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Things (Part One)

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March 7, 2012

Could his watch have stopped? He put it to his ear: the tick-tock could be clearly heard, although somewhat muffled, but the hands were not moving.

Photo Courtesy of Maurizio Agelli

The following story will be presented in this magazine in two parts. Part Two can be found here.

As it closed, the tall, heavy door caught the back of the civil servant’s right hand and left a deep scratch, red but scarcely bleeding. The skin had been torn here and there, raised in several spots which began to hurt, for the uneven surface and roughness of the wood had not exerted the continuous pressure or prolonged contact likely to cause an open wound or pull back the skin, thereby allowing the blood to gush out and quickly spread. Before going to the tiny office where he was due to sign on in ten minutes and work a five-hour stretch, the civil servant made his way to the First Aid Room (FAR) to have the wound dressed—his work brought him into contact with the public and there was something unsightly about that scratch. As he was disinfecting the wound, the nurse, on being told how the accident had happened, commented that this was the third such case that day. Caused by the same door.

—I suppose they’ll take it off, he added.

Using a brush, he smeared over the scratch a colorless liquid that quickly dried, taking on the color of his skin.

A member of the public complained that the settee was getting overheated. And he was right. I checked it myself.

And not just the color but also the opaque texture of skin, so that no one would have suspected anything had happened. Only by looking very closely would anyone be able to see that the scratch had been covered. At a quick glance, there was nothing to be seen.

—Tomorrow you can pull off the film. Twelve hours should be sufficient.

The nurse looked worried. He asked him:

—Have you heard about the settee? The large one that was in the waiting room.

—No. I’ve just arrived for the afternoon shift.

—It had to be removed. It’s in the other room.

—Why?

—We don’t exactly know. The doctor examined it immediately, but made no diagnosis. Not that it was necessary. A member of the public complained that the settee was getting overheated. And he was right. I checked it myself.

—No doubt the manufacturer’s fault.

—Yes. Probably. The temperature is too high. On any other occasion, and the doctor agreed, it would have been treated as a case of fever.

—Well, it’s not unknown. Two years ago, there was a similar case. A friend of mine had to return an overcoat as good as new to the factory. He found it impossible to wear.

—And then what?

—Nothing. The factory exchanged it. And he had no further cause for complaint.

He looked at his watch: he still had ten minutes. Or was he mistaken? He could have sworn that when he injured his hand he had exactly ten minutes left. Or had he forgotten today to consult his watch on entering the building?

—Can I take a look at the settee? The nurse opened a glass door.

—It’s in there.

The settee was long enough to seat four people and although it had obviously been used, it was still in good condition.

—Would you like to try it? asked the nurse. The civil servant sat down.

—Well?

—It’s rather uncomfortable. Is the treatment having any effect?

—I’m giving it injections every hour. So far, I haven’t noticed any difference. It’s time for another injection.

He prepared the syringe, sucked in the contents of a large ampoule, and briskly stuck the needle into the settee.

—And if there’s no improvement? the civil servant enquired.

—The doctor will decide. This is the treatment he prescribed. If it doesn’t work, there’s nothing more to be done and the settee goes back to the factory.

—Fine. I’m off to work. Thanks.

In the corridor, he checked the time again. Still ten minutes to go. Could his watch have stopped? He put it to his ear: the tick-tock could be clearly heard, although somewhat muffled, but the hands were not moving. He realized he was going to be very late in arriving. He hated being late. The public would not suffer, since the colleague from whom he was taking over was not allowed to leave the office until he arrived. Before pushing open the door, he took another look at his watch: the same as before. On hearing him come in, his colleague got to his feet, said a few words to the people waiting on the other side of the counter window, then closed it. That was the rule. Civil servants took over from each other without delay, but the counter window always had to be closed.

—You’re late.

—I’m afraid so. Sorry.

—It’s a quarter past the hour. I ought to report you.

—Of course. My watch stopped. That’s why I’m late. But, strangely enough, it’s still going.

—It’s still going?

—Don’t you believe me? Take a look. They both looked at the watch.

—That’s very odd.

—Look at the hands. They’re not moving. But you can hear the tick-tock.

—Yes, so you can. I’ll say nothing about your lateness this time, considering, but I think you should tell the supervisor what is happening to your watch.

—I suppose so.

—There have been lots of curious things happening in recent weeks.

—The Government is on its guard and is almost certain to take measures.

Someone knocked on the shiny plate glass of the window. The two civil servants signed the time sheet.

And did you hear about the settee having a fever?

—Be careful with the main door, warned the one who was starting the shift.

—Did you get a nasty bump? Then you’re the third person today.

—And did you hear about the settee having a fever?

—Everybody knows.

—Isn’t it strange?

—It is, although it’s not uncommon. See you on Monday.

—Have a nice weekend.

He opened the window. There were three people waiting. He apologized, as the rulebook instructed, and took from the first man—tall, smartly dressed, and middle-aged—an identity card. He slotted it into the machine, checked the luminous symbols which came up on the screen before returning the card:

—Now then. What can I do for you? Please be brief. These, too, were the phrases stipulated by the rulebook. The man replied without a moment’s hesitation:

—I’ll be brief. I want a piano.

—We don’t get many requests for pianos nowadays. Tell me. Do you really need one?

—Are they so difficult to obtain?

—The raw materials are scarce. When do you need it?

—Within fifteen days.

—You might as well ask for the moon. A piano requires raw materials of the highest quality, and they’re in short supply, if that makes my meaning any clearer.

—This piano is for a birthday present. Do you understand?

—Perfectly. But you should have placed your order sooner.

—It wasn’t possible. Let me remind you, I’m registered in one of the highest categories.

As he spoke these words, the client opened his right hand with the palm turned upwards to display a green C tattooed on the palm. The civil servant looked at the letter, then at the luminous symbols on the screen and nodded his head in affirmation:

—I’ve taken special note. You’ll have your piano within fifteen days.

—Many thanks. Do you want me to pay in full or will a deposit be enough?

—A deposit is fine.

The man took a wallet from his pocket and put the required amount of money on the counter. The notes were rectangular and made of fine, soft paper in one color but in different shades, just as the tiny emblematic portraits which determined their value were also different. The civil servant counted them. As he gathered them together and was about to put them away into the safe, one of the notes suddenly curled up and wrapped itself tightly round one finger. The client said:

—The same thing happened to me today. The Mint ought to be more careful when printing notes.

—Have you lodged a formal complaint?

—Naturally, I considered it my duty.

—Very well. The Inspection Department can investigate both complaints, yours and mine. Here are the documents. On the date written there, present yourself at the delivery office. But since you’re in category C, I assume the piano will be dispatched to your home.

—That is what normally happens when I order something. Good afternoon.

—Good afternoon.

Five hours later, the civil servant found himself once more at the main door. He reached out for the handle, carefully calculated the distance, and with one quick movement opened the door, and passed safely to the other side. With a muffled noise that sounded like a sigh, the automatic door slowly began to close. It was almost night. Working the second shift had its advantages: a better class of people, quality products, and no need to get up early in the morning. Although in the winter when the days are shorter it could be a little depressing to go from the brightly lit office into the twilight, much too early and also much too late. Yet, although the sky was unusually overcast, this was late summer and the short stroll was altogether pleasant.

He did not live far away. There was not even enough time to see the city transform itself as dusk began to fall. In rain or sunshine, he covered the few hundred meters on foot because taxi-drivers were not allowed to pick up passengers for such short journeys and no buses passed along his street. Slipping his hands into his coat pockets, he could feel the letter he had forgotten to drop into the pillar-box when he set out for the Department of Special Requisitions (DSR) where he worked. He kept the letter in his hand in order not to forget a second time and used the underpass to get onto the other side of the avenue. Walking behind him were two women chatting to each other:

—You can’t imagine the state my husband was in this morning. Not to mention myself, but he was the first to notice what had happened.

—Honestly, it’s enough to drive anybody mad.

—We both stood there in amazement, looking at each other.

—But surely, you must have heard something during the night?

—Not a thing. Neither of us.

The Government (G) decided there was little point in depriving members of the public (especially those in categories A, B, and C) of their civil right and pleasure to lodge complaints: a wise decision which could only benefit
the manufacturing industry. So, factories were instructed to lower their standards.

The voices died away. The women had turned into an underpass going off in another direction. The civil servant mumbled to himself, “What on earth were they talking about?” And this made him think about the day’s events, about his right hand clutching the letter inside his pocket, the deep scratch the door had inflicted; about the settee suffering from fever, and his watch which went on ticking with the hands still indicating there were ten minutes to go before he was due to start work. And the note tightly wrapped round one finger. There had always been such incidents, nothing too serious, simply inconvenient, but too frequent for his liking. Despite the efforts of the Government (G), it had proved impossible to avoid them, and no one seriously expected otherwise. There was a time when the manufacturing process had reached such a degree of perfection and faults became so rare that the Government (G) decided there was little point in depriving members of the public (especially those in categories A, B, and C) of their civil right and pleasure to lodge complaints: a wise decision which could only benefit the manufacturing industry. So, factories were instructed to lower their standards. This decision, however, could not be blamed for the poor quality of the goods that had been flooding the market for the last two months. As someone employed in the Department of Special Requisitions (DSR), he was in a good position to know that the Government had revoked these instructions more than a month ago and imposed new standards to ensure maximum quality. Without achieving any results. As far as he could remember, this incident with the door was certainly the most disturbing. It was not a case of some object or other, or some simple utensil, or even a piece of furniture such as the settee in the entrance hall, but of an item of imposing dimensions. Although the settee was anything but small, it formed part of the interior furnishings while the door was an integral part of the building, if not the most important part. After all, it is the door that transforms a space that is simply circumscribed into a closed space.

In the end, the Government (G) appointed a committee to examine the situation and make some proposals. The best computer equipment available had been put at the disposal of this group of experts, which included not only specialists in electronics but leading scholars in the fields of sociology, psychology, and anatomy, whose collaboration was crucial in such matters. The committee had been given fifteen days in which to present its report and recommendations. They still had ten days left, but the situation was obviously getting worse.

The rain began falling, a drizzle of watery dust, light and airy. In the distance, the civil servant could see the pillar-box where he must deposit the letter. He thought: “I mustn’t forget this time.” A huge, covered lorry turned the nearby corner and went past him. It carried an advertisement in bold letters: “Carpets and rugs.” There went a dream he had never succeeded in fulfilling: to carpet his apartment. But one day, if everything went according to plan. The lorry went past. The pillar-box had disappeared. The civil servant surmised he had lost his bearings, that he had changed direction when he started thinking about carpets after seeing the advertisement. He looked around him bewildered, but also surprised to find that he was not afraid. Nothing except a vague sense of uneasiness, perhaps nervousness, like someone grappling with a problem he cannot quite solve. There was no sign of a pillar-box. He approached the spot where it should be standing, where it had stood for so many years, with its cylindrical body painted blue and that rectangular orifice, a mouth forever gaping and silent and giving access to its belly. The soil where the pillar-box had once stood was still dry and showed signs of having been recently disturbed. A policeman came running up to him:

—Did you see it disappear? He enquired.

—No. But I almost did. Had it not been for a lorry passing in front of me, I’d have seen it.

The policeman was taking down notes. Then he closed his notebook and with his foot pushed aside a clod of earth which had been brought up from the cavity on to street level, and said in the tone of voice of someone who is simply thinking aloud:

—Had you been watching, the pillar-box would probably still be here.

And he walked off, at the same time fondling the holster of his revolver.

The civil servant from the Department of Special Requisitions (DSR) went round the entire district before finding another pillar-box. This one had not disappeared. He quickly put his letter inside and, once he heard it fall into the net at the bottom, he retraced his steps. He thought: “And suppose this pillar-box were also to disappear? What will happen to my letter?” It was not the letter (which was of no great importance) that was worrying him, but the situation, which could almost be described as metaphysical. At the tobacconist’s he bought an evening newspaper, which he folded and stuffed into his pocket. The rain was getting heavier. At the spot where the pillar-box had disappeared a tiny puddle had already formed. A woman sheltering under an umbrella arrived with a letter. Only at the last minute did she realize there was something amiss.

—Where’s the pillar-box? she asked.

—It isn’t here, replied the civil servant.

The woman was furious:

—They can’t do this. Removing the pillar-box without warning the residents. We should all protest.

And she turned away, declaring aloud that next day she would be lodging a formal complaint.

He opened the door with the utmost caution while inwardly scolding himself: “Scared of a door. Whatever next?”

The apartment block where the civil servant lived was nearby. He opened the door with the utmost caution while inwardly scolding himself: “Scared of a door. Whatever next?” He switched on the stair-light and made his way to the lift. Hanging from the grating was a notice: “Out of Order.” He was annoyed, irritated, not so much because he had to climb the stairs (he only lived on the second floor) but because on the fifth landing of the stairway three steps had been missing for the past week, which meant residents had to take certain precautions and tread carefully. The Department of General Maintenance (DGM) was not doing its job properly. At any other time, the Administration would have been accused of incompetence, of having too much work on their hands, of not employing enough staff or failing to supply the raw materials. On this occasion, however, there had to be some other explanation and he preferred not to think about it. He climbed the stairs, taking his time, preparing himself mentally for the little acrobatic feat he would have to perform; to hop over the void created by those three missing steps by leaping upwards, making it all the more difficult, and extending his legs with all his might. Then he noticed that there were not three steps missing but four. He rebuked himself once more, this time for being so forgetful, and after several unsuccessful attempts, he managed to reach the step above.

Being unmarried, he lived alone. He prepared his own meals, sent his clothes to the laundry, and enjoyed his work. Generally speaking, he considered himself a contented man. How could he be otherwise—the country was being managed admirably, duties were equitably shared out, the Government was competent and had proved its ability to galvanize industry. As for these more recent problems, they too would be resolved in time. Since it was still too early to eat, he sat down to read the newspaper as usual, unconsciously inventing the same futile justification, or rather, unaware of its futility. On the first page, there was a Formal Statement (FS) from the Government about the faults discovered of late in various objects, utensils, machines, and installations. Reassurances were given that the situation was not serious and would soon be remedied, once the committee appointed to investigate these matters—which now had a specialist in parapsychology among its members—got to work. No mention was made of things suddenly disappearing.

Neatly folding the newspaper, he put it on a low table at his feet. He glanced at the time on the wall clock: a few minutes to go before the television program started. His daily routine had been disrupted by events, especially by the disappearance of the pillar-box, which had made him lose precious time. Normally he had time to read the newspaper from beginning to end, to prepare a simple dinner, settle down in front of the screen, and listen to the news while he ate. Then he would take his plate, glass, and cutlery into the kitchen and return to his armchair where he would sit watching the program or doze off until it ended. He asked himself how he would manage today without trying to find an answer. Reaching out, he switched on the set: he heard a hissing sound, the screen gradually lit up until the test pattern appeared, a complicated system of vertical, horizontal and diagonal lines, with light and dark surfaces. He stopped looking, absentmindedly, as if hypnotized by that motionless image. He lit a cigarette (he never smoked on duty, for it was forbidden) and sat down again. He remembered to look at his wristwatch: still not working, and he could no longer hear the tick-tock. He undid the black strap, put the watch down on the table alongside the newspaper, and gave a deep sigh. A loud click made him turn round in a flash. “Some piece of furniture,” he thought. And at that very moment, the test pattern vanished and suddenly there appeared a child’s face with eyes wide open. It receded into the background, far back into the remote distance until it became a simple luminous dot, quivering in the center of the black screen. Next minute, the test pattern reappeared, slightly tremulous, undulating like an image reflected in water. Puzzled, the civil servant stroked his face. He picked up the telephone and called the Television Information Service (TIS) and when they answered, he enquired:

—Can you tell me what is causing the interference on my test pattern?

A male voice curtly replied:

—There is no interference.

—I’m sorry, but I have just seen it with my own eyes.

—We have no information to give you.

His call was cut off. “I must have done something wrong. There has to be some connection,” he murmured. He went and sat in front of the screen, where the test pattern had resumed its hypnotic inertia. A succession of clicks could be heard, getting louder and louder. He could not locate them. They seemed so close, yet so remote, under his feet or somewhere in the building. He got up again and opened the window: the rain had stopped. Anyway, this was not the rainy season. Something must have broken down in the Meteorological Unit (MU): during the summer months it never rained. From the window, he could see quite clearly, where the pillar-box had been set in the ground. He took a deep breath, filling his lungs, and looked up at the sky, now clear and speckled with stars, the brightest of them outshining the neon lights in the city center. The television program was just starting. He returned to his chair. He wanted to hear the news bulletin at the start of the program. A woman with a tense, artificial smile announced the evening’s program, and then came the arpeggios as a prelude to the news. A male announcer with an emaciated face read out a Formal Statement (FS) released by the Government. He announced: “The Government wishes to inform members of the public that the faults and defects in certain objects, utensils, machines, and installations (OUMIs, in abbreviated form) that have become increasingly common in recent months, are being scrupulously examined by a panel of experts which now includes a parapsychologist. Members of the public should beware of anyone spreading rumors or trying to provoke panic and hysteria. Citizens should remain calm, even when the aforesaid OUMIs start disappearing: objects, utensils, machines, or installations. Everyone should be on their guard. Every OUMI (object, utensil, machine or installation) should be carefully examined in the future. The Government wishes to stress the importance of sighting any OUMI (object, utensil, machine or installation), the moment it starts to disappear. Anyone who can give detailed information or prevent the disappearance of OUMIs will be duly rewarded and promoted to category C if classified in a lower category. The Government is counting on public support and trust.” There were other items of news but less interesting. The rest of the program was just as dull, apart from a documentary about manufacturing carpets. Disgruntled, as if he had been personally insulted, he switched off the receiver: classified in category H (he opened his right hand and saw the green letter), he would have to save for ages before he could afford the carpet he had dreamed about all these years. He knew perfectly well how carpets were manufactured. He found it downright offensive that such documentaries should be shown to people who had nothing to cover their floors.

Moving into the kitchen, he prepared dinner. He scrambled some eggs, which he ate with a slice of bread, and drank a glass of wine, perched at a corner of the kitchen table. Then he washed up the few dishes he had used. He kept his injured hand out of the water even though he knew that this biological film was waterproof: it acted as another skin regenerating the organic tissues and, like skin, it breathed. Anyone with serious burns would not die if covered at once with this biological liquid and only the pain would prevent the victim from leading a normal life until completely cured. He put away his plate and the frying pan, and just as he was about to deposit his glass beside the only other two glasses he possessed, he saw an empty space in the cupboard. At first, he could not recall what had been there before. Holding the glass in one hand, he stood there gaping, searching in his memory, and trying hard to remember. That was it: the large jug he rarely used. He slowly placed the glass alongside the others and closed the cupboard door. Then he remembered the advice given by the Government (G) and re-opened it. Everything was in its place, except the jug. He searched the entire kitchen, moving each object with the greatest care, examining them carefully one by one, before acknowledging three facts: the jug was not where he had left it, not in the kitchen, nowhere in the house. Therefore, it must have disappeared.

He did not panic. After hearing the Formal Statement (FS) on the Television (TV), he felt proud to be a civil servant, a loyal citizen serving in a huge army of vigilantes. He saw himself in direct communication with the Government (G), someone in authority perhaps destined to become a distinguished figure in the city and country one day, and deserving of category C.

He returned to the sitting room with a proud, martial stride; went to the window, which he had left open. With a commanding glance, he looked up and down the street and decided he would spend his weekend carrying out surveillance throughout the city. It would be a stroke of bad luck if he should fail to get some useful information for the Government (G), useful enough to warrant his promotion to category C. He had never been ambitious but the moment had now arrived to claim his legitimate rights. Category C would at least give him much greater responsibility in the Department of Special Requisitions (DSR), it might even mean being transferred to a department closer to Central Government (CG). He opened his hand, saw the letter H, imagined a C in its place, and relished the vision of the new skin they would graft on to the palm of his hand. He moved away from the window and switched on the television: the lamination stage in the process of manufacturing carpets was being demonstrated. His interest aroused, he settled down comfortably in his chair and watched the program to the end. The same male announcer read the latest news bulletin, repeated the Government’s Formal Statement (FM), then went on to declare, without clarifying any eventual connection between the two items of news, that next day the entire periphery of the city would be under the surveillance of three squadrons of helicopters, and that the Supreme Command of the Air Force (SCAF) had given every reassurance that this surveillance would be backed up with other military equipment if necessary. The civil servant switched off the television and went to bed. There was no more rain during the night but the whole building never stopped creaking. Woken from their sleep, some tenants took fright and telephoned the police and fire brigade. They were assured the situation was under control, that human lives would be protected, but no such guarantee could be given, alas, regarding the safety of property, although precautions were being taken. And people must read the Government’s Formal Statement (FS). The civil servant from the DSR slept soundly.

Everyone knows there have been moments of crisis in the past. Manufacturing blunders, bad planning, not enough pressure, inferior raw materials.

When he left his apartment the next morning, he met some neighbors conversing on the landing. The lift was working again. Just as well, they all agreed, for there were now twenty steps missing between the second and ground floor. On the floors above, many more steps were missing. The neighbors were concerned and questioned the civil servant from the DSR. In his opinion the situation would get worse before it got better, but he assured them things would soon be back to normal. This would be followed by a phase of recovery.

—Everyone knows there have been moments of crisis in the past. Manufacturing blunders, bad planning, not enough pressure, inferior raw materials. And everything has always sorted itself out.

A neighbor reminded him:

—But there’s never been a crisis as serious as this one or that has lasted so long. Where shall we go if the OUMIs go on disappearing like this?

And her husband (category E):

—If the Government can’t cope, then let’s elect one that will show some initiative.

The civil servant agreed and got into the lift. But before he could press the button, his neighbor warned him:

—You won’t find any door to the building downstairs. It disappeared during the night.

When the civil servant walked out of the lift into the hallway, he was shocked to find a square gap opening up before him. There was no other trace of the door except for the holes on the smooth surface where the hinges had been embedded. No evidence of any vandalism, no sign of any fragments. People were walking along the street but did not stop. The civil servant found their indifference almost insulting, but all became clear when he stepped onto the pavement: not only was the main door to his building missing, but all the other doors on both sides of the street. And not just the doors. Some shops no longer had any front or windows displaying goods. In one building, the entire front wall had gone, as if it had been cut out from top to bottom with a very sharp knife. Anyone passing could peer right inside and see all the furnishings and people moving about at the back in a state of terror. For some strange reason all the ceiling lamps were lit—the building looked like an illuminated tree. On the first floor a woman could be heard shouting: “My clothes? Where are my clothes?” And stark naked she crossed the room in full view of the street. The civil servant could not suppress a smile of amusement because the woman was enormous and shapeless. By Monday, there would be severe pressure on Normal Supplies (NS). The situation was becoming increasingly complicated. Just as well he worked in the DSR. He walked down the street, keeping a watchful eye on everything, inanimate or mobile, looking out for any suspicious behavior as the Government (G) requested. He noticed others doing the same and he found this demonstration of civic awareness reassuring although each one of them, in a manner of speaking, was competing for category C.

“There will be room for everyone,” he thought.

There were certainly lots of people on the street. It was a bright, sunny morning, an ideal day for the beach or an outing into the countryside, or for staying at home and enjoying a restful weekend, were it not for the fact that homes no longer guaranteed safety, not in the literal sense of the word, but in that other sense which we must never forget: privacy. That nearby block stripped of its façade was not a pleasant sight: all those apartments exposed to passers-by, and that fat woman going back and forth, probably unaware, without a stitch of clothing on her body. And whom could he question about her? He broke into a cold sweat at the thought of how embarrassed he would feel if the façade of his building were also to disappear and he were to find himself exposed (even fully clothed) to the public, without that dense, opaque shield which protected him from heat and cold, and from the curiosity of his fellow citizens. “Perhaps,” he thought, “this is the result of building with inferior materials. In that case, one has to be grateful. Circumstances will rid the city of this abuse and the Government (G) will ascertain beyond a shadow of doubt what has to be put right and what avoided in future. Any delay would be criminal. The city and its inhabitants must be protected.” He went into a tobacconist’s to buy a newspaper. The owner was having a chat over the counter with two customers:

— . . . and all of them were killed. The Radio still hasn’t broadcast the news, but I heard it from a reliable source. A customer who was in here half-an-hour ago, at most, lives right beside the building and he saw what happened with his own eyes.

The civil servant from the DSR asked:

—What are you talking about?

And he opened his hand with a gesture meant to appear natural but calculated to put pressure on his audience: no one there appeared to be in a category higher than H. The tobacconist repeated his story:

—I was telling you what a customer told me. In the street where he lives, a whole block of flats has disappeared and all the residents were found lying dead on the ground, naked. Not so much as a ring on their fingers. The strangest thing of all is that the building should have vanished completely. Only a hole in the ground was left.

The news was serious. Faults in doors, the disappearance of pillar-boxes and jugs were bearable. One could even accept the façade of a building vanishing into thin air. But not that people should be killed. In a grave voice (the three men, with gestures intended to convey a certain nonchalance or distraction, had turned up the palms of their hands—the owner of the shop was in category L, one of the customers was fortunate enough to be in category I, while the other one tried not to flaunt his N), the civil servant confided his civic indignation:

—From now on, we’re at war. War without quarter. I feel certain the Government will not tolerate any such provocation, let alone deaths. There will be reprisals.

The customer in category I, who was only one grade below his own, was bold enough to express some doubt:

—Unfortunately, we’re the ones who will suffer the consequences of any reprisals.

—Yes, I agree. But only in the short term. Don’t forget, only in the short term.

The tobacconist:

—In fact, it’s always been the same.

The civil servant picked up a newspaper and paid. On making this gesture, he remembered that he had not removed the biological film the male nurse had brushed on to his right hand. Never mind, he could remove it at any time. He said goodbye, departed and walked along the street until he reached the main avenue. As people passed him, they were chatting with excitement and gathering in small groups. Some looked worried, others as if they had slept badly or not at all. He joined a large group being addressed by an official of the Armed Forces (AF).

—There is no need to panic. That is the first rule, he was telling them. The situation is under control, the armed forces are on the alert, but at this stage they are taking no further action, which would be inappropriate, since the Security Forces are already handling every aspect of this matter at every level. Members of the public are advised not to leave their homes without some form of identification.

“And what about the dead?” he mused, recalling the conversation in the tobacconist’s. No mention was made of the dead.

Several bystanders thrust their hands into their pockets, listened awhile, and then furtively moved on—these were the ones who had left their personal documents at home. The civil servant entered a café, sat down (and unusually for someone so abstemious), ordered a strong drink before spreading his newspaper out on the table. A joint declaration had been made by the Ministry of the Interior (MI) and the Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI), combining and enlarging upon the Formal Statements (FS) issued earlier. Occupying the entire width of the page, the headline reassured readers that “The situation has not deteriorated within the last twenty-four hours.” The civil servant muttered nervously to himself, “And why should it have got worse?” He leafed through the newspaper: minor chaos, news of faults, breakdowns, things disappearing. But not a word about any deaths. A photograph caught the civil servant’s attention: it showed a street in which one whole side had disappeared as if no buildings had ever stood there. Apparently taken from the top of another building, the picture showed the labyrinth of foundations, and a long strip broken up into rectangular spaces, as in children’s games. “And what about the dead?” he mused, recalling the conversation in the tobacconist’s. No mention was made of the dead. Could the Press be concealing the seriousness of the situation? He looked around, turned his eyes up to the ceiling. “And suppose this building were now to disappear?” he suddenly asked himself. He could feel the cold sweat on his forehead, a knot in his stomach. “I’m imagining things again. That’s always been my trouble.” He summoned the waiter and asked for his bill and, on receiving his change, asked him as he pointed to the newspaper:

—Now then? What do you make of this?

Without even attempting to make the gesture appear natural, he opened his hand. The waiter, whom he had identified earlier as category R, shrugged his shoulders:

—To be frank, I couldn’t care less. I think it’s a joke.

The civil servant accepted the change in silence and put away his newspaper. Looking quite disdainful, he left and went in search of a telephone box. He dialed the number of the Security Forces (SF) and when someone answered he hastily informed them that in such and such a road, in such and such a café, a waiter had been acting suspiciously. In what way? He told me he couldn’t care less and thought the whole situation was a joke. And then he actually said that in his opinion it was no bad thing, and that as far as he was concerned everything could disappear. He didn’t? He did. He was not asked for any identification and he offered none: such vague information was unlikely to be rewarded with promotion to category C. But it was a promising start. He emerged from the telephone box and hovered around. Fifteen minutes later, a dark-colored car drew up in front of the café. Two armed men got out and entered the premises. They soon reappeared, bringing the handcuffed waiter with them. The civil servant sighed, turned on his heels, and went off whistling.

He felt better out in the fresh air. The natural impulse which had made him telephone and the peace of mind he felt on seeing the waiter being escorted from the café and pushed into the car by the SF caused him some surprise. “Serving one’s city is the duty of every citizen,” he muttered under his breath.

“If everyone were like me, these things would probably never have happened. I pride myself on doing my duty. We must help the Government.” The streets did not appear to have suffered much damage, but there was a general air of neglect throughout the city, as if someone had been going around throwing bits and pieces here and there, like children dropping cakecrumbs: at first, you scarcely notice the mess until it becomes clear the cake is no longer in a fit state to be served to guests. But there were signs of havoc (or should one say absence?) All the paving on the final stretch of the avenue, an extension of two hundred meters, had vanished. There also appeared to be a burst pipes underground, judging from the enormous crater where the mud swirled and bubbled. Workmen from the Water Department (WD) dug deep gutters around the edges of the crater, exposing the water pipes. Others consulted the map to find out where the water had to be dammed up and diverted to another ramification of the network. It was a heavily populated area. The civil servant from the DSR went up to take a closer look and began talking to a man standing beside him:

—When did this happen?

The customary handshake revealed that the person he was speaking to belonged to category E.

—Last night. It was quite dreadful, as you can imagine. The street disappeared with everything in it. Even my car.

—Your car?

—All the cars. Everything. Traffic signals. Pillar-boxes. Lampposts. See for yourself. Wiped off the face of the earth.

—But the Government will almost certainly pay compensation. You’ll get your car back.

—Of course. I don’t doubt it. But has it occurred to you that in this area, according to the statistics provided by the Traffic Wardens, there were between a hundred and eighty and two hundred and twenty cars? And who knows, the same thing may have happened in other streets. Do you think the problem can easily be resolved?

—No, it certainly won’t be easy. To pay out compensation for two hundred cars just like that is an expensive business. As someone who works in the DSR, I know what I’m talking about.

The car owner wanted to know his name and they exchanged cards. The water had been cut off at last and the crater barely rippled as the gurgling mud subsided. The civil servant took his leave. This time he really was worried. Any more such incidents and the city would be in a state of chaos.

It was time for lunch. He now found himself in a part of the city he did not know well and rarely frequented, but it should not be difficult to find a modest restaurant within his means. He had thought of returning home to eat, but the situation justified a change of habit. Besides, he did not relish the idea of being confined within four walls, inside a building with no front door and where steps were missing. At the very least. Others must have thought the same: the streets were crowded and at times, it was impossible to pass. The civil servant settled for a sandwich and a soft drink that he consumed and drank in haste. The restaurants he had come across were practically empty, and he was afraid to enter. “This is ridiculous,” he thought, unaware that he was qualifying his fear.

Overhead, helicopters flew back and forth. People asked each other anxiously: “Can the situation be so serious? Is there a revolution? Is there likely to be war? But the enemy, where is the enemy?”

“Unless the Government acts with some urgency, this will end in disaster.” Just at that moment, a car with a loudspeaker came to a halt in the middle of the street. The amplified voice of a woman reading from a text could be heard blaring from the car: “May I have your attention. The Government wishes to inform members of the public that it is about to enforce strict laws and sanctions. Some arrests have already been made and the situation is expected to return to complete normality before the day is out. Within the last few hours, several cases of things breaking down have been reported but nothing has disappeared. Members of the public must be on their guard and your full cooperation is essential. Protecting our city is not only the responsibility of the Government and the Armed Forces. Everyone has a duty to protect our city. The Government wishes to express its gratitude to all those citizens who have cooperated so far, but would remind you that the advantages of having so many people guard our streets and squares are outweighed by the disadvantages of this mass presence. The enemy has to be isolated and denied any opportunity of hiding in the crowd. So, be on your guard. Our established custom of showing the palms of our hands must now be regarded as a legal obligation. From now on, every citizen is authorized to demand, we repeat, to demand of his fellow-citizens that they show the palms of their hands whatever the respective categories. Anyone in category Z can and must demand that a person in category A show his hand. The Government will set an example: this evening on Television, each member of the Government will show the palm of his or her right hand to the nation. Let everyone else do the same. The catchphrase in our present situation is the following: “On your guard and palms up!” The four occupants of the car were the first to obey this order. They pressed the palms of their right hands against the windows and drove on, as the woman began repeating her text. Fired with zeal, the civil servant challenged the man who was walking away:

—Show me your hand. Then turning to a woman:

—Show me your hand.

They showed him their hands and demanded that he should do the same. Within seconds, hundreds of men and women who were just standing there or passing through the street were frantically showing their hands to each other, raising them into the air so that everyone around could bear witness. And soon, there were hands everywhere waving frantically in the air, proving their innocence. The practice spread, for there was no more immediate or quicker way of acknowledging and revealing one’s identity: people no longer needed to stop, they simply passed each other with outstretched arms, turning their hands out at the wrist, and showing their palm with the letter confirming their category. It was tiresome, but saved time.

Not that there was any shortage of time. The city was still functioning, but very slowly. No one any longer had the courage to use the metro: underpasses inspired terror. Moreover, there was a rumor going round that on one of the lines the power cables were exposed and the first train to go out that morning had electrocuted all the passengers. Perhaps it was not true, or all too true, but there was no lack of detail. On the roads, fewer and fewer buses were running. People dragged themselves through the streets, raised one arm, and went on their way, becoming more and more weary, not knowing where to go or rest. In this depressing state of mind, people only had eyes for signs of absence, or for the disruption caused by that same absence. Now and then, truckloads of soldiers appeared on the scene, as well as a column of tanks, their caterpillar treads squeaking and tearing up great chunks of the road surface. Overhead, helicopters flew back and forth. People asked each other anxiously: “Can the situation be so serious? Is there a revolution? Is there likely to be war? But the enemy, where is the enemy?” And unless they had already done so, they raised their arms and showed the palms of their hands.

This also became a favorite game for children: they pounced on the adults like wild beasts, pulled faces, shouting: “Show me your hand!” And if the exasperated adults, after giving in, demanded to inspect their hands, the children would refuse, stick out their tongue, or show their hands from a distance. Never mind, they were harmless: and the letter on their palms was exactly the same as that of their parents.

End of Part One. Part Two can be found here. Excerpted from Jose Saramago’s forthcoming collection of short stories, The Lives of Things, to be published in April 2012 by Verso Books.

G

José Saramago was a Portuguese Nobel Laureate, a novelist, playwright, and journalist. His numerous books, including the best-selling All the Names, Blindness, and The Cave, have been translated into more than forty languages and have established him as one of the world’s most influential writers. He died in June 2010.

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