship. She said he’s the one who—”
Rodney raised his head. “I don’t mean sex as in sex, stupid. I mean sex as in sex.” He snapped his fingers. “The sizzle, the tension, the make-the-reader-want-something, the restlessness, the urge, the rising excitement, the make-her-wet-and-make-him-hard only they don’t know why they even feel that way. Am I being clear? Your story doesn’t have it.”
“But it’s not meant to have it. It’s meant to be uplifting, to give people hope.”
“We’re not in the bloody uplifting business and we sure as hell aren’t in the business of hope. We’re in the business of selling papers. And believe me, this pile of bushwa won’t do it. We engage in a certain type of investigative reporting here. You told me you knew that when I interviewed you. Isn’t that why you went to Cumbria? So be an investigative reporter. Investi-bloody-gate.”
“Bollocks. This is a love fest. Someone up there seduced your pants off—”
“Absolutely no way.”
“—and you soft-pedaled.”
“Did not happen.”
“So this—” Again he gestured with the story. “—represents the hard stuff, eh? This is how you go for the story’s big vein?”
“Well, I can see that…Not exactly, I suppose. But I mean, once one got to know the bloke—”
“One lost one’s nerve. One investigated zippo.”
This seemed a rather unfair conclusion, Zed thought. “So what you’re saying is that an exposé of drug abuse, of a wasted life, of tormented parents who’ve tried everything to save their kid only to have him save himself…this bloke who was about to choke on the silver spoon, Rodney…that’s not investigative? That’s not sexy? The way you want it to be sexy?”
“The son of some titled nit wastes himself on drugs.” Rodney yawned dramatically. “This is something new? You want me to tick off the names of ten other useless bags of dog droppings doing the same thing? It won’t take long.”
Zed felt the fight drain out of him. All the time wasted, all the effort spent, all the interviews conducted, all—he had to admit it—the subtle plans to alter the direction of The Source and make it into a paper at least marginally worthwhile and thereby put his name in lights since, let’s face it, the Financial Times wasn’t hiring at the moment. All for nothing. It wasn’t right. Zed considered his options and finally said, “Okay. I take your point. But what if I give it another go? What if I go up there and do some more digging?”
“About what, for God’s sake?”
That was surely the question. Zed thought about all the individuals he’d spoken to: the reformed addict, his wife, his mother, his sisters, his father, the poor sots he was saving. Was there someone somewhere doing something he’d missed? Well, there had to be, for the simple reason that there always was. “I’m not sure,” Zed settled on saying. “But if I nose around…Everyone’s got secrets. Everyone lies about something. And consider how much we’ve already spent on the story. It won’t be such a waste if I give it another try.”
Rodney pushed his chair back from his desk and seemed to roll Zed’s offer round in his head. He jabbed a finger onto a button on his phone and barked to his secretary, “Wallace. You there?” and when she responded, “Get me another Cadbury. Hazelnut this time.” And then to Zed, “Your time, your dime. And that’s the only way I’m going for it.”
Zed blinked. That put things in an entirely different light. He was on the bottom rail of the ladder at The Source and so were his wages. He tried to do the math on a train ticket, a hired car, a hotel—perhaps a down at heel B & B or some old lady letting out rooms on a back street in…where? Not by one of the lakes. That would cost too much, even at this time of year so it would have to be…And would he be paid for the time he spent in Cumbria? He doubted it. He said, “C’n I have a think on it? I mean, you won’t trash the story straightaway, right? I have to look at my funds, if you know what I mean.”
“Look all you want.” Rodney smiled, a strange and unnatural stretching of his lips that spoke of how seldom he used them in this manner. “Like I said, your time, your dime.”
“Thanks, Rodney.” Zed wasn’t quite sure what he was thanking the other man for, so he nodded, got to his feet, and headed for the door. As he reached for the knob, Rodney added in a friendly tone, “If you decide to make the trip, I suggest you lose the beanie.”
Zed hesitated but before he could speak, Rodney continued. “It’s not a religion thing, kid. I could give a bloody crap about your religion or anyone else’s. This is a recommendation coming from a bloke who’s been in the business since you were in nappies. You can do it or not, but the way I see it, you don’t want anything to distract people or give them a reason to think you’re anything but their confessor, best friend, shoulder to cry on, psychowhosis, or whatever. So when you show up in anything takes their attention away from the story they want to tell—or better yet and for our purposes don’t want to tell— you’ve got a problem. And I mean any of it: turbans, rosary beads swinging from your neck, beanies, full length beards dyed in henna, daggers at the waist. Are you with me? My point is that an investigative reporter blends in and with the beanie…Look, there’s nothing you can do about the height and the hair—unless you colour the hair and I’m not asking you to do that—but the beanie takes it over the top.”
As if in reflex Zed touched his yarmulke. “I wear it because—”
“Don’t care why you wear it. Don’t care if you wear it. It’s a word from the wise, is all. Your choice.”
Zed knew the editor was saying this last bit to avoid a lawsuit. Indeed, he knew the editor had phrased everything he’d said about the yarmulke for the very same reason. The Source was not exactly a bastion of political correctness, but that was not the point. Rodney Aronson knew which side of his professional bread bore the butter.
“Just take it on board,” Rodney told him as the office door opened and his secretary entered, bearing a family-size chocolate bar.
“Will do,” Zed said. “Absolutely.”
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