People stared at me a lot presumably because of the bump. They were really nice though in allowing me to get on the lift first. They smiled as I ambled carefully down hallways. I would hurry up to meet them at the end of a long corridor where they were holding a door open for me. I would thank them with a level of gratitude I didn’t feel and internally wished they would keep their kindness to themselves. I became a walking questionnaire vending machine spitting out the same answers to the same questions of ‘when are you due?’, how long have you left? is it a boy or a girl? I was alive to the fact that I was more of an oddity rather than a significant cog in the machine of this office of the Insurance company. I was a receptacle into which people could pour out their good will and feel they were willing the thriving of two lives at once. They could attribute great empathy to themselves and bask in this pleasant image reflected back from my uncomfortable smile.
‘go round there and turn left at the deads’. This is what I was told on my first day, when I asked for directions to my desk. ‘The deads’ was a series of filing units in which all the personal data on the dead people who formerly held insurance was archived. The units were imaginatively and pragmatically called ‘deads’ and this title was written in large letters across all boxes. I marveled at the imagination it did or didn’t take to come up with this title. There was not a flicker from my colleague that the cavalier dropping of the word ‘dead’ into the conversation might have any effect. Or that this offhanded scraping off of any residual empathy for these people might appear callous. These files housed a nameless set of entities deprived of adjectives. They could not ask for a narrative. They couldn’t even ask for a capital letter. Barefoot in their flimsy files daubed over the front with faded markers. ‘Deads’ hurriedly scrawled over the spines of their boxes. Unable to get it up to split free of their collective noun bonds and scattering out like the splitting of an atom. The gulf between the state of being dead and being divested of life was coming into crystal clear focus.
Once I had ‘turned left at the deads’, I discovered that my desk was there immediately around that corner and I snaked in and around the units as though I was walking into my own personal labyrinth. They towered around my desk like sentinels. I sat at my desk all day every day fenced in by those filing cabinets while I got on with my work. I had been given the talk on the first training day about how a temporary clerical officer was at the bottom of the bureaucratic food chain and I felt that if they wanted me to get an experiential insight into this fact, they were getting that job well and truly done.
I sat amongst ‘the deads’ all day, both of us, needful of this purgatorial stay. So every day, on my way to my desk in the State Pensions office, I ‘turned left at the ‘deads” and took my seat with them. They memorialised in boxed up files on out of reach shelves. Me boxed in by them and waiting. Then I started to think about my Mother. In the years before she died I was always memorialising her. I was always thinking about her death. I wasn’t happy with that. I wanted to do differently. I wanted her to live with me and be alive as opposed to be dead amongst us.
Would she have been willing to be neatly slotted into this categorisation of a ‘dead’ or indeed into one of these neat boxes? A woman piped up in a desk near to mind. I heard her ask her colleague ‘are you working on a live one?’ ‘No a dead’ was the knelling response. Do you have the batch of deads from twenty eighteen there?’ The baby turned over to find a more comfortable position and I felt that marshmallow ruffling of a feeling.