THE BLUE CIRCLE COLLECTOR
It was a Wednesday when a pot bellied mustached man with beady eyes walked into the Registry Office 3 in Pilsen and announced to all the ladies that he had been sent by the Ministry and after lunch everyone was to gather around the Blue Circle Collector’s desk for instructions. Some changes had come from above and they were to be briefed on the implications for their work. This did not please the Blue Circle Collector one bit.
She had been sitting by her desk guarding the door intently, hoping no more women were coming, starting to arrange the blue circles on her desk by date and by size. This was the part that pleased her most about her job; the human contact was a hassle. She had grown tired of the stream of pregnant bellies directing queries at her. As they stood and she was seated during the interactions, it was really like talking to fetuses face-to-face. At night, the Blue Circle Collector dreamt of peering into red caverns entwined in red vine branches. She sometimes saw the pinkish-red, transparent gaping mouths of chicks hungrily stretching out over frail, scantily plumaged necks. She would wake queasy, as if the morning sickness of her clients was hers to share.
Having grown up in a village, there was plenty of putting one’s hand into moist cavities that pulsated with life, but this rhythm – a distinct vibration, a pulse – and its musty smell, disgusted her now. Instead, the smell of the white walls of her bureau: forever faintly tinged with cigarette smoke, provided her with comfort. The neat piles of paper, her colleagues’ nail polish and chlorine based cleaning detergent were all a reassuring assault on the senses each morning. One that said: You will never have to go back to your village.
But now this man sliding his sausage fingers over the front of his shirt and making announcements about change filled her with unease. She did not care for change. The tedium of her work suited her perfectly.
Most of the bellies were straight forward cases: they brought in their blue circle and she filed it. The diameter of the blue circle depended on the region they hailed from. The letter in its center depended on their husbands’ earnings. It was difficult when a belly belonged to a lesbian, who had a partner who also had a blue circle to give in. Would they get twice the government support? The heroine of our story tended to believe they deserved none at all. There was nothing in the law that referred to their case. She took a thin, sharp pleasure in turning them away and knowing they would have to drag their big bellies through courts and appeal, and write letters to other bureaus and stress about the red gaping mouth of their infant stretched over a pale, blotchy neck. “That’s the law, I’m sorry.” Is how she would finish conversations with the lesbians, but her tone made it clear she wasn’t sorry at all.
She had a special dislike for lesbians because she imagined that they had a choice about the matter. Unlike the others who were set on the trajectory of marriage and being inseminated since early childhood, surely, the LESBIANS could avoid it with so little sperm in their natural habitat.
In truth, she detested all those who cried and complained. What is modernity if not the story of individuals, walking down white, clean corridors alone, having been assigned a number. It is either that, or the story of millions wondering down dirty streets, not having been assigned a number. So were they not lucky to be living in a number-assigning country?
She had tissues on her desk, for the weepers. And a little speech ready, too. She had been in the office for five years and had perfected it: the speech was meant to sound reassuring but in fact also contained contradicting facts and made no promise of support at all. “Don’t you worry, dear,” she’d start then sigh, as if the belly’s pain was her pain. “All you have to do is go to the county of your birth, get the original circle, and then get it legalized and sent to the Red Triangle Office for approval. If they don’t approve it, I’m afraid there’s nothing we can do for you. But hopefully they will” – cue for pointing a tissue at the weepy belly’s nose. Then she made it clear she’s very busy: “Many more women are waiting today. You’ll have to go now, sorry,” she’d say curtly.
She herself hardly went back to the county of her birth anymore. There were things she missed: the cherry blossom in spring, for example. But then, even that would be followed by that frenzied ritual in which the men beat the women so that they are healthy (and fertile. That’s the implication: fertile), in the year to come. She had come to abhor the drunks and the shrill hollers that they succeeded in emitting from her former friends’ lips. Distasteful.
It wasn’t always like that. As a child she enjoyed spring in the village a great deal: she would wear an ironed white dress with ribbons, participate in the parade and later, in the pub, she would be asked to sing – it was widely acknowledged she had the best singing voice among the girls – when she was done, her father, already red in the face, would come and swoop her off the small podium, sit her on his lap and compliment her while petting her head.
Life used to be simple… but no, even those memories were marred now and the Blue Circle bureaucrat could not think of anything back there as positive. After a few such happy springs, there came a spring when her father followed his “lower brain,” as her mother put it, into the neighbours’ bedroom and the neighbour had a couple of girls of her own. The following spring the youngest neighbour girl sat on his lap in the pub following the spring parade. He did not mean to abandon her, his true daughter: he called out to her to come and sit on his other knee, but she cowered away and ran home in the drizzle, getting her new pumps damp on the way.
Soon after that she came to the city to study in a secondary school with an administrative focus and it was a relief not to have to see her parents anymore, though she loved them and had forgiven her father. But forgiveness alone doesn’t mean you have to talk to the person, she’d tell herself when her conscious urged her to call him.
She went on a few dates during those early years in Pilsen, and though she relished the attention and wanted to be liked, she found that she feared the young men stepping into her tidy little flat, and that was when the red dreams of beating arteries began weaving around her mind at night.
There was no envy in her heart as her girlfriends got married and pregnant. Quite relieved she was to return to the quiet of her apartment after the weddings and plan for the next day in the office.
Yet, as the years went by and her friends bonded over petty gossip about teachers at their kids’ school and whatever childhood-related nonsense was in vogue at the time, she smiled politely and stepped back. The amused looks they exchanged amongst themselves whenever she spoke of herself did not escape her. She forgave them, but forgiving didn’t mean she had to talk to them.
There was a phase of making friends with younger women, but they too eventually grew huge bellies and disappeared into Mama Land.
The bureaucrat thought all mothers fools: it was even scientifically proven that pregnancy ate away at the grey matter of the brain. Sometimes she would point this out to colleagues during their coffee break. Her colleagues, mostly mothers themselves, seemed unsure when she said it, then they would laugh and touch her arm lightly, agreeing jovially. She didn’t mean it jovially. She wished they would take offence. She repeated this fact, quoting the correct scientific articles to each one of them a few times, thinking it might sink in and they will start worrying about their cerebral powers, but they never did. Their reactions eventually made her angry and she stopped mentioning it; afraid that the anger might show. They were all hopeless and communication with them best kept short and to the point.
She did, however, consider one woman in the bureau to be her friend: the boss. Mrs. Presna, a thin and soft spoken woman, was overall well-liked by the ladies. In disputes between the public and her employees, she would without fail protect her office ladies, even if it meant bending the facts a little, or some belly going without support. Mrs. Presna wasn’t a woman of many words, but the Blue Circle Collector was given to understand they were friends by one short exchange that took place on a late afternoon when as she had stayed to work overtime on a backlog of blue circles. – “Well done,” Mrs. Presna peered down from behind the desk, “You can’t trust women with kids to do a good job like you do.” That was all she said, with her lips pressed together in a resolute manner that indicated an underlying seething resentment. Mrs. Presna had no family either. Divorced, rumours had it. There was a bond between them, of that The Collector was sure.
Something the Blue Circle Collector never said anything about was a fact she knew to be true: mothers were sexless. During work parties their husbands would eye her: not a young woman, but nevertheless single and perhaps available for extramarital activities. Once a husband even followed her into the washroom and patted her on the bum, asking if she was up for some fun. Had he stunk less she might have agreed, but as it was it was, she looked him icily in the eye and asked: “Do I look like someone who is up for some fun?” He jumped away as if bitten. Being deadly serious is a buzz kill because it reminds men of their mothers and the mothers that their wives had become.
The Blue Circle Collector inhabited a world very much under the surface, unspoken of and – she felt – mocked and belittled. But only because the others were afraid and jealous, she told herself. She was like a witch in the Middle Ages, like a widow in India, a voodoo lady in the Caribbean. Her time was her own, her body never to be subjected to the torture of childbirth and the knives of doctors cutting through the skin of her genitalia. Her days were quiet, whereas theirs were filled with the unsettling cries of babies. They had to give every bit of themselves away for their family, whereas she could read books. Theirs was a world of lies that sustained loveless and passionless marriages. Never mind that she herself had no love, nor passion: if she were to find someone, there would be no need for lies. No facade.
Lunch was over and everyone gathered around the desk. The chubby messenger from the Ministry made a long speech, as was the habit, about the graveness of the job the ladies were doing. Then he cut to the point: Mrs. Presna had fallen ill and was forced to quit. She had been consulted about her successor and no other than the Blue Circle Collector had been recommended for the job. The office ladies smiled politely. Most were indifferent as they had no ambition; some looked at the man apprehensively, pleading for help with their eyes. – “So, I will guide you,” he concluded, addressing our bureaucrat. “And the rest of you can go back to your desks.”
He sat down by her desk, inadvertently pushing a few blue circles out of their pile. The Collector moved her chair away from him instinctively. She was immensely pleased with the news, but tried not to show it. She felt she should ask about Mrs. Presna’s state of health. “Not good,” came the short response, “but let’s you and I concentrate on the business at hand. Come with me. We can’t discuss everything here.”
The stodgy Ministry employee led Blue Circle Lady down a corridor and into Mrs. Presna’s old office, opening it with a key he must’ve received from Mrs. Presna herself. “Please, take a seat,” he pointed to the manager’s chair behind the mahogany desk. It felt good: this feeling of sudden power. She straightened her back, folded her arms on the desk in front of her and prepared to listen to his instructions.
“You can do as you like now.” Was all he said.
“Excuse me?” She was taken aback: this was not how things were normally presented. “Yes, you heard me. Do as you like. Just make sure to execute all decisions slowly and disguise all your decisions with many paragraphs from different law codes. You were chosen because you are a person capable of doing this. We trust you. Admit to no mistake. Never promise anything in writing. But you know these things, I’m sure…I’m sure.” He played with his moustache.
She did know. A proud feeling of complicity took over her. – “I will not disappoint you, Sir.” She puffed out her skinny chest at him. “I trust you won’t,” he replied looking her up and down sharply. – “You really do look the right woman for the job.”This, from his lips, did not sound like a compliment, but she thanked him nonetheless.
The Blue Circle Collector started her reign by changing the application system and creating greater ambiguity surrounding documents required and time scales for applications. She also made a change she considered to be the signature of her great administrative work: she added requirements to the process of filing the blue circles. The result was foreigners being refused twice as often and lesbians never getting monetary support. It did not look purposeful and she was proud of the way she had implemented the changes. All complaints were met with long winded formal letters quoting several laws which were in fact, in conflict with each other. But one would have to hire a lawyer to make sense of her letters and she knew most people would not hire one: Who had the time? Who had the money?
She grew fatter with satisfaction as new administrative ideas filled her mind each night. Excitement and anticipation fuelled each of her working days in a way she had never known. She no longer dreamt those horrid dreams of nature; instead she dreamt white, clean dreams. She now built immaculate houses out of office equipment and orchestrated armies of typed up lines into battle, and she woke refreshed. Glowing, some said. It was a thing of her own making: the bureau, the lives she could now control.
This was the state of things for nine long, happy years: the best time of her life.
During those years the building of Registry Office 3 became wrapped in thick ivy. It blossomed, was how she viewed it. Several old men and expectant mothers could always be found in front of it, gawking at nothing in particular. The office had become impregnated with the Collector’s spirit.
So good were those years she had failed to notice the growing discontent among her former colleagues as they had to fight more hostile members of the public. Some even quit as the job had become too stressful. Quick silence would fall as she entered the office she used to work in. The ladies never met her eye. “All well?” she would ask. Only to be met with silent nods. But her life was too good, her belly too full, for her to truly care.
As the normal atmosphere of malcontent gave way to an undercurrent of violence, Registry 3 started to change from the inside: its white walls gained a yellowish tint and doors were always being slammed and locked. Some renegade employees began playing music, against regulations; in the afternoons—after they were asked to switch off their radios– they would hum the Czech versions of ABBA and Queen songs. The neatly trimmed pot plants spilled over the edges of the window seals to the floor of the offices, and all of a sudden members of the public were likely to be greeted by an employee who stretched their legs in front of them and maybe even joked ironically, tossing a: “Good luck” at the applicants’ backs as they walked out, with the whole office giggling a little. It was too ridiculous: that member of the public should think they could do anything to help them.
This breaking of code, in turn, fuelled agitation on the other side of the desks. Members of the public began twitching, showing their teeth. The expressionless veneer that held the whole enterprise together had begun coming apart at the seams.
“There is nothing here to laugh about!” roared the boss. She had speeches ready about days gone by, and discipline, and her army of bureaucrats listened, eyes lowered, only to break into laughter once she had left.
PIGS. BASTARDS. Read the graffiti on the registry office’s facade. The desolate faces of the elderly and the pregnant had been replaced by those of pubescent hooligans, loitering at the entrance; smoking. It was through this crowd that the moustached man from the Ministry had to make his way for a second time. His hair was grey now, but he hadn’t changed much otherwise: he wore the same striped shirt he had worn nine years ago; its buttons quivering now, ready to pop. He walked into The Circle Collector’s office and laid his chubby fingers, now stained with liver spots, on her desk. “People are laughing. LAUGHING.” He hit the desk hard. She was gripped by dizziness; she knew it to be true: humanity had seeped in. Registry Office 3 teemed with the possibility of aggression, and with it the suggestion of things venereal, and with that the possibility of regret and fragility. It was no longer the protected haven she had cherished as an employee.
This realization deflated her. She didn’t even need him to fire her: she packed up a box of office equipment and left, head lowered. That night at home, huddled by the radiator on the floor, she found a single blue circle between the floor boards. She picked it up and looked at it through her tears, determined to soldier on and not feel sorry for herself.
The following weeks were spent complying with the arbitrary demands of dole officers at the Labor Office. She admired their work: they never gave her any precise information and every form she handed in was lost at least twice. At the end of the day she was tired, but not bitter. She of all people understood the game: she was grateful to be able to participate.
Then, on the third week, having photocopied all her payslips from the past 9 years and filed them neatly for submission, she walked up to a desk behind which a rather butch woman was sitting. – “You don’t remember me, do you?” the clerk asked. She couldn’t say she did. – “You told me my blue circle wasn’t valid because my partner also had one.” – “I’m sorry; I was just doing as the law states.” – “Sure you were. As do I, here,” the lesbian smiled widely and the Blue Circle Collector had a very bad feeling indeed.
NATALIE BERGMAN is interested in the topics of alienation and belonging in the modern world. She traveled around the world for a few years before finally settling down in the Czech Republic, not far from where her grandparents were born. She taught English at the University of West Bohemia for seven years before quitting in order to pursue a degree in biology. She lives in Plzeň with her partner Jan and their son, Tommy.
Read more by Natalie Bergman:
Personal essay in Cecile’s Writers’ Magazine