Under normal circumstances Robert Huber would never have had anything to do with them, those insidious little men. A normally well organized fellow, all things in their place and all places neat and tidy, Huber was sure to not walk the corridors and back passage ways of their world.
It all started with an oversight; those silly little twists that take normality and shake it like a dog with a shoe. Huber was not the sort of man to make this type of mistake. Every bit of correspondence was opened and immediately filed.
The bills in the month of payment and script written across them giving them a number within the month so they could be found if a query was forthcoming. Correspondence alphabetical and stored in a large binder with an arch lever mechanism to keep them flat, Junk mail dispatched to the waste paper basket without a look. That was the routine; there in lay the problem.
The letter was one of those new “use me again” envelopes. It looked “junky” and as such joined the K-Mart Catalogues and Walk-Against-Want envelopes in the wastebasket without a second glance.
What’s more, the nature of the “damned thing”, which was how Huber had come to refer to the letter, was foreign to him. He had never transgressed in anyway about anything. Everything was always too neat and tidy, to a fault.
So, on that July morning, Melbourne in the grip of a winter storm that coated the city in a wet-look sheen, Huber entered.
The old building was situated at the bottom end of the city; the Spencer Street end where the main interstate rail services were located. It was bluestone and it was dirty. The once fine facade was now cracked and sooted by the city’s breath; like the teeth of a very old and heavy smoker. The doors were up a set of stone steps worn in the centre from many years of folk tramping them. Little puddles sat in the centre of them accentuating the worn back of the bluestone pitches.
The doors were huge and painted green, all be it a dirty green with patches where the paint had peeled and the ancient timber showed through.
Inside, the foyer was as old as the rest. The floor, once a magnificent terra-cotta mosaic, was now pitted with tiles missing like some geriatric’s grin.
The lifts were metal cages that showed the mechanism and the doors appeared like large concertinas, reminding Huber for an instant of the toy he had as a child, a boxing glove on a device such as this, as you pressed the handles together it extended, bonging some unsuspecting friend on the nose.
The tenant’s board was an old brass framed affair with the names, single white plastic letters, pressed into what looked like faded black felt. Some letters sat in the bottom of the case with the obvious spaces above, cutting short the description of the tenant that they belonged to.
As Huber brushed the water from his overcoat and closed his umbrella he studied the tenants list. Running his eye down the columns he studied the mix and match of individuals and corporations that made up the family of this old, once noble building.
Finally he found what he was looking for.
DEPARTME T OF INTERNAL STATISTICS
AND INF RMATI N
The N, O and O were all in the bottom of the case. Huber followed across the column to the floor. It read.
The “S” was sloping ready to join its fellows at the bottom of the case. For a fleeting second Huber had this overwhelming urge to laugh, they looked like they were trying to escape.
N, O, O and a pending S. He was a crossword man and he started to consider the words available with the four letters. SOON was all he could come up with.
He observed that the lift stopped at the ground floor and walked around behind the cage to see whether he could find some ingress to the basement level.
A hand written sign; white card now yellow with age and black texta colour presented him with
THROUGH DOORS AND DOWN STAIRS
and a large arrow pointing to a door down the corridor, past the door marked
Huber took DISI to mean Department of Internal Statistics and Information and had to laugh at the PMG reference, remembering, “Post Master General”, smiling, the PMG had been defunct for over 60 years.
So be it. Door, stairs and DISI awaiting Huber walked down the corridor.
The stairs were timber and threadbare. The walls showed the effects of plaster leeched of its salt and pushing the paint away, great lumps of calcification like a cancer on the once light blue paintwork. The handrail was polished to a mirror-like lustre from eons of travelers in both directions. A landing half way down showed a path like the racing line on a grand-prix circuit with dust and paper fragments in the corners. Any janitorial duties that may have existed in this place were obviously not contracted to this stairwell.
Cardboard boxes were stacked in the corner of the landing. Faded labels, handwritten in a flowing cursive script, dated Nov 11, 1947 through Jan 13, 1957.
He mused the fire-danger of this place and continued down. At the bottom of the stairs were doors that would have swung in both directions if they were not impeded by more boxes of the same. Now, the left door would only swing in, it was paneled with frosted glass and had a dirty brass plate at chest height with the legend “PUSH” pressed into it.
Huber got to the door and did indeed push. The door protested at the press leading Huber to postulate that this particular entry was used very sparingly. More of the now familiar brown and beige boxes on either side of the doorway, one column leaning against the other door on the inside supporting the column outside, the door a wafer separating them.
The room was large; at the opposite end to the door he had just entered a counter. The walls the same light blue, pockmarked and cancerous as the stairwell had been. The floor, linoleum of indeterminable pattern and in some places worn through to the backing layer and in the most extreme, the cement of the floor showed through.
There were a number of doors off the room. All said quite severely
and a sign over the desk, hanging by rusty chain, coated in a light sheen of cobweb read
PRESS THE BELL
A small bronze bell was situated at the right end of the counter, the type that is tapped once on the top to cause a lead striker to hit the exposed bell. Huber struck the device once, not having used anything like it in such a long time, his hand muffled it. He struck it again and the bell sounded full and loud; echoing through the room.
Looking around he noticed that the lighting was single incandescent globes with white, well, once were white, shades covering them. They hung from the ceiling on platted cords and the fly dirt made the surface look like some strange join-the-top puzzle from a Boy’s Own Annual.
Shaking his head he pondered “Boy’s Own” how completely politically incorrect that was these days. Still, that was his child hood memory and it could stay so. He tapped the bell again this time twice in rapid succession, an illustration of his total lack of tolerance for being here, a man of his importance.
“Hello” Huber said over the counter and was surprised at how loud his voice seemed in this place. Actually, tomb he thought to himself for some reason “any one here?”
The door to the left of the counter and behind opened. The man that entered was short. Huber was not much good at heights much below five and a half feet. He was of middle age or there abouts; dressed in clerical gray trousers, a white shirt sad about the collar and a tie that was just too wide and the colours too pastel to be of use.
His countenance was drawn, his face sallow, wide horn-rimmed glasses on a small nose, the left arm wrapped round with sticky tape or the like. Huber could not see his feet but felt sure they would be clad in Hush-puppy loafers, the type with the ripple soles.
The top pocket of his shirt was filled with pens, they seemed to be neatly arranged in some order that was lost on Huber but was bound to have an absolute meaning to this man.
His hair was black and his pate bald, three or four stands of hair were plastered over the shining dome, a “trap-door” is what Huber called such contrivances, they tended to stand up in a brisk breeze.
He walked to where Huber was standing. Without looking directly at him he said.
That was it. Just “Yes”. Huber was not used to this type of treatment. He was a man to be respected, there was no doubt he had a bee in his bonnet about all of this and this was just the icing on the cake.
He started to square his shoulders and stand tall in an endeavor to have his six foot height come to full play when the fellow snapped.
“Well, what is it, we’re busy here you know”
That was it. Huber was almost lost to speech. His face now red and his breath stuck in his throat.
“I” he was truly tongue-tied. The insolence of this fellow was overpowering, all he could bring himself to do was pull the envelope from his pocket and fling it onto the counter. It spun once landing in front of the man. He never once looked at Huber, looking at the letter replied.
“Oh, a D12 SLASH 2332 DOT 1. Why didn’t you say?” He looked up for the first time, a smile on his face.
“Now” he looked at the letter “Mr. Huber” he pronounced it HUBA the HU like the HU in HUT.
“HUBER!” Huber replied, his voice tight with his indignation. The HU now the correct sound like the OU in YOU.
“Sorry Huber. I had no idea you were here for a D12. If you would like to take a seat Mr. Adams will be with you shortly.” He took the letter and unfolded it flat, and ran his hand over it, paying some sort of reverence to it.
Then he frowned. “But, this is a follow-up letter, this is one of ours.” His voice had a strange sound to it.
“I missed the first one; only got this the other morning.” Huber returned; now a little less stressed as the man had paid a little reverence.
“Missed it?” he asked incredulously, as if anything that was generated from here was as important as any epistle of any time and place.
“Yes” Huber’s hackles were rising again. “It was one of those funny envelopes, like Telecom use, it looked like an advertisement.”
The man cut him off mid sentence with an impatient “Yes, yes, yes. Now, Mr. Adams will definitely want to see you. Goodness, a follow-up D12.”
He walked away to the door and exited without a look or word to Huber, shaking his head as he went. Huber heard the faint “a follow-up” as he walked away.
Huber was dumb-founded, angry, but dumb-founded. He paced for a while. The hands on the face of the electric Westclock showed a quarter to ten. Not 9:45, that was what digital clocks showed. This one had hands and a sweep second hand. Had he been here for almost an hour? He sat on the seat against the opposite wall and waited.
Over the course of the next 15 to 20 minutes a procession of people walked through behind the counter. After the first one or two, Huber realized that they all seemed to look the same. Then he realized that this was bound to happen in an environment like this. Since his arrival there had been no other “customers”. He heard no telephone ring and very few noises at all.
As the wait approached 40 minutes Huber was getting very restless. Anger was not the correct word he had passed anger, he was incensed. He just wasn’t used to this treatment. He stood and went to the counter, raised his hand and was about to drop it with a thud on the bell when the door off to one side of the room opened.
“Mr. Huber!” the voice demanded.
Huber turned, amazed at the tone, a tone one would expect in a busy doctor’s surgery as the practitioner calls a name for a patient whose identity had long lost any meaning in the sea of faces waiting for the pills and potions metered from the small consultation rooms.
“Yes!” he answered with a little too much volume in his voice, regretting it the moment he had as it rung through the room, bouncing of the linoleum floors and tall walls.
“Come this way if you would be so kind.” The man walked away leaving Huber the task of crossing the room and entering the door by himself in a catch-up mode.
As he entered he noticed a corridor running along the wall and back behind the counter. The man, small, immaculately dress, stood by another door about three along from where Huber was standing, motioning for him to enter.
“Come along” he said, his tone not unlike a schoolteacher to a dawdling third-grader. Huber walked along the corridor, his temper extreme and entered the room without even looking at the man. It was almost square. Along the far wall at the ceiling line was a full length window which Huber thought must have been in a recessed opening for it was still below the ground floor line as the stairs must have been at least a 20 foot drop and this ceiling was about 14.
The glass was frosted and inlayed with mesh that looked like chicken wire. Huber also noticed the outline of bars through the glass.
There was absolutely no decoration; the walls and ceiling the same sad colour scheme of the reception and the stairwell. There was one desk with an office chair and two visitor’s chairs arranged at it. The desk was metal with a green vinyl top, the chairs matched exactly.
Although the design was old, they were in very good condition. Obviously this was not a working office, it was an interview room and Huber reckoned that it was not used that often.
“Sit please” the man said. For the first time, Huber took stock of him. He was 5’ 2”, approximately, dressed in an immaculate dark blue pin stripe suit, white shirt and red tie, his shoes, quality Brogues.
He sat. He actually felt any normality slipping away. This environment was just not operating under any set of rules that Huber could keen. Even his anger with the lack of reverence was abating in his realization that procedures and policies were in place here that transcended the manners of his understanding.
He sat all right. Heavily into the chair and just looked at the man across from him reading a brown covered file. It seemed dog-eared and old. Could this be a file on him Huber thought? What possible file could anyone have on him?
The man flipped pages and read. Huber started to feel irritated again. Why didn’t the man read this before calling him in, made no bloody sense at all; flip, flip, flip the pages went; the occasional “um” or “arh” filling the room. This went on for a while, Huber wasn’t sure how long as time had tended to become elastic in here, but a while it seemed.
The man finished reading the file and put it down on the table. He squared it up and looked across the rims of the reading glasses he had put on for the process.
“Why did you not respond to the first request for an assessment Mr. Huber?” He said; his tone flat yet with an authority Huber couldn’t quite put his finger on but felt quite surely.
He sat back in the chair. Huber could not help but observe he was as neat as a pin. His suite spotless shoulders devoid of any snow, lapels crisp and flat, truly a man who managed.
“I misfiled it. Thought it was junk mail. Those new recyclable envelopes do it every time.” He said rapidly feeling a need to fill the space the silence bought immediately.
The man didn’t move, flinch, sigh; nothing. He sat, so unnerving was this that Huber, a man so used to being the controller just felt he had to fill the time with words.
“Well they do, you don’t pay any attention to them they”
“All right!” he said, stopping Huber in his tracks, “but all the same it is an offense under the Department of Internal Research and Information’s Act, 1922, Section 122 par 1a to fail to respond to a request for a field assessment Mr. Huber; an offense!”
He looked at the folder again and removed a gold fountain pen; Huber was certain it was a MontBlanc; and scribbled across the front in a section printed for scribbling.
Huber felt this was his last change to gain any control so he said “Look here, what is this all about, I have never heard of this department and have never done anything wrong.”
The little man held his hand up and replied with more than a little irritation in his voice. “You have done something wrong Huber, you did not reply to the first form. It that is an OFFENSE!” he said with more than a little gusto.
His eyes were dark, through the lens of the reading glasses and his voice took on a sinister tone. “I will NOT enter into discussions here Mr. Huber. I have powers vested in me in the act and will use them to gain your co-operation. Make no bones of it. Do I make myself clear?”
“Good.” He removed his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose, opened the folder again and replaced the glasses. Huber could see a sheet of blue bond paper, appearing fresh in comparison to the rest. The pen was introduced to the scene again and the man paused to write and looked up. “Now, now, let’s see what we have here. You are single Mr. Huber?”
“You live alone, quite well I see, estate of you late parents, no siblings?”
“What has this got to do with?”
“If you interrupt me one more time Mr. Huber I will treat this interview as hostile and under the act I will evoke my powers, is that understood?” The little man said with a solid purpose Huber could not deny.
“Now, correct or not?”
Huber nodded; there seemed a power in the way this fellow spoke and acted that cause Huber to conform where he would never have done so before.
“I see that you are really a loner. No immediate love interests, you are heterosexual although I see you like to play a little, bondage I see” the man held up his hand as Huber was about to explode into a tirade again.
“Believe me we are not interested in that.”
The man pressed a button on the side of the desk. In the distance Huber heard movement and metallic rattling.
“Good Mr. Huber, that all seems fine. Now, no medical problems I see, nothing of much importance anyway, usual childhood complaints and an ulcer a few years ago.”
The door opened and two tall big men entered, dressed in hospital greens and proceeded to hold Huber to the chair. It all happened so quickly that he was caught completely unawares.
“What! What is going on?”
The small man looked at him and smiled. “Well, you see Mr. Huber; we are the Department of Internal Information and Statistics. We were formed many years ago to study and plot the physiology of the Australian population, well, selected members of it.”
He bumped the papers up into a neat pile and made a final notation to the file.
“The purpose is to provide data for Australia’s White Australia policy. To prove the concepts of the then well founded beliefs of white supremacy.”
“What, but that has been disbanded for 40 years, it is not even relevant anymore! This is madness; it’s even illegal under current legislation.” Huber yelled at the small man.
“Well, you may say that Mr. Huber but we have a job to do. Government is not for the people you know it is for the good of the people. Anyway our entitlements precede any newer legislation, 1922, Mr. Huber. It’s all perfectly legal I am afraid.”
“This is madness I tell you!” Huber yelled at the man.
“Mr. Huber, you are entitled to your opinion. Notwithstanding, we exist and are legally instituted. Admittedly we have been all but forgotten in the modern public service but exist we do. As director I have to watch all my expenses and work within budgetary guidelines that have not been reviewed for quite a while but I make do Mr. Huber; I make do.”
He studied his notes and turned to the first of the orderlies.
“The pancreas and spleen for Mr. Huber if you please Thomas.”
Huber looked from each man nervously.
“What! What are you going to do?”
“Why, we are going to measure them of course.”
“How?” Huber asked with a certain fear in his voice.
“Well, how would you expect, with an autopsy of course.”
Huber was about to scream when a well placed gag appeared from the other orderly. His scream was reduced to a muffled rumble, his eyes wide and head shaking. The small man waved his hand and the orderlies dragged Huber to his feet and carried him out of the room, his feet dragging behind him as he struggled with the huge men.
The little man finished his report. Authorizing them to terminate and study one Charles James Huber. A shame he was such a prig, he also needed to study eyes at the moment and would have easily worked on something far less evasive. Still, never mind, another quota met, so be it.
Under the Act they had the power to impound Huber’s property and he had the appropriate forms to do so.
He closed the file and pressed the button again. The man from the counter put his head around the corner and took the file. He walked down the corridor past a room bathed in the artificial light of a morgue when Huber was being strapped to a metal table, the effects of the drug injected moments prior evident as he lolled in the arms of the men.
Around the corner into the file room, it stretched back and was filled with row after row of compactor files. There must have been tens of thousands of files all neatly arranged with the colour tabs used in a doctor’s surgery.
Before placing the file back into its place, amongst a section labeled “Terminated Awaiting Collection”, he removed the top sheet, called the “Net Worth Report”
The total sum of Huber’s assets was $780,342.89.
It was this short man’s job to collect that; he loved his work. The new director had found a clause in the act that he had legal advice on and it ended up allowing the procurements to be included in the budgetary funding and it had breathed life into the place. It even allowed the employment of a number of new people and was slowly improving the lot of him and his fellows.
One thing he really liked of late was that, since the new director was appointed, one new criteria was height, no one was processed under 5’6’’. It had engendered a new moral in the department, for the first time in a long time, people were whistling in the corridors and he wished against all wishes that Randy Newman was an Australian.