Friday, October 14, 2005

B, D & M

At Births, Deaths and Marriages you have to take a ticket specifying which of these categories you are interested in. I go for Births : A 42 is my number. It is called almost straight away, there's hardly anybody here this wet Wednesday morning. I show my letter of authorisation to the kindly older woman and explain my mission. She demurs. The letter is not enough, I need three forms of ID from the next of kin if the inquiry is to proceed. We spar companionably for a few minutes then I ask if I can see her supervisor. I'm not trying to cause any trouble, I say and I know she replies. While we are talking a startlingly beautiful young woman dressed in purple and green, heavily made up, passes behind and smiles at me. I sit down to wait, wondering who has left their reading glasses on the grey unbacked courtesy couch nearby. An old woman, thin, dark, on crutches, labours up the stairs with an attentive young man beside her. She also smiles, dazzling, she looks excited, she might be one of the Stolen Generation about to solve some mystery of origin. A very tall young man appears behind the screen in the booth with A 42 above it, he is the one who might be able to help me. I explain my mission again, in more detail this time, encouraged when he takes a sheet of paper covered with squiggles and begins to write the information down. The beautiful young woman passes and repasses several times while we are talking, each time with that wonderful smile. The tall young man says he has to copy my ID and, further, I will need to pay a fee so my query can enter the system. How much? I ask. Thirty-one dollars, Boss, he says. I have a weakness for people who call me Boss. I fill out a form while he goes away to check something. The glasses belong to a distracted, middle-aged Asian woman who is also filling out a form at one of the stand-up desks. The atmosphere in the grey anonymous room is full of hope, a buoyant, almost effervescent sense of possibilities about to be fulfilled. The tall young man returns, he says my inquiry can proceed but, if it is successful, I may then, perhaps, he isn't sure, need to get those three forms of ID from the next of kin. He refers my case to another clerk, a balding man in his thirties with a moon face. I don't understand the instructions given this clerk, although I know all the words : some kind of bureaucratic arcana. The clerk processes my form. I give him a fifty dollar note and a one dollar coin. He puts the money in the till but does not offer any change. I wait. After a while I mumble something about my change. He smiles, he hasn't forgotten, it seems the procedure involves an inexplicable delay between receipt of money and the tendering of change. He completes his task and takes from the register a twenty and two fives. I am unsure if he has deliberately undercharged me or made a mistake, but I don't say anything. The beautiful young woman passes for the last time, for the last time I am gifted that gorgeous smile. I want to leap the barrier and embrace her but I don't, I fold the money away in my wallet, thank the clerk and turn to go. I am sure I will see her on the way out, she must either be in one of the other booths or behind the reception desk at the front, there's nowhere else she could go, but no, I'm wrong, she's not, it is as if she has passed into the air. Perhaps she was never there at all I think, going outside into the brightening street and walking away. The tall young man said they would call when and if they found something. So far, two days later, I have heard nothing; yet the trace in my mind is indelible.