Art Pact 200 - Housing
We went to floor fifteen first, as directed, only to discover that it was a pre-reception, some sort of screening system by which people were forwarded on to their actual destination. The floor was on the same level as the transport hub, fed into from a big plaza on which buses would stop every few minutes, disgorging one or more downtrodden-looking fellow paupers and on occasion some serious looking little gangs of white guys - sometimes in suits, sometimes in more military gear - who we tried to avoid. It was obvious that they were not here to make anything better for anyone, and Beya would shiver every time any of them got near us and have to turn away so that she could not see them. I made sure to step between her and the gangs so that she wouldn't have to see them as often as she might have, but it was tricky work. There were certainly a lot of them.
We made our way across plaza, dodging the buses and trying not to breath too much of the fume-laden air that seemed to hang over the place despite its open surroundings and height. Great doors - twice the height of either of us - slid open with an ominous hum when we got near, and slid shut behind us with an unusual finality, as though they were teeth clamping shut and the building were about to swallow us. Which, in a manner of speaking, it did.
A journey through a great beast's intestines could hardly have been more complicated that the route we took through the various bureaus and officials that day. As I have said, we went first to floor fifteen where we waited behind a queue of the beaten-down figures we had seen outside, each one of them shuffling forward every five minutes to take up the few feet of territory that had opened up in front of them. By the time we'd got half-way down the queue Beya was desperate to go to the toilet, but we were so afraid that if she gave up her spot she would not be able to get back to us that she just stayed where she was, shifting her weight urgently from foot to foot every few seconds and pursing her mouth awkwardly as if pressing one set of lips together might work by sympathetic magic on the other. The woman behind us gave her strange looks, and seemed to be slowly coming to the conclusion that Beya was mocking her, since she appeared to be more and more annoyed each time I looked at her. Fortunately, though, we eventually managed to get to the front of the line without either an accident or a fist-fight, only to discover that - once we had told the clerk all our details, had our index fingers scanned, and signed a document saying that we had entered the building (something to do with health and safety, he explained) - we were simply being told which floor to go to for our initial appointment - floor six. We were to go there immediately, he explained, since there was an appointment available in the next five minutes.
Well, I could tell already that five minutes was not going to be enough for us to get all the way down nine floors and locate the place, especially since there was another queue at the lifts. So I took the decision not to relay this bit of information to Beya (her English not being good enough to have picked that up), and instead got her into yet another queue - fortunately a considerably smaller one - for the toilets.
"Terrible," she told me when she came out again.
Floor six turned out to be practically deserted - indeed, much of it was given over to just empty space, which we could see past the shoulders of the young woman who conducted our interview. She was a shade lighter than Beya, and at first was quite friendly to us, but seemed to grow more and more obstructive as we talked, which made Beya and I nervous that there was something we were saying about our situation that was annoying her. We had all of our papers, the correct medical details for me and the passport documents and stamps for Beya, but the young woman persisted in getting more and more flustered the more she entered into her computer. We tried keeping quiet for a while, letting her explain all the hoops that the administration would have to jump through to find us somewhere to stay, but the description of that Herculean task seemed to make her even more frustrated with us, as though we had deliberately had our home destroyed in order to make more work for her. Beya at one point broke into her monologue in order to describe the troubles we'd had leading up to the fire, but instead of invoking her sympathies even that just seemed to make her more and more annoyed.
"The problem is the lack of places," she explained for the tenth time.
"Yes, we understand," I told her. Beya nodded.
"We just can't go giving out places to people who don't need them."
"Of course," I said.
"But we do need one," said Beya. "Our apartment was burned."
"There are T's that need to be crossed," she said. "I's that need to be dotted."
I could see Beya frowning, and jumped in before we got side-tracked.
"Is there something temporary that we can sort out while the details are being dealt with?" I asked.
"You'll have to see emergency accommodation on floor nine."
"Oh. I thought this was-"
"This is emergency rehousing. But there's a lack of places in accommodation as well."
I glanced at Beya, who was staring over the young woman's shoulder. The expanse of floor in the office was probably enough to fit our old apartment into ten times over. I could almost hear the cogs turning in her head.
"Let's go," I told her, nodding politely to the official.