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 stumbled through the revolving door into a grey rainy morning and struggled with his umbrella. It had been a birthday present from his wife. He couldn’t remember which birthday, but it had seen better days. One of its metal ribs stubbornly refused to straighten. He gave up trying to fix it and fishing into his coat pocket, pulled out a packet of cigarettes and a lighter. All the while juggling the tatty thing. Lighting a cigarette, he took a long drag and took in the dreary street scene.
He was no stranger to these early morning commutes back home. It was the nature of the business. Or at least it used to be. This would be his last early morning trek home. Much to the delight of his wife. He looked back at the offices that had been his life for the last forty years and couldn’t help but think they looked like he felt, tired. Thankfully, it was a brief walk to the station and the eight-fifteen train 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. Five million avid daily readers hungry for the next scandal, the next big scoop. Minds that could be influenced, manipulated, called upon to do his master’s bidding. He was a virtuoso at tugging at their heartstrings and they loved him for it. In his time, he’d bought down governments. Even the mightiest in the land feared his phone call.
So where had it all gone wrong? He still couldn’t quite grasp it. He did the best he could with the umbrella and 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. Sure, people got 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. The readers didn’t care. It would all be yesterday’s news before lunchtime. They’d always 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 oblivious to the chaos in her wake or just 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 wetter.
He had been careful. The game, like all good sport, had its rules. There were 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.
There’d been mistakes. Even 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 civil. He longed for the good old days when he could print with impunity anything that came across his desk. Without requiring the approval of a team of 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 had echoed down the halls of power was now 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 any 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 never have dreamt of. And they called it progress. It was chaos. The standards and regulatory red tape that tied him to the past did not seem to apply to these children. They could publish anything with more dispensation 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. Worse, his masters could 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 countless 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. 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 down the ages. Lofty naïve ideals from a different era.
He and the paper had tried to evolve. He’d sat in endless meetings as expert consultants rotated in and out. Each with fruitless plans to adapt the paper’s business model to be modern, online, relevant. All the while the readership dwindled. Relevant! He spat the word out and tried to pinpoint when exactly he’d become irrelevant. For all the so-called experts, his epiphany did not come in the boardroom. Rather it came in the pub, talking to a pissed up junior accountant. Even in her inebriated state, she eloquently ran through the cost base of the paper vs the new competition. The numbers as they say never lie, and he knew then that his number and the papers were up. The era of the newspaper was ending and like a dinosaur watching that final flash in the sky, he too had seen it coming, but was too slow to react.
He threw his cigarette butt on the floor, stomped it down with a rain-soaked shoe and stared across the street at a monstrous, too bright, flat-screen in a shop window. The BBC news cycle played and whatever the story, the screen flashed up a parade of social media logos. 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 stepped into the newsagents on the corner. At least it once was a newsagent. Now it was just another generic sterile supermarket. The newspaper aisle no longer existed, but there were a few of the remaining papers still in print at the end of one aisle. He found a handful of copies of his own paper amongst them and recalled when there had been tall stacks of them sold on every corner.
He snatched up a copy and headed to the till. The paper 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’ll be a collector’s item one day, mate,” adding helpfully, “You could be on Antiques Roadshow in a few years.”
The editor cursed under his breath, pocketed his change and walked out into the rain. One last look back along to the old office. It was lighter now and he could see the lights going out one by one, for the last time. He growled and shook his head like an old bulldog, angry that it had to end on his watch. Turning he fought his way up the street. No one saw him throw his battered umbrella and the paper in the trash. They all had their heads down, staring at their phones, listening to their new masters.