The Manual

by Louella Sullivan

Nobody can see me. Nobody knows that I am here.

As her latest client exits via the yellow door, the Official readjusts her navy skirt. I can see it’s too tight around the middle. Her trousers must be in the wash. She looks down the long faux-wood counter at her colleagues feeding the rhythm of bureaucracy with their stamp and flip and push before punctuating the murmur of the Waiting Room with a disappointed “Next”.

I loll in the orange plastic chair, hiding in plain sight. She does not see me.

A week ago, she peered through the scratched Plexiglas panel that separated her from me, the client. I had better things to do than sit and swelter here, I said. She said, occasionally a client collapsed or began to shout and they had to be escorted by the Client Services Manager through the blue door on the far end of the Waiting Room.  What they shout is unintelligible to her. Why, I asked. She said, she never wonders why.

“Next.”

A fresh client, rumpled and rank, approaches the Help Desk. I see that moment when she masks her ambivalence with a lacquered smile.

“Please state your preference.” Her words are taut. She reaches for his documents.

“No.” He says, holding them fast.

“Sir, I don’t think you understand. No it’s just not one of the options we offer. You must state your preference: red, blue or yellow?”

“No.”

“I am required by Law to inform you that if you do not make a choice, one will be made for you.” She remains composed, deferring to The Manual (I have read The Manual).

“No.” He has grown in stature, his countenance clouds.

“Sir, again, I am required”

“No!” He begins to roar and toss his papers about the Waiting Room. The Client Services Manager swoops in and they disappear. I am relieved they do not see me. I pocket the rubber stamp, an innocent casualty of the uproar. The twitter of the room dies softly.

“Next.”

The blank-faced guard near the red door gestures apathetically in my direction. I do not move. The woman behind me, who has been sucking on her teeth intermittently, bustles past. The heel on her one shoe is more worn than the other. She hands her papers, neatly collated, to one of the other Officials through the window. She chooses yellow. Everyone this morning has chosen yellow unless they have chosen blue. But blue isn’t really a choice. Not really.

Last week, I chose yellow. It felt sunny, full of hope. It wasn’t. I returned the next day to wait. I waited for the Official, till her window was free. I stood at her desk and demanded an explanation. She said she didn’t understand. I explained again. She said that I had to make a choice. That it was out of her hands. She said she was sorry but there was nothing she could do. So I chose yellow and came back the next day. But no matter what permutations of the farce we played out, she never really seemed sorry.

“Nn…” The Official pauses.

She reaches for her stamp to ready for another client but her hand closes on fresh air. She looks along the counter, under the counter. She pats her pockets – she has no pockets. She checks her desk drawer and her handbag, red snakeskin leather. Reluctantly, she sneaks a hand through the window in the Plexiglas and gropes blindly for what is not there. I smile silently. She fixes the waiting room with a stare and still she does not see me. She knows. She knows the line must keep moving. Bureaucracy must be fed. The line must keep moving.

Acting with haste, she moves surreptitiously, two counters down, to the gate, keys in the combination and enters the Waiting Room. The guard, his back to her, picks his nose while scanning the room indifferently. As she heads for her counter, to search below its lip for the errant item, I slip through the gate, pull it shut and assume my position, smoothing my hair into place.

“Next.”

Having failed to solicit her stamp from the depths of the Waiting Room, she stands. She sees me. I smile benignly as if I do not see her.

“Please state your preference.” I still my quivering core with the worn-out words.

“I’m not you’re not there’s been a mistake. You see I was just there. I was where you are I don’t think you should be there.” Her eyes are casting wildly now, hoping to catch the guard. He has slunk off to take a piss.

“Madam, there is no mistake. Remain calm. I am here to assist you. But you must state your preference: red, blue or yellow?”

“No really you don’t get it. I’m not one of them. I’m Official.”

“Madam, Officials are on this side of the desk. Clients are on that side of the desk. You are on that side which means you are a Client.”

“But I’m not a Client. I was I am an Official. Can’t you see? Can’t you see me? I’m not them.”

“Madam, there’s no point in denying what you are. You must make a choice. State your preference.” I stand firm. The old me seeps out slowly onto the linoleum.

“I’M NOT A CLIENT!” she screeches.

“I am required by Law to inform you that if you do not make a choice, one will be made for you.” I remain composed, deferring to The Manual (I have read The Manual).

 “NO! I need… will somebody please fucking help me?”

She claws at the desk, raking her long pastel fingernails along the surface. Her voice rises to a crescendo. I sigh and make the smallest nods in the direction of the Client Services Manager. He takes her firmly by the elbow and they disappear behind the blue door. Her face is black with betrayal. Serene, I stamp the documents in front of me. I file them crisply. My colleagues send approving glances in my direction, I am proof that The Manual works. They do not see me. They do not know that I am here.

I look up, unseeing, through the Plexiglas, open my mouth and bark “Next.”


Louella Sullivan lives in Grahamstown, and is currently an English teacher and Pilates instructor. She has been published in Aerodrome, New Contrast, and New Coin. In 2017, Aerial Press published her first poetry collection: Salt – “a delicately woven account of pregnancy and birth”.

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