Hm, I was saying… oh yes, it was only a small village consisting of 16 houses when one of the clerks from the district office arrived for the village evaluation. I put him up for lodgings in my house, being the official village guard for the last 32 years; I felt rewarded and proud to finally have this direct connection to the Office, to oblige this important official.
The clerk busied himself from morning to night: taking notes, dimensions of pathways, houses, trees, taking measurements of each and every inhabitant of the village, making plans and drawings. In the evenings he was writing down his observations profusely and well into the early hours of the morning on thick rolls of paper, which sometimes by accident rolled out of his room, down the steps and unfurled into the cellar where I had to temporarily move to in order to accommodate the official. I had a chance to glance at the writing on the rolls which consisted only of long lines of numbers, punctuated with colons, semicolons, commas, some sorts of code underlined, neat tables of multiplications, divisions and other mathematical formulae which I found difficult to comprehend. I would roll up the paper, tracing its journey all the way up to the clerk’s room, and find him bent-over writing, oblivious to my presence or to the loss of the rolls.
Our communication proved to be difficult to conduct- whenever I asked him questions or was telling him about the life in the village, he would come out only with numbers in reply, possibly codes that were exchanged between the higher officials in the service. Being so far away from the central office and a mere village guard, I have never been instructed in how to decode the language of such officials.
Quite often during these numeric exchanges the clerk would spontaneously break into a silent mime, his mouth moving fast in a variety of shapes and forms, eventually making up a clear “0” shape which he held frozen for about a minute or so, after which his speech became audible again, but just as incomprehensible as before.
One morning, coming back from my night shift, exactly two weeks after the clerk’s arrival, I found his suitcase along with the paperwork set out on the porch. I went to his room – it was clean and empty, but for the waste paper basket which was crammed full of screwed up pieces of paper on which red circles were hand-drawn over and over. At a close examination I noticed traces of his vigorous writing indented on the table.
On the porch there were 20 rolls of paper and 5 stacks, each about a metre high, of loose paper sheets, each bound with stained yellow ribbon on which I found faintly stamped the words ‘Property of the head office’ and could make out an address printed below. I didn’t see or hear the clerk packing the previous day- he must have done so after I’d left the house; no one in the village saw him leave either. I assumed that an official car must’ve arrived to pick him up sometime during the night; perhaps he was urgently needed back in the office hence leaving behind his paperwork.
After spending a few days in deliberations, I summoned a farmer from the village, loaded the clerk’s papers onto the cart and sent them to the address printed on the ribbon. When the farmer came back, he said that the clerk’s things were safely delivered to the office. I asked him to tell me more about the delivery and he said that there wasn’t much to tell; that when he arrived at the gates of the office and having just motioned his hand to ring the bell for attention, a large flap in the lower part of the gate opened and a hand stretched out, hauling the clerk’s things inside one by one.
The flap then closed with a bang and that was the end of it.
A week later I received a letter with an official stamp and, on opening it, found a piece of folded-up paper with a single large red ‘0’ on it. No other messages came and after a period of expectant excitement, the villagers and I resumed our daily routines. The visit was documented in the Village book.
After about six months had passed, the district consultant arrived with a group of 50 builders in dark green boiler-suits, men and women. He announced that a major development, the erection of The Very Important Structure, ‘a radical improvement of the topography of the village’ as he called it, was to commence at once. He pointed out to me the head constructor, whom he referred to as ‘One’, a woman distinguished from the rest of the builders only by a small felt hat with a yellow ribbon precariously perched on the back of her head. Having noticed the attention drawn to her by the consultant, she started slowly lifting her arms upwards, in parallel to the ground, stopping for a moment and then continuing again, at each stage checking the precision of her movements, keeping hands clasped tightly together, as if indicating simultaneously the stages in erection of The Structure and its strength. As she was lifting her arms in the air, I noticed how disproportionately short they were in contrast with her rather large frame; she kept lifting them higher and higher and over her head, her whole body stretching upwards, balancing on tiptoe and slightly swaying, until the hat fell off her head and rolled into a puddle, revealing baby-like fuzz of blond hair. She made a strange sort of squeal, placed the hat back on and resumed her place in the row with the rest of the builders. The strange performance was granted with a brisk round of applause from the builders; the consultant looked very pleased.
I wanted to find out the particularities of the construction and was eager to see the plans for The Structure, but decided to first voice my concerns to the consultant for the housing of the new arrivals. My question seemingly startled the consultant, who looked at me oddly, lifted up his heavy-rimmed glasses as if in need of some extra clarity that the glasses happened to obstruct, thrust his face closer to mine, run his fingers a few times along my mouth searchingly, prodded and pulled my lips apart as if looking for the presence of something, something foreign perhaps, that momentarily reared its head and caused such an alarming question. Having finished with the examination and seemingly satisfied, he declared in a loud voice that ‘One’ was to take care of all such practicalities. He then hastily got into his car and left.
I went over to the woman in charge to ask her my questions. She responded with the performance of the same hand movements as earlier, made whooshing sounds, gesturing for me to step aside, took a small pot of red paint and a brush out of her pocket, and started drawing numbers along the village path. When she has finished with the number 50, she stood upright, turned towards the builders, and performed the actions with her hands again. She then walked back towards number 1 that she’d drawn and, as if it were a cue, the builders started erecting tents one by one over the numbers, working in unison and echoing the brisk moves of ‘One’ with total precision. Once the tents were up, the builders climbed inside, zipped the entrances and everything became silent again. I went to ‘One’s tent and called-out for attention a few times – not a stir came from inside – and, as the darkness started to fall, I decided to resume my enquiries the next morning.
I stood there for a while, observing the perfectly formed straight row of yellow tents, which seemed like a luminous cut through the village’ main faire; the formation reminded me of a giant exotic caterpillar I once saw splayed in a naturalist’s display cabinet.
The work started early the next morning; deliveries of materials must have been made during the night: there were numerous piles of red bricks, hundreds of bags of cement and two huge mixers. The builders were hard at work digging-out deep holes in the ground presumably for laying the foundations. I attempted to communicate with the woman again, but she wouldn’t pay any attention to me, busy digging along with the other builders. She only stopped once in a while to prop her hat.
It was fascinating to watch the builders, how they moved in unison with their shovels; there was a certain beautiful precision in their movements, angles of elbows forming and re-forming rhythmically.
The villagers collected on the top of the hill a little further away to watch the builders at work, guessing and speculating about what the final building would be like and the purpose it would serve once completed. There were even fights breaking-out between the most adamant villagers defending their proposals. The most practical were in favour of a new school or a village hall with multiple purposes. The cramped conditions of the central office could be solved by moving part of the administrative team here. The building could also serve as a theatre, conference centre or a cinema. There were also much wilder, rather fantastical speculations about The Structure which I would prefer to omit here.
The news about the commencement of building works and the gossip about The Structure and the strange workers were spreading around the area like a wildfire – villagers from the surrounding areas started coming in groups to watch the building work. Soon the hill wasn’t big enough to fit all of the observers and one of the salesmen from the main town, foreseeing the possibility of a commercial gain, ventured to set up the first betting shop in the village. A large betting gazebo was erected and queues starting forming along the village houses, indicating the insufficiency of public services.
Numbers of observers multiplied rapidly every day. Some numbers were coming to place their bets, some to watch the builders at work which culminated at the end of the day in a performance. Lead by ‘One’, the builders would stand in a circle and methodically clap in an escalating tempo until it sounded unified, one continuous clap. They then finished the performance with the lifting arm actions before retreating to their tents.
With the huge numbers of observers visiting daily, opportunities for the catering industry couldn’t be missed – there were mobile restaurants set-up, food vans were coming every day and lining the village road, filling the air with tempting smells. There was avid competition for the spots closest to the building site; I was personally involved in resolving various disputes arising due to the acceptance of bribes by the villagers. It was near-impossible to do my job properly and cost me a considerable amount of anxiety to keep any sort of order in the place – with so many new people coming and going unaccounted-for and various business deals being struck up without my knowledge, I was working well into the night. The Village book soon was full to the brim with notes, signatures, demands of payment and fines.
Plots of land were being leased out or sold by the original inhabitants without the official papers. A 15-metre watch tower was erected, also without permission and high fees were charged by its owner for viewing the site; coaches full of tourist-groups were also arriving for the site tours. 4 travelling theatre troupes settled here to entertain the visitors and the service teams. Actors imitated and developed the original dance of the builders, making it into sold-out musical shows, Vaudevilles and plays performed at regular intervals throughout the day. A Ferris Wheel was installed to delight children and adults alike, and was also in high demand.
There soon formed a passage leading to the building site, about a kilometre in length, consisting of all kinds of entertainments; eating places, betting places, circus performers, jugglers, cages with exotic animals which a travelling zoo put on display, clairvoyant’s tents, etc. Most of the visitors, being swayed along the way by this selection of pleasures and entertainments, never made it as far as the site.
There was a news office set up for printing daily bulletins about the progress of The Structure, but its pages were gradually overtaken by advertisements for various entertainment venues.
Within just one month of the work commencing, our miniscule settlement grew to the proportions of a town, with about 2,000 new inhabitants settling here to accommodate the growing tourism in the area, and about 3,000 visitors passing through every day.
The builders, seemingly oblivious to this growth around their activities, diligently and silently continued their work.
Once a villager came up to tell me that he approached one of the builders, number 37, and, in order to get inside information about The Structure to secure his bets, managed to get her round to his place. The villager then regretfully admitted that nothing came of his plan, that the builder must have been mute, because even after having drunk large quantities of spirits, she simply laughed at the villager’s questions with a strange snorting laugh, periodically shaking her host’s hand with great enthusiasm, and, after performing the now famous arm actions, left through a window and stumbled towards her tent.
The whole venture and the huge changes that accompanied it: the loss of order and the influx of corrupting influences had a negative effect on the village inhabitants; they showed a complete lack of self-control and lost respect towards my authority, rejected my efforts, often with aggressive hostility, and started weighing heavily on me. I let go of my guarding duties under such stress and gradually let myself sink into The Oblivion. I started drinking, gambling and succumbing to the other mindless and often illegal pleasures which were so readily available. I admit now that I had utterly failed; my life slipped into some sort of monotonous dream from which I couldn’t awaken myself. Years could have passed and I wouldn’t have known… the party continued…
I did finally awake to an unusual silence. I couldn’t hear any more of the sweet music that, like a siren’s song, called me to The Oblivion. Inside my number 7 it was surprisingly dark; I could hardly see my bed. I stumbled onto the floor – and couldn’t see my feet either. I felt my slippers tucked under the bed and put them on. I thought perhaps I could see better outside. I opened the front door and went outside. There I could see nothing either, for there was absolute and utter darkness. The place was steeped, buried in darkness. I stood and listened. No sound at all. Where was everyone?
And then, suddenly, I could hear a faint screeching sound and decided to follow it back to its source. I could hear it better now. I was walking for a while in darkness and noticed that my eyes began getting accustomed to darkness because faint outlines of objects started to show. Yes, I could definitely see something; I should now be passing through the area where the entertainment passage used to be. It was completely deserted, just a dark spot, but I could definitely see some of the structures that stood half-collapsed among piles of rubbish and restaurant refuse. The weather-beaten and torn fabric of the previously brightly coloured betting gazebo waved like black, half mast flags. It was the only visible movement, nothing else seemed to move. Was there nothing left? I continued towards the building site; it was very muddy along the passage, wading through it was strenuous.
Finally I could see a group of people, moving around…and by their peculiar movements, jittery like walking; I recognised that they were the builders.
“I recognise you!” I shouted to them. They all smiled, but I couldn’t see their teeth, as if they had sunk deeper or were swallowed by the encroaching darkness. I must have looked very bemused as they soon started clapping in unison and I knew that they would soon start their special performance for me.
But instead they stopped and just stood there looking at me. I could faintly distinguish in the background some kind of movement. It looked like a group of the builders were strapping someone onto something and then being pulled up. I came close to see number ‘37’ being strapped-up to what looked like a pulley; I could see her mouth opening periodically in a soundless, toothless laugh. She was now going up, quite quickly. I could see two huge wheels, rotating and squeaking very loud: the mechanism was obviously not oiled. I was surprised by their negligence of the mechanism. It must have been that when two rusted parts on either wheel came together, the friction caused this almost bell-ringing kind of sound, echoing off the walls.
I could now see the red colour of the brick coming through the darkness, all around me. The sound had stopped but now the silence was ringing, even louder! Soon the squeaking resumed, reverberating in my ears. ‘16’ was definitely being hoisted up over a very high wall. I looked up higher and could see the boundary all the way upward, as if it was hanging from the sky. It occurred to me that it must be The Structure. Here it was completed and it was of incredible height. I could not see the sky at all; perhaps only a tiny bright dot very, very far away. The red brick stood like a monument, obliterating beyond, enfolding the space inside it, enforcing its presence, enveloping it like a cold, musty crease. The place was buried in near-darkness, within this red, baked, clay mass. So this was the assignment! Some numeric outcome! The structure grew into a gigantic city wall around the village, entombing it, overshadowing it, protecting it from the outside world. I decided to go for a walk along it but couldn’t contain myself and started jumping, bumping into the wall with almost ecstatic force. I started running along this unbroken, continuous structure. It took me some time to make a full circle, for the enclosure was spacious.
I arrived at the pulley again; the builders were still being hoisted up. I could now see ‘One’ standing under the pulley; she was looking at me, as if trying to point something out with that look and I could feel it all through my body, reverberating through me. She lifted her arm and started doing the gesture but instead of stretching upwards on her toes, simply pointed upwards and frowned. I heard her laugh, echoing like a scream, so incredible that my ears were hurting. She strapped herself onto the rope, looked upwards and her hat fell off, uncovering her softly illuminated hair. ‘Stop!’ I shouted; ‘Wait, please!’ My voice echoed and sunk into silence…