BOOK EXCERPT: Rehana Rossouw’s second novel, New Times, is now out
Ali Adams is a political reporter in Cape Town where she is trapped in a tangle of razor-wire politics and culture
Author and one of Business Day’s senior editors Rehana Rossouw‚ whose debut novel What Will People Say? (2015) was acclaimed for its characterisation and vivid storytelling‚ launches her new book at the Book Lounge in Cape Town on Wednesday evening. Publisher Jacana offers a glimpse of New Times" (R250) with this extract:
African time strolls at a leisurely pace‚ meandering down a time zone that’s several hours behind the rest of the globe‚ pausing to meet and greet everyone in its path as it makes its tardy way to the next appointment.
It can be so very charming — when Bayete’s Jabu Khanyile strolls onto a stage flicking his fly-whisk languidly‚ the crowd he kept waiting for hours forgives him in a heartbeat. It can also hold people back — when you are oppressed and going nowhere you never rush.
Still‚ I arrive in the newsroom of The New Times an hour before I’m expected on my first day on the paper. Like most people‚ I overcompensate when I’m anxious. I don’t mind waiting. I perfected the art after Nelson Mandela’s release five years ago when I waited for the outcome of his talks about talks with the last apartheid government. When the talks finally got under way I waited for the negotiators to emerge‚ to squeeze them for details about their latest stumbling block. I ticked the Russians off my reading list as the talks continued through countless nights into copious mornings. I had nearly finished my favourite‚ The Brothers Karamazov‚ when the last stumbling block was hauled off the path to liberation and an election date announced. Immediately after the first democratic Parliament convened‚ with no thought of a break for the exhausted journalists‚ the politicians began talks to draft a new Constitution.
I worked for The Democrat when apartheid was dismantled and swept out of power by snaking queues of millions of ecstatic voters wielding their newfound power. The weekly paper supported the Movement through the dark years of banning and censorship. We knew as little about making money as Eskimos know about skinnydipping but we were damn good at making waves. The newspaper went into an abrupt liquidation in December‚ eight months after the elections. The sheriff of the court came two days before Christmas.
The staff gathered on the pavement to watch him loop chains around the door. Many were crying‚ some for the death of a dream — most because there would be no December salary. Mark Smith‚ editor of The New Times‚ was in the audience at a panel discussion on press freedom at the University of the Western Cape three weeks back. The Minister of Education‚ previously the Movement’s head of communications and publicity in exile‚ stuttered as he struggled to define patriotic journalism but insisted on adherence to his half-formulated ideas. I supported everything our fellow panellist the Vice Chancellor had to say as he slammed regulation of the media — he had served on the board of The Democrat before its sudden death and we could both remind the Minister of the recent dismal past.
Mark sought me out afterwards‚ said he appreciated my position and my passion. We met for coffee a week later and shook hands on his offer to hire me as a political writer. It’s a slide down the ladder from political editor but I’m going to earn more — we clearly knew nothing about money at The Democrat.
The New Times newsroom is deserted at eight o’clock in the morning. I count more than fifty workstations in the open-plan space as I wander around. Shaky towers of documents grow tall on reporters’ desks. There isn’t one pot plant and only a few family photos pinned to workstation dividers. The open-plan space is modern and sleek; matching desks sail across dark blue carpet tiles and the white walls are decorated with witty street pole posters. The Democrat’s offices had been in a restored building in Woodstock‚ with wide wooden floorboards and sash windows jammed stubbornly in their frames. All the furniture was bought at going-out-of-business auctions; nothing matched. It’s been four months already‚ when will I stop missing the place?
The New Times is also a weekly‚ a tabloid left-leaning newspaper. I guess Cape Town wasn’t big enough for two intelligent publications and the fittest one survived. The New Times has watered down its political content over the past year and expanded its arts and sports pages. I can’t wait to get my hands on a steady supply of free books for review.
There’s a voice in the distance; someone has arrived. I follow the drone down a short corridor that ends at a desk cluttered with a computer‚ plastic in-trays filled with paperwork‚ three diaries and a white phone with a row of buttons. The woman behind the desk looks like a secretary deployed to Earth from another planet. Her spiky peroxided hair is striped with green‚ purple and red dye. Her silky polka-dot shirt is in a screaming argument with her yellow-and-black striped skirt.
I may as well be made of plate glass‚ for all the notice she takes of me. She’s leaning back in her chair‚ whining on the phone about the unfair splitting of a restaurant bill the night before‚ detailing what everyone at the table had to drink and eat. She is precise. Her phone messages and minutes of meetings must be immaculate. I take a seat in a chair flanking the desk‚ open my backpack and dig out a book. I’m halfway through Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent‚ been stuck there for a while. I tune out what follows after her recounting of who had T-bone steak‚ who ordered salad and who ended the meal with a Dom Pedro. This woman has no idea who she’s up against in the waiting game. The champion has arrived. ‘Yes?’ I hadn’t noticed a greeting signalling the end of the call and I sure didn’t hear one before she barked at me like I’m a dog. I save my place with a bookmark‚ close the book and look up‚ trying not to stare too long at the rows of rings and studs piercing her ears. ‘Good morning.’ I can’t summon a smile for the monosyllabic secretary.
Her bright orange lips pull tight in her face like strips of dried naartjie peel. She squeezes out a full sentence. ‘Can I help you?’ I give up on getting a greeting from this one. ‘I’m Ali Adams. I start work here today. Mark hired me.’ She looks me up and down. There isn’t much to see‚ I’m in my usual jeans and white shirt. It was chilly when I walked down from Bo-Kaap to The New Times offices in Plein Street; I’m wearing my faded denim jacket with the Che Guevara badge on the lapel and my black Doc Martens.
‘Mark’s not expected in today‚ and he told me nothing about you. Are you sure you’ve come to the right place?’
The woman is talking slowly‚ to a stupid. I will do myself no favours if I klap a colleague on my first day at work‚ so I examine my anger briefly and put it away. Best to put her in her place quickly and move on. ‘Are you his secretary? Who’s in charge when he’s not here?’ ‘I’m not a secretary. I’m Mark’s personal assistant. There’s a big difference‚ you know.’ I pull a look of pity down my face; don’t start talking until it’s been noted. ‘I aspired to be much more than a personal assistant when I was one. I got out quickly‚ didn’t have the temperament for it. You make the phone calls for the men you report to? Tell the person on the other side to please hold because you’re putting them through to someone who’s clearly too important to dial the number himself? You know what I do when I get calls like that? I put the phone down. Sometimes‚ just sometimes‚ I really hate waiting.’ I don’t give her a chance to respond‚ cut her off when she starts. ‘I’ll wait in the newsroom. I know a few people who work here‚ met them at press conferences and places.’
To her credit‚ the bitch restrains herself from reaching for her phone to call security as I march away from her desk.
Mark is so ordinary‚ with his neatly combed brown hair and his shirt always tucked into his chinos. He has leather patches on the elbows of his jacket‚ for fuck’s sake‚ how does he get on with his psychedelic secretary?
One thing my eight years at The Democrat taught me: Newsrooms are the last refuge of society’s weirdos. I had colleagues with unimaginable lives — outcasts and misfits who wandered around lost and bewildered. Journalists who don’t start out that way find a heavy shell of confusion settling on their backs after years of scratching in the dirt of other people’s lives. When I write my novel one day I’ll have a rich cast of characters and plot twists much more complicated than fiction.
There’s a buzz of voices in the newsroom when I return‚ an unanswered phone wails miserably. A woman in a doek is packing cartons of milk into a fridge at a drinks station. I head over; a cup of coffee would go down nicely with an introduction to a new‚ important colleague.
Tea ladies and cleaners are the best sources of office gossip; people tend to think they’re stupid so they don’t stop talking when they carry refreshments into board meetings and disciplinary hearings. I smile at her in the hope that she’s a normal human being‚ nothing like Miss Bitch outside the boss’s office. ‘Molo‚ unjani? I’m Ali. It’s my first day here.’ Her round face creases with confusion. ‘Ali? Isn’t it a boy’s name?’ Her hand reaches over my shoulder to grab a handful of curls. ‘With this hair and this nice body you can’t be telling me you a boy. If you come in a dress and wear proper shoes you can look very nice. You got good hair‚ not like mine.’
She makes me laugh‚ this one.
‘My name is Aaliyah. That’s the name my mother gave me. But my friends have been calling me Ali for years; it’s the name I answer to. And it’s been my byline for years. I’m starting here today as a political reporter.’ I reach out my hand and get a limp shake in return. ‘I am Bonelwa‚ welcome to The New Times. Aaliyah is such a beautiful name. Why you want to be Ali?’ ‘I’m used to it now. And it’s easy to spell. No one gets it wrong anymore.’ Bonelwa shakes her head so vigorously that her generous breasts jiggle. ‘Hayi‚ I don’t like it. For me it is going to be Aaliyah always. Now do you want tea‚ Aaliyah? There’s milk in the fridge.’
I need caffeine‚ an intravenous shot if possible. This is only my second first day at work; my first job was at The Democrat. This time round I’m more determined than scared‚ despite the shitty start with the psychotic secretary. I reach for a jar of Nescafé on the counter; much better than the mostly chicory Ricoffy that we drink at home and swallowed by the bucketfuls at The Democrat.
I walk back into the newsroom carrying a mug branded with a logo and spot Joy van der Merwe at a desk‚ she’s the political editor to whom I now report. We spent many nights together waiting for the interminable talks to end but‚ unlike the politicians‚ never found common ground. She’s competitive‚ curves her arm around her notebook when she takes notes at press conferences‚ probably scared one of us will join her in misquoting people. Joy’s not the worst reporter‚ her only real fault is her total failure to land exclusive stories; she specialises in following up on other journalists’ breaks.
I walk over to report for duty. ‘Hello Joy.’ My coffee spills onto her desk and my Doc Martens as I stretch out a hand for a shake that’s ignored. Don’t be so desperate‚ I tell myself as I pull my hand away. ‘Ali. What are you doing here‚ besides making a mess of everything?’ Joy’s not looking pleased as she grabs a tissue from a box on her desk and mops up the coffee. ‘I’m working here. Mark hired me as a political reporter.’
Her iceblue eyes keep blank throughout my announcement.
‘Didn’t he tell you?’
‘It’s news to me.’
There’s no enthusiasm in her voice. She twists a strand of oily blonde hair around a finger and stares down at her desk.
‘Look‚ I’ve got a few calls to make before conference. Can you find somewhere else to be?’