The heavy arched door opened and they all began filing in: the old, the young, shuffling tiredly and bowed with their sticks or wheeling infants in pushchairs, all of whom had waited patiently like their poorer or war-worn ancestors might have done queuing for meat rations or bread.
never before witnessed such a scene, (and I never hope to again), for
it was a depressing sight. One that lingers in your consciousness
long after it has passed; even after I knew what they had huddled in
the bitter cold for and that it wasn't what I'd imagined.
wasn't as I thought a matter of survival, although perhaps it was to
them. Perhaps it meant more than I realised now or then.
crowd weren't, as I would have expected if my hunch had been right,
exhibiting any signs of being saved, only relief that the wait was
over. There was no excited chatter as birds might give when they're
disturbed from their roost, just a silent adjustment of hats, scarves
and coats which they each did with a deadpan expression, their faces
grey and drawn.
going-through of motions, grown hardened to, not that it helped to
keep out the cold or lessen, what I took to be, a humbling act,
performed automatically which left me in no doubt that this gathering
happened regularly: people representing all socio-economic groups
camped outside the same place, the same stone government building, at
the same time, around midday until half-past two when the huge
cave-like door creaks open and admits them, shuffling snakelike, in.
I can't confirm if it was always the same day, a Wednesday, or in
what frequency it occurred, it was clear from the scene before me
that it was, if not looked forward to, waited for with numb
expectation, almost like a last salvation which was by no means
guaranteed for each and every one, so that even the air seemed stale,
like it had been inhaled and exhaled too many times by these hopeless
body of this snake writhed as if a large mammal had been swallowed,
distorting itself into four distinct lines which shuffled forwards
and up the entrance steps like a centipede or caterpillar of the
Jurassic age. The only audible sounds sniffs and coughs, an odd cry
or low groan, and the scrape of shoes, sticks and wheels on paved
I joined the tail. Here, some young men, late to these proceedings,
were being more uproarious: jostling each other and kicking the
ground, their heads mostly down and their hands entrenched in their
trouser pockets. They weren't like the rest, up ahead, subdued. And I
wondered why...were they new to whatever awfulness this was? Or being
young, were they not disenfranchised enough to either meekly submit
or rebel? These were my musings. I would have liked to engage with
them, but not being young nor familiar with their particular type of
shiftiness or the general pervading atmosphere, it seemed wiser to
resist that urge.
I leant on my wooden walking stick, doing my best to be unobtrusive
and yet keep up with the shifting crowd; a few latecomers had joined
us, two more young men and an old woman in a headscarf, so the only
real feature, I think, which stood out about me was the dull thump of
my stick. The young never take much notice of an old person, although
officials do and might; that was my sickening dread, yet I'd seen
nobody, for any obvious reason, singled out. Actually, I'd seen
nobody who'd entered leave. What were they doing in there? Was it
some sort of meeting, one that had moved from outside to in, where
items of importance were discussed? Was there another, unseen, exit?
I had to black out didn't I?, then and there; it's a condition I'm
prone to when my circulation plummets, and when I came round,
properly round, I was on laundered sheets in a community hospital.
There was a white-coated state official by my bedside, who I mistook
for a doctor, who presented with me a cerise raffle ticket on behalf
and with the compliments of the council. The first prize he informed
me, with a winsome smile, a day in a state-provided chauffeured
Picture credit: The State Lottery Office, 1882, Vincent Van Gogh