SOMETHING was in the air. The staff of the Chronicle in Davey Street couldn’t quite put their fingers on it, but something was definitely afoot.
“We’re speaking in bloody cliches,’’ said Don Bentley when the matter came up during the sub-editors’ dinner break.
“Cliches or no cliches,’’ said the sports editor, Peter Mirowski. “It’s the winds of change, and they’re blowing up a storm.’’
The Chronicle had been trying to secure the services of a sports sub-editor for 18 months, during which time it had become painfully apparent that the sort of journalist the Chronicle’s editor wanted to hire – young, bright and enthusiastic – did not want to include the Chronicle, or Hobart, on their curriculum vitae. In fact, despite advertisements in the national press offering an attractive salary and extolling the delights and benefits of leaving the mainland rat-race for Tasmania, no one wanted to come at all.
Then rumours swept the office that someone had been finally hired. What’s more, the someone was a female, a matter which caused not a little disquiet among the older members of the sub-editing staff at the Chronicle because the sports department had never had a female sports sub-editor before.
`What does a woman know of footy, of cricket, league: the passion, the mateship, being taken to your first game with your dad. No, it will never do.’’
The words came from Guy Plunkett, a sub-editor with not a passion for footy, or cricket or league but tennis.
“I’ve got no problem with girl sports reporters, with girl new reporters, with girl news sub-editors. But sport!’’
Indeed, the Chronicle had two female sports reporters who, Plunkett conceded, covered sports that entered the male domain, like hockey, basketball and tennis in a style that would befit a male journalist.
What had fuelled the rumour and mystery surrounding the female sports sub-editor was that she had actually been invited down to Tasmania from her home in Queensland for an interview with the editor without meeting the sports editor.
“She was here, I know it,’’ said Plunkett, looking firmly at the sports editor, Mirowski.
“Yeah, I know it too,’’ he replied, “and I did not get to meet her. I’d also like to know what’s going on.’’
Mirowski said he had asked the editor about it, and the editor had merely said that an announcement would be made in due course.
The air was heavy with tension, and not a little expectation, for a month before the sports sub-editor’s arrival. That was how Guy Plunkett described it at least, using the type of phrase he would use for a headline on the eve of Wimbledon. Plunkett, especially, was growing uneasy about the arrival of the female sub-editor because he helped cover tennis for the Chronicle as a lucrative sideline to go with his sub-editing duties. Each year he attended the Australian Open to write stories that might be of particular interest to Tasmanian readers, especially the exploits of Tasmanian players, usually at junior level. He was worried that the new sub-editor might be an expert on tennis, and covet his part-time tennis beat.
“She’s got her eyes on your balls,’’ the other sub-editors chided Plunkett some nights.
“But who knows it might be a love match,’’ said Bentley, joining in the fun one evening.
“They might form a partnership, a mixed doubles.’’
“Beauty and the beast,’’ said the sports editor, forgetting for a moment his own apprehension about the arrival of the female sports sub-editor who could not possibly be an expert on AFL to the same degree a male from Tasmania, or Victoria, could.
“And Queensland hasn’t even got a footy team,’’ the sports editor had said out of the blue, out of context when they had been chiding Plunkett about tennis. “What the fuck’s going on?’’
The new sports sub-editor was proving something of a mystery and the time lapse between the announcement of her appointment and her arrival, when her full CV would be revealed, was fuelling the tension on the sports desk.
The world of sports journalism is a small one and attempts had been made to check out the new new recruit but no one seemed to know of her.
“Maybe she’s had a gender change,’’ said one of the younger sports reporters, Rod Gibson, one afternoon. He had been to university and said he knew about such things. “You know, she was Reg and now she’s Regina.’’
“Just shut the hell up,’’ shouted Mirowski. “This is no time for jokes, well not those sort of jokes.’’
“But it might explain it,’’ said Plunkett. “You know, it might explain the mystery, why we are not being told anything. Surely someone would know of her, but we’ve drawn a blank from Toowoomba to Maroochydore.’’
“Perhaps she’s been working on a weekly, somewhere in the bush, or a suburban give-away chain,’’ said Bentley, thinking hard about where she might have worked, and how no one on the major newspapers could recall her name.
“Fucking weekly, suburban chain. What’s the editor employing her for? We’re a metropolitan daily,’’ said the sports editor, growing increasingly impatient with the debate surrounding the new recruit. “I can’t wait for her to get here, to confuse the Magpies with the Swans, the fucking Kangaroos with the Crows, and I can fucking kick her down the stairs.’’
Initially the sub-editors did not even have a name for the new recruit, but this had leached from the editor’s secretary under prodding from Plunkett. The secretary had committed a minor indiscretion at the office Christmas party, necking with a junior reporter, and Plunkett on his ramblings around the office, and his ramblings near the secretary’s desk, had dropped hints that her husband might like a detailed account of the Christmas party. They were tennis partners.
The name enabled the sports journalists to do the checking of the new recruit’s background, but the name proved as big a mystery as the sports sub-editor’s track record. Her name was Nina Berglund.
“Sounds a bit foreign to me, like Scandinavian foreign,’’ said Mirowski.
“But your name’s foreign,’’ said Plunkett, not being helpful. “You’re Polish or something.’‘
“I’m not Polish. I’m Australian. I’ve just got a Polish name. You shut the fuck up,’’ said Mirowski angrily. “And I know my footy.’’
“Well she must be Australian,’’ said Bentley, trying to defuse the argument in the Chronicle mess room one night. “There’s lots of Scandinavians in Queensland. The Mount Isa mines are full of Finns.’’
“What about Greg Norman?’’ said the young sports reporter Gibson who had been to university and had a communications degree to prove it. He was trying to impress the sports editor with his sports knowledge and knowledge of sports personalities.
“That’s not a Finnish name, prat, ’’ said Plunkett, always keen to put the young sports reporter down.
“His mum was Finnish….’’ started the sports reporter, before Mirowski abruptly called a halt to the conversation. There was work to do and the discussion about the new sports sub-editor was getting in the way of it.
The world of sports journalism is dominated by important dates on the calendar, starting in early January with the Australian tennis open. The major cricket finals come next and then the opening of the AFL and Rugby League seasons. Into spring, cricket starts again, building to the traditional Boxing Daycricket test at the Melbourne Cricket Ground at the end of the year. This year the arrival of the mystery sports sub-editor entered the diary as an event of note.
In the words of Plunkett, the office was at fever pitch on the morning that she was due to arrive.
Instead of going straight onto the sports desk, Nina Berglund was to be trained on the computer editing system used by the Chronicle in the features department.
The suggestion that she might be male turned female, however frivolous and implausible – made by a young sports reporter out to impress with his knowledge of the world – gained currency. It had taken hold and just about everyone in the building was talking about it, not least the female members of staff, from the editorial floor, to display advertising, to classifieds and the female clerks in the circulation department.
The features editor, fearing a circus developing around his new temporary recruit, arranged for her to come into his office just before lunchtime on her starting day so that she could be introduced to his staff. He then planned to take her to Mahoney’s pub for a lunch, and she would be free to take the afternoon off to attend to personal matters related to her move to Tasmania, home-hunting included.
There was to be no circus in the features department. If curious journalists, or a curious anyone else, wanted a look at the new sports sub-editor they could go over to Mahoney’s. There promised to be quite a crowd.
The members of the Chronicle sports department had gathered in Mahoney’s before lunch. They wanted to get seats in their favourite position, fearing a rush. Plunkett complained it would be just like Christmas when the once-a-year drinkers arrived and regular patrons could not get to the bar. The whole of the sports department, including all the sports reporters, had never been seen at one place at one time, except for the sports department Christmas lunch and even then a sporting fixture usually guaranteed at least one member of the department was missing. This time they were all accounted for, and the sub-editors had even planned for some of the early pages to be done extra early that morning so they would have extra time in the pub.
Bentley was not a member of the sports department and was not officially invited to the viewing ceremony for the new sports sub-editor. He thought it had all got a little out of hand, all this debate and mystery over a new recruit. Bentley in his 40 years in journalism had thought he had seen it all before, but he had never seen anything like this. He could understand the interest if it had been an editor arriving, but a lowly sports sub-editor? Nonetheless, Bentley was there in Mahoney’s for the arrival of the new sports sub-editor. There, too, was the Chronicle’s news editor. He had a thing about lesbians, at least news in which lesbians featured, and word had reached him that the new sports sub-editor might be a transvestite. At least, that’s how the manager of the classified advertisements department had phrased the speculation surrounding the woman fromBrisbane.
The sports journalists, and a few others like Bentley who were there purely out of curiosity, took their usual seats, at a large table by a window that faced the Chronicle building across a side street joining the main Davey Steret highway.
“Get drinks in quickly,’’ said the sports editor Mirowski. “We’ve got to look normal, like we’re just having a drink, like we always do.’’
“But we were told at university alcohol and journalism didn’t mix,’’ said young Gibson. “She’ll think we’re a bunch of drunks, especially you sub-editors. You haven’t even started your shift yet.’’
“Just shut up,’’ said Mirowski impatiently. “And get them in …’’
The sports reporter was saddled with a mega-round and Bentley reached for a wad of notes to help him pay for it, and then went to the bar to help him carry the drinks back to the table.
“This is going to be fucking expensive, son,’’ Bentley had said to the reporter. “But it’s going to be worth it.’’
All eyes were on the Chronicle building, or the corner of it that could be seen from the pub. The entrance to the Chronicle was out of sight along the main drag and each of the assembled journalists craned their necks periodically to see if the features editor and the new recruit were coming down the street. The advertising manager, the circulation manager and the head of classifieds had also arrived at the pub, ostensibly to get lunch, but there was no sighting yet of the new recruit.
Then suddenly the features editor came into view. He had a bounce in his step, was laughing and in animated conversation, talking to someone in the shadows of the front of the Chronicle building who was still out of sight. All the journalists leaned forward in one movement, like a wave rising and surging before it hits a beach. Young Gibson, seated at the end of the table away from the window, leapt to his feet to look down the street and in the process knocked over a pint of Boags draft. The glass rolled across the table, and his contents cascaded off the table edge, straight into sports editor Mirowski’s lap.
“Christ,’’ Mirowski shouted, leaping to his feet and hurriedly brushing the bitter from his groin. A huge wet stain remained.
“Fucking idiot,’’ he shouted to the sports reporter.
“Don’t worry boss I’ll get you another drink.’’
Mirowski did not reply. He had fixed his gaze over the road, where the features editor stood at the traffic lights. There beside him was a tall, willowy blonde woman, wearing faded jeans and a crisp white top.
“Christ,’’ said Plunkett finally, breaking a silence that had descended on those gathered at the table. “That can’t be her.’’
The features editor and the tall, elegant blonde were now crossing the street, still in merry conversation. On the pavement outside Mahoney’s, the features editor pointed inside and allowed the woman to lead the way. He ordered two drinks at the bar before he and the blonde sat at a table on the far side of the pub.
“Christ,’’ said Thomas Butler, another news sub-editor like Bentley, who had joined the group. “I think I feel a poem coming on.’’
“Just wait,’’ Mirowski cautioned, “it could be a mistake. I mean it could be someone else.’’
“But she looks very sporty,’’ said the junior sports reporter Gibson.
“She looks like a tennis player,’’ said Plunkett, “Like one of those Russians.’’
Mirowksi could wait no longer, he had to know if this was his new recruit. Without saying a word to the others, he leapt to his feet and made for the features editor’s table. A nervous smile registered on the blonde’s face as Mirowski approached. She had seen a picture of him, dressed as a fire warden, in the office handbook she had been given that morning. Mirowski might have been wearing a fireman’s helmet in that, but she recognised him all the same. Mirowski reciprocated with a coy smile.
Mirowski then pointed towards the assembled journalists at the window and led the blonde woman their way. He had a large, dark stain on the crotch area of his gray trousers. The blonde’s eyes had settled on it briefly before she looked back nervously at the features editor who was still sat at his seat.
“Well, gentlemen, this is Nina, our new sports subs-editor.’’ Mirowski said to the seated journalists. “What was that surname again, I didn’t quite get it?’’ he said turning to the new recruit.
“Burglund,’’ the new sports sub-editor replied, fixing Mirowski with an intense stare for a moment, business-like. The stare said she had arrived, she was reporting for duty as part of his crew.
“Burgland,’’ said Mirowski struggling to pronounce the surname.
“Burglund,’’ Nina said with a giggle. “I know it hard at first, but you get used to it.’’
The features editor now joined the group, announcing: “Nina tells me she’s from Norway. Norway to Tasmania, now isn’t that a thing.’’
“Straight from Norway?’’ inquired Mirowski “I thought you came from Brisbane.’’
“Ya, from Brisbane then from Oslo. I like, said Miss Burglund. “Ya, from Brisbane then from Oslo. I like.’’
The features editor was keen to get Nina from Norway back to his corner. He said he had business to discuss, about her training, but it was clear he wanted Nina to himself. At least for lunchtime. He had a prize and he wanted the sports editor and the sports department to know it.
A silence reigned on the table holding the journalists, before Mirowski bellowed out to the sports reporter Gibson. “Get me another drink, you fucking threw the other one all over me.’’
“Well you certainly made an impression,” said Bentley to Mirowski, enjoying the moment.
“You think so?’’ said Mirowski, looking back across the pub to where Nina and the advertising features editor were talking and laughing.
“Yeah, with that stain. I wonder what Nina is thinking right now.’’
“And you can shut the fuck up,’’ said Mirowski angrily, before telling Gibson to hurry up with his drink.
Within a day the mystery surrounding Nina the sub-editor from Norway had evaporated, drifting into the mists of time that is the fleeting day in the life of a newspaper. She had now become the objective of fascination and fantasy.
Plunkett had been travelling to strange and unfamiliar places in his sleep. He spoke ofLapland and his wife turfed him out of bed. She was in shock; he had never spoken of what sounded like a men-only, lap-dancing establishment before.
Mirowski might have initially shown resistance to hiring a female for his sub-editing staff, but now he acquiesced with enthusiasm. Yes, a female journalist fromNorwaywas an unusual choice to fill a sports sub-editing position on the Chronicle. And no, she did not know anything about Australian Rules Football, or indeed cricket. Her field of speciality was winter sports, especially Nordic games because she said her mother came from Finland but Mirowski did not seem to care, and Plunkett was happy that Norway, unlike Sweden, had never produced a tennis player of note, and Nina was not particularly interested in tennis.
The editor had kept her background a secret until the day she arrived simply because he thought Mirowski might object to employing her, and she had in truth been the only applicant for the position, save for another junior sports reporter from Perth who had had no sub-editing experience.
Nina had not worked in sport while in Australia. She had been a sub-editor on a group of weekly newspapers in Brisbane, but she had acquired considerable editing and layout skills.
Each member of the sports department, and a plethora of volunteers from beyond, had put their hands up to teach her the basics of Australian popular sport, and then the fine detail, like player positions and team kicknames for headline purposes. In return, Nina said she would introduce the journalists to the secrets of winter sports, especially her personal favourites, the luge and curling.
She had willing recruits to an outing she planned to Hobart’s only ice rink where curling, a form of bowls on ice, would be on the agenda. It was perfect for her students because ice-skating skills were not required.
Plunkett had seen curling on television and was intrigued by the team member who ran ahead of the heavy polished stones being bowled, brushing the ice. Mirowski had bought a broom.
The journalists in turn promised to take Nina toTasmania’s only ski-field, timing their visit for the few days of the winter when the “resort’’ actually had a decent snowfall.
During the first few days of her stay in Hobart Nina had been dubbed the “Ice Maiden’’ by the women in the classifieds department, most of whom were jealous of her beauty. Then she became “Miss Norway’’ and the “Snow Princess’’, terms which were a match for her stunning beauty, for which Butler searched in vain for a Scandinavian poem to describe. All agreed she was beautiful. A flashing smile, clear blue eyes sparkling like the fjords on a summer’s day, high cheekbones, flowing locks of yellow hair that cascaded over her shoulders.
She had a habit of tossing her hair when she laughed, and in the first few weeks the sports department and members of departments beyond lined up to tell her jokes, to tell a witty aside that would bring out that smile.
When the jokes had been exhausted, came tales of sporting prowess from Nina’s admirers. Mirowski had a passion for rugby union and suddenly he told of exploits on the field in his playing days that were news to the other members of the sports department. Plunkett, from being an enthusiastic Sunday tennis player, now became a past champion of the Burnie amateur open and one of the other news sub-editors, Ken Savage, who had long lost interest in the mateship and camaraderie that went with the office, preferring to keep to himself, suddenly became open and friendly again, and his colleagues discovered a past deftness with the cricket bat they had not heard of before.
Bentley, an Association Football fanatic who had once played a single game for Millwall youths in London before they kicked him out, suddenly became a schoolboy soccer star who had represented his home town of Woking.
Nina was genuinely interested in sports of all kinds. She had worked as a sports reporter for a major newspaper in Oslo and had developed a passion for Australia, and a desire to live in the country, during the Sydney Olympics, which she covered as swimming correspondent for her newspaper.
“Yes, vee like schwim in Oslo,’’ she would say, in an accent that belied her command of written English, a mastery of spelling, syntax and grammar that surpassed most of the other members of the sports department.
The journalists at the sharp end of the Chronicle, those on the news and sports desks, could not wait to get Nina out of the clutches of the features department. And within two weeks they got their wish. Nina had mastered everything the features editor and his staff were able to teach her and she was about to be let loose on the pages of the Sunday edition of the Chronicle, on a busy Saturday night.
There was much interest to see how she would go, on a busy night at the start of autumn that mixed one-day international cricket and pre-season games for both the AFL and Rugby League seasons, plus basketball finals games at the end of the basketball season.
With the help of a fuller contingent of sub-editors than usual, two of which, including Bentley, had volunteered to work on their day off, Nina passed her first test with flying colours.
At the end of the shift, the staff of the Chronicle in awe of Nina discovered another magical quality about her that was not revealed in a curriculum vitae that came to be eventually posted on the staff notice board. Nina liked nothing more than a drink at the end of her shift, and she invited her colleagues to join her over the road at Mahoney’s. The office pub, because it was transformed into Hobart’s premier karaoke joint on Friday and Saturday nights, was generally avoided by the Chronicle staff, who liked a bottle or two of red wine in the staff messroom at weekends. On this occasion, however, who could refuse Nina’s invitation?
The pub was hot, steamy and noisy but no one seemed to mind.
“And shall vee sing?’’ she shouted out with a laugh as she took the stage to perform not one but two Abba numbers.
Another name was soon found for Nina, the Chronicle’s “Dancing Queen’’.
Thomas Butler, the office poet, took the stage for a rap number he had learned from his teenage son. It was the closest he could find to poetry on the tele-prompt.
Nina was impressed with the Eminem number, even if Butler later complained that references to “motherfuckers’’, “bitches’’, “hoes’’ and “the hood’’ was not quite what Shelley or Wordsworth would have had in mind when they put pen to paper. Plunkett did a quaint little ditty from the Sound of Music, before Bentley weighed in with My Way.
Mirowski needed no persuasion to do his impersonation of Freddie Mercury with We are the Champions, a number which required the sports editor to thrust out his crotch. A reference from the crowd to Mirowski’s “Baltic pine’’ was lost on the Dancing Queen, but his light grey trousers still carried a faint stain from where the beer had been spilled on him two weeks’ previously. He had been too busy to take his pants to the dry cleaners.
The celebration to mark the arrival of Nina did not end at Mahoney’s. On Butler’s insistence the party moved on to a nightspot, the Lisbon, that stayed open through the night. The Lisbonwas rarely visited by the Chronicle night crew, only on special occasions when late-night drinking warranted it, like a retirement or departure for the mainland, or a Chronicle journalist winning an award. This was clearly an occasion that warranted a visit.
Unlike most of Hobart’s pubs and bars, which were strictly Australian in style and tone (places designed for serious drinking), the Lisbon had more of an opulent, continental air. A circular glass bar was surrounded in turn by plush sofas and armchairs. The lighting was soft, as were the pastel colours of the interior decor. Venetian blinds, slim ones, kept the harsh light of the street lamps from intruding. Together with the main bar was a pool room, a game rarely played by the Chronicle staff, at least not in the Lisbon because by the time they arrived at the nightspot they were usually too drunk to put cue on ball.
Such was this evening, with Thomas Butler reciting his poetry again before someone told him to shut up. Guy Plunkett was telling the Dancing Queen that she looked like Maria Sharapova, as Mirowski asked Nina whether Poland was close to Norway because they seemed to have so much in common.
Nina by now had switched from the pinot noir she had been drinking most of the evening to an exotic vodka she had discovered once on assignment to Moscow, and Mirowski joined her. Perhaps, he said, they had something in common after all.
Plunkett was a Scotch man and when it was Plunkett’s round the drink of choice switched to malt whisky.
“I like,’’ said Nina, a statement that brought a smile to Plunkett’s face and a gleam to his eyes. He was eyeing Nina as his next tennis partner.
“I’m a bourbon man myself,’’ said Bentley after a while, and he proceeded to order a round of Makers Mark, the most expensive and best bourbon they had in the house.
Ken Savage had appeared to lapse into the sullen, anti-social self he had displayed in the newsroom in recent years, but the bourdon seemed to lift his spirits and he started to tell of his recent trip to Cuba where he had followed in the footsteps of his favourite author, Ernest Hemingway.
“But I luv this Hemingvay, he so handsome with his white beard,’’ said Nina.
Savage was delighted to discover that the Lisbon stocked a rare rum, one from Cuba, and a round of the spirit followed.
Bentley, after a night on the town, had been known to wake up on the lawn of his front garden. On the most recent occasion, a year previously, he had laid down one night to look for satellites crossing the night sky, threading their way through the stars. He had awoken, forgetting where he was. Feeling the cold, he had turned over he reach for the switch to the electric blanket only to find in his hand a tuft of grass.
Now he was awoken by shouting from an upstairs window.
“And what the hell are you up to now,’’ the voice boomed out, echoing off the walls of neighbouring houses. It was Mrs Bentley. She had awoken at dawn to find Mr Bentley’s side of the bed cold and empty and, drawing on past experience of her husband’s eccentricities, had looked for Mr Bentley on the garden lawn.
Bentley was stretched out straight on his back, his arms pressed to his sides, his hands flat on the grass.
“I said, `What the hell are you up to?’ ’’ Mrs Bentley shouted again.
Bentley remained prostrate, his head slightly raised so he could look between his feet.
“Just practising the luge, my dear, just practising the luge,’’ he called back.