The Long and Spectacular Life of Agnes Magnusdottir 4
Extract from The Ministry of Complaints reproduced with the permission of Orlando Press. Copyright remains with the author. Or representative of the author. No further reproduction authorised without express permission.
The Ministry of Complaints
“Damn and blast!”
As Hans climbed from the narrow bed in his fifteenth floor single room apartment the pyjamas bottoms which had stayed on his person throughout the night due to the force of gravity alone slithered comically down around his ankles revealing his tackle and bare arse for all the world to see.
“Herr Brummer and Herr Hartmann, may you rot in your shallow graves!”
If there was someone to blame, and there is always someone to blame, then it was them.
One cold and dark Tuesday morning the previous week these two former Ministry of Information employees had tied themselves to tram tracks and, in a supposed act of resistance, had had their heads and feet sliced off by the Number 6 tram.
And the very next day, and this was the central bumhole of the matter, all ropes, strings, cords (including pyjama cords) had been banned by an Emergency Executive Article.
In this day and age the crushing weight of bureaucracy was almost the only thing that could be relied upon.
A short time later having dressed, washed and considered the breakfast he might have had if only food were available Hans, rushing to the tram stop, paused to buy himself a coffee from his usual stand.
As he held out his two coins, the Director’s head worn almost completely flat on each of them, he nodded curtly to the woman serving him and was about to turn away when his eyes caught the bold headline on that morning’s newspaper.
’Wolf’s Assassins Arrested’.
What honest good could come of it? In his burgeoning fury he spat out the words to the surprised coffee server.
"I hope they dispose of them quickly. No! Better do it slowly. String them up naked from a bridge and cut off their peckers. Let them bleed out over the cobbles."
He knocked back his coffee in one bitter gulp and let the paper fall to the floor.
"Don't those fools realise they only make it worse for the rest of us with their pathetic resistance? We can't change anything. Not a single thing. This is the best we've got and we've got to make do with it.”
In between getting on and off the tram, the whole crowded journey of which Hans had had the bum of an extremely fat man pressed against his face, it had started to snow heavily, big flakes that swirled in maddening circles and somehow ended up always in your eyes.
It was because of this that Hans didn't see the pothole in the road leading up to the crumbling Ministry of Complaints Building.
“Damn and blast!”
Bending to rub at his twisted ankle Hans recalled how he and his coworkers had used to share a joke, if a joke was what it was, that the difficulty in approaching the building might put off potential customers.
They had repeated this possibility a number of times until Merdoff had pointed out, "But if we had no customers then what would we do?" This thought, simply put, had quite shifted their perspective.
They were, as the popular saying goes, stuck between a rock and a hard place with a fork up their fundaments.
On entering, staff door, around the arse-end of the building, ‘like we are being shit in rather than shit out’, Hans found Meyer, Becker, Hoffman and Schmidt already seated in the badly lit and freezing cold staff area, ready to start the day.
"Did you hear on the news?"
Meyer looked up, his question a kind of greeting.
"Snow forecast all weekend. That means we’ll be busy."
Hans snorted as he rubbed his hands together in an effort to generate a little warmth.
"We can hardly be held account for the weather."
Hoffman stood and scratched forlornly at the flat stomach he still swore grown women swooned over.
"We can be held account for anything and everything. Isn’t that our job? Day in. Day out. Day in. Day out. Day in. Day out. Day in. Day out. Day in. Day out. Day in. Day out."
He got louder and louder as he delivered this litany and, lifting his leg, he finished it with an explosive fart before disappearing into the staff toilet slamming the door behind him.
"And how are you this fine morning Hans?"
Becker’s voice, as always, was both inane and bright.
"Cutting it a bit fine, aren't we? But here you are! Good old Hans. Never lets the side down."
Hans wondered, as he often did, what Becker had to be so positive about?
He imagined pouring gasoline over his sorry head and setting him alight. The resultant conflagration would at least allow for some warmth of feeling.
"I am as well as can be expected," he said dourly. "Better than some. Not as good as some others."
"That is good," said Becker. "And did you see the paper?" He lowered his voice to a whisper. "Wolf’s assassins caught? Now we can all sleep more easily in our beds, can't we?"
"You might be able to sleep," said Hans bitterly, "but hungry and miserable and with no hope for the future I can't."
And then, fearful that he had said already too much he grabbed the bunch of keys from off their peg and went alone into the Ministry of Complaints’ reception area.
It was time to open up.
Considering the size of the enormous building the reception was remarkably unprepossessing and looked at first glance rather like the interior of a fairly regular and nondescript provincial post office.
There was the long dark wooden counter topped by a thick pane of glass, there were the metal poles connected by dull and frayed red ropes positioned to form a series of switchbacks in which the customers could queue and there, on every single inch of available wall space, were the wooden racks filled to the brim with plain white forms.
Take out one of these forms and then another and then another, each from a different section of the wooden racks, and it would be clear, on comparing the three, how this building served a different function to that of a post office.
For in a post office many tasks could be completed or initiated, the paying of a bill, the application for a radio licence and so on, but on each of these forms there was only one word, centred in bold and at the top: 'Complaint’.
Hans, who hadn't yet removed his jacket, it was as cold in here as in rest of the building, the heating having been turned off many years before and never turned back on again, unlocked the large wooden door through which customers could enter and then, as fast as propriety would allow, made his way back behind the counter.
He knew, even at this early hour and in the falling snow, there would be people outside waiting to come in and make their complaints. It was their right.
Directorate Article 5, Subsection A, Declaration 1. ’We at the Directorate are always willing to listen to and act upon, where it is deemed reasonable and possible, the concerns of our noble and industrious citizens.'
Directorate Article 5, Subsection A, Declaration 1, Sub-subsection 7. 'All complaints must be voiced in the correct manner and at the correct place. For the procedure for the filing of complaints please see Declaration 1, Subsection 45, subheading ’The Ministry of Complaints.'
On more clement days Hans had often had the idea of removing his socks and shoes, then his trousers and underpants and going about his working day with his bottom half completely nude.
Shielded from view by the thick wooden counter none of the customers would be any the wiser. He could dangle his tackle as free as a bird, swishing it to the left and right so it marked time like a metronome if he so wished. In his more radical moments he thought he could leap up onto the counter and press his bare behind up against the thick glass.
"Complain to that you miserable bunch of moaning bastards!"
This morning the first customer who made it to his position with a completed form, and Hans always liked to have a bet who amongst the early comers this might be, was a tiny woman on whose shoulders the mounds of snow had yet to melt.
From the deep wrinkles on her face Hans guessed she must have already passed more than eighty years on the planet.
A miracle in itself!
Perhaps, Hans thought, a smile almost forming on the outer edges of his lips, he should direct her to the Ministry of Miracles instead of the Ministry of Complaints.
"How much do I owe you, sir?"
Hans retrieved the form the woman had slid into the slot and scanned it quickly.
’The baker, Hendorff, is mixing straw into the dough.’
"That'll be five shillings," he said.
Even the longer forms with many many words and long convoluted sentences he could scan in a matter of seconds.
"If you cross out six words I could do it for four."
The woman held up a hand and counted on her fingers. "That would only leave three words. I don't think anyone could say anything of worth in three words."
"Fuck right off," thought Hans and lifted the stamp. With a pleasing thwuck he brought it down onto the form and pushed out the tray to receive the woman’s coins.
At lunchtime, twelve o'clock, Hans shooed out into the deepening snow those still lined up within the reception and turned the key to lock the door.
Grabbing the box into which he had inserted that morning’s complaint forms he headed back through to the staff area.
Meyer, Becker, Hoffman and Schmidt were already there.
"Busy morning?" asked Meyer as he took the box off Hans and gave it a shake. Then he looked carefully and deliberately around the room. Every few months a new rumour started up that the room might be bugged or that one or another of them might be a spy or an informant.
"I really don't know what people find to complain about," he said loudly. "I really don't."
"Your face and my arse," said Hoffman directly. "That's what I'd complain about. It's like they were separated at birth. It's making me a laughing stock. I almost feel I can't walk down the road anymore. Children taunt me. 'We’ve seen your face on someone’s arse,' they say. What am I supposed to do? What in hell’s tooth name am I supposed to do?"
For lunch Hans had a single fig and an extremely stale piece of bread. He ate them, one in each hand, as slowly as possible, trying to eke out as much sustenance as possible.
"I'll tell you what," said Becker, "I'm feeling good today. Do you know how it is when some days you wake up feeling on top of the world?"
"What is wrong with you?" said Hoffman. "Have you ever listened to yourself? I mean. Really listened?" Then he said, "Do you know I haven't had a bowel movement in three weeks?"
He shook his head disconsolately.
"Last night I took a book and sat on the toilet for three hours. Nothing. Not one little thing. I spoke to the doctor and do you know what he told me? He said, "Be patient." Then he said, "There are people much worse off than you." But what do I care about them? They are not me, are they?"
These sentences were delivered into a stunned silence. It was Becker who finally spoke.
"You have a book?" he said, his voice so low his words were scarcely audible. "You have an actual book?"
Then he looked quickly around the room. If it was bugged they were all doomed. Books were more banned than any other single object.
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