Counting to Ten

You’ll understand, I hope, that the contented indolence I spoke of last week is not a permanent state. You’d just need a look at my teaching diary for the coming month, never mind see the details of our Grand Plan Phase 2 to appreciate that.

It is, however, a new state: a welcome occasional stopping off point on the voyage of discovery that we have embarked upon, and that has also featured frequent squalls of frustration and impatience.  Sorting out something as basic as our utilities – which meant simply transferring accounts from the previous owner of the house to us, rather than getting new accounts set up, or (worse still) getting supplies put in – involved several such squalls. They invariably required multiple visits to a variety of anonymous offices, hours of hanging around in soulless waiting rooms, and then further hours filling in lengthy forms (often in triplicate), only to realise that we had once again failed to bring any proof of identity – something that is required even for something as innocent as booking concert tickets online.  As a former serviceman with the words ‘sense of urgency’ dinned into him throughout his 22 years’ service, Mr Blue-Shirt found such episodes intensely frustrating. And with my own unhealthy appetite for order and control, I scarcely found them any easier. There was always one bright moment in these soul-sapping experiences, though: the laughably self-important stamping and counter-signing of every copy of every form by the given functionary with an old-fashioned wooden handled rubber stamp, ink pad and Bic biro combo. Bash-BASH, squiggle. Bash-BASH, squiggle. Bash-BASH, squiggle. It made us smile every time. Even on the dreary afternoon spent waiting at the town hall to fill in the forms that would enable us to get our rubbish collected.

From our standard issue plastic chairs (citizens for the discomfort of) we could see into some of the identical hutch-like offices that stretched along the strip-lit corridor, each of them containing little more than a desk supporting tottering piles of fat buff-coloured files, a bulky buff-coloured desktop computer, and a matching buff-coloured clerk who was barely visible behind his or her respective mountain of paperwork. While we waited for the number on the deli-ticket that we had pulled from the cracked and wobbly dispenser to appear on the screen, we tried to distract our attention away from the mental image of grains of sand inexorably trickling through the hourglass of our lives. We found ourselves musing on the possibility that the number of rubber stamps each functionary had on his or her desk acted as a formal badge of rank. Like the quantity of braid on a Ruritanian soldier’s uniform, the greater the number of stamps, the greater the importance of the functionary, we reasoned. On most desks, only one or two stamps were visible: cannon fodder.  A collection of stamps hanging from a rack, however, clearly indicated a higher rank, and also apparently qualified the rack-holder to a swivel chair: junior officer. But if a rack of stamps was the equivalent of hairbrush-sized epaulettes, then a fully loaded two-tier stamp carousel was surely the civil service equivalent of a ceremonial sword. In such cases one was truly in the presence of greatness: carousel holders even had a nameplate on their office doors.

Eventually, our number flashed up and we rose stiffly from our inhospitable chairs, tossing the ticket that had grown creased and tatty from our fidgeting in the plastic ice-cream container that served as a bin and entered the office showing our number. Pre-numbed by the wait, we passively answered all the usual questions – although we couldn’t quite work out why The Powers That Be needed to know that I had been born in London in order to be able to issue us with a compost bin. When we light-heartedly queried this, the weary-looking clerk’s blank stare gave us the only explanation required: rules are rules. Thus chastened, we allowed the clerk to complete his practised box-ticking without further comment.  Mind you, although our needs had only warranted a single-stamp foot soldier, the clerk carried out the weapon drill that concluded proceedings with such panache and vigour – bash-BASH, squiggle, DOT. Bash-BASH, squiggle, DOT. Bash-BASH, squiggle, DOT – that we nearly burst out laughing.

Our initial bill arrived a few days later, exactly as our weary stamp-wielding clerk had advised. It was addressed to the previous owner of the house, covered the wrong period, and was for the wrong amount. So back to the town hall we trudged…

2 thoughts on “Counting to Ten”

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