The Ministry of Waiting

We are asked to assemble in the foyer of the Ministry at 9.30am. A man dressed in a wig and gown meets us there and leads us along hallways lined with marble and ornate tapestries to a long, low room filled with chairs. We are asked to take a seat and wait. We wait for about forty-five minutes. We wait quietly. Most people stare into space. Some have brought books or newspapers. No-one talks.

Eventually, another man, dressed similarly to the first, appears at the front of the room and calls out names from a list. We reply ‘here’ when our name is called, and the man crosses our name from the list. He then gives us a card marked with a number. Mine reads ’27’. The girl sitting next to me has’136’. Some people do not answer when he calls their name, and we assume that they are not here. He underlines their names with a red crayon. The man then leaves, and we are left to wait for another thirty minutes.

A third man, dressed in a military uniform, appears at a side door, and selects about twenty people, who then follow him out the main door of the room. Another man appears, and the same thing happens again. This happens several times, until there are only about twenty people left. We are asked to follow a woman to yet another room. She is dressed in a dark suit and sunglasses. We follow her along more corridors, down winding stairways, past rows of grim statues, until we arrive at another long, low room.

This room is smaller than the first, and there are already a number of people positioned around the room on important-looking chairs. There are men and women wearing wigs and robes, and men wearing military clothes, helmets and leather boots. There is a woman at the front of the room scribbling strange markings into a ragged notebook. We are asked to sit in a row of seats across the back of the room. Yet another man enters the room. He is very old. His wig is very large and his robes are a very dark maroon. He sits at the front of the room next to the scribbling woman. His chair is very big, and very important-looking.

One by one, the very old man calls out numbers. If our number is called, we are to stand up, walk across the room, bow to the man, and sit in the identical position on the opposite side of the room. This goes on until all the numbers are called, and we are all sitting on the opposite side of the room. The very old man confers with the scribbling woman, and one or two of the other wigged and robed people. They look solemnly in our direction and nod.

We are left alone in the room for about fifteen minutes. Eventually, the woman in the dark suit and glasses returns and leads us to back to the first room. It is already filling with people. I do not recognize any of them. We are asked to take a seat and wait. After about forty-five minutes, a man dressed in a wig and gown enters and begins calling out our names. When our name is called we are given a fresh card with a new number. Mine says ‘72’.

This routine continues throughout the day, with only subtle variations. There is a break at 1.00pm, and again at 3.30pm. We are allowed to leave at 4.30pm. We are paid $52.50 for our day at the Ministry. This does not compensate us for meals or childcare, but goes some way towards the cost of transport. If we do not attend the Ministry we are fined, possibly imprisoned. The law says we must wait.

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