‘It claimed the douche bags first,’ Brian says in his most ominous voiceover voice as we’re parking the van.
Two bright jet skis are in the rubble next to us, crushed like painted eggs.
Steve leans forward and gives Brian’s shoulder a squeeze. ‘Not all the douche bags, Bri. You made it through.’
‘Nice one, guys. Let’s get the douche-baggery out of the way now as much as we can, okay?’ I am, as always, the dull voice of reason, the droning Jiminy Cricket who keeps Brian Brightman and Steve ‘Ferret’ Fletcher on the right side of the broadcasting guidelines, most of the time.
All the time wouldn’t be right--4BB wouldn’t thank me for keeping its bad boys entirely on the straight and narrow. Bad boy. It’s Brian whose mouth keeps us in the paper and gets up the nose of the bloggers.
Today’s different though. How many days have I pointlessly said that to them? But today actually is different. Since the flood came through, everything’s different. It’s our first OB, and we’re doing it from flood ground zero, the State Library. It’s a time for Brian to mine his deeply buried seam of sensitivity. He’s assured me he has one and, to prove it, he’s brought a genuine seventies jaffle iron, several loaves of white bread, a bag of tomatoes and an esky full of sliced ham and bags of grated cheese.
‘Yeah, but seriously,’ Brian says, as if he’s dropped his douche-bag remark in a rare moment when right’s on his side. ‘What kind of dickhead would have gone out in that on a jet ski?’
We all saw the footage, as floating restaurants crumpled against bridges and lost pontoons bunched like dropped dominoes in the mangroves. People had been out on their jet skis on the fierce water, and two of them made it here, to Grey Street, but no further.
There’s a checkpoint ahead. I’ve got a letter I’m supposed to show if anyone asks me, and this is the first time I’ve needed it.
‘You’re right,’ the officer says, peering into the van to take a look at Brian, who manages to keep his mouth shut. He steps back and takes a look at the rest of the van before bending down to the window again. ‘You’ve got your own power? They’re on generators up ahead, and I don’t know that we can . . . '
He lets it hang there. He knows we can’t take power from the rescue effort.
‘All we need’s somewhere to park,’ I tell him. ‘We’ve been told just outside the library.'
‘Righto.’ He waves us on.
Brian flicks at the window controls and the swampy air gusts in.
‘Smells like turd,’ he says. ‘Did you just let one go, Ferret?’
‘As often as possible.’ Steve sticks his head forward between us. ‘You know I’m a big fan of short transit times.’
It’s the last thing he needs to tell us. Steve’s transit times are regularly discussed on air. He calls it a ‘bowel cancer prevention initiative’. We’re not the team for this. When the OB idea came up, it fell our way because our ratings are sliding. I pushed for it to go to afternoons, who had half a chance of handling it decently. But, no.
‘Like a good novel,’ Brian said when I picked him up this morning, with his boxloads of jaffle fixings. ‘Show don’t tell. Those poxy afternooners’d be all hugs and shit when, really, say it with jaffles, I reckon. ’
As we drive along Grey Street, it’s hard to be certain where the road ends and the pavement begins. There’s a silt of mud and sand over everything and the trees and power lines are down. I’m driving mostly from memory. At the library, we’re directed to a place near where the bus stop used to be, and where four orange witches’ hats have been placed to invent some order in the shambles.
‘I’ll get you a librarian,’ the volunteer says, and then pulls out his two-way. He fiddles with the buttons, as though he hasn’t used it much. ‘Darren to base, Darren to base. I’ve got Double B here for you.’ There’s a crackling sound that I can’t quite make out and when it finishes he looks at me and says, ‘No worries. They’ll have someone out here in a minute.’ He’s about to leave us when a new thought occurs to him and he turns back. ‘Watch out for spiders. There’s been a lot of them coming through. They reckon they’ve come in on the trees from upstream.’
‘Spiders? What is this?’ Brian says. ‘The Apocalypse? Watch out for four horsemen?’
He gets out of the van and stands with his hands on the hips, surveying the wreckage while Gary, the technician, and I set up the trestle table.
A woman in her mid-twenties walks towards us across the mud. Her hair’s in a pony tail and she’s wearing hiking boots and a hi-vis vest undone at the front. She’s got a clipboard under one arm.
‘Sammi Bernhoff,’ she says, as she reaches out to shake my hand. ‘Mona’s not around right now, so I’m your librarian.’
‘Bullshit,’ Brian says, as if it’s a greeting. ‘If all librarians looked like you I’d’ve read a lot more books when I was a kid. Or at least perved over them. Where’s your bun?’
She laughs nervously and puts her hand on her hair. ‘I’m leaving the bun to Mona, but don’t tell anyone I said that. I guess it might have been more practical when I was evacuating.’
‘Don’t worry, love, your hair’s not that long,’ Steve says, stepping forward to shake her hand. It occurs to me that he might have made a joke about diarrhoea, and his wry smile pretty much confirms it.
I lurch in and say, ‘Great, Sammi,’ before he removes all doubt. ‘You’ll be on first with Brian and Steve, who you can feel free to call Ferret. We’ll talk about how things are in there, what’s happened to the collection, what the prospects are for getting back on deck in the near future . . . ’
‘Sure, sure,’ she says. She checks her clipboard to match her notes with what I’m saying. She has a pen tied to it with string and she does some underlining.
‘Meanwhile,’ Brian says, ‘can I interest you in a jaffle? All this mucking out must make you pretty hungry. I’ve gone classic. Ham, cheese and tomato. Would’ve knocked up a batch of savoury mince, but we didn’t get much notice. It’s a slow-cooker, that one.’ Sammi looks perplexed, as if the jaffle’s a metaphor, and one she won’t like when she decodes it, but Brian picks up his jaffle iron and flaps its blackened old jaws and says, in another of his character voices, ‘Sammi, you know you want me.’
‘Well of course she wants you,’ Steve says. ‘But what’s a jaffle iron doing talking like Darth Vader?’
‘Fuck it, mate,’ Brian says. ‘It was improv. In improv, every accent’s either Darth Vader or an Indian.’
‘Purple towel,’ Steve says, in an overdone version of a Peter Sellers Indian accent. ‘If you want to get into Indian, that’s all you’ve got to say. Purple towel.’
I tell Sammi she doesn’t have to have the jaffle, but Brian’s pretty insistent and already piling on the cheese before I can stop him. Gary confirms that everything’s set up and we’re ready to go after the news. Steve takes his seat and talks to the station, then checks levels on all the mics. Brian plates up Sammi’s jaffle.
She looks at it as if she’s not sure if it’s a prop or the real thing. ‘Oh, do I . . . ’
‘It goes in the mouth, love,’ Brian tells her. He smirks as he works through half-a-dozen follow-up lines, but he keeps them to himself.
Gary calls out, ‘Thirty seconds,’ and Brian finds his seat behind the table, puts on his headphones and pulls some notes out of his pocket.
‘About this far,’ he says to Sammi and she pulls her mic closer. He nods and pushes a button, and the show’s underway. ‘Well, they let us off the leash today and sent us somewhere even less tidy than the studio. Brightman and the Ferret here at Brisbane’s South Bank, at the State Library to be precise, where recovery efforts are underway. We’re here bringing you news, music and the latest in classic jaffles, and our first customer is librarian Sammi Bernhoff. Sammi, can we take it that, in this time of crisis, the library’s temporarily shelved its draconian bag policy for a start?’
Sammi laughs nervously. ‘I, uh . . . ’
Steve steps in and asks her about progress with the clean-up. She checks her clipboard and talks about how many people they have working on site, and the red-bellied black snake found curled up on the State Librarian’s desk.
Brian gazes off into the distance at the broken trees and the army of fresh volunteers making their way down off the William Jolly Bridge.
As soon as there’s a pause he leans into his microphone and says, ‘Yes, quite a day here, Sammi. Some awesome work from everyone trying to get this place back on track.’ He looks down at his notes. ‘But now for the question everyone wants me to put to you – you know they do – what’s your favourite librarian pick-up line? Something guaranteed to hit any librarian right in her Dewey Decimal System?’
Sammi blanches. Her mouth opens and closes.
‘I’ll settle for your favourite librarian’s pick-up line to a punter.’ He’s not giving up.
I should have warned her. No, I should have stood my ground back at the station and seen this go to afternoons. Rebecca Levingston would have got it just right.
Sammi pulls her microphone towards her. She smiles nervously. ‘Okay, how about, “Maybe you should come up and see my John Oxley collection”?’
‘Beautiful,’ Brian says, and then guffaws with laughter. ‘Bloody beautiful. I’m in. In a big way. You’ve got a collection of John Oxleys? Is that the actual things or . . . ’
Steve interrupts. ‘Plaster-of-Paris. I bet it’s plaster-of-Paris. You get your John Oxley out . . . I had to go diagonally across the ice-cream bucket. You’d probably be okay with a teacup for him. Maybe a match box.’
I take a look at my watch. It’s taken five minutes for the show to bottom out the way it always does, with two middle-aged men laughing at their own smutty jokes and 6.1% of the city’s radio listeners weighing up whether or not Double B is worth any more of their time.
‘And now,’ Brian says, as if an announcement’s pending, ‘To give Steff some jaffle time, let’s crack open today’s Massive Mix Tape. And you know today’s theme folks. It’s got to be librarians. And we trawled through all the record stores of the known universe looking for rockin’ songs about bookish types lusting after librarians, didn’t we Ferret? And how many did we get?’
Steve allows a pause. ‘Ah, that’d be one, mate.’
‘Hard to believe, I know, but then they can’t have met our Sammi Bernhoff.’ Brian reaches for a sound effects button, but then realises it’s back in the studio. Sammi almost gags on her jaffle. ‘Cut some of that tomato a bit thick, did I love? Not to worry. We’ve padded the tape out with songs about kids having inappropriate thoughts about their teachers. Same diff, really, and we’ve got a million of those. But let’s go with our one-and-only actual librarian song. Here’s the Go-Betweens and Karen.’
And so the show goes, Brian Brightman’s crassness doing its incessant dumb dance over all that’s going on around us. The first complaint is an email, and it lands at seventeen minutes after the hour, twelve minutes after the start of the show.
Sammi gets through the second part of the interview, but not by much. She holds her notes to her chest, knowing they’re no use other than as some kind of barrier, and she tries to play the game, the only schoolboy game she’s being offered.
She thanks Brian and Steve at the end, but only because her upbringing has hardwired her to thank people when she’s supposed to. She looks away from me as she gets up from the table. She rubs one eye with the back of her hand.
I stop her to thank her, but more to see if I can fix it.
‘Look, I’m sorry.’ I’m trying not to sound rehearsed. ‘They really didn’t mean . . . ’ How many times . . .
‘Oh, no, it’s okay.’ She looks down at her phone as it comes back on. ‘It’s not that. Not them. And the jaffle was . . . ’ A text message comes through and her phone plays Ride of the Valkyries. It feels entirely wrong in the stillness of the shut-down post-flood forecourt. She opens the message and reads it before slipping the phone into her pocket. ‘It’s a little girl actually. We don’t know where she is. Since the flood. Her name’s Charlie. She’s five. You might have seen . . . The family’s been putting up posters. She was in the library at the time.’
She turns to look across the wide expanse of scum and debris, as if Charlie might surprise her by being right there, lost in plain sight. There’s a pool-chlorine bucket, a doll, a boot turned on its side, some tumbled, broken masonry.
‘I’m sorry. We’ll put a call out for people.’ It sounds futile even as I’m saying it.
‘Thank you.’ She pulls her phone out of her pocket again. ‘Better get back to work. That’s why I’m here mainly. That girl. She was in a red dress, big pockets in the skirt.’ She turns to look up at the rendered concrete edifice of the library. ‘I . . . so far it’s just junk in there. All of it. There are things that, last week, I had to put on gloves to pick up. They’re junk now.’
As soon as we hit the news, I take Brian aside and set him straight.
‘Yeah, righto,’ he says. ‘And what kind of a shit show would it have been if we’d talked about that all the time? Sammi Bernhoff, buttons on her standard-issue library blouse straining to contain that championship bosom, weeping about this lost kid and sending us to buckets of dead air?’ He straightens a piece of white bread on his jaffle iron. ‘Anyway, you didn’t bloody tell me. And I’m not a mind reader.’ He places two slices of ham from his esky across the piece of bread. ‘We’ll plug the shit out of it next hour, okay?’ He reaches for some tomato and then stops to look right at me. ‘Jesus, Marto, what are the odds? That kid’s gone, right? Look at this shit. She’s . . . ’ He shrugs. He looks across the forecourt, this time taking in some of its details. ‘Does she know we did that comp? What can we do, hey? Give people a bit of a laugh. We’re not fixing this, not any of it. Not even the bastards with the bulldozers are fixing it. They’re just pushing the crap off the road and leaving it in piles.’
There’s another hour of air time and then the show’s over. All the librarian jokes have run their course. Listeners have even pitched in in the line-at-a-time limerick comp, following on from Brian’s ‘There once was a lusty librarian’.
While Gary packs up, Brian, Steve and I put on hi-vis vests.
‘So, a bunch of quick vox pops and then we’re out?’ Brian says, looking at the line of raised boards leading across the mud and into the library.
‘Depends on what we find.’ I click the button on the recorder and the red light comes on. I hold the microphone up to my mouth. ‘If there’s more let’s get more. We can package it up however we want to.’
I play it back and it sounds all right.
A librarian called Elroy leads us into the building. In the internal courtyard someone’s working with a high-pressure hose, sluicing the dirt from the pavers. Suddenly, the mud turns into a smear of rainbow and the surprise of it makes her jerk the hose and spray the windows.
‘No worries,’ Elroy says. ‘It’ll be the sand from the mandala.’ He turns to me and I shove the microphone his way. He clears his throat. ‘Not long before the flood some Buddhist monks were here doing a mandala.’ He says it slowly, correctly gauging that most Double B listeners will be new to the concept. ‘It’s a complicated religious design, made out of sand. Really complicated and then they sweep it all up at the end. We did wonder where the sand had gone.’
Steve pulls his phone out and takes a picture for our website.
‘Do I keep at it?’ the woman with the hose says. ‘Or is it religious?’
‘Nah, once it’s . . . ’ Elroy realises he hasn’t a clue. ‘Just work around it. I’ll get back to you.’
‘Got it,’ Brian says, actually clicking his fingers. ‘This is a beauty. We play that bit and then go to The Special AKA doing Free Nelson Mandala.’
‘That was . . . ’ It’s out of me before I can stop myself.
‘I know what it was. You’ll have to give me a sign I can hold up when something’s a joke. And don’t tell me there’s no Nelson Mandela jokes, just because the guy’s a legend, blah, blah, blah.’
Elroy’s two-way crackles and a voice says, ‘Base to Elroy, base to Elroy.’
He flicks a button and replies. ‘Elroy here, base, with the Double B people.’
‘You’re clear to bring them to Two, Elroy, if they want to see Two.’
He looks at me.
‘Sure.’ I have no idea why we’d want to see Two, but thirty seconds on a sand mandala means we’re well short of what we need.
On Two, there’s an army of people scraping and hosing and carrying wreckage down the stairs at the far end—desks, chairs, computer terminals, buckled shelving. Elroy, who doesn’t seem to have a plan in mind, leads us through the space where the sliding doors used to be. It’s automatic, where you would walk if you came to the library five days a week. On the floor, on the ruined carpet that’s now only the colour of mud, there’s a pulped copy of the Mephisto Waltz, a broken tea cup and a laminated paper sign that says ‘PLEASE CHECK that you are using the right detergent’.
In a room off to the side, someone shouts, ‘Shit! Shit!’
‘Oh, that’s . . . ’ Elroy tries to work out how to describe it. ‘There’s a different thing going on in there. I wouldn’t . . . ’
‘I’m going in,’ Brian says, putting on a siege hero voice from a thousand TV crime procedurals.
He squelches across the carpet, past a fallen red banner shouting out ‘THE FUTURE OF THE BOOK’ and a curtain rail bent down from the ceiling by the pull of the sludge in its curtains.
Around a recently-hosed off-white table are clustered maybe eight people hunched over laptops with neat white apple logos glowing in the dim room. They’re all wearing wellies and are dishevelled as though out of habit, rather than through actually being dirty. At the end of a corridor a generator chugs away, pumping out carbon monoxide and enough power to run the laptops and the two bare light bulbs that have been hung from the ceiling.
‘Shit. 5000 words,' one of them says. His sandy hair is standing on end, as if his hands have been pushing it there any time they’re not on the keys. ‘I’m not even at 2000. I’m going have to sell out and use adverbs after all. Is anyone else using adverbs?’
The others ignore him. One of them, a woman who seems to be listening to music, says, ‘4812,’ and sits back in her seat and opens a well-thumbed Penguin Classics edition of Georges Bataille’s Story of the Eye. Two men opposite glare at her while continuing to randomly thrash their laptop keyboards in a pretence of speed.
Water drips from the airconditioning ducts down onto the table, forming a murky puddle.
‘What about that fucking wi-fi?’ a man in a black sleeveless top says, his eyes not lifting from his screen. ‘They told us there’d be wi-fi.’
‘Writers,’ Elroy tells us, for the moment leaving it at that, as if it says all it needs to. ‘They were booked months ago to come in and write a book in twenty-four hours. They’re not good with change. Once you book writers . . . ’ He shrugs.
A woman with wild hair and a bright scarf picks up a red marker pen and walks over to a wall on which numerous sheets of A4 paper have been stuck, apparently at random. She makes her way along to the third column and, under someone’s name, writes, ‘Not sure but maybe a kiddy fiddler.’
Two of the others look up. One of them says, ‘Righto,’ without any feeling and then gets back to work.
‘Is there an actual flood,’ a voice says from around the corner, ‘or was that just a metaphor?’
Six of the writers in the room say ‘actual flood’ in a chorus of disengaged flat voices, and two say ‘metaphor’. There’s no discussion.
The voice around the corner says, ‘I’m going for metaphor. Was there talk of pizza?’
‘Um that was . . . ’ Elroy gives up the idea that what he’s saying might amount to a reply. He turns to us instead. ‘Pizza was mentioned in their contracts. There’s no pizza now, obviously. There’s no one making pizza for miles.’
‘I can do jaffles,’ Brian announces. ‘Ham, cheese and tomato. Any takers?’
Most writers raise one hand, the others raise two. Brian gives me a look, as if he’s expecting an apology.
‘Pizza,’ the voice around the corner says. ‘Fucking pizza. It’s in my contract.’
‘Just ‘cause your name’s on top on the poster . . . ’ one of the others mutters.
We’re here for vox pops and I have to give it a shot. ‘Anyone able to talk about the flood?’
‘It’s a metaphor,’ the voice around the corner says. ‘I don’t do actual floods. No serious writer does. There’s far too much to deal with. More characters than Tolstoy. Real writers write about moments. Though sometimes there’s metaphor. Oh, and I’ve got a unicorn. It’s real though. Did I mention that?’
‘You didn’t say anything about . . . ’ the woman who’s hit 4812 words stops herself. ‘If you’ve got a unicorn, could you put it on the wall so we can all use it? Or not. Next to the paedo. The queery paedo. Wherever.’
‘Paedo’s dead,’ the woman with the wild hair says. ‘Not sure if he was a paedo anyway, but he’s dead.’
‘Thanks.’ The man next to her pushes back from his keyboard in what he hopes is an emphatic gesture, and his chair almost tips over. ‘Shit. I’m on castors at home. Five castors. Ergonomic. I’ve got that guy in my chapter and it’s after yours. And he may or may not be a paedo, but he’s not dead. If he’s dead it should be on the . . . ’
He turns to point at the wall, and sees the words, ‘I think he dies of a heart attack at the end,’ added in small lower-case letters beneath the original note about the character.
‘You’d think they could clean this place a bit more often,’ the voice around the corner says. ‘Or is that smell me? 5000 words in a day can do that. Does anyone else get that? If you got a free pass to shag one writer living or dead, who would it be? Quickly. I need it for my chapter.’
‘Franz Kafka,’ the 4812-word woman says. ‘Preferably dead. Recently though. Nothing weird. On a crisp mint copy of the Courier-Mail. Did someone say there’s vodka?’
I’m recording the whole thing, but I can’t guess what I’d do with it.
‘We’re supposed to tweet, right?’ the man in the black sleeveless top says. ‘How are we supposed to tweet if there’s no fucking wi-fi?’
‘5000,’ the man opposite announces. His eyes are red and still fixed on his screen. ‘That’s a draft.’
‘Oh, well done,’ the 4812-word woman says, and initiates a round of manifestly half-hearted applause. She stands, picks up a blue marker pen and walks across to the nearest sheet of paper on the wall. She scrawls something about an act involving a hymen and a newspaper, and when she’s done she taps it with the pen. ‘You’re not finished if you don’t have that in there.’
‘Bit of quiet please,’ the voice around the corner says. ‘I’ve got an interview coming through with Martin Polney.’
‘Must be hard to fit in the writing with all those media commitments.’ I don’t even see who says it this time. In this low light, authors can do snide without any evidence of moving parts.
‘Did we agree on the venom thing?’ the one with the black sleeveless top says. ‘The one about jellyfish venom for weight loss? And if anyone’s getting any kind of internet access can you look it up and tell me what it’s all about?’
Elroy taps me on the arm. ‘Might not be exactly what you came here for?’
Once we’re back out on the walkway I persuade Brian to ask some of the clean-up volunteers a few questions, and I finally get some of the material I’d been looking for.
‘What about higher?’ he says to me. ‘Reckon we can go there? Three or Four? Ferret can distract the minder.’
I take a look up at the higher floors. The water got up at least to Four and there’s debris hanging from the railings. I can see two staff up there assessing the damage. One of them’s Sammi Bernhoff.
‘Just . . . ’ I know it’s the thing to do. It’s where the real story is, catching people who know and work in this building in the moment they discover how trashed the new level is. ‘Just be decent, okay?’
‘Decent? Did you get a look at her? Don’t they make tops in her size? Let’s go.’
He’s heading for the stairs before I can say anything more. When I look back I can see Ferret turning Elroy away from us and pointing out something in the distance.
The stairs are covered in sludge and debris dropped by the retreating water – more broken chairs, swollen books. Someone has pushed them aside to make a path, but the cleaning is yet to begin.
It’s hard to keep our footing on the fourth floor, and the smell is at its most rank up here. Just before the lifts, a door has been pushed open. I’m about to follow Brian in when he holds up a hand to stop me. Sammi Bernhoff is there. Her face is in her hands and she’s fighting not to cry.
‘Oh, hi,’ she says when she notices us. She wipes her face. ‘This is . . . was some of the Oxley stuff. Some of the special collections and . . . That little girl was here. I was the last person to see her, I think. Here.’
She blinks and frowns, and tears run down her face. She crouches down, then sits in the mud on the floor and hugs her knees. She cries completely silently, with only her shoulders moving.
Brian goes down on his knees next to her.
‘No,’ he says. ‘No. It’ll be okay.’ He scoops his hands through the mud and pulls out a piece of porcelain. He wipes it on his sleeve. It has two birds on it, blue against a white background. He finds another, and tests them to see if they’ll fit. He holds them out, offering them to Sammi. ‘This’ll be . . . ’
He looks around the spoiled room. He has no idea how to fix it. He puts his hand on her shoulder and waits for better words to come.
There is nothing for Double B on Four. We exploit people all the time, but only the kind of clowns who ring in to show off on the show.
As we reach ground to see the last of the mandala being hosed into the forecourt, Brian says, ‘Shit. Thanks for making it an OB, mate. Could’ve otherwise wasted the day high and dry back in the studio, drinking coffee made by a barista.’ The dirt is crusting on his hands and he rubs them against each other to make at least some of it crumble away. ‘How do you fix that? How do you fix that shit? How would it be, being the last person to see . . . ’
Across the road, a man holds a young girl by the waist and lifts her from the ground. She’s wearing a red dress, with the hem caked with mud. He’s holding her up so that she can pull a sheet of paper from a power pole. It’s got her picture on it.