Thursday, 23 February 2017

The State Raffle

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.
I've 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.
It 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.
The 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.
A 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.
Although 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 people.
The 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 street.
Curious, 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.
Instead, 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?
Well, 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 limousine.

Picture credit: The State Lottery Office, 1882, Vincent Van Gogh