Sunday, January 10, 2016

The last story (short story)

The last story (1991)

From the July 1991 issue of the Socialist Standard

Janet had bought a sponge cake, added a lighted candle and, with a couple of bottles of awful wine, had conjured up an office party for Neb's sixtieth birthday party. 'Upstairs'—the Tribune's Group Chairman—was "in residence", as the staff called it when the multi-millionaire proprietor of the paper was in town for a few days and making a nuisance of himself. Neb, whose nickname was derived from his youthful days as a reporter when, it was said, he could smell a story, enjoyed the intimacy of his colleagues, and even the contribution 'Upstairs' made, in the form of a patronising panegyric to the past talents of his editor-in-chief, failed to impinge on his cheerful mood.

That was yesterday. The evening had brought the loneliness of his five-year widowhood, concentrated, on this day, in the realisation that the meaningful part of his life had been lived. Its milestones were headlines, scoops and stories that, in his later years, had made his comfortable face one of the better known, if unlabelled, countenances on TV. In the pub, later, he reflected that ‘Upstairs’ was right; his greatness was in the past. Grogan, his ambitious deputy, knew that, too; it showed in his growing insolence and his readiness, now, to dispute Neb's decisions. It was the newsman's moment of truth: the realisation that he would never again by-line a story that would cause a TV producer to ring his office. Death, he speculated abstractly, begins its run-in by isolating its victims.

It was simply loneliness, a desire to be with, even anonymous others, that brought him into the Lindsay Rooms, invited by the sign outside that said someone who allegedly knew about these things was going to speak about 'WORLD HUNGER AND ITS CAUSE’. His reporter’s mind scanned the speaker’s voice, cogitated the over-burdening statistics and, already he was seeing the words on the screen of his desk VDU—the words that would combine in the most dramatic story he had ever written because it encompassed what we saw as greed, crime and the needless destruction of human life on a scale that beggared belief. Only briefly, did his mind picture the interior of the Press Gallery television studio. No. Comfortingly, Neb experienced the desire to tell a story for its own sake; just to tell people.

He had not written it well. He knew that. The old journalistic tricks, the catchphrases, the smart alliteration . . . he had discarded them as they presented themselves. Vulgar. Lewdness in a graveyard. Probably the most staid piece he had ever written. But what a story! What an unsurpassed indictment of whatever it was that allowed this awful thing to happen—to happen every single day!

Still, when he entered the conference room for the “shake-out”, as the meeting that finalised the major content of the first edition of each evening Tribune was known, he was dismayed to find ‘Upstairs’ ensconced in his, Neb’s, chair at the top of the long editorial table. Grogan, pulsating energy, chatted obsequiously to the Chairman.

“What have we got?" Grogan always started the proceedings but. this time, without looking at Neb, he took his cue from ‘Upstairs’. He answered his own question: "Art's got the front lead, I think. It’s costing, but with pictures, we’ll have a middle spread as well”. Janet came into the room and automatically went to the top chair. ’Upstairs' had the fax in his hand before she realised Neb was not in his usual place. There was a deferential silence in response to the Chairman’s raised hand. "This might be your lead, Neb: Sir Kenneth Cornell, Chairman of Sprucefield—I knew him well—and three others killed . . .  Company jet, going to Glasgow".

Grogan spoke directly to ‘Upstairs’, "Art’s is good, Sir, the pop singer. Melanie . . . pregnant. Claims she was screwed by one of the royals’’.

"Here's our lead!", Neb’s voice cut through the muttered buzz of vulgarity. It was a declaration and all heads turned expectantly. In the silence, his voice grated and, as he read, he thought how differently he would have written it if he had known the Chairman was going to be there.

“Banner: 40,000 CHILDREN MURDERED BY ECONOMICS! Lead in: Yesterday 40,000 children died because economics—the way we organise production and distribution in our world—could not afford about six thousand pounds’ worth of food and medicine to keep them alive”. His eyes swept around the table: the others were dumbfounded, staring. Desperately, in an effort to get them to hear, he started paraphrasing his material. "Yesterday, economics spent £220,000,000 worldwide on its armed forces and armaments—it does that every day and every day it sacrifices thousands of human lives to hunger. Economics destroys food . . . makes the land legislatively barren to preserve market stability. There’s nothing out there to equal the gravity of this daily crime . . .Wars . . . Disasters . . . Royal screwings. There’s nothing to equal the gravity of this crime". ’Upstairs' said, angrily, “Neb ", and limply he heard himself saying: "For Christ's sake, we’re supposed to inform the public . . ."

‘Upstairs’ slapped his palm noisily on the table. "Alright, Neb. Alright! We’ll go up to my office”. He turned to Grogan. "That whore . . . What's her name? Melanie? That’s a good lead story with the Royal bit. I’ll give you material for an appreciation of Sir Kenneth. I just can’t get over that terrible air tragedy—box it big on the front page”.

Neb got up from the table. He twisted the paper in his hand and threw it into the wastepaper basket. He knew that was his last story.

Richard Montague

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