Again, big thanks to FracturedFaith for his regular Flash Fiction Challenge, a fun opportunity for writers to test their mettle by writing a short piece around an inspirational topic. This week, inspiration is the attached till receipt, the ominous “THE MIRROR”.
Thanks for the challenge.
The old man stepped through the revolving door and into the grey rainy morning. He struggled with his umbrella; it had been a birthday present from his wife. He couldn’t remember which birthday but it was long enough ago that it had seen better days, one of the ribs stubbornly refused to straighten. He gave up trying to fix it, fished into his pocket and pulled out a packet of cigarettes and a lighter, all the while juggling the tatty thing. He finally lit a cigarette, took a long drag and slowly took in the dreary street scene.
He was no stranger to these early morning commutes home, it’s the nature of the business or at least it used to be, he corrected himself. This would be his last early morning trek home. At least his wife would be happy he thought. He looked back at the offices that had been his life for the last 40 years and he couldn’t help but think they looked like he felt, tired. It was a short walk to the station and the 8:15 train back out to the sticks and his retirement.
He’d been with the paper man and boy, having worked his way from the mailroom, all the way up the greasy ladder to editor in chief. Along the way he’d become a ringmaster of sensationalism; it’s what sold papers and he was bloody good at it. He revelled in it, revelled in the power it gave him.
At its height, the tabloid had truly been a power to be reckoned with, over 5 million avid daily readers, hungry for the next scandal, the next big scoop. Minds that could be influenced, manipulated, called upon to do his masters bidding. He was a virtuoso, tugging at their heartstrings and they loved him for it. In his time he’d bought down governments, the mightiest in the land would rightly fear his phone call.
So where had it all gone wrong? He still couldn’t quite grasp it, as he started towards the station. What had he done wrong? He’d been a faithful servant to his masters and they had rewarded him handsomely. Had he overstepped the line? Yes, of course, many times, that was the game, to shock to create controversy. People had been hurt, lives shattered and not always those who deserved it. But he was sure that on balance he’d been fair, there was never smoke without fire in his experience. In the end, the readers didn’t care, it would all be old news before lunchtime and they’d be hungry for the next exclusive.
He stumbled as a figure slammed into him, sending his umbrella flying; it jarred him from his reverie and he turned to see a woman, head down, staring at her phone as she disappeared into the rain. She was either oblivious to the chaos in her wake or simply didn’t give a shit, he suspected the latter. Shaking his head he picked up the now torn umbrella and continued on down the street, getting just that little bit wetter.
He had been careful, the game like all good sports had its rules and there were of course standards. The owners didn’t like bad publicity, especially if it involved one of their own. It was considered bad form if a story led to questions at the gentleman’s club.
And there had been mistakes, on his watch. He’d knowingly stretched and manipulated the truth routinely to entertain his hungry subscribers, and he wasn’t alone. The regulators now kept a careful eye across the industry, a poor attempt to keep this race to the bottom at least civil. He longed for the good old days when he could print with impunity anything that came across his desk, without the approval of a team of tedious and tiresome lawyers.
These days of metrics and political correctness stifled his creativity, tied his hands and now thanks to the Internet every Tom, Dick and Harriet had a voice. His once-booming roar that echoed down the halls of power was but a whimper lost amongst the noisy incessant throng. The natural order was that the rich and privileged controlled the media and used it as a medium for conveying their will to the masses, that’s how it had always been since the creation of the first printing press.
Now a spotty teenager could make up a story in their bedroom, package it and publish it to a global audience, the size of which he could not have even dreamt of. This was called progress? It was chaos. The rule book, standards and regulatory red tape that tied him to the past, didn’t apply to these children. They could publish anything with more impunity than he’d ever had. If he’d run an article mocking suicide victims, with full-colour photos he’d be languishing in prison before the end of the day. Even his masters would be called to account, they might even lose their club privileges, it was unthinkable and deep down it terrified him.
The paper had transformed itself so many times over the years, constantly reinventing itself to find more readers. He smirked as he recalled its humble beginnings as “a paper for women, run by women” back in 1903 and he wondered what those prim and proper ladies would think of it now, all these years later. The words of the original founder “… to be entertaining without being frivolous, and serious without being dull” echoed through his head as lofty naive ideals from a different era.
He and the paper had tried to evolve, he’d sat in endless meetings as expert consultancy firms rotated in and out, each implementing fruitless plans to adapt the papers business model to be modern, online, relevant. All the while his readership dwindled, Relevant he spat the word out and tried to pinpoint when it was that he’d become irrelevant.
For all those so-called experts, his epiphany did not come in the board room but in the pub talking to a pissed up junior accountant. Even in her inebriated state she eloquently ran through the cost base of his paper vs his new competition. The numbers as they say never lie and he knew then that his was up! The era of the newspaper was coming to an end, and like a dinosaur watching that final flash in the sky, he too had seen it coming but was far too slow to react, ignorant to the increasingly obvious danger signs.
He threw his cigarette butt on the floor and stomped down a rain-soaked shoe. He stared across the street at a truly monstrous, too bright, flat-screen in a shop window. The BBC news cycle was playing and whatever the story was, the screen flashed up YouTube, Twitter and Facebook logos continuously. He shook his head as he realised there were other dinosaurs that would not survive this extinction event, it would be the death of all media, at least as he and his masters understood it.
As a matter of routine, he turned into the newsagents on the corner. At least it once was a newsagent, now it was just another generic sterile supermarket. The newspaper isle no longer existed, but there were a few of the last remaining papers still in print at the end of one of the isles and he found a handful of copies of his paper. He recalled when there were tall stacks of them sold on every corner.
He snatched up a copy and headed to the till it just had the words “THANK YOU and GOODBYE” emblazoned in big red letters. Not his choice ironically, but then, he had no words left. He looked up as the teller chimed in with “That’s going to be a collector’s item one date mate,” adding, helpfully “You could be on antiques roadshow with it in a few years.”
The editor just shook his head, pocketed his change and walked back out into the rain. One last look back along to the old office. It was lighter now and he could see the office lights going out one by one, he knew it was for the last time. He growled and shook his head like an old dog, angry that it had to come to an end on his watch. He turned and fought his way up the remainder of the street, no one saw him throw his battered umbrella and the paper in the bin, they all had their heads down looking at their phones, listening to their new masters.