Note: the protagonist of this sordid tale is a self-insert. However, the writer has assured the editorial team that he has been faithful and accurate in his depiction of himself.
I sat behind my desk lifting a 300kg weight in front of my seven PhD certificates. The certificates were next to the photo of me meeting the Queen, and of me with my very attractive boyfriend, who is emo and real.
Looking around, it was plain to see it was going to be another dark day at the Lampoon office. After a while, as if to break the silence, an intern called out:
“Are you guys gonna turn a light on?”
“No!” we barked back.
Working in pitch black was essential to our work: without visual stimulation, we were forced to look into our conscience. The idea is one day, one of us would find ours, and they could tell the rest of us to stop being journalists. In a way, it was a blessing that our landlord turned off our electricity. It was extra nice of them to send two spiritual leaders down to the office, who guided us towards Nirvana by punching our teeth out and threatening to take our TV.
Occasionally I’d see one of my colleagues’ faces cast in gothic shadow as they lit up a cigarette. I pulled one of my own out of the box that was open on my desk. Unlike with my 6’4” muscular very intelligent boyfriend, no matter how hard I sucked, nothing came out. Still, I didn’t mind. There’s something beguiling about a cigarette. Why do we do the thing that hurts us the most? Would cigarettes be better if you lit them? We’ll of course never know, so in that moment, all I had was my thoughts. Amongst them, the notion that I was the best damn journalist in that office, or my name isn’t Paul.
“Hey, Joe,” my editor said.
“Yes?” I replied.
“We got a story come in I want you to take care of.”
“But boss, I’m working on my list of top ten sideboobs in anime.”
“Kid, you’re good, but you’ll never get anywhere with that intellectual crap. For god’s sake, we’re professionals. By the way, we have a meeting in an hour with the shareholders, so we better put some trousers on.”
“Now as I was saying,” he continued while he slung his braces back over his shoulders, “you gotta give the people what they want.”
“And what do they want?”
“Today, they want 2000 words on S-Seat Von S-S-Scrutiny.”
“Did I stutter?”
“Don’t talk back, you’re lucky I can’t see your face well enough to smack it. You know Von Scrutiny?”
There was a pause. His expression was suspicious, presumably.
“No,” I managed, not too convincingly. He either didn’t notice or didn’t care.
“You’re about to. He’s running for office.”
“More important than that.”
“More important still.”
“Oh yes son. He’s running for Student Council.”
“Holy hell!” I exclaimed. “This will bump all the very serious articles we were definitely going to do about Student Council.”
“I’m afraid so. He’s running to be Chair of Scrutiny. Massive anti-Union platform, so naturally they all hate him. I first heard from the scholar, but even she’s skittish.”
The scholar was the best damn informant and quantitative analyst this side of Pluto. She’d lectured astrophysics at Harvard before lecturing Margaret Thatcher on economic policy, but got kicked out after old Maggie had decided facts were invented by Argentinians. Now the scholar had a full-time position as a gambling addict at the local Betfred. A few Lampoon writers even knew the rudiments of reading and writing thanks to her.
“As for Seat himself, just now his people have faxed me a press release with his full manifesto. It’s 100 whole words. Some of it’s even spelt right.”
“I’m not interested, get an intern to do it.”
“This is serious Joe. You think they let anyone run for a position on Student Council?”
“I guess not. And a university wouldn’t spend student loan money on anything worthless.”
“Of course not,” my editor replied. He had to make his voice heard over the sound of Chris Day popping open another bottle of champagne in the distance. It happened on the hour, every hour, like a grand Cathedral clock, but more ostentatious. “So you’ll do it?”
“Dammit, you’ve twisted my arm! I’ll do it.”
I heard the file drop onto the desk.
“One more thing: he’s anonymous.”
“Anonymous. If we want the story, we need their name.”
“So I’m meant to go all over Newcastle asking every bum if they’re Seat Von Scrutiny?”
“Of course not: bums are much too busy to care about this. But without a name, the press won’t be able to figure out if this guy’s foreign enough to hate.”
I rolled my eyes.
I got up from my desk, scooped up the file and walked out the room. I found my way up the winding staircase and out into the cold night air. I turned my collar up, put my fedora on and stepped out into the rain.
I whipped round. A dominatrix was smoking in the doorway. She was lit up by the neon sign that towered above our office.
SEX SHOP: Ask about our deal on anal lube!
It seemed to stare out at me with even more piercing knowingness than usual. It was like TJ Eckleburg, if TJ Eckleburg had tits.
I walked back gingerly under the doorway.
The cherry-stub of her cigarette got brighter and duller as she inhaled.
“You’re going after Von Scrutiny, aren’t you?” she asked as smoke left her lips.
“My editor’s put me up to it.”
“Your editor? That’s why you’re leaving in such a hurry? The last time I saw you work this efficiently was on your harddrive when we were raided by the police. Are you sure there’s nothing else at play here?”
“What do you mean Arendt?”
“You fell in love with a Von Scrutiny, didn’t you?”
I looked away. The pain was unbearable.
“Please take your stiletto off my foot.”
“Oh, sorry,” she pulled her heel out of me. “Some men would pay quite handsomely for me to do that.”
She raised her eyebrows. It’s hard to make out someone raising their eyebrows in a gimp suit, but then, Arendt was the best of the best.
“I did fall in love with one, yes,” I finally replied. “Recliner Von Scrutiny.”
“Ah, he was German. The ones that break our hearts are always the most romantic.”
“I know his death wasn’t my fault, but-”
“I heard you threw a bear-trap at his face.”
“Exactly, there was nothing I could do, but I just feel like if I can unmask this Chair guy, I can get some answers.”
Arendt considered the value of what I’d said, which didn’t take long.
“Joe,” she took the cigarette out her mouth, “you can live a life consumed by regret, or you can be free. No-one has ever managed both.”
There was a pause as I took on what she was saying, and realised it was true.
“I made my choice long ago Arendt.”
“I know, but regrets-”
“No, I’m free,” I held up the ankle tag, which I’d managed to cut in two earlier that day.
“Regrets, Joe, will eat you alive.”
She looked out at the street.
“I was in love once,” she said. “Did I ever tell you?”
“No, never. What happened?”
“She didn’t like that I was in sex work.”
“It’s okay. It’s not like I haven’t had time to…” she gestured with her cigarette, leaving wisps of smoke behind as she searched for the right word, “mull it over,” she took a drag, eyes still on the passers-by, and the cars racing past. “You have the same look in your eye she did when she told me she couldn’t ‘do this’ anymore. Whatever that meant. Ever since, I’ve realised regrets are also how we know there’s some of us left to be eaten.” She dropped the cigarette and stomped it out. “I’m gonna let five guys run train on me. Take care darling.”
The door opened and closed, and all that was left of her was smoke. As was often the case, I was left trying to decipher the message Arendt had left for me. After a while, quietly smug, I walked back into the night, with a new resolve to quit the cigarettes.
Tune in tomorrow for Chapter Two – A Bookies Bust-Up Gone Bad