The Tao of Odds and Ends
© Barrry Kavanagh 2003
"Hrr. It does not surrprrise me that this is a poorr and desperrate pllace," the Minister says.
"I knew where I had to go, but when I got to the entrance of the Civic Offices I was nervous and wondered if I'd go in. It's a huge, round, smooth building of glittering glass, overlooking the river like some big, stupid chandelier, ha ha."
Was that trouble from my head? Why did I kind of laugh there? Agh, I'll keep talking.
"The entrance was confusing. The first set of automatic doors opened with a - zip! - and then I was inside a kind of cylindrical bubble, with one set of doors shut behind me and another set ahead of me, unopened. I was trapped. Should I go backwards or forwards? I stood there for a while, then I took a step forward and the doors ahead of me zipped open, allowing me in.
"There was a wood-panelled reception desk, but I didn't need to ask for anything, because right beside the desk, there was a door, clearly marked, as they say. Clearly marked: HOUSING ALLOCATION & HOMELESS 9.30AM - 4PM. Inside there were about thirty seats, most of them occupied. I sat down. There was a computer on a desk, facing us, but no one was sitting at it. I wondered what it was for.
"I was sitting there a little while before I noticed people had little white pieces of paper with big blue numbers printed on them. Then I saw a sign: WAIT UNTIL YOUR NUMBER IS CALLED. Oh no! Desperately I looked all round me for a ticket machine. I looked up and down and all around, ha ha. Then I saw the red box just inside the door.
"I must have looked really cool, just casually swaggering over to that ticket dispenser and taking that ticket and then swaggering back again and slumping my arse back down onto my seat, ha ha."
Hey, that's not right. Why did I say it that way?
I continue. "There was a little window on one wall, where a what-do-you-call, an Official, was calling out people's numbers."
"Pllease telll me yourr numberr was callled!" says the Minister of the Waves. I hope he's not trying to tell me he's bored. I'm just attempting to describe this as it happened!
"Yeah, eventually, my number was called. I can't remember what number it was…"
"It's not imporrtant," the Minister assures me.
"…But anyway, it came up. When I got to the little window I started talking immediately, y'know, so the Official would get the message. I talked about my parents and about me having no home now and nowhere to go, and I asked what was going to be done about it, at the big old Civic Offices, nice big cosy building and everything.
"'What is your name,' said the Official. It didn't sound like a question, the way it was said. But I gave my name anyway.
"'If you've been abandoned by your parents, you could go into care, unless of course you are a disturbed teenager, but we have nowhere to put disturbed teenagers. Are you a disturbed teenager?' These words were strange to me.
"'Dunno,' I said. 'I'm nineteen.'
"'Ah!' barked the Official, just like a top breed pedigree hound. 'No good, you have to be under eighteen. At your age you can't even go into care.'
"'Right, that's okay,' I said, sounding very reasonable. 'I really just want somewhere to live on my own, please.'
"The Official just kind of looked at me with hound's eyes. I was a bit nervous.
"'Where are you staying?' the Official asked.
"I said 'Nowhere,' which was and is true.
"'Where are you from?' I was asked.
"I said something like 'I can't go back there, I can't go back ever.'
I do a little shrug with my shoulders to imitate the Official shrugging. I'm not sure the fish understands human body language, though. Maybe he does. He can't properly understand feet. But he understood my eyes, just before he asked me for my story.
"I told the Official where my house is, my parents' house that is, and I was asked what sort of house it was. Then I remember I got very angry. I was shouting about how houses can be cages, and how people don't just trim hedges and wash their cars on a Saturday morning, they can be vicious leopards, scraping, gouging… and I went on like that, blah blah blah. The Official started scribbling away at some form, writing words in all sorts of boxes. I was hoping that everything was being noted, all the stuff about hedges and Saturday mornings and cages and leopards, the whole lot of it, every dot on every i, every cross on every t, as they say.
"'Homeless Persons Unit!' barked the hound, stamping a piece of paper and handing it to me. It had my name on it, and it stated I was to report to a place back across the river. The Homeless Persons Unit, run by the Health Board, on behalf of the Local Authority, blah blah blah. The Official then called out the next number, but I wouldn't leave until I got directions. I stamped my foot, ha ha. But the directions turned out to be easy, it was a building round the corner from the quay on the opposite side of the river. I'd be there in no time.
"So I said goodbye to the Official, who was actually not like a hound, I'm just saying that, 'cause I'm angry… and I'm sick…"
"It's allrright," says the Minister of the Waves. "I'm not at alll cerrtain I underrstand what a hound is."
"Oh. Anyway. I went back across the river to the Homeless Persons Unit. It's a two-storey, redbrick building, with mesh on the windows, every pane of glass all filth, and rubbish stuffed behind the bars of each. There's a fire escape round back, leading up to metal doors that look like they've never been opened. There's graffitti all over, especially on the main door, which says HEALTH BOARD, underneath the graffitti.
"It's opposite a block of tiny flats, the meagre communal space taken up by washing lines. Eyes were watching from the windows. I couldn't see them, but I knew they were there. The redbrick building backed onto a square, where there were more blocks of flats. A sign on the wall of the nearest block read DRUG-FREE ZONE, with a drawing of a syringe, X-ed out. A good drawing, that one.
"I went into the building, straight down a beige corridor with black linoleum, and into the thick of a tightly packed crowd, inside a small room only the size of my living room, my parents' living room, that is. It had a low ceiling, and dirty, cracked walls, lined with exposed, rusty pipes, and turquoise paint peeling horrifically. About thirty of us stood there waiting to be helped, some of them whole families. There were children gripping father's legs, and mothers carrying babies in their arms. I started imagining the babies suckling, then I had to turn my head away from the women. And some people had sickness written all over their faces, the kind of sickness that stays. Some tried to hide their faces. I would've been hiding mine, I don't like being watched, ha ha, but no one paid the slightest bit of attention to me."