Conor arrived late even though he’d prepared his clothes and papers the night before, woken up at six o’clock and caught an early bus downtown. The bus burst a tyre crossing the bridge and, as public transit policy dictates, “… in the event of a break down commuter safety requires that all passengers remain seated on the bus until it can be moved to a safe set down point.” Since it could not be moved nor pushed, Conor and his fellow passengers had to endure thirty minutes trapped inside a cold bus in the middle of busy traffic until the tow truck arrived. When it finally did turn up, the drivers couldn’t decide between themselves which part of the road would be the safest. Should they pull it to one side of the bridge or tow the bus one hundred metres to the end of the bridge and park it next to the riverside? After much argument in which each driver purported to have spent more of his life driving than the other, they chose the latter because it was closer to the pub. And so from there Conor had to walk the rest of the way, four kilometres, to the administration building where he presented himself to reception, sweaty and dishevelled and announced that it was his first day on the job.
After being shown to the right elevator, then to the right floor, hall and finally to the office where he would be meeting Mr Duncan-Tweed, his new boss, Conor decided it would be a convenient time to skip off to the bathroom to relieve himself and readjust his clothing. There was no use in being uncomfortable during what could be a tortuously long induction ceremony. He’d not wanted a job in the public service at all but somehow ended up with one. A friend knew a friend and there was a late night with great deal of drinking and before he knew it he’d had an interview and received the letter of congratulation. The money was decent however and at thirty years, his extensive qualifications in the world of bartending and comicbook reading were not going to get him anything better, so why not?
Conor looked up and down the hall for a sign to the toilets but there was none. A man in a peach corduroy suit was stamping down the hall towards him.
“Ahem, excuse me, could you tell me where the bathroom is please?”
The man stopped and looked up at Conor over rimless glasses. “Which one?”
“The closest, I guess.”
“Well, there is one on this floor, but it isn’t the closest. It’s usually faster to take the stairs down to level two, through the double doors and to your right. It’s just near the water fountain on the left past the notice board.” And with that he turned and began to walk off.
“Should I take the stairs near the elevator?” Conor called after him.
“Which other stairs are there? Tell me and we’ll both know,” the man said over his shoulder before disappearing around a corner.
“Sorry, first day. My fault,” Conor said under his breath.
“Don’t worry about Percy,” someone said behind him. Conor received a start and jumped to one side. “He’s a ripe old pot, but you’ll soon learn that we all tick a little off centre in the nuthouse.”
“Sorry, you scared me. I-”
“You must be Mr James, am I right? We’ve been expecting you, Mr James. I’m Terry, Terry Duncan-Tweed. At your service!” Mr Duncan-Tweed’s heels came together in a military attention, causing his enormous belly to wobble. He was clean-shaven, had a face the colour of off cream with small eyes and a grey moustache arranged clumsily in the middle. “What a day we’ve had so far! Rockets firing in every direction, what a din for a Monday. I suspect they gave you the pork and dill downstairs already, did they lad?”
“The drill! The drill of course. You know the banter, where the paper clips are kept, where to get the best coffee and where the best secretaries are. All on level three if you have to ask. Ha!”
“Not really, sir. Not yet at least. Actually I wanted to find the bathroom quickly before I came to see you. The bloody bus broke down on the way-”
“No, no, no that will never do. We can’t have that sort of trouble around here.”
“Well, you know how it is with public transport.”
“No, boy, the language. That filthy mouth of pottiness doesn’t rub well in my outfit. Yes, well, no matter, come through and I’ll introduce you to the family.”
Conor thought it useless to interject and tried to squeeze his bladder into submission, hoping that it would hold out for just another hour or two until he could slip off to try to find a toilet himself. He followed Mr Duncan-Tweed through to an open-plan office with large sash windows that looked out onto a school play yard. There were twenty or thirty people sitting in the room, each sitting on plush ergomic chairs in front of large flat screened monitors.
“Heads up, people!” Mr Duncan-Tweed boomed. “Got some fresh meat for you today. Mr James here will be our new customer liaison officer and we want to give him a good impression, right? So we’d better not sit him next to Dora.” Everyone in the room turned their attention to a middle-aged lady at the far of the room and laughed politely. “Just a rub and a poke, Dora. We adore you unquestionably. So! We’ve got a shipload of new and splendidly interesting cases, so let’s just throw him in the deep end, shall we? Mr Jones?”
“Well?” Mr Duncan raised his bushy eyebrows and nodded towards the others.
“Hello everyone. I’m very … excited to be here and look forward to working with you and getting to know you all as the day goes on.” That wasn’t so bad, he thought to himself. A lady two desks away raised a thin arm. “Um, yes?”
The woman stood up. She had shoulder-length blonde hair that looked as if it had never seen a comb nor brush or even water for years. “Hello, Mr Jones. My name is Marie and I’d just like to welcome you to the team and say that if there’s anything we can do to help you while you’re getting on your feet, then all you have to do is ask. Just ask us anything, “ Marie said and put her finger to her lips before she sat down.
“Ok, thanks,” Conor said and attempted a laugh to fit the occasion, but could only manage a whimper.
“Maybe we actually should shelve you in there next to Dora. She knows the ropes better than anyone. Any problems you come to see me, okay? Good. Then let’s meet up again at four before you hit the frog and toad, I’ll want to see how you’re getting along.” Mr Duncan-Tween strode out of the office into the hall leaving Conor standing in front of his co-workers, all of whom were still staring at him in silence.
“Ok, so where do I sit? Dora?” Conor asked as he took of his jacket. The sweat had already evaporated from his neck and arms but under the cheap fabric of his shirt he felt damp and uncomfortable. Marie, who still had a finger in her mouth, pointed to the far end of the room with her unoccupied hand. The others slowly returned to their computer screens and resumed typing and drinking their coffees.
Dora had been on the job for thirty-three of her fifty-three years. She was a short, wide woman with greying blonde hair tied up in a bun and wore oversized plastic jewelry on her hands and fingers and neck. Her desk was covered in photos of herself in various places around the world including the pyramids, the Las Vegas Strip, the Rialto bridge in Venice and the Sydney Opera house. Every photo was the same apart from the background scenery: Dora was standing by herself, with a squinting impatient expression, wearinga white pork-pie hat and a t-shirt emblazoned with the name of the location she was visiting.
“Wow,” Connor said. “You’ve been almost everywhere.”
“I haven’t been to Cusco, Peru. I’m going there in August. I wanted to go to La Paz, that’s in Bolivia, but the Government is in civil war, so I decided not to.”
“Probably a wise decision, Dora. Hi, I’m Conor.” Conor extended his hand, which Dora stared at for several seconds before returning to her screen.
“First of all we need to get you introduced to the new cases. We deal primarily with citizens who wish to marry foreigners. They send their documentation to us and we review it. After we make sure everything is in order, we send it back to the Marriages Department, who then informs the applicant whether or not their application has been successful.”
“Ok, and what are the criteria?”
“How do you determine if everything is in order?”
“We follow the list. The list says that the primary applicant, that is the citizen, must be older than eighteen and have a birth certificate that is not older than four months to corroborate this. The citizen must also be legally single, that is, he or she must not be already married. The certificate of eligibility 301A has to accompany the application as proof of this claim. Everything must be of course in English. If the applicant was born overseas in a country where English is not the official language then they need a translation, to be performed by an official translator and also a copy of the original approved with a government seal. Thirdly there must be a copy of their national papers or passport, also with government seal, a copy of the notice of marriage in the relevant jurisdiction where they are registered and a postal order of fifty-three Euros.”
As Dora droned on, Conor did his best to appear interested but his mind wandered to and fro between his apartment, which he had to give up in June, to his parents’ anniversary, for which he was yet to buy a present and then to his growing need to visit the bathroom. “Okay,” he interrupted Dora mid-sentence. “That’s a big list, Dora. I think I’ll need a copy of it.”
“You will get one.”
“I’ve just got to duck off to the bathroom. Can you tell me where the closet one is?”
“There’s one on this floor-”
“But it isn’t the closest, yes I know. Is it left or right out of the door?”
“The toilet on level two is closer.”
“I know, but I have a phobia of stairs. Left or right?”
“Right down the hall, past the new births desk, through the tea room, on your left.”
“Thanks. Be back in a jiffy.” Conor had to go so bad he almost jogged out of the room. He’d only officially been at work for an hour and he was already questioning whether he could last the whole day. His boss was clearly insane, his co-workers an army of the undead, except for Marie, who was just plain bizarre, and there seemed to be no toilets in the entire building. He glided down the hall and found the new births desk. “Tea room?” he asked the woman at the desk and pointed in the direction he was heading. The woman nodded. He’d almost cleared the desk when he felt a hand clamp on his shoulder, causing something in his abdomen to squirm.
“Jones! Where the devil do you think you are off to? I haven’t introduced you to Harry in births yet.” Mr Duncan-Tweed chortled and steered Conor back towards the desk. He slammed down hard on a bell, causing the receptionist to jump in her seat. “Harry!” he boomed. “Harry, you old pike. Shuffle on. Come and meet the newling. Here, then. Jones, this is Harry De Coutre. Don’t worry, he’s not French, despite the continental name. On your grandmother’s side, that was the caper, eh?”
Harry, a stocky man sporting a crew cut, leapt forward, arms outstretched as if intending to welcome the new recruit with an embrace. Conor stepped back a pace and offered his right arm, which Harry shook with enthusiasm. “Mr Jones, wonderful to meet you and welcome to the department. You’re going to have a fantastic time. Terry runs a tight ship over at the records department.” Harry covered the side of his mouth and leaned towards Conor’s ear. “Despite what they say.”
“Tight ship, tight ship. I wouldn’t steer her any other way. Mind you, even with a handful of rats on board, we keep it afloat.”
“Well, Jones,” Harry said. “You’ll have to drop by soon for a tour of the births department. Fascinating work we do. Did you know that we have to deal with over one thousand births every month? A thousand! It’s a wonder we get anything done at all around here, what, with all that baby making going on all around us. But we are proud of our work, Jones. Terry will tell you, we are proud of our contribution to the life, to the new generations of our nation. We’re making a difference in here, the unsung heros of our country!”
“I will certainly look forward to learning more about that, sir,” Conor said, his eyes moving in the direction of the tea room.
“Good! Then, we’ll be seeing each other shortly.” Harry said and winked at Mr Duncan-Tweed.
“Come then, Jones,” Conor’s boss said as he looked at his watch. “It may as well be spot on tea time. Let’s get ourselves a drop, what?”
“Oh, that would be great. I was actually just on my way to the tea room.”
“What? I wouldn’t let any of my own drink the unpalatable muck they pass as tea in that place. Besides, it’s miles away. No, I know where the best tea is in the whole building. I’ll show you if you promise to keep it a secret.”
Conor’s bladder told him that this time it couldn’t wait. “Mr Duncan-Tweed, I’m sorry, but I really need to go to the bathroom. I was just headed down to the tea room.”
“No need, my boy. There’s a bathroom on the way. And it’s closer. Just here down the stairs to level two. Come along.”
Conor followed Mr Duncan-Tweed down the stairs, through the double doors and then up the hall of level two. The urgency to pass water was now so great, he was having to contract the muscles of his bladdar as he walked and therefore found it difficult to keep up with his boss who was, with arms flaying out, striding in front of him.
“Mr Fitzpatrick, Fitzy we call him, he hates when we call him Fizty, always has formidable stock piles of the most exquisite teas. He is crazy about the stuff. I just wander in and help myself when I feel like it naturally. The old ship doesn’t mind. He is really a capital fellow.”
“Sir, perhaps I can meet you there? I just have to duck into the loo.” Just the thought of being next to a toilet made Conor’s abdomen relax a little.
“By all means, my boy. It’s just up the hall there, to the left. Come find me when you’re done, won’t you?” Mr Duncan-Tweed said and disappeared behind a door marked 203.
Conor looked up the hall for a sign of a toilet but couldn’t see one. Every door was either without label or seemed to be an office. 204. 205. 206. At the end of the corridor Conor noticed a door that was ajar, to which a handwritten A4 sheet reading “Cleaner’s room” had been taped. From the hall he could see a cleaning sink hanging low on the wall just inside. “What the hell,” he said and walked in shutting the door behind him.
The relief was immense. He couldn’t help but let out a sigh as he urinated, it was if his entire body and mind had been locked in a clamp and ,with every drop that flowed, it was being loosened. He tried to keep the stream running off to the side of the porcelain in order to minimise the noise but the pressure was so great he feared that the trickling sound could be heard from the hall. He flexed his stomach muscles in an attempt to force a faster flow.
Conor didn’t know if it was the sight of the woman or the sound she made that frightened him the most, but when the door creaked opened and he saw her standing in the doorway squealing – at what was an unusually low pitch for a woman – he panicked and fell backwards over a plastic bucket. He had been pushing too hard and it took him a second to stop himself urinating, but not before he’d sprayed a generous coat over the walls and floor. A few drops even landed on the white leather of the cleaning lady’s shoe. She watched him as he collapsed, his naked groin gesticulating over the front of his open trousers, and then let out another unnervingly bassy squeal.
“No, wait!” Conor cried and scrambled to find his footing. “Come back! I was looking for a toilet!” But the cleaning lady had already fled. Conor had just managed to pack his genitals away before the head of Mr Duncan-Tweed appeared followed closely by a tea and saucer which he held close to his portly frame.
“What’s going on in here? Jones! What in the Lord’s name? This will never do. I said up the hall to the left!”
“Sir, I’m terribly sorry, sir. I looked but I couldn’t find it. Oh God, please. This is so embarassing.”
“You’ll want to tidy yourself up a bit before going into Fitzy’s office. The man can become simply unreasonable when it comes to slovenly dress and manners. Come along, Jones!”