The Ministry

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I stayed at work late. I was trying to repair the Ministry’s main file-server. It kept crashing and booting and then crashing again. Looping in and out of the present. I am not allowed to be on any computer unsupervised, in case I try to look at the files. But once the security guard’s shift finished, I stayed on a short while until it had stabilised.

He’d long gone when I was packing my rucksack. I locked the safe and left the door open, as procedures dictate, and left. The long corridor of single-cell offices strobes light from the outside onto the corridor, as I walk to the lift. I press the down button and wait. I button up my coat while the lift doors slide apart. Inside stands a dwarf. With his razored scalp, beige raincoat and black eye-glasses, he is my 4-foot reflection. I have seen him before but still I jump. Upset by my own shocked reaction to this encounter, I mumble “damn”, as if I’ve left something, and pause before walking down the stairs. The dwarf has a senior position in the Ministry. This failure in etiquette will not go unpunished.

Heading for Kings Cross, I cut down an alleyway by Russell Square. I have spent years working in either Holborn or Whitehall and have walked across London countless times. But somehow I have got myself stuck in the side streets.

I stop at the fenced playground of a school. I think: “if I walk straight I’m sure to hit a main road.” I stride around a crescent of Georgian townhouses until I meet a T-junction. As the crescent was right bearing, I decide to turn left, then right. I walk straight for a while through increasingly deprived residential areas, with the odd boarded-up free-house bearing the scars of time. The late autumn gloom is supplanted by a building breeze.

I can see no road signs that can tell me what bit of London I am now in. Tall Victorian walls surround me so I can’t see far ahead. The darkness is thickening like vegetable soup. I walk further to try and find a bus, taxi or sign of life. Town houses echo jaundiced light across the side roads and the odd street-lamp shows the way. There are few people out at this time.

I spot a set of steps next to a huge red-painted wall. It looks like a walkway to a supermarket or shopping area. The steps are sharply pitched so I climb them using the handrail on the right for support. In places the red paint blisters to show hand drawn pictures of stick people in a connected circle. After 20 or 30 steps, the handrail becomes increasingly high until it’s effectively out of reach. The handrail angles up to the sky and I strain carefully up the last few steps into a square of suburban houses. The houses were clearly once well-to-do: a chipped Corbel heads and battered mouldings proclaim past affluence. There is some life here.

It is getting late, I am wearing away and I am forced to rent a room.

A myopic sign blinks BED a d B ARD. An Eastern man drinks from a green can on the steps. I enter and ask the attendant for a room. He wears a rumpled brown suit and a roll-up is hanging out of his mouth. He looks at me through the smoke as if I’ve just stepped off a UFO. While he sorts out the room key, my comment about the weather receives a mumbled, “wouldn’t know mate…”

I climb a bare wooden staircase and find the room number that matches the key. As I unlock the door, a man appears. He says nothing but smiles. He has unruly curled hair, paisley pyjamas with lilac flecks and animal face slippers. He grins warmly and ambles past me and down the bare oak stairs.

I enter the room, close the door and see a barely functional layout. A single bed with yellow sheets and a once-violet eiderdown dominate the space. I take off my suit down to my underwear. Place them as neatly as possible onto a dining chair and slip into bed, snagging my toenail on the sheet I fade away into tiredness.

The wind rattling the window frame wakes me from an edgy dream, the content of which appears to have sweated its way onto the bed sheet. I wake up dislocated. Searching for my alarm clock and glasses. But they are not there. I am worried about getting to work on time. The Ministry are looking for any reason to lay people off. Outside it’s pitch-dark.

The landing outside squeaks. I nervously open the door to see the man in paisley pyjamas. He smiles at me and I am struck by the wateriness of his eyes that seem to hide their colour. He strides towards my room door. I try to block his progress with my body, but it sags out of his way.

He stands at the end of the bed by the door and smirks broadly without showing teeth. His eyes are now sparkling with tears and each drip traps a slice of lilac paisley within its bubble. I ask him if I can help, but he simply smiles. He looks down at his slippers and my eyes follow his. He wears desert- brown slippers that have a smiley face and a bobble for a nose. As I continue to look at them, the smiley face seems to straighten, then turn upwards until the mouth, previously a pen mark, opens to show a brown suede throat. The paisley man drops something on the floor. Some kind of nut perhaps, and the smiley slipper grabs, chews it and grinds the hidden food into its belly. Like an impressionable child, the slipper shows its now empty mouth. The amateur puppeteer’s eyes show that this is the punch-line to the show and the paisley man guffaws silently, lifting his eyebrows to underline the point.

I look back down and the slippers are again just badly drawn smiley faces with a piece of cotton for a nose. The paisley man holds my arm for a second and opens his pyjama pocket coyly. Inside the dark cotton something is pulsing and gently rolling. I can’t see if it is an animal or his heartbeat. He releases me, waves and walks out back to his own room. The floorboard squeaks once and then he is no more. As if it may have been stolen, I pat my chest to feel that my heart is still in the right place. My mind is sure something vital has been expressed but to the wrong person. I pick the events apart in my mind until I fall comfortably asleep.

I am woken into the present by signs of life. The time is getting on now. I brush down my clothes and try to find my shoes. Outside a normal day is beginning. I can hear the coughing of passers by and the rattling of cold engines. I pack, arrange myself and ease open the door. I pause as down the main staircase a short-haired dwarf uses the banister to half-jump, half-slip down each step.

Photograph by Andy Delcambre, via Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Laurence Cotterell

Middle-aged English teacher who loves books, playing amateur football and passing Half Man Half Biscuit lyrics off as my own. Originally from Barnet, I now reside in Stroud with my artist wife, Sarah and a troika of freeloading cats.

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