The Long and Spectacular Life of Agnes Magnusdottir 6
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
After lunch it was more of the same, more people and more forms. Hans stamped the forms and put them in the box. He stamped the forms and put them in the box. It was a job he did all day every day except for Sunday when they closed at lunchtime and if he so wished he could walk around the park and look at the birds.
He did not so wish.
He disliked birds. And he also disliked parks. Especially as they contained so many huge statues of famous heroes of the Directorate, nude, and with huge grotesque appendages the size of the canoes on the boating lake. Before canoes got banned. For being too much fun.
The statues, however, were not banned.
Herr Lange, Herr Weiß, Herr Schwarz and so on.
Bastards all of them, Hans thought, and they probably had minuscule dicks, like pistachio shells, although this was not an something Hans could safely say out loud or even almost think.
At four fifty-five Hans was contemplating whether he would have an armpit or a bottom pushed up against him in the crush of the tram on the way back to his apartment when a form pushed through the slot caught his eye.
'Where is my father?'
The very large letters, written using a pink crayon, filled more than two thirds of the page.
Hans raised his eyes from the form and on the other side of the window he found an entirely unprepossessing woman holding the hand of a small blonde-haired girl whose body was completely encased in a shabby and ripped coat altogether too large for her.
They pair looked like they had been blown about by the wind for some considerable time and then blown through the entrance of the building and right up to the counter.
Hans considered for some moments, choosing his words carefully. There were rules and rules had to be followed.
"’Where is my father?’ is a question and not a complaint."
"A question can be a complaint.”
The girl’s voice, unexpectedly, was both clear and precise, not childlike at all.
"For example, ’Why isn't there any cheese?’ That is a complaint. The person saying it would be complaining because there isn't any cheese."
Hans had to acknowledge there was a certain logic to this answer and it was because of this perhaps that for once the natural antipathy he felt towards his fellow human beings didn’t well immediately up in him.
But what could he do? Exceptions were not allowed.
"Complaints are about uneven paving stones or the lack of food. Or the late running of a tram. Or a blocked toilet."
The girl didn’t bat an eyelid.
"Where is my father because our toilet is blocked and the plumber we usually use is stuck on a late running tram?”
"Please ignore her forwardness.”
The older woman, the mother Hans assumed, placed a gently restraining hand on the girl’s shoulder.
"She is the most headstrong little imp, quite unlike any other child I know."
“Yes I see that.”
Hans rubbed an eye and almost smiled. Then, checking first that no one was near enough to overhear, he lent closer to the window and spoke in a low whisper.
"And you are sure this father of yours is actually missing? You haven't simply misplaced him? Or perhaps he has gone off on his own accord?"
The girl shrugged off her mother’s hand and stood up on tiptoes so her face was right next to the glass.
"He used to tell me a bedtime story every night. He could do the voices of all the characters. He promised me he would always tell me a story at bedtime however old I got. He said stories were important. I know he wouldn't break his promise. He is missing. I am sure."
Hans hesitated before picking up his stamp.
What would it matter anyway?
"It is three shillings.”
The woman opened her purse and moved her fingers through the compartments.
"I thought complaints started at four?"
Hans considered his tram ride home. He considered his one room apartment. He considered day after day passing with no reward and no hope.
"Three shillings. That's my final offer. Take it or leave it."
"We’ll take it. Thank you for treating our complaint seriously. We are both very grateful. Yes we are."
As Hans slid the complaint into the box he noticed some words right at the bottom of the form that he hadn't seen before but that must have been there all along.
‘Thank you in advance old man, Amelia Krüger, age 7.’
Arriving at work the following morning Hans found Hoffman dramatically clutching at his stomach and complaining of cramps.
"He ate a cushion.”
Meyer stood with a disapproving look upon his face.
“The stuffing from it at least. Boiled it up. He's hoping the doctor will give him a week in the infirmary.”
Hoffman groaned and rolled his eyes in a most dramatic manner.
"There will be nurses. With warm fleshy bodies and kind words. I hear they give you strip baths. Just imagine that! Hot soapy water and soft hands all over my naked body."
Meyer spoke grimly.
"Rumour goes that nine times out of ten the strip baths are done by other male patients. And I hear they use the dirty water from the toilet bowls. The last thing the Directorate want is for citizens to linger in the infirmary. What is the point of a worker who can't work?"
Meyer looked nervously around the room fearful perhaps he had said too much. His next utterances were spoken in a louder more chirpy voice.
"And of course they are right! A healthy society makes a healthy body! How could any of us be truly ill?"
"Any news on Wolf’s assassins?" asked Becker stepping in to change the subject. "The news is that they've both pleaded guilty. Well done to the Directorate for acting so swiftly."
"Well done indeed!”
Hans lifted the keys from off their peg.
"Praise be to the Directorate and all who sail in her merry ship."
The first complainant of the day was from a woman who said the local children were always calling her a witch.
"Can't you just ignore them? Children, after all, will be children. They are nasty little things by their nature. Neither you nor I can change that."
"They knock at my door at all hours of the morning and ask for spells. You have to do something! You can't imagine what it is like to live like that."
Hans lent closer to the glass of the window. He did that trick where he rotated his eyeballs in different directions from each other.
"Eye of frog and tail of newt. Can you get me out of this blasted place?"
"Are you mocking me?”
The woman stepped back and spread her arms far apart.
“Do you dare to mock me?”
"That’ll be fifteen shillings," said Hans officiously and, as the woman deposited the coins in the designated slot, he imagined her flying across the moon on a broomstick, a pointed black hat sat neatly upon her head.
It was at the same time as the day before when they came again.
’Where is my father?'
It was the single plaintive sentence that he noticed first. It was written in the same kind of thick crayon although this time it was a sky blue rather than a garish pink.
Hans tried to keep the rise of emotion out of his voice.
"You have already filed this complaint.”
"And I have not yet received an answer."
Amelia Krüger, aged 7, smiled sweetly and stared innocently up at him with her huge blue eyes.
"So I thought I would come back to see what is happening."
"What is happening?"
Hans could not understand it. Most children would be snivelling and whining by this point. Snot would be pouring out of their noses. That is what happened when children did not get what they want. It made it easy to clip them around the head.
But this one…
"That is not how it works," he said gently.
"Then how does it work?"
Hans looked over the girl’s shoulder to see if there was a next customer. He could make up a story about her having to hurry along but there was no one. He gave a deep sigh.
"You file the complaint,” he said, “which you have already done by filling in the form. The form is then put in this box," here he tapped the top of the wooden box, "and at the end of each day the box is taken out to the complaints assessment area where the forms are assessed and dealt with by another employee. All this takes time." He attempted a reassuring smile. "If there is an answer you will be informed."
"If there is an answer?"
Amelia Krüger pressed her nose right up against the glass.
"There is always an answer even if it is one you might not like."
"That is the system."
Hans raised his hands to indicate that is how things were and it was not possible to do anything about it.
"Well I don't like your system. My father is not with me at home so he must be somewhere else. I want to know where that is and then I can go and get him. So, please tell me how long will I have to wait? Please."
Hans, who normally did not struggle to find the words to say what he wanted to say, on this occasion could find none. Finally, in desperation, the girl having not stopped staring at him, he held up the bunch of keys. "It is time for me to close up now. You have to go. Both of you."
The next day, at the same time, they came again. And the next. And the next. Always they presented the same complaint, 'Where is my father?'
Hans began to be haunted by a recurring dream. In the dream he made the decision that he would help the girl with her complaint and setting out on a course of action that was not exactly clear in his dream landscape he managed to rescue her father from the cockroach infested dungeon in which he had been incarcerated.
But that was not the thing that was terrifying.
As Hans was driving them away from the scene in bright blue getaway car he turned to look at the man on the seat beside him and sitting there was no one other than Wolf, the recently murdered head of The Ministry of Information.
"You are under arrest," said Wolf. “Do not try and resist. There is no point.”
In the next scene Hans was tied naked to a bench. One by one his eyeballs were popped out using a mental pair of prongs and then his bumhole was horribly distended and starved rats allowed to crawl up inside him.
It was awful and when Hans woke up cold sweat was pouring off his body.
On the seventh occasion when Amelia turned up with her mother Hans spoke in his most pleading and insistent voice.
"This has got to stop. Do you understand the trouble you could get into? That we could all get into?"
"I will come back every day until I get an answer."
"No!" Hans spoke more loudly than he meant to and even though there was glass between them the girl cowered back. "No! Don't you understand? This is not going to help. Not. At. All. You must not come here again. If your father comes back he will come back. But if he does not you will simply have to accept that he has gone."
On the eighth day Amelia Krüger and her mother didn't turn up. Nor on the ninth. Nor on the tenth. Before locking up the front door that day Hans looked up and down the street. There was no one there except a snowman. To its front was pinned a complaint form and on it written in bold letters were the words, "Please help me. That is all I am asking you. Please help me.”
The words were large and written in pink crayon.
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