If I were to believe in the biblical fire and brimstone version of hell (which I do not) then I am quite certain that in it, perhaps somewhere near the back where the sulphur is particularly thick and the gnashing of teeth especially loud, there would be a special corner reserved for council office officials. I am also of the mind that in that particularly hot and fiery corner there would most definitely be an area of exceptional unpleasantness reserved for the receptionists which greet you as you enter most government premises.
A letter received earlier in the week had asked that I appear in person at the council Department for Local Amenities to confirm that I was still alive, and that I should bring identification and proof of residence. Given all we had been through you would be forgiven for thinking that the local officials might be understanding over such things as a misplaced drivers license or lack of a recent bank statement. They are not. A global apocalyptic event may have been enough to bring down some governments but the trusted English council had prevailed throughout and if I wanted to continue to receive the family rations then I had best turn up, and I most certainly had best ensure I had the correct paperwork.
Having clambered onto the number 548 bus which, with the exception of a rather bland looking gentleman wearing mostly beige and carrying a small brown brief case, was completely empty I had held high hopes for an uneventful trip into town. Like most of us, the bus had seen better days and would under normal circumstances have been scrapped long ago, but it remained in service and its damaged body work, faded red paint and torn and battered interior still ran it’s route three times a day. As it spluttered and lurched along the winding road towards town we passed through areas of complete desolation, buildings ramshackle and burned out and then through others which were untouched by what had happened- pretty stone dwellings with pristine gardens and rose covered arches soaking up the late summer sun. The juxtaposition of the two a stark reminder of just how quickly things can change.
The only thing of real note e- route was the American diner which hovered about 3 foot from the ground on the final bend before entering the town centre. It hung there in just the way that a diner should not. A neon “Belle’s” sign buzzed and crackled in the window and a smaller “Open” one fizzed away happily just below it. The diner had simply appeared one day, fortuitously appearing just where nothing else was and was then immediately declared an out of bounds ‘Rift Event’ and cordoned off by the local constabulary. Despite that, day and night People can be seen inside eating whatever it is people eat in diners and by all accounts having a jolly good time.
We left the diner behind us and I was soon off the bus, taking the long way round to pick up a newspaper and heading over to the council office. They were mostly what you would expect from a council office. A cold stone façade housed a series of perfectly acceptable but wholly unremarkable windows behind which could be found an array of equally unremarkable and wholly officious individuals. Paper was shuffled, files were filed and tea was enjoyed at exactly 10.30 am and 3 pm every day. Biscuits would be enjoyed once a week by rota and dunking was frowned upon but not expressly forbidden.
Ahead of me in the queue was the beige chap from the bus who was hurriedly stuffing a pile of papers back into his briefcase. He hastily tucked it under his arm and head down scurried past me, dark rings around dark eyes set into a gaunt face, accentuated by the paleness of his skin. Stood waiting, somewhat nervously I will admit, I was summonsed to step forward.
The woman behind the high counter possessed an uncanny ability to make the word “NEXT!” sound like a challenge to a knife fight after a rather pleasant and leisurely few pints down at the local pub after work. You’d swear there had been an innocuous misunderstanding over who’s pint was who’s, and she was now ready to show me who was boss out in the car park. I’d had dealings with bureaucratic and immovable individuals before but her summons was a wholly jarring and difficult experience from anything I had encountered.
Not that she wasn’t pleasant to look at, she was. So much so that her appearance threw me in the same way that the ghastly thought of a good stabbing had. Classically beautiful, with striking green eyes, sharp cheek bones and long straight blonde hair. She stretched out a hand to take the paperwork I pushed towards her. Something about her very presence filled me with foreboding and the knot in my stomach urged me to make a hasty exit. Something felt wrong.
She said nothing, staring intently at me for somewhat longer than I was comfortable with and as I averted my gaze my name was called.
“Mr Armitage Shanks, how very nice to meet you”. She seemed to boom loudly, like a pompous headmaster might bellow at an unruly pupil, yet there was a chilling coldness to her voice which I felt in my bones.
A small diamante piercing in her upper lip caught the light as she pushed the paper work back at me. My first thoughts were that a piercing in such a prominent position was surely not compliant with council dress code. That was followed by one which wondered why she had not actually looked at my documents to know my name. A third followed soon after, puzzling why at no point had she actually opened her mouth to speak the words I had heard. Thinking back I couldn’t recall her speaking even when she had called me over. I’m pretty certain that I had heard her, but what I had heard was in my head.
“We have a job for you Mr Shanks” she spoke. I say spoke but obviously I’ve made it quite clear that I am hearing her in my head at this point. I don’t wish to labour it but it was rather off putting
Confused, I mumbled something about needing to be getting home it was pie night and not wanting to miss it”
She boomed in my head again, pain shooting between my ears. I thought I was going to vomit.
“It was not a request Mr Shanks, it is an order and I was simply being polite. If you wish to continue feeding your family and availing yourself of the wonderful facilities the council so generously provides then you will do as I ask”
From that point on things get a little hazy. The pain was excruciating – that I recall, and I must have agreed to her request at some point as the pain did eventually stop. I remember the bus and the trip home vaguely too.
The one thing I am certain about though is that tomorrow I’m apparently going to The Rift. So that could be the end of this.