It was May, 1976…and as a lowly young reporter for the Pretoria News, I discovered that Siberia comes in many forms. Because I had disgraced myself and gotten a TV review horribly wrong, I was assigned a new position in life: Magistrates Court reporter.
The position was seen as the grubby, greasy little bottom rung in the newsroom hierarchy – a gulag, by any other name. And so, one autumn day in Snor City, I trooped off to meet my fate.
The Pretoria Magistrates Court was a large grey block of architecture where all downstream life seemed to gather: pimps, prostitutes, drug dealers, narco cops, prosecutors, flashers, frauds, orderlies, magistrates, translators, typists, newspaper reporters and other motley forms of base-born existence.
Down in the Dungeon
The Press room was in the downstairs dungeon, at the end of a long corridor of bleak filing offices.
There was a fraud case upstairs, a big and complicated one. I trudged after the Press pack with slumped shoulders.
The court case was blah-blah, he stole, she stole, he lied and then she lied. The night before had been long, beery and emotional. The lack of sleep weighed heavy on me as I practised my non-existent shorthand.
Two hours in, and I was falling asleep on the bench. Someone nudged me in the ribs, I woke up in Purgatory (others might call it cross-examination) and, bowing low to the glaring magistrate, I left the courtroom.
The Silver Creek Mountain Band
My plan was to phone an on-again, off-again girlfriend about dinner that night, preferably a beer and a burger with the Silver Creek Mountain Band blaring live in the background at, say, the Keg & Tankard down the road.
In the shiny long corridor leading up to the Press room I spotted a trail of blood drops on the floor.
I followed the blood into one of the filing offices and found a rather hefty clerk lying spread-eagled on a table. He’d slashed his wrists on the wrong side of his arms (if memory serves) but there was still a lot of blood spatter involved.
So I chugged upstairs to the office of the Chief Magistrate, burst in and just before the angry man could have me arrested, I told him about his suicidal clerk.
Joined by two orderlies, we ran downstairs again while someone called for an ambulance.
The Bleeding Clerk
We held the screaming clerk down and an orderly tried binding his arms up. The ambulance guys arrived and somehow I ended up in the back of the emergency vehicle talking gibberish to the hysterical clerk.
Once he’d been wheeled in through Casualty, I found a public telephone and made a call to my news editor. He would not be pleased that I’d missed the morning’s fraud case proceedings.
“What?” he yelled, when I told him the story.
“No, I mean, phone the bloody story in! We’ll hold the front page for this.”
So I sat there in the corridor at Casualty, scribbling down the tale of the unhappy clerk at the Pretoria Magistrates Court who was saved by the Chief Magistrates and his orderlies.
Once I’d phoned it through, I took stock of myself.
The hangover had miraculously been eaten up by all the adrenalin of the morning. I was covered in the clerk’s blood and confused. Had I screwed up or won the day? Only a trip to the office would reveal the answer.
Well. The news editor actually hugged me. Then he showed me my story on the front page, complete with reporter’s byline. I could stay on – for now.
Famous for a Minute
Showered and dressed in fresh clobber, I went back to court to catch the afternoon’s proceedings.
The other court reporters had been contacted by their news editors about the attempted suicide that had taken place under their noses, on their watch.
And because they had not been present, they did the next best thing: they interviewed the reporter who had.
So I became famous for a minute or two.
As the weeks passed, I grew to love that old social slime pond of a courthouse. I summoned the mojo of Charles Dickens and fell in with all those lovely bottom-dwellers of life. What stories they told!
Now you would have to force me out of the Pretoria Magistrates Court at gunpoint. This Siberia place had become home.
This is an extract from The Journey Man – A South African Reporter’s Stories by Chris Marais.
“It’s like sitting in a journo bar listening to old hacks tell their funniest, sauciest stories.”
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