There was no wind, of course, because it was Monday, just a clinging dampness in the air. Tomorrow he would have to brave the Tuesday rain, but at the moment he had more important things on his mind. He had been told to report for duty at 8 o’clock and he was late. And he was hungry. He turned the corner to be confronted by the imposing A & C Building at the end of Central Square. He could not help but pause for a moment to stare at the dirty beige monolith. He had, of course, seen it a thousand times before, but never really studied it let alone imagined that one day he would go inside. Devoid of any external decoration, it dwarfed the other buildings around the plaza, its concrete walls rising floor upon floor until they disappeared into the blanket of low, grey cloud that hung over the city.
Albert hurried across the plaza towards the main steps, which were almost as wide as the building itself. Figures were walking up them and disappearing through the doors at the top. Without stopping, he pulled a piece of paper out of his coat pocket: ‘ENTRANCE F’. As he made his way up the steps, it was as if the building itself were willing him to stop and take stock of its enormity, its power. Set in the middle was the imposing main entrance for Special People and on either side, every few metres, sets of revolving doors, each with a letter above it. And over all of these, spanning almost the entire width of the building, in dull gold lettering the words:
A D M I N I S T R A T I O N & C O R P O R A T I O N
He headed to Entrance F and joined the loose crowd that was silently shuffling through the heavy revolving door, one by one.
Eventually, it was Albert’s turn to enter and in a moment he had exchanged the grim Monday weather for the dusty interior of Lobby F where the crowd dissipated into corridors or scuttled across the grubby chessboard floor that extended into the distance. Hushed voices echoed off the flaking paintwork of the walls and then were lost as they floated upwards to a distant ceiling. He had barely had time to take in his surroundings when he was pushed aside by the next person to come through the revolving door. Regaining his balance, Albert again looked at the paper he held in his thin fingers and on which his instructions were written: COUNTER 23.
He began making his way past the dark wooden counters that lined either side of the lobby where, behind thick glass, SOTACs busied themselves with stamping, folding and stapling papers. At Counter 16 a man at the head of a small queue was arguing with the SOTAC. Suddenly, he was shouting. Albert noticed the SOTACs at other counters looking up from their work as the shouting got louder, echoing everywhere. He carried on: he was late and, besides, he knew it was rude to get involved. Suddenly, half a dozen guards were running towards him, the banging of their black boots on the floor already drowning out the shouting voice. For a moment, Albert’s heart stopped, but in an instant they had dashed past him in a flash of black protekta and leather. There was more shouting and then silence. He could not resist a glance behind. Two of the guards were dragging off the limp figure, the others chatting to each other nonchalantly as they packed away their truncheons. The next person in the queue was already being served.
He hurried on to Counter 23, walked up to the glass window and slipped his piece of paper under it before fishing his rather tatty ID card out of his trouser pocket and sliding that across too.
‘You’re late,’ said the SOTAC on the other side, a middle-aged woman with a bun of burnt orange hair.
Albert looked at his watch.
‘It’s only three minutes past,’ he protested weakly.
‘If you want to be a Servant Of The Administration and Corporation you had better learn the rules and quickly!’ she snapped. ‘I could put a note on your file, you know, then they’d dock five minutes off your pay! They always round it up!’ She picked a half-smoked cigarette out of an ashtray and took a deep drag on it while opening a brown card file, which Albert saw had his name on the front. The woman pulled out a pile of white, pink and yellow papers and began stamping them, her sagging bosom wobbling in the lightly stained top that was stretched over it. When she had finished, she pushed one of the sheets of thin yellow paper through the hatch.
‘Elevator 10,’ she said, returning the cigarette to the ashtray and giving a sideways nod.
‘Don’t worry about the floor – just get in!’
Still clutching the yellow paper, Albert headed over to the bank of elevators, pressed the plastic button and waited. After what seemed like an eternity, there was a ting and the elevator doors rattled open to reveal a scruffy interior of faux wood. He stepped inside, the doors closed behind him and the elevator began its slow ascent.
When the doors opened he stepped out on to a raised area beyond which hundreds of people sat silently working at row upon row of desks. Before he knew it, a rough hand had grabbed his wrist and clicked a security band round it.
‘It’s for your own safety,’ said a bored voice.
He looked round to see a stout man in an ill-fitting uniform already turning to walk back to his chair.
‘You must be today’s newcomer.’
He turned back round to have the yellow sheet of paper snatched out of his hand by a small woman in black with a lazy eye.
‘Right,’ she said, pointing across the sea of people, ‘that’s your desk over there.’ In the distance, Albert could make out a gap between two heads. ‘You take the sheets of paper that are on the left hand side of the desk, turn each one 90 degrees and place it on the right hand side. Just one at a time, though: don’t try to be clever and turn the whole pile at once! That’s not how we do it here.’