Thursday, December 15, 2011

Honey and Grandmothers

The fourteenth floor of an office building in St Kilda Road, Melbourne.
The offices of the Chilean consulate.
A frosted glass door, locked. 
An electric door buzzer.
We buzzed.
And, at length, we buzzed again.
At further length, there was a muted 'click'-ing sound, and the frosted glass door sagged slightly on its hinges. 
We passed through.
A room - small and square.  Four walls, two doors, six chrome chairs. A narrow blue filing cabinet with a potted plant drooping yellowly on top of it, and a large framed photograph of Presidente Pinera in his sash of office, beaming happily at the camera.
And the two of us, as well.  We knocked on both doors and were ignored, so we sat. 

From the other side of a wall we became aware of a voice.  It was a GOOD voice - soft and gentle, and suffused with the warmth of honey and grandmothers.
It's owner was engaged in a telephone call.
            "Como NO, senor - a SU consideration-!"  Of Course, Sir - at YOUR convenience!
The telephone receiver was replaced with a delicate click, and immediately it rang again.
            "Alo?" The voice coo'd. "Si?  De INMEDIATO, Senora!" Immediately, Madam!
Ring -
            "Que TENGA un BUEN dia -"  HAVE a GOOD day!!!
Liquid, golden laughter threaded through the wall. 
            "Con QUE le puedo ayudar?!" HOW can I help you?
Ring -
            "HASTA esta tarde, entonces.  Me ALEGRO de oir - " Until this afternoon, then.  I'm so HAPPY to hear -
The receiver was replaced again, and this time, there was silence.

A moment or two later, there was a soft shuttering sound, and a door opened in the wall that lay between us and the golden voice. 
Just a crack.
A woman slipped through. We looked up, eager to know the body that went with the voice, and there she was: middle height, middle age, slender, sleekly dressed in a pale blue suit, and her face -
She was scowling.  Her face was set - locked, nailed and bolted into a scowl as inexorable as a standing stone, and her eyes were cold.
 She swept them slowly across us, and fixed them solidly onto the wall above our heads.
 I saw Mr Tabubil turn slowly in his seat, tracking her gaze.  He lifted a finger, wonderingly.  RIGHT above our heads, then. Exactly three inches.

She pinched her lips together, and with her eyes still fixed firmly on the wall above our heads, she closed the door sharply behind her and SLID, with her back against the wall, around the corner to the second door.   Fumbling with the door handle, she forgot herself and dropped the ice-queen act, just for a moment.  With a wide smile, she opened the door, just enough to slip through, and closed it behind her with a decided clap.
Mr Tabubil puffed out his cheeks and let his breath out with an audible whoof.
We looked at each other.
We shrugged.
And two minutes later, she came back.  The same way - the scowl, the sidle, the intense absorption with the drywall -
The door closed behind her, and shortly, we heard her pick up the phone, and the golden, grandmotherly voice began again.
A tinkling, fairy chime laugh.
            "A SU consideracion, Senor.  Estamos aqui TODO el dia - cuandoquiera tenga tiempo -" At YOUR convenience, Senor.  We are here ALL day - whenever you have time -

We looked at each other.
We shrugged.
We pulled our our iphones and began a game of scrabble.

Three times in the next hour, supplicants buzzed at the doorbell.  Three times they were chastened and, eventually passed through.  Four times she sallied forth, putting us all firmly in our place with lifted chin and twisted lip and every single nerve and sinew in her body twanging to convey her personal disdain for ourselves and our petty diplomatic problems.
            Itchily, I was remembering the things that I had found enormously frustrating about living in Chile the last time around.  Why Oh why, can there never be a civil servant who chooses to display her rank and indifferent omnipotence by expediting and solving peoples problems really really quickly?*
            Looking for diversion, I studied the photograph of President Pinera on the wall beside the door.  Draped in a tricolor sash, he posed in front of a range of high Andean mountains, and beamed happily at the camera.
            My appreciation was critical.  We western European exports rather tend to expect our heads of state to show a somber, serious appreciation for the weights and balances and honors of their office. 
To what, in contrast, seemed our rather dour anglo-saxon standards, his transparent enthusiasm appeared almost indecent.  Awfully… latin, in fact. I decided that I rather liked it.

* "I know all.  I see all. Your petty desires are as naught to me, and being so, I shall grant  your visas  as swiftly as rice is scattered before the wind."**

** It's got to be happening SOMEWHERE.

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