A story of journalism, once! Number 49 in a series of short stories by Don Knowler on his journalistic life and observations told through imaginary newspaper The Chronicle. He explores not only journalism but what Knowler terms the sacred covenant hacks have with their readers to put truth above all else, even if it means leaving the comfort of the bar to do so … His musings appear regularly grouped under the Category Don Knowler
His shoes splashing in pools of blood, Don Bentley climbed the stairs leading to the Le Coq d’Or nightspot in the heart of the Rhodesian capital, Salisbury. Out there on the street were three young soldiers with bashed-in faces and broken noses. Bentley looked at his mate, Peter Sharp, and whispered: ``Do you think we should go on?’‘
The stairwell was dimly-lit and gloomy but there was no mistaking the dark blood dripping down the steps.
“Well, why not?’’ answered Sharp, and they pressed on to the entrance to the club.
On Baker Street, one of the main drags dissecting Salisbury, the soldiers didn’t look too good. Bentley was surprised they were still on their feet, particularly one whose nose was clearly broken, bent to one side and distorted. He was the soldier bleeding the most.
“What the fuck happened to you?’’ Bentley inquired before entering the building.
“Only fucking asked the DJ to play Abba, that’s all,’’ replied soldier with the broken nose, nasally.
In the Rhodesian bush war, there were two areas out of bounds to foreign correspondents. One was the bush at night, especially areas where the black nationalist guerrillas were in control. The other was the waterholes of the RLI, or Rhodesian Light Infantry, in Salisbury, and the country’s second city, Bulawayo, to the south.
Le Coq d’Or was one such place, along with the Lion’s Den bar attached to the Windsor Hotel a little further along the street. Bentley had been to the latter with an American correspondent who had covered the Vietnam War, who had won the RLI’s respect. It was less threatening because it opened during the day, and if things got heavy with the troops there was an easy escape into the street.
Le Coq d’Or was a different story, and Bentley and his mate Sharp were taking a chance going there, fuelled by the Dutch courage of a few beers at a watering hole of a different kind, the journalists’ hang-out, the Quill Club.
Even the police didn’t attend incidents at Le Coq d’Or. It was safer for them to let the soldiers just in from the bush fight it out themselves.
Bentley and Sharp were wearing suits, unusual for journalists in Rhodesia, who usually wore jeans and khaki, instead of collars and ties, for forays into the bush.
The two journalists had just interviewed the Prime Minister of Rhodesia, Ian Smith, and were full of bravado. They’d pose as businessmen from South Africa at Le Coq d’Or and if rumbled as journalists, they’d drop the name of the soldiers’ great leader, their ultimate chief of staff, saying they had just been to meet him. The mention of the name Smith, a former Battle of Britain pilot who was steering the former British colony on a path of independent white rule, would no doubt guarantee their safety.
Bentley and Sharp had observed the tough and battle-hardened Rhodesian soldiers at war, now they wanted to see them at play, in that private zone where they no doubt would let their defences slip. At the soldiers’ watering hole, there could be stories about the war, first-hand accounts and not the massaged, sanitised information fed to the press by the Rhodesian Government.
Bentley and Sharp had paused at the top of the stairs at the entrance to the club where a bouncer of sorts had let them in.
They went to the bar and asked for a beer but immediately a man in an expensive suit came running up and he told the barman to give them Scotch, on the house.
International sanctions had crippled the Rhodesian economy and Scotch whisky was not a commodity termed an essential item for the war effort. It was a luxury, precious; something to be hidden away and only brought out for special occasions.
“Give ‘em Scotch,’’ said the man in the suit and he was off immediately to discuss something or other, with someone on the other side of the dance floor.
Bentley downed the drink and looked about him at a scene that was bawdy, boozy, bare-knuckled and bra-less. The soldiers, most drunk and merely swaying to the music, or clutching girls not so much in a dance but to stay on their feet, would have left the bush war far behind, it would not have been in their minds. Bentley and Sharp soon determined it would not be worth the effort to talk to them, even if they could hear what they were trying to say. It was head-thumping, reverberating, pulsatingly noisy in there, the DJ putting on record after record without a pause.
Le Coq d’Or was located in a relatively modern, 1960s building that had no doubt started life as an office block. It was constructed of concrete and glass, instead of the bricks and mortar, and sandstone of an earlier period and had sprung up in Rhodesia’s boom times following World War II when the world wanted the country’s minerals and tobacco. The building, like the people fighting Rhodesia’s relentless bush war, and fighting sanctions, was looking a little jaded, in need of a rejuvenation, a freshening up. It was owned by a religious sect that had pulled out of the country when Rhodesia had decided to defy the world and go it alone with white rule. The sect had laid down strict conditions that banned the selling of alcohol and tobacco. Dancing was proscribed. The sect was told the building was being used as a library.
Over the years the Le Coq d’Or had became a symbol of resistence to the external forces trying to dictate the future to Rhodesians, as powerful a symbol as the armoured personnel carriers on the streets, and the mine-proofed vehicles in the farming districts.
Standing at the bar, drinking expensive Scotch, in expensive suits, Bentley and Sharp were beginning to be noticed by the troopies. The strobe lights bouncing off the dance floor caught and illuminated the journalists’ crisp white shirts; the raising of their tumblers of expensive whisky captured in a slow-motion freeze.
It was time for Bentley and Sharp to go. One objective had been achieved, though; to actually venture inside the Le Coq d’Or and see what went on inside. They would at least have a story to tell at the Quill Club.
As they were preparing to leave, the barman offered them another drink. They tried to decline, but he insisted, saying the DJ wanted to have a word with them. Again the drink was on the house. As they knocked it back, the DJ left his cabin situated above the dance floor and came over to them.
“Look what the fuckers did?’’ he said, shouting above a Rolling Stones’ number and pointing to a rip in his gaudy shirt.
``The fuckers got heavy because I wouldn’t play their tunes. Fucking Dancing Queen.’‘
It was clear the DJ was referring to the beaten and bloodied soldiers outside.
The man in the suit arrived again, clearly the owner of the club.
“You boys okay? Rodney looking after you? More Scotch? Don’t you pay no attention to the boys outside. Fucking troublemakers and we don’t want trouble. We run a trouble-free business here. You know that.’‘
The owner left with the DJ, who had vigorously nodded in agreement with him as he spoke.
``Why the fuck are they telling us all this,’’ Bentley said to Sharp, as they downed their third, expensive whisky, on the house.
They wanted to ask the barman, Rodney, but he was busy berating his African bar-hand about beer glasses that had not been washed.
The African glanced at Bentley and Sharp, periodically, as though wanting to make conversation but Rodney the barman constantly got in the way. But he seized the opportunity when the barman left his station and crossed the dance floor to talk to the DJ in his cabin. The barman appeared to be discussing Bentley and Sharp. As he spoke he turned to them, the journalists half hidden behind the swirling, gyrating dancers. The DJ could see them clearly from his vantage point and fixed them with a stare.
Bentley and Sharp were growing increasingly nervous. What was it with the free Scotch and the cold stare from the DJ, a stare to freeze the Scotch in their hand.
“Boss, boss,’’ said the African behind bar, shouting the words urgently, all the while looking at the barman and the DJ.
“Boss, they hit them with this.’‘
The African produced a baseball bat from below the bar, still covered in blood. He held it low so only Bentley and Sharp could see it.
“Hit them with THAT,’’ Bentley cried out, and the African put his finger to his lips, telling them to be quiet.
“Why you telling us this?’‘
“But you the CID, you come to investigate,’’ said the barman, looking at Bentley and Sharp’s neatly pressed suits and their sparkling, bleached white shirts.
“Fuck me,’’ said Bentley. He turned to Sharp but he was no longer at his side.
Looking to the exit, Bentley caught sight of Sharp’s shadow, vanishing down the blood-stained stairs.
And Bentley prepared to face the music.