Herr Nussbaum looked over his rimless glasses at the stout woman sitting across from him and licked his lips. The taste of his morning Bloody Mary scuttled to the back of his throat. “Gentlemen and Frau Bauer,” he continued, spitting out the name. “You all knew this day was coming, but no one knew it would be as bad as this.” He threw the report into the centre of the table and it landed with a clap. “Months of scouring the footpaths, dragging up and down the streets of outer suburbs, camping out at traffic lights, lobbying for tighter, more exact laws—”
“And the overtime!”
“And the overtime, Herr Hausmann. Who could forget the overtime. And what has it brought us?” Here is where Herr Nussbaum generally paused to allow the full force of his speech to sink in. His small eyes scanned the faces in the room; under the pale light of the fluorescent tubes, their eyes looked like a row of car exhausts, sunken and unblinking. He was about to continue when something hot lurched against the wall of his stomach: another cramp no doubt. God damn, I need a drink. Just an inbetweener; a pull from the bottom drawer with a block of ice and blast of winter air to wash it down. The room was still obediently waiting. “Nothing, I tell you,” he spurted out and they nodded their heads.
“Compared with this time last year, profit is down one hundred percent. Revenue is at zero. Zilch. Not a cent, not a mark, not a pebble. No parking infringements, no young lunatics riding push bikes in flip-flops and, if our observations and reviews of CCTV footage are anything to go by, there’s been not a single instance of jay walking in the whole city. And we’ve had an officer parked behind the skip near the main square twenty-four hours a day. Even the bloody foreigners have been sticking to the rules! Christ knows how they worked things out after we took down all the multi-lingual warning notices. Eight months it’s been since we, Herr Wolf I think it was, caught an Italian tourist riding the bus with the wrong ticket. It’s a scandal!” Murmurs floated around the table in concurrence. “We increased bonuses to encourage the crew to push a little harder, checked tyre pressures, breath-tested cyclists, temporarily changed the speed limit signs in industrial zones — all this we did, but people have simply stopped breaking the rules. It’s as if they’ve ceased to live.” He drew his glass towards him and took a slow sip of mineral water. The cold liquid fizzed in his mouth. Pull yourself together, Nussbaum. “At this point I expect solutions.”
The heads were already rousing, pens were scribbling, chairs shuffling. Herr Wolf raised a finger but withdrew it quickly.
Herr Nussbaum slowly swept away the flecks of paint that had fallen from his hands to the table — Egyptian blue? — then made a show of drawing in breath. Before him was what they called the ‘new breed’ of civil enforcement: parking inspectors with masters degrees in international business, police officers who had been forced into administration work because they had done their backs in sitting in a squad car sucking back bratwurst like they were made of helium. He wondered if any of them knew what trouble they were in; what trouble he was in.
“We could make a rule that cyclists must use their lights in the daytime,” said Herr Hofer, a man whose hunch was far too curved for his thirty-eight years.
“And knee pads. They should be made to wear knee pads. Save the hospitals a fortune in plasters,” another piped up.
“No, no, no,” Herr Nussbaum shook his head and his jowls flapped so violently a hollow slapping sound exited his open mouth. “Creating ridiculous rules worked in the past, but we’re post-conformity, and the public are just too compliant for their own good. We’ll barely have tabled up the fines before they’re all strapping pillows to their legs and riding around with lights bright enough to stun an elephant. No, we need something revolutionary. Something that’s going to encourage more infringement. Get citizens back out on the streets, like they were before: skateboarding on the footpath, grilling in the park on Sundays, drinking on public transport. Like the good old days.”
“What if we started asking the Church to pay council tax?” said Herr Fleischhauer, a plump, balding fellow, who was sitting in his chair as a dollop of porridge sits on the end of a ladle.
The room went silent and Herr Nussbaum thought he saw a shadow drift across the rear wall. The sting had really buried its tail in him now. His head was pounding and his tongue had begun to swell against his gums. Just how much he’d put away last night he couldn’t guess, but he knew from experience that it only got this bad after a really long night of painting. I must have been into the turpentine again. Shit, is my tongue blue? He’d had the Zaffre out in the early hours of the morning, the cobalt dragon he called it; at least, that was the colour he had been picking out of his fingernails at eight o’clock in the morning in the staff toilets, and of the flakes that still drifted onto the table in front of him. He’d turned to the industrial stuff once before, when he’d run out of real booze, thinking if it was good enough for his fine horse hair brushes it was good enough for his liver.
“I think we’re all going to pretend we didn’t hear that, Herr Fleischhauer,” he said.
Herr Fleischhauer shrunk into his seat and began tugging at his earlobes.
It was Frau Bauer who cleared her throat this time. Before she spoke, she patted down her hair and straightened her smooth cotton sleeves. “Don’t you mean, ‘having a good time’, Herr Nussbaum?”
“What?” Herr Nussbaum held the woman’s gaze for a second, forcing himself not to flinch under the gravity of her unpleasantness. The woman glowered back at him with such intensity, her thin eyebrows arching towards the precision-cut grey of her fringe line, that for a moment it looked like she was void of eyelids. “Forgive me, what are you talking about?”
“You said, we need to get the common folk back out there doing what they had once done — drinking in public, grilling in the park and so on — the activities from which we used to collect most of our revenue, is this not true?”
The heads around the table bobbed and murmured. Herr Nussbaum raised his nose at her. “I said ‘citizens’, Frau Bauer, but continue.”
“Well, let us be clear — these activities are commonly associated with what ‘citizens’ call ‘a good time’. People actually enjoy drinking while walking down the street. They find it convenient to relieve themselves against a tree, or ride their bicycles without shoes.”
“But it’s against the rules!” Herr Hausmann said and nearly choked on his own spit.
“Herr Hausmann’s right, Frau Bauer. We can’t allow frivolity to taint our great tradition. What’s your point?”
“That we propose an amnesty. Withdraw the troops for a month. Two if we have to. Let the people get used to not having us around. Summer is coming up, it’s the perfect season for it. Let them relax for a time, attend the festivals, double, no, triple park at major intersections.”
Herr Nussbaum noticed the men around him begin to grow uncomfortable. Or was it merely that he was uncomfortable? He was sweating around the collar, the fur on his teeth had sprouted leaves and he didn’t want to know what his bowels were getting up to. If the silent rumblings were any indication to go by, there was going to be a major and conceivably technicolour incident in the third cubicle within the next forty-five minutes. He pressed his palms into his eyes. “Relax for what? We don’t want to start a revolution. Three’s enough for one century don’t you think, Frau Bauer?”
“I was just coming to my point, Herr Nussbaum. We let this go on all summer, or at least until the temperature sinks below seven degrees. Then, when they least expect it, we carry out the biggest blitz the civil enforcement department of this city has ever seen. We send parking attendants up every street, post station officers at every major intersection, with cordoned-off zones to check every bike on the road. Herr Wolf…”
Herr Wolf bounced in his seat and cupped a hand to his ear. “Yes, ma’am?”
“How many convenience stores were written up as selling beer on Sundays last year?”
“Why, well over a thousand.”
“And you, Herr Hausmann. Pet owners riding on the train who’d not bought a ticket for their dogs — what were the numbers?”
“Not sure, Frau Bauer, but the figure landed around the twenty thousand mark.”
“There’s one hundred and twenty thousand Euros right there.” Frau Bauer snapped her fingers.
The silence that followed could have toppled a government. They seemed to all be waiting for something, a signal to direct how they should react. Herr Nussbaum ran his fingers boredly over the table’s plastic surface and rolled dust into tiny balls. He would have shot them all right there and then for a capful of wine; the woman twice. “Very interesting, Frau Bauer,” he said and offered her a sour smile. Yes, very fucking interesting.
Suddenly someone rapped on the top of the table. Here it comes. Another joined in. Knock knock knock… Soon, there were a dozen fists bouncing on the wood around him, sending mad vibrations into his elbows and knees. Cheers of ‘bravo’ erupted and a few of the men tapped pens on the sides of their water glasses. Frau Bauer didn’t so much as quiver.
Herr Nussbaum waited for the commotion to die down before he spoke. “But what is everyone supposed to do while the public is, as you put it, ‘having a good time’? What are we supposed to do. Sit here in our offices and enjoy the view of the car park? No, I’m not so sure, Frau Bauer. Rules are all we have. They may have been made to be broken, but only if it fills our coffers. We have to remain vigilant otherwise we could be missing out on vital revenue. And besides, what makes you think people will simply resume infringing? Why wouldn’t they just continue with this compliance and see us all in the welfare queue, because that’s the way it’s going if we slacken off.”
“I haven’t thought that far to be honest, Herr Nussbaum,” Frau Bauer said and her bosoms rolled loosely over the table’s edge like two cooked watermelons.
“The good lady hasn’t thought that far!” The good lady would have made a fine painting subject indeed, he thought. If he made it through this day, he would paint her likeness on the kitchen wall this evening; yes, a Rococo Frau Bauer bending over the stove would be his next project.
Herr Wolf, the nervous and diminutive ‘man from the south’ as he was known; who trimmed his red whiskers twice a day, rose his hand again, this time keeping it in the air until he had the attention of every attendee. “We could,” he said and chewed at his lip for a moment, “deploy some of our officers, in plain clothes, to commit these offences—”
“Infringing!” The word spread around the table like a fire in a bucket of cotton balls.
“Some of us,” the little man continued, “some of the younger, more energetic in the department perhaps, could be deployed in the city with the specific take of committing what normally would be infringement-attracting actions. Riding the wrong way in a bike lane for example, or drinking — it wouldn’t have to be real alcohol, we could fill wine bottles with apple or peach juice — on the trams and so on. Plant the seed in the public that infringement is back in style.”
“And what of our officers? What sort of example will it set if they themselves are caught?”
“Who’ll be there to catch them?”
“He does have a point!” a call came—from whom, Herr Nussbaum didn’t know, or care. He probably did have a point. After all, it was Herr Wolf who’d invented the ‘phantom work-zone’, by which a hundred-metre stretch of road was lined with red cones and yellow flashing lights for the sole purpose of reducing the speed limit by thirty kilometres. They’d almost ran out of film they had so many plates on record.
Herr Nussbaum looked across the table once more, but this time Frau Bauer was staring right back at him, leaning forwards and flaring her nostrils as if considering a freshly fried plate of mushrooms. “Well, Herr Nussbaum?” she said. “What do you think of this proposal? I think everyone would agree it’s worth a shot. We don’t seem to have any other choice.”
He flashed her a curt smile, his face almost seizing with the effort. The others were looking at him, waiting for an answer: for the only answer that he could give: “It’s something that we can look at, yes. I think it is. Maybe a trial.”
“The troops will need training,” Herr Wolf offered. “We can’t just go breaking rules unprepared. If one them even hesitates on their bike at an orange light, the public will start to get suspicious.”
“Yes. See to it will you?” Herr Nussbaum turned to Frau Bauer, who was still staring at him with her lidless eyes. Despite her size and seriousness, the woman did hold herself with a certain elegance; it was true. The girth of her neck alone would have put most weight lifters to shame, yet her torso and limbs swung in graceful unison as she moved, as if they’d been carved from rubber. How am I to paint you, my dear? I’ll deepen the tone of you chalk skin for starters, firm up those cheeks and breasts… slice out a few more womanly angles with a few bold strokes of the scraping brush. He dropped his gaze and began scribbling in his notepad. Dark, thick lines, boxes, angles, shooting up and down. His hand began to shake and it seemed that the harder he held the pen, the more he couldn’t control it.
“Are you feeling alright, Herr Nussbaum?” he heard Herr Hofer ask.
He didn’t want to look up. He couldn’t. “Excuse me just a moment,” he said quickly and pushed back his chair into the wall. “Carry on! I just have to make a quick phone call.”
When he arrived at his desk, Herr Nussbaum didn’t bother to find a glass. He poured the rest of the bottle into a dirty coffee mug and took a deep swallow. As the drink warmed his mouth and tongue, the pressure in his temples subsided. The searing cramps retreated. He did a quick test of his nerves and forced a gaze at the grey mesh that covered the low ceiling of his office. It didn’t move. Nor did the walls. Satisfied that world had stopped driving nails into his skull, he took another sip and laughed to himself. What was it, this women’s plan? It was madness surely, allowing people to do what they desired. But isn’t that how you fight madness? With madness? The world had become infected with conformity and the only solution was anarchy. He wished that, just for once, the world were like his paintings in which the only the laws were those of foolishness, frenzy and intoxicated joy; in them, he could run down streets of blazing reds, piss blindly against the yellow walls and drink until it tore holes in his cranium, all without consequence. What am I thinking? Calm down, Hector. You sound like you’ve gone soft in the head. Have yourself another pull on the brown juice, then go back in there and sign the damn thing off. Frau Bauer was right: whether it happened this year or next, the world would return to its disobedient ways. People couldn’t just continue to follow the rules forever. Contravening is what they did best.
And so with that thought still in his mind, Herr Nussbaum drained the coffee mug, wiped his chin and proceeded down the hall to the meeting room, painting circles in the air.