Art Pact 198 - 51 Main Street


I passed 51 Main Street every day on my way to the job centre - a large townhouse in the middle of two other more anonymous houses that made up a short terrace. Although it was slap-bang in the centre of Moreditch Avenue, the house was marked with a square white plaque beside the door reading "51 Main Street" in a stylish sans-serif font. The two houses to the either side were 33 and 37 Moreditch Avenue, so obviously the name on the sign wasn't the real address, but there was no indication that it had any other identity. I once happened to be passing at exactly the same time as the postman - Dan, a vague acquaintance of mine who I found profoundly annoying but was forced to be polite to. I nodded hello, chatted to him for a minute about some party we'd both been to, and in the course of the conversation I managed to sneak a good hard stare at the incoming post - a big bundle, probably as many letters in one day as I got in a month, even including rejection letters from job applications and stern notices from the government about what hoops I had to jump through in order to keep claiming my benefits. All the letters that I could see were simply addressed to 51 Main Street - no mention of the actual road, or our town or even the county. The only hint at an address at all was a postcode that had been written in in the bottom right-hand corner of each envelope in blue pencil. I briefly considered asking him for more details, but Dan was one of those people who got off on being the keeper of mysteries, so all questions would have accomplished would be to make him clam up tighter so that he could dangle the information over my head.

Fate handed me another option, though. The bundle of post was held together by an elastic band, which Dan removed and dropped back into his bike's handlebar bag carelessly - so carelessly, indeed, that he did not notice that the rubber had adhered to a small letter in a blue envelope which also fell into the bag. As he marched up the path and began to slowly feed the bundle section by section through the letterbox I took a deep breath, considered what I was about to do, then in one quick motion interfered with Her Majesty's Post. I called out a goodbye to Dan - making sure that I was already walking away so that I could plausibly deny hearing his call for me to wait a moment - and continued on my way.

I sat in the waiting room at the job centre with the letter in my pocket. Although it could have been anything I felt like a lovesick teenager holding a letter from his girlfriend. I couldn't wait to get home to open it, but at the same time I felt it was too private a thing to be opened in so mundane a surrounding as the waiting room. The job centre was built into the front of an old shop, whose big display windows had been so thoroughly covered over with poor quality job ads and threatening posters about benefits fraud that they were now almost completely blacked out, lending the waiting room a sickly dark quality that combined with the old fashioned fluorescent lighting to make the place distinctly uncomfortable to visit. It could hardly have been planned better if some effort had been put in, but I was sure that it had arisen merely through the combined action of bureaucracy and apathy. What sunlight did make its way in from outside was a distributed in thin blinding lines that pushed between posters and threw themselves viciously across the far walls and into the eyes of anyone unfortunate enough to be sitting facing them. Since the regular appointments all seemed to be scheduled early in the morning (both of the advisors seemed to be annoyingly chirpy larks), the sun was always low enough and blinding enough (except at the heights of summer or winter) to be a constant source of discomfort during opening hours. The only respite one could get from this deadly flare was to sit on the rows of chairs facing in the opposite direction, in which case one was exposed to a cure undoubtedly worse than the disease - the withering gaze of the receptionist.

There were two receptionists at the job centre, as physically different as it was possible to be but apparently still pressed from the same mould. Bjorn, the first, was a heavily overweight middle-aged man of apparently Nordic descent, although his dark hair and brown eyes made him look like the most unlikely Viking ever, and one could hardly imagine him making it onto the back of a raiding longboat without the dragon prow suddenly rearing up like it had just spotted St George. He worked Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays. Taking the Wednesday and Friday shifts, as well as those weekend days when the Centre was open for special events, was Alice. Alice was tall, thin, and blonde, but a very effective counter to the idea of the attractive slender blonde. Both of them were sullen in demeanour, unhelpful, patronising to the job centre's "clients" and fawning to their superiors, and to sit facing one or the other of them was to be alternately pointedly ignored and haughtily judged, an emotional roller coaster next to which the temporary loss of ones faculty of sight was positively desirable.

I had got there early to get the sweetest chair - facing away from the window but right at the end of the row so that I was furthest away from Bjorn. Still, there were few enough other people in the waiting room that he could have noticed if I'd taken the letter out. The letter for 51 Main Street, unopened, was still full of mystery. It was too precious to be judged by a sullen receptionist in a disused shop-front.

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