On Her Majesty's Australian Service
Thor May 2005
The Australian Government gave him a gun. It was 1964, before the system got really professional. They said, Put it in your pocket. Neat little Browning .32 automatic, but even that was bulky. The Lad's strides weren't made for carrying a pistol. It felt like an erection that had got out of control. Surely everyone would notice him walking like a crab, with this hard, bumpy thing on his thigh.
Mr. White wore a sympathetic face. He had opened the top left hand draw of his large Public Service issue desk and dug under some papers. Special job for you William. Anise will do the files you're working on. I want you to go with Doug Ellis here. Doug has to take some payrolls around the city. There's a lot of cash in his briefcase.
The Lad looked at Doug Ellis and didn't see him. He was one of those blokes who fill up the space around you without actually being there. Cities are full of them, harmless blobs on the radar as you barge through train station crowds. If one turns out to be a bank robber, you have no hope of giving a sensible description to the police. Well officer, he was blurry around the edges. No, he didn't have a scar above the left eye... He might have been Anglo or maybe he had a Syrian grandfather.. no no, not a typical Syrian. Smelled of soap, I think. No, I didn't really get that close. Um, thank you sir. What was he wearing? Well, you know, just the usual things. A pair of brown trousers from Gowings, or maybe they were grey. Yes, he had a shirt on. Would have noticed if he hadn't.
As it happened, Doug was an inoffensive, nice sort of man, as most anonymous blobs are. But the Lad was eighteen and wondering whether Superman was inside the brown trousers somewhere. It didn't look likely. Doug had a briefcase, also brown, the stitching coming undone down one side. DTE was in gold letters on the lower right hand corner. The Lad wondered, but didn't ask, if the older man got a mileage allowance for carrying around payrolls in the thing. This was an age before couriers in zoot suits wore fibreglass Luton luggage chained to their left wrists.
How do you, um, use this thing.., the Lad asked coyly. If he was going to kill someone, the someone was bound to take a dim view of the situation. Mr. White sniffed and showed him the trigger, and a sliding safety catch that locked the mechanism. Then with a flourish the office manager pushed something and a brace of bullets dropped out of the handle. Ugly looking things. A reminder of final ends. The Lad pulled a face. He had a bad habit of being facetious, maybe not quite adult, they would say in the office. And where are the bullets supposed to go when they, uh, get to fall out the end of the barrel? Mr. White looked at him with a twinge of apprehension. Smart brat. Callow, twitchy, big ears, skinny as a rat. Why had the Bureau sent him this one? You have to guard the payroll, he explained again patiently. Yeah, but am I actually supposed to shoot anyone? Should I shoot 'em in the head or between the toes? The polished granite fronts of downtown would make a lovely shooting gallery. Ping, ping, little bits of hot lead bouncing off the stones. Was Mr. White going to write a sorry letter if one parted the hair of an eminent personage?
Mr. White's twinge gave way to a glare of stark misgiving. He started to hunt around the room, and finally, from a lower drawer that was obviously an outer resting place for excluded memories, came up with a small booklet. The cover was red, but revolution was not its theme; rather, something along the lines of "Use Of Firearms By Government Employees". Take it away for a read.
Even the Lad expected to meet a committee mind waffling in such pamphlets. You had to do a translation job to get at the sticks and stones of meaning. Don't take your new toy home for the weekend. Don't wave it around under the tea lady's nose. Clean the cake crumbs out of the barrel from time to time. Then it got mean. If you happen to blow anyone away, well the Department has never heard of you. You are a drop-in from outer space, and had better find a Martian lawyer to get you off the rap. Not only have you nicked our gun, but you have used it to commit murder.
The Lad knocked on Mr. White's door again. The office manager put his head down, struggled to keep any intrusion off his radar. The Lad's juvenile sarcasm had drained away. He was cool and polite. I'm not going to shoot anyone with the Browning, sir. The manager dialled an urgent escape number. I'm not going to shoot anyone Mr. White. Damn it. No one is asking you to shoot someone William. You mustn't come to this office to say things like that. Now Doug will call for you in a few minutes when he is finished with the requisitions.
Anise was working on the Lad's invoices. She had rich wavy black hair and amazingly white skin. Not that furry sort of skin with blotches on it that unlucky girls dust off with powder, but a sort of lucid, soft shimmer of life-force. He wished the old spider of time could hold its web of wrinkles in check from such a virgin field. She smiled; her serious dark eyes decoded his dismay. Back already. How was the action? Weak grin. Going in a little while.
Did Anise know more about this business than he did? Time would tell. He retreated to familiar territory. Having fun with the paperwork?... Well, you know how it is. Roll of the eyes. They both knew how it was. Some earnest dope had done a study on The Form, the one the Lad did a small sum on day after day. Ninety-two operations, a solid accumulation of man hours, marching from varnished desk to varnished desk, each annotation from a hand slightly pinker, more wrinkled and veined, until the last claw in a partitioned plywood office at the end of the big room signed away another ten pound invoice. You had to admit that the Public Service was accountable. Every cardigan was accountable to the cardigan sitting in front of it, and each June a report would definitely be written. Mr. Freighton has shown a solid performance in the last twelve months. If he could just get over the unfortunate habit of scraping his chair, I would recommend him for promotion at an appropriate juncture.
Anise had lunch in a place on the corner of Queen Street. The Lad had seen her there two days ago. He'd wanted to go in, then flushed at the idea. After all, what did he really know about her? Maybe she was waiting for some fellow wearing a cardigan. Even a Suit. She was pretty enough to go for a Suit. At fourteen pounds a week he could hardly afford a pair of trousers from Gowings... A pile of forms slid off his desk; he straightened up. The lump suddenly stopped balancing on his thigh and pulled his pocket with a soft thump onto the chair. He leaned back for a moment, stretching... Just imagine the sandwich bar in Queen Street. She would be sitting there, on a stool by the counter bar they had against a street window. He would come in casually, scrape up a stool. How's it going? ...Well, you know how it is, she'd say, and roll her dark eyes. And before she could look around for the Suit who had promised to come without fail at ten past twelve, he'd put the little Browning automatic on the table between them. Had a job to do, he'd say, like another coffee?
Doug was standing two paces behind him. Just standing there like a blob. How are you supposed to know when a blob is waiting for you? Well, are you right lad? We'd better get a move on.
Doug ambled out to the lift. It had a folding black metal grill that you had to slide back, and a sort of double acting stainless steel door that had to be held back too. No doubt the designer had done a fine job of discouraging the punters from exiting between floors, but it was a two handed job getting into the thing before everything slammed shut. The Lad did the honours, keeping an eye out for foreign agents while Doug breasted into the contraption. As the morning wore on, the Lad came to realize his true agenda in this routine, as lift door holder opener.
The Departments, it emerged, lived in various infestations around the inner city. There would be the brown marble facade of a bank, or insurance company, a man with thin hair in a blue shirt just inside the front door, a lift cage. On the third floor, when they emerged, the light would be subdued in a hall with green linoleum that was disinfected once a week. The second varnished door on the left would say ACCOUNTS in gold lettering, and just behind it a chest high counter would separate its anointed servants from the brute public. There was always a faint smell of dry paper about these places.
The Lad never got past the counters. He would stand there, feeling the lump on his thigh and trying to look like anything but Dick Tracey. Various bloodless bodies in the outer office would understand this modesty perfectly. Eye contact was avoided at all times. Here were people who were seriously devoted to remaining inconspicuous. Their letters of reply would be written from thick books of boilerplated paragraphs, signed by the Commissioner's rubber stamp. Dear Sir, In regard to your enquiry of the fifth inst. Their lives were planned to deliver 2.4 children in the suburbs. They sat like dough balls, waiting to be flavoured with the Commissioner's cautious directives.
So he stood and fidgeted. In the meantime Doug would wheeze through to a partitioned office, glassed above waist height. Paper would change hands, an initial on each side, maybe a comment about the football if the other man was close enough in rank and generation. It was probably Doug's big day out in the week, he thought with a reluctant twinge of sympathy.
They were on the home stretch when it fell apart. Their little choreograph at lift doors and the two step routines in pastel coloured hallways were always harder to keep up in the anarchy of city streets. Sunlight itself seemed an offence to their complexions. The scrums at street crossings, the hurried zigzag of that footballer bearing down on the right ... Who was the Lad supposed to be ready to shoot at anyway? And on the home stretch what was there to take?
Suddenly Anise was there. In the street, leaning lightly against a yellow light post. To this day, he doesn't know how she came to be there, but it was like a thing fated. Or was it planned? Anise was striking in the streetscape, you couldn't fail to notice her. The insouciance was practiced, relaxed, almost professional. A lock of hair hung over one eye, her hands were slightly clasped, she balanced on one leg with the other sandal crossing an ankle below her long, sheer dress. She could have stopped any other man on the footpath dead in his tracks, but her eyes were only for him. How's it going little brother? How many notches on the pistol butt?
The Lad put his hand in his pocket, briefly taking the wretched implement's weight off his belt. Nothing to it really. Spending my life going in and out of lifts. Anything has got to be better than working on The Form though. He shifted his feet a little uncomfortably. Anyway, what are you ... There was a shout, a sort of hoarse, strangulated sound that wasn't like Doug at all. His question was destined to remain one of the great unspoken mysteries of history. Doug was gone, and so was the brown briefcase with DTE in the corner.
He looked around in panic. Not a sign, not a hint. Gone in the crowd. Bodies moist with summer heat brushed by. A small girl dropped her iceblock on his shoe and started to wail. The mother, florid with domestic cares, glared at him. He swung back to the yellow post. Anise too was gone. He began to get the dizzy sensation of being in a universe where the rules didn't work anymore. For a wild moment he felt a desperate need to pull out the Browning and shoot up some headlights. Damn it, whose conspiracy was this anyway? Then a mood, a wave rippled across the street, like an idea tinged with blue, shading the midday light, washing past, dimming the passers-by, receding with them until he stood in crowded, clammy isolation.
The Lad's shirt clung, wet under the armpits, his hands flapped uselessly. For a few days, a week or two, he had been on the cusp of some great enterprise, hidden just beyond view but boundless in its promise. A brief orientation period in Brisbane, they had said, before assignment to the national capital. The entrance tests had gone well, an aptitude they said, for anything he chose to do, almost. The Service was vast, had a niche for every ability. Now it was all a matter of attitude, and waiting, and the recommendation from one of those pink veined bodies wrapped behind a plywood partition somewhere.
Doug was at his desk, adding handwritten numbers on The Form, double checking steadily without passion, like a weary old nag that knows the way home. His glance barely flickered. Mr. White wants to see you. The voice rustled, an ancient paragraph of boilerplated words. Doug no longer knew him. Maybe he never had.
Well, we have your assignment. Its very abrupt I'm afraid. They've booked you for tomorrow morning, on the 11am flight. Is that possible? Look, you had better go home now. You are sure to have a lot of packing to do. Yes, I'll take that weapon. Thank you. We haven't had much chance to get acquainted. Was there the hint of a sad smile there?. Don't worry about the Forms. Anise will finish them off when she gets back. Anyway, best of luck. He was holding out his hand. A dry, veined hand, not hot, not cold. Later, on the aeroplane, the Lad thought, I don't want to live long enough to have a hand like that.
The new Department in Canberra digested economic information. Each day there were stacks of large index cards to write numbers on. They had holes around the edges. You clipped some of the holes and shook them out into little piles with knitting needles. At 5pm, you went three miles across the national capital's carefully planned boulevards to a fibro hostel built for junior employees. In two years you could move up to a slightly better hostel, with two kinds of desert at dinner time.
After thirteen months in Canberra, twenty five-thousand index cards into his career, the Lad stood up one day in the office. Outside it was Autumn, gusts of wind swept at the fallen leaves. In the office only an endless, lifeless shuffle of bleached paper on paper disturbed the hiss of the air conditioner.
Fuck you! he shouted; damn your stupid forms, choke on your index cards. I came dux of my school, I can think, I can fight, I have the world at my fingertips. And you've fucking buried me alive. Is this what my country has to offer? The line of cardigans swayed like an ancient reed bed in a backwater, grey, stems weak, threatened with a sudden storm. Then they sighed and turned back to the Form. An answer was not in the regulations. There was nobody at his side.
The essential features of this story are biographical. In 1964 the author was inducted into the Australian Commonwealth Public Service at a base level. The initial engagement was in Brisbane, where he was kept for a short time pending assessment and placement into a branch of the federal bureaucracy in the national capital, Canberra. Shortly after beginning clerical work in Brisbane, the office manager did take a Browning 0.32 calibre pistol from his desk, and ask the author to use this for security guard purposes while accompanying an older man around the city on foot. The older man was carrying payrolls, or so the new employee was told. No weapons training of any kind was offered. The young employee did insist on some kind of guidance, and was eventually given a public service booklet (which had little of value to say). Even at 18, the author was unimpressed by this cavalier official approach to distributing weapons, and bluntly told the office manager that he wouldn't use the gun under any circumstances. His attitude wasn't warmly received. He was told "don't say that". Although he did the 'guard duty', an assessment was evidently made that he wasn't the kind of compliant employee they needed for, uh, adventurous situations. He was quickly buried in a dead-end clerical job in Canberra, but revolted after 13 months ...
Professional bio: Thor May's PhD dissertation, Language Tangle, dealt with language teaching productivity. Thor has been teaching English to non-native speakers, training teachers and lecturing linguistics, since 1976. This work has taken him to seven countries in Oceania and East Asia, mostly with tertiary students, but with a couple of detours to teach secondary students and young children. He has trained teachers in Australia, Fiji and South Korea. In an earlier life, prior to becoming a teacher, he had a decade of drifting through unskilled jobs in Australia, New Zealand and finally England (after backpacking across Asia in 1972).
This story was also published in RETORT MAGAZINE (Australia), July 2005
On Her Majesty's Australian Service copyright (c) Thor May 2005, all rights reserved
contact: http://thormay.net email@example.com