Monday, 3 February 2014

The Census Typist

The coffee crackled black across the tongue, provided the lips with the necessary lacquer to expel speech. Faith looked with a mild sense of mirth at the shrinking human being in the corner; the mirror set at an angle so that it  warped all it captured.

It was a cruel judge, she thought – the contours of the room splintered by the single offending eye.  ‘And she had always been so tidy’ – her mother’s voice wavered in her ears like an intoxicated breath, drawing her towards the window as if she could capture something tangible, out onto the balcony. It was only the later of city-ash which shuffled uneasily under her feet, and she watched those flaked remains of imperceptible time – like the rasping perspiration of some Mr Jones running for the train, the piece of hair from the head of a Mrs Bartlett – flicker from the edge. Like ink dropped into water, she thought, watching the larger flakes of ash fall. A sensation she knew only too well.

The way ink shivered from the nib and split its ripe globe to forever taint liquid, provided her with a vague amusement. She went to work, the splintered colour of the computer face mocking her own, and would sit, typing with an automatic hand, whilst the other would occasionally reach for the pen and scatter ink into water. Her hands at these moments held nothing tangible but a sense of reciprocity between them and Faith would feel a sudden consciousness for the rest of her body, a kind of guilt. She pictured the neck contracting into the chest, and so on, to leave only a pair of hands. Like a Testament. Her mother used to say that too, often when they were eating – the white bread bloated on her tongue like a gross communion wafer.

Religion: None.

The couplet mocked her as she typed it through – again and again, each time the bile rising a little in her throat. It was a strange position she thought – the position of ‘none’, of nothing. Could one own nothing? Could one - be nothing?

None. Nothing. The two indulgent adjectives she had applied to herself in the relay she referred to as life. “Nothing’s left” slipped down the phone as she walked home one night where the streetlights injected the puddles with a petroleum streak, “Nothing’s changed” when she watched the silhouette of a young man dressing  flicker like a sketch still underway in front of the curtains. She remembered the press of the lips of his speech, hot and heavy through the muffled darkness.

“You’re right.”

She remembered these bursts of speech with sudden clarity, such individual moments parodied by the opposite office wall – a single piece of sheet glass upon which the residue of the thoroughfare would conglomerate and stare. Insects pulverised to a mere stain, acrid dust, the flailing arms of a long-disembowelled plastic bag. She watched the window occasionally – not  for what was beyond it, but for itself. That was how she would describe herself, she concluded, typing another row, this time ‘Religion: N/A’ – a window. There were the usual idioms for people of course – wallflower, clown, shark – but she deemed ‘window’ as somehow applicable to herself. A window she always sat against as her mother  would face her with the oppressive ‘o’ lips of disappointment, the voice almost empty in its dirge – ‘I wish you would have taken the opportunity and made some friends…’. The window was cold – a clean solid relief from the spattering cliques of the school, the silted conglomerates of the city streets. Instrumental, but somehow lacking intrinsic value. She felt the generative fur of the city dredge her limbs just as much as the glass did.

Another sip of coffee, or splash of ink – alternating the non-typing hand. Her eyes watered, anticipating the security of closed lids and deliciously empty hours. She could be right, Faith thought, she could be right, just as the man who flickered in the stairwell with the percussion of his charity bucket told her. Just as the newspapers told her, just as the distorted faces gaping from billboards with their polished lips told her.
It made a change – masticating the mediocrity. She had never been expected to ‘be anything’ –the phrase so frequently doled like a portion of sedative, yet utterly meaningless. She was installed with no aspiration; a child who wrote little scraps to a waiting horde of ever-imagined readers, drifted through school, snapped into work.  Census offices – census typist. The four words flashed against her chest, mounted on a silver pin.

“One of the family.”

That was what the boss managed to roughly articulate, slapping his hand on her shoulder one afternoon with a focused force which sent waves tingling through her skin.  She disliked him. The methodical roll on the ball of his heels as he orientated his chop-cheeked bulk through the office repulsed her a little. A cigarette protruded like a permanent apparatus for breath between his lips; almost part of the flesh. Flesh – be it greasy, grainy, hairy, old, young, new, alive, dead, male, female. Another category for the Census.
Faith could not fathom how long she had worked as a Census typist – the inexplicable series of repetitions beginning with the rolled stone of the dawn, digging digits into the old mattress of an otherwise empty bed as one dug fingers into a keyboard, the days dilution, the walk ‘home’ to the city apartment which did not deserve the idiom.  The vague smell of alcohol. Food which seemed constituted based on an idea of itself – never quite embodying anything other than the grey of tarmac.

Occupation: -

Grey. It seemed appropriate for her occupation, she mused, pushing the aspirin under her tongue as the clock spliced itself at the meridian – cold and unapologetic, a black clot over cool glass.  Time trickled onwards in that iced liquid, a sensation she felt slowly stirred through her veins, turning the white flesh to an ever-present grey. The computer smiled, draining the whites of her eyes.

She often thought about the composure of words during those long automatic hours – words with their brazen lines, crosses and hatches. Memorials of themselves. Objects – like the ‘whites of the eyes’ being a strange one in itself. For her eyes were rarely white, the quivering mass suffused with the blood-bloat of over-work or  hours of agitation misunderstood as sleep. Sated a little with another aspirin, sometime in the afternoon, she continued.

Her typing fingers  flickering over those vague corrugations like one treats the wounds of the familiar. To her it felt like a kind of  necessary  taxation of the times – she felt she could ‘do’ little else.

The same idiom again – the same idiom she would apply her thoughts to, thinking of what others would ‘do’ in that great assembly of existences. She read her typing of the census like a confession – read of the retired bankers, and rented-house shop workers, an unemployed woman with a degree she did not seem to think appropriate to list. These characters converged in her mind, almost communal – like the night-nurse with four children Faith envisaged feeding the family with bread broken from the loaf and layered under butter and jam. The 28 year old divorcee who perhaps crawled to the second bedroom in his suburban property. The man who rattled the charity bucket and piped above the gravelly growl of insufficient funding – ‘you’re right.’
Yes, she was, she knew them all somehow. She knew everyone.

But it was not enough.

Hours would stall by in the evenings, where the tiling felt suddenly abrasive under the revolted insoles of her feet, and she would lie across the bed – prominent in its slab of the days sacrifice – unable to accustom names to any kind of face, thought of a series of occupations but for bodies without gender, birth year after birth year…

“You were quiet even just from being born.” Her mother’s voice again, aching over the air as she sat for another five hours in the office, or sat up in bed against pillows which protruded markedly against her back as if in defiance of all reassurance. The very words seemed to ring around her, curling concentric in the glass she drank from, spirits as sheer as water which splintered the lingering light of the city dusk. Sometimes she would pull her face from behind her arm and look at the window, rather than through it.

It was more often now, in those hours between work, that her thoughts fell to a certain name – an Adam Hutchinson.  The syllabic structure of the name, the imperceptible piques between the letters, seemed somehow pleasing to her. She had recorded a few before, more than a few in fact, year in, year out. Yet now she thought of an Adam Hutchinson with slicked-back hair and a Soho flat and employment, as was often said, ‘on the horizon’. Such a romantic idiom, she thought.  She gave him a birth date closer to her own, indulged over the particular way of his beliefs – perhaps he was a type to write ‘Christianity’ out of certain kind of fear flexing across the skin when one comes to official documents. Yes, he decided on Christianity. Faith mused that she would most likely do the same – she mused, and mithered, thoughts thickening to words at a spurt of her fingers.

The same - day in, day out. An inevitable conjecture – somehow haunted, if only by itself.

A sameness in solidarity, so to speak. The same experienced  by the cook on the third floor of the office, mechanically doling out her time and effort to the bland mouths of repetitive faces, one grotesque communal crawl of flesh. The same experienced by the taxi driver, threading the same city streets, his crippled spine spared in the couched darkness. The same day in, day out, for the tax officer – the same twisted stares of disapproval, hostility speared through speech, old men approaching the door unassisted, only  to suddenly collapse in on themselves, like soaked board.

It was the same as tax officer William Jones dodged the scuttling black beetles of city cars, the pressure of his shirt collar like a disapproving finger, the thought of another tax evader heavy on his mind. Man who made no known payments – rather scheming business, it was assumed, almost with regret. Confrontations were not a strong point upon such low energy. His briefcase sweated against prickling palms, providing him with some difficulty through the narrow Soho streets.

He arrived at the flat at his intended time of mid-morning. It was a Saturday and he attempted to ring the bell with an optimistic flick of the wrist in the hope the occupant would be in. He could not bear a return journey.
At his ring of the hell, the speaker system in the wall crackled, which the tax collector had no choice  but to assume to be interrogative.

“I’m here on behalf of the tax collection ser-“

His announcement, cupped-palm round the speaker, voice slowly expelled as if to impress, was cut hastily short by the door to the collection of flats clicking open. The tax collector posted himself through the ungenerous amount of door space, flicked his hair back to a somewhat greater height with an accustomed hand and proceeded directly to the specified flat – 31 A. 

The door of the flat itself hung open, emitting a greasy kind of light as if strained through several surfaces, finally to be smeared in a dull blur on the foyer wall, close to where the tax collector stood on the threshold of the room.

“Good day,” he began, deciding an authoritative oratory presence would perhaps rouse the inhabitants enough for co-operation “I’m here on behalf of the Tax Collection Service. It has been brought to our attention that a Mr Adam Hutchison, registered at this here address, has been evading the payment of –“

He stopped short again at what sounded similar to the eruption of birds wings – yet a sound also infused with a plaintive, solitary quality. He was tired and wanted the day to end. He thought little of walking forward, only perhaps a small amount upon the phrase itself – ‘walking forward’ – used as an idiom by insecure parents to encourage his academic advancements in his teenage years.  Just getting it over with.

Years. The indefinable quality of the years.

The room was an explosion of captured light, grounded only by the rough-centrality of an unmade, iron-grey double bed and then an inexpressible quality of the days detritus – clothes, pens, cutlery, stale sheets, food serrated the corners by cautious mouthfuls – scattered as if thrown from a height. A  standing dressing mirror stood impeccably straight against the back wall, almost sentinel,  as if quietly musing upon the chaos. Open and against the exposed sheet was a large notebook, the source of the initial noise – its shattered spine buckling beneath agitated pages which thrashed against cruel fingers of the wind manipulating further the wide-open window. Pages seeped with scribbling, some almost aching with the pressure applied to the page. There was something almost infantile in those inkings, the tax inspector mused, drawing a little closer, as if to shut the book. List after lists of names, varying from the mundane to the ridiculous, rapidly written career prospects, every and any abode, sequence after sequence of salaries…

And then as he was flicking through the book, the tax collector stopped on a roughly central page.

‘Adam Hutcheson.’

A tick was flicked against the name like a sick smile, a tick nearly the same to those which followed – Annie Price, Benjamin Simpson, Aled Peters

Perhaps Faith had done the right thing. She had made friends.