A bank of TV screens on mute showed the same news scene from different angles, except one. As usual, the far left-hand screen was tuned into Play School. Phones rang on a -continuous thin screech but went unanswered. Staff gathered by the north-facing window, hands still covering their open mouths. Junior staff urgently thumb-stabbed mobile phones at their desks or stood talking over each other. The admin boy, his face a plate of lumpy acne, tripped over his laces in a rush to the window. Pens showered out of his breast pocket. A tight knot of older men, sleeves rolled up, muttered at the far end of the office, away from everyone else.
Outside the fourth floor window the morning sky looked heavy, like wet clay. A plume of brilliant white dust was still rising. Ambulance, police and fire brigade sirens were audible. Just one single, loud boom—like the world ending—and everyone had ducked instinctively.
Eden Spencer rose, shot her arm to check the time on her TAG Heuer watch, and stood akimbo. She’d seen her boss stand like that. She scanned the office with a look of mild but invariable disappointment and expelled a puff of exasperated breath. Someone shouted, ‘Tony’s on the phone’. Eden snatched her extension and sat down, drawing a notebook towards her and grabbing a pen.
‘Go for it Tony.’
‘OK. Near the corner of Elizabeth and Collins. Happened around 9.15. Three dead, still counting. Don’t know how many injured. Police and emergency services are all here now. It’s pretty chaotic. Not sure who’s in charge yet.’
‘Did you count the dead yourself?’
‘OK, go on.’
‘Alfred, Royal Melbourne, Monash, Austin and St Vincent’s are all mobilising emergency wards. The GPO building—it’s been badly damaged. Shop windows smashed, some power lines down. Everyone’s walking around looking shocked. Four, er, five, sorry hang on Eden, five. Cops now confirming five dead. Repeat five dead. Bodies all over the place.’
‘You’re doing a good job Tony.’ She scribbled a note in the margin of her notebook: T: post trauma. It had only been 20 minutes since the blast, far too early to know who, what or why. She tapped her foot furiously under the desk but quickly stopped, and drew up her pelvic floor muscle instead. Tony paused to let the sound of a chopper overhead pass.
‘I don’t know if the police know what they’re doing. Some of the other reporters are saying . . .’
‘Forget that,’ she cut in. ‘I only want to know what you can see.’
‘Um, emergency services are isolating the area right now. They said there might be follow-up blasts. There’s crap and mangled stuff everywhere.’
‘What about the explosion? Terrorism? Gas?’
‘Police aren’t saying officially yet. Got no idea.’
‘OK. Stay calm. Do what the cops say—within reason. Keep Tweeting. Let me know when you have more. For now, just file what you’ve got straight off the top of your head. We’ll clean it up in the office. Include sound files and pics. Now. Do it now. Keep me posted.’
Eden felt her innards weaken. Tony was a reliable mid-ranking reporter walking through the city on his way to work when the blast had happened. He was on the scene within minutes, even before the police. He’d already called the office three times with updates. His lack of seniority lay behind his hunger to reach upwards. His ego had not bloated him—yet.
She leant back in her chair, pushed her hair behind her right ear and turned to the newsroom assistant, ‘Right, it’s a good thing this blast’s happened early. We’ll be able to pull everything together for a story-so-far by lunchtime, as long as everyone keeps filing. Don’t know if it’s terrorism, but call the Canberra bureau and find out if the PM’s planning to make a statement. Any indications they’re raising the security level to Extreme? Ask the picture desk what they’ve got. Call Jenny and tell her she’s doing page one for print. Morning conference is going to be late today. And for god’s sake somebody find out where the editor is. He can’t go AWOL on a day like this.’
She placed her elbows on the desk and cupped her large hands around her face for a moment. Eden looked up. The knot of older men was breaking up. One of them, the deputy editor, her immediate boss, walked towards her. His name was Bob Shipley-Dunn, known by the reporters as BSD or Big Swinging Dick.
‘Eden, everything under control?’ A speck of his spit landed on her chin. She maintained a look of calm optimism and stroked the spittle away with her knuckles.
‘Yes. So far so good.’
‘Who’s doing the main pull-together?’
‘Tony’s doing the nuts and bolts. Jenny will write the big piece.’
He raised his unruly eyebrows sharply. They were unnatu-rally dark for a man whose hair had set off on a -decisive course of greyness well before he reached his fifties. His large, flabby belly pushed against the buttons of his shirt even when he wasn’t sitting, and his ruddy face was flushed with excitement.
Before he could speak, Eden launched into a vigorous defence of Jenny: experienced, unflappable, well connected with the cops.
‘Yesss, yesss,’ said BSD, and pursed his lips.
Eden curled her toes in her shoes, and then, aware that her tension might become visible, leant back in her chair to affect calm indifference.
‘We need a heavyweight,’ said BSD. ‘A good writer. This is more than just a news story, you know. Harry Price might be a better choice. The Price is right for this job,’ he said, with a commanding nod of the head.
Price was a relic, unable to navigate new media and arrogant enough to think he didn’t need to. But he’d read enough American crime fiction to know how to turn a story and he’d built his entire career on this one trick. He and BSD had been drinking partners since the days of typewriters.
‘But I’ve already commissioned Jenny,’ said Eden.
‘No problem, she can do the colour piece instead. It’s a big story. All hands on deck.’ He turned and walked away.
‘Fucking cunt,’ Eden whispered to herself.
At 2pm, when police confirmed the laundry boiler explosion, a certain horror reserved for terrorism stories seeped out of the office, giving staff a moment to slump back in their chairs. The blast story, quickly renamed by the reporters as the blasted story, was soaking up all available resources. Eden picked up the phone and dialed Jenny.
‘Can you do the colour?’
‘I thought I was doing the front page,’ said Jenny.
‘Not anymore. BSD wants you to do the colour and Harry Price to do the splash.’ Eden curled her toes.
‘Fuck him. I’m going to talk to the editor about this.’
‘You can’t, no one knows where the hell he is.’
By the evening, as reporters left for the day, the editor, Scott Stooper, was still missing. Eden wondered if he was among the dead. BSD had taken charge in his absence and sat next to her scrolling through the paper’s website, spotting spelling errors and cursing reporters. But he stopped when he read Jenny’s work. ‘Not bad,’ he said, ‘keep it at the top of the website.’
When Eden, once again, asked about the whereabouts of the editor, BSD shrugged his shoulders unconvincingly. The movement sent a small ripple of air towards her. It smelled of stale cigarettes and male sweat.
‘Has Price filed anything yet?’ she said. BSD turned and stared at her over the top of his glasses.
‘Says he’s got some great colour. Wants to save it for a big feature at the weekend. Young Tony’s done the front page instead.’
‘Look, why don’t you go home now, it’s nine o’clock. Been a long day. I’m here. It’ll be an early start tomorrow. Go get some sleep.’
Eden logged off, unfurled the sleeves of her blue shirt and slid the heavy silver backs of two hot pink cufflinks through the buttonholes of her French cuffs and snapped them open.
‘Right, see you in the morning then,’ she said, picking up her jacket and walking straight for the lift. ‘Let me if know if they find Stooper’s body.’
She pulled up outside her apartment and sat in the car for a good ten minutes, listening to the latest updates of the blast story on the radio. Final death count, five. Eleven injured. Police investigations continue. Roads remain closed. She turned off the rattling engine of her Barina and made a mental note to get rid of the empty yoghurt cartons and muesli bar wrappers that had accumulated on the passenger seat. The clutch was still stiff too.
In the hallway, she flung her bag on the floor, flicked through the mail and entered the kitchen to pour herself a glass of wine. She stood sipping in silence, perplexed by Stooper’s disappearance. It wasn’t like him.
In the bedroom Eden slipped off her jacket and pulled it over a hanger, taking a moment to note how the tungsten light caught the fine wool navy herringbone of her bespoke suit. Harrisons of Edinburgh, said the inside label. She had insisted on choosing a fabric from the men’s collection, and demanded that the Hong Kong tailors gave her two outside pockets and two inside breast pockets. They had even embroidered her name in tiny italics into the lining. Women’s clothes never had enough pockets. And no trousers, she’d said. A simple skirt with a hem just above the knee would do. She opened the wardrobe and hung the suit along side the other three bespoke suits. One for every season.
At that moment her mobile phone alerted her to a text message. It was BSD: ‘Stooper sacked. Sexual misconduct. Speak tomorrow.’ She stared at the message in shock, then texted back immediately: ‘WTF!’ But he didn’t reply. After half an hour, she gave up and placed the phone next to the bed.
‘Big news day,’ she said out loud as she threw back the covers of her large bed, ready to climb in. But she stood motionless when she saw a brown spider, crawling on the Jarrah headboard. Without taking her eyes off the creature she bent down slowly and picked up a rubber thong. She crept forward like a cat and let her breathing slow to a shallow, barely perceptible rhythm. With eyes keenly focused on the spider, no bigger than a thumbnail, she brought the thong down in one hard, swift movement.
‘Sorry mate,’ she said. ‘Time to die. I’m not having a fucker like you sleeping in the bed with me.’
This is an extract from a novel in progress, which was developed during the Faber Writing Academy Writing A Novel course 2017.
Eden Spencer is a hardworking newspaper journalist battling the frustrations of a cut-throat newsroom. Unexpectedly thrust into the editor’s job, she attempts to transform the newspaper’s blokey culture, but a male colleague, furious at being overlooked for the top job, thwarts her every move.
Chaos reigns as reporters mutiny, and the paper is repeatedly scooped by its rival. When her father, her greatest supporter, dies, she is ready to quit, until a leak from a contact offers the scoop of her career. She could use it to bring the newsroom blokeaucracy to heel. But chances are, it will destroy the paper too.
Sushi Das is a journalist with RMIT ABC Fact Check. She worked at The Age for 22 years in roles including news editor, columnist, feature writer and opinion editor. She has won two Melbourne Press Club Quill Awards and is the author of Deranged Marriage. Sushi was educated and raised in London.
Contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org