Thursday 21 January 2016

Hot Off the Press Chapter 1

Hot Off the Press

Chapter 1
It was a blistering summer’s day and Ridgemont University was alight with excitement. There was a large crowd gathered in the University’s amphitheater waiting anxiously as they chanted: “Harry! Harry!” The regal beauty of the University was the perfect setting for the occasion: tall Grecian columns surrounded the amphitheater; rows of poplars just outside cast shade onto the crowd of more than a thousand students who held signs with wording like Take South Africa Forward and Prosperity for All. Harry Baleka, the presidential candidate who was inspiring a revolution amongst many young people in the country, was visiting the University to speak to students about their role in building a stronger country. It was obvious from the sea of sweating but excited faces that he was striking a chord.

Simon Northbrook stood next to the stage fastening the last of the posters which read Baleka for President. He was happy that he was able to be a part of such a pivotal moment by organizing the rally along with the rest of the staff of the Ridgemont Weekly News. He felt sweat stain the front of his shirt and fanned himself with one of the flyers bearing Mr. Baleka’s face. Despite the unbearable heat and all of the hard work over the past few weeks to pull it off, he felt nothing but excitement and satisfaction. This was, after all, his baby, and as subeditor of political news at the paper he took the responsibility very seriously. He had made sure that all of the details were meticulously ironed out and that nothing could possibly go wrong. He knew that only if he showed the editor of the paper, Ian Peters, how dedicated and professional he could be under so much pressure could he be sure that he would be selected as the next editor-in-chief of the Ridgemont Weekly.

Ian, Simon noticed, was looking impeccable as always, not even seeming to feel the heat as he strode around amongst the other staff of the paper and made sure that all stations were go before Mr. Baleka arrived. Simon always admired the way that Ian seemed so unfazed by any stress or pressure, and could be the consummate leader in any situation. He found himself wanting to emulate Ian, but he knew that he could never be as relaxed; there was too much to do, and every team needed a worker bee like Simon. He was the one who made sure that nothing was forgotten. He sometimes worried that the other staffers at the paper would not respect him after having such a great leader as Ian, but he would cross that bridge when he got to it.

Ian turned to Simon and waved, smiling his big, handsome smile. He had short, brown hair and eyes that were filled with kindness, the type of eyes that made everyone feel like they could immediately trust him when he looked at them. Simon saw the way that Ian’s shoulders were pulled back as he approached him; he had a broad, strong chest and the way he carried himself made it seem like even though he demanded respect, he was always ready to give someone a hug if they needed it. His soft, handsome features made him all the more approachable, and the rosy, almost feminine glow on his cheeks gave him just the right touch of vulnerability to take away the sting when he had to be a tough leader.

Simon fidgeted with the poster one last time even though he knew that it was already perfect. His face felt flushed and he was suddenly embarrassed that his shirt was wet with sweat when Ian came closer to him. He adjusted his glasses on his nose and pushed his dark curly hair out of his face.
“Simon, we have a problem,” Ian said, his expression suddenly deathly serious. He had a way of giving an intense, penetrative stare when he needed Simon’s help. It filled Simon with a mixture of anxiety and satisfaction because he knew Ian always relied on him in a crisis.

“How can I help, boss?” Simon said with a smile.

Ian bent in closer, and Simon looked up into his handsome face as he spoke: “One of the tape recorders just died while Dennis was interviewing some of the students. He forgot to bring his spare again.”

Typical Dennis. He was the one staffer that Simon often had to babysit the most; even though he was a good writer, he was careless and clumsy. Simon bent down and reached for a box of supplies under the stage. He felt Ian’s presence over him, and enjoyed the closeness. He beamed with pride as he held up a spare tape recorder, “Luckily I always come prepared.”

Simon stood up and handed the tape recorder it to Ian, feeling suddenly silly for saying this and worried that he was coming across as arrogant. He shuffled his feet and scratched at his hair.
Ian put his hand on Simon’s shoulder and smiled his usual encouraging smile, “That’s why I always keep you so close. I know you’re always there to have my back. Thanks Northbrook!”

Simon felt the weight of Ian’s large, masculine hand on his scrawny shoulder, and felt the comfort which Ian so easily inspired. He was slightly self-conscious about how short and skinny he was next to someone as muscular as Ian, but he had always been the slight and geeky type, and he was comfortable in that role. Ian squeezed his shoulder gently and turned to walk over to Dennis, who had just dropped his notes on the opposite side of the stage and was shuffling to pick them up. Simon shook his head, adjusted his glasses and decided to get some sound bites from students, just in case, moving into the crowd with his own tape recorder.

A few rows into the crowd Simon spotted his friend Zuko. Zuko was waving excitedly, his big afro, dark skin and colorful African-print shirt clearly visible in the sea of mostly white students. Zuko was doing a movement that was a mixture between a shuffle and a dance as the music blared and the crowd continued to swell. Simon was glad that Zuko was adjusting so well to life at Ridgemont University. Even though it was the best and most prestigious school in Cape Town, it was still very conservative. Zuko was a year younger than Simon and they had met at high school when they both worked on their school newspaper. Zuko had been openly and outspokenly gay since the tenth grade. Simon admired the way his friend could be himself with seemingly no fear. He wished that he could be so brave…

Suddenly the crowd erupted in cheers. Simon jumped and almost screeched out loud in fright. He immediately felt his palms become sweaty; the moment had arrived. Simon did not even look up to the stage but ran to the sound deck and checked that all of the microphones were responding; even though the sound technician was there, he had to check everything for himself, just to be doubly sure. He looked over at the other newspaper staff members and everyone was in position, doing what they were supposed to be doing. He assured himself that everything was going according to plan, and finally turned his gaze up to the stage.

Mr. Baleka was there, smiling and waving at the crowd. Even though he was approaching sixty-five-years-old and he was mostly bald, he was still very handsome and he had a remarkable presence that was almost intimidating. Simon looked on in awe as Mr. Baleka walked towards the microphone at the center of the stage and began to make his speech. His voice boomed over the crowd, deep and heavy but with a quality of kindness that made him seem like a favorite uncle to everyone who met him. He spoke about what he had done over the course of his political career to strengthen the country’s economy and improve the ailing education system. He laid out a clear, strategic plan for how he could move his previous successes even further if he were elected president. But mostly, his talk brought across how much of a role the students could have if they worked to help others who were less fortunate - a fitting message for the mostly very privileged students at Ridgemont. Simon was amazed and inspired. He looked over at Ian and saw the same wonder and fire in his expression. Mr. Baleka was someone to watch, for sure, and Simon just tried to remind himself that he needed to be objective in the story he would eventually write about the event - helping to organize this rally was already toeing the line as an unbiased journalist.

Simon noticed Ian scuttling towards him through the crowd as soon as the speech had ended, seeming flustered and excited.

“Simon, I know this is short notice and that you weren’t originally assigned to do it, but I want you to do a follow-up interview with Mr. Baleka. I know how much you admire him, and the work you did on the story about the student housing problem last month was some of the best journalism we’ve had in a long time, so if you can go and ask him the right questions I think that you could write more than just one piece about the event. Get inside of the man for me, tell me who he really is.”

The excitement in Ian’s words made Simon’s thoughts run at a thousand miles a minute. He was flustered; everything had been planned so perfectly and now Ian was throwing this at him as well. He didn’t have any questions prepared. But it would be an incredible honor to interview Mr. Baleka, there was no doubt about that.

“I… I’m not sure Ian. I’d love to do it but I’m not prepared. This isn’t how I usually operate.”
Ian frowned and Simon was worried that he was a bit annoyed: “Listen, Simon, he’s about to leave any minute now and it would be a big missed opportunity for the paper. I’d do it myself but I thought that you could use… I just wanted to make sure that you are ready…”

Simon knew what Ian was talking about: Ian wanted to give him an opportunity to prove that he could take charge under pressure. He felt his stomach sink. He didn’t want to disappoint Ian, and he knew that it would help his chances to be elected editor. Ian’s large brown eyes seemed to pierce into Simon with an expression that seemed to be a mixture of hopefulness and pity.

Ian quickly changed his expression into a smile, “Never mind, Northbrook. If you don’t feel ready for it…”

Ian was cut off in the middle of his sentence by a sudden flash of red running between him and Simon. It was the wild red hair of Margeaux Chamberlain, the senior news reporter at the Weekly. Margeaux turned back to Ian quickly after darting past them, saying, “Don’t worry, I’ve got it covered!” She rushed over to Mr. Baleka and shook his hand. Margeaux was one of the most confident journalists on their team, but also had a flair for drama and her ambition was usually extremely annoying. Simon had watched her devour other journalists before who were trying to report on stories she wanted to cover. Her work was always top-notch, and other staffers had even suggested that she might be editor someday. She had even said as much to Simon before, obviously taunting him to try and intimidate him. She made his blood boil.

Ian looked over at Margaux and Mr. Baleka, and said, “I guess she beat you to it. Don’t worry about it. You did a great job today organizing this event and you’ll write a great story about student political culture.”

Simon couldn’t help but feel extremely hurt by those words. He could hear Ian’s disappointment through the compliments. But he knew that if he had gone for the interview he might have made a fool of himself. Better to be prepared, he reasoned with himself, than to mess up such an important interview. Margeaux would probably do it well, and he could always proofread her story first to make sure it was all up to scratch.

Margeaux finished her interview and shook Mr. Baleka’s hand, walking back over to Simon and Ian. She had a large smile on her face, making her look almost comical with her bright red lipstick and red hair, but her confidence and attractiveness counteracted the excessive makeup she wore. Her top button was always undone to show just enough cleavage.

Simon watched as Ian put his hand on Margeaux’s shoulder, feeling his insides contract in annoyance. “Great job, Margeaux! Great initiative. You’ll have to tell me all about the interview at the staff party tonight.”

Margeaux seemed star struck, her eyes slightly above Ian’s head and her expression dreamy and vague: “That was incredible! He’s such an amazing man. And I got some great questions in. I think this story will be on the front page for sure!”

She giggled and stared at Simon for a bit longer than natural, with a slightly menacing look, and walked away. Ian walked off as well to attend to his duties, leaving Simon with his thoughts. He’d have to pretend to be happy for her at the staff party later that night. And Ian seemed to genuinely like her too, in a way that made Simon very uncomfortable. Maybe there was some way he could show Ian just how manipulative she was.

Read the rest of Simon and Ian's adventure by getting the book on Amazon.