A short story by MD Hamilton
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To those people who like to ask questions and are committed to the hard work required to ask the right ones.
John Andrews entered the Ministry for Making Cases clutching his briefcase. Within the faux suede interior of the leather clad box lay 16 A4 sheets of white paper, on which were typed five thousand and sixty-three words, chosen to illustrate his main arguments for the retention of chickens. He had told no one of his decision to come and had been intentionally vague about his plans. He knew that he would have been vehemently dissuaded from attending, but his concern was such that he was determined to keep the appointment. He had almost walked past the entrance, since it was tucked unassumingly between two ostentatious skyscrapers. The exterior signage, indicated that one monolith accommodated the personnel and facilities required to service an international bank, the other, the similar requirements of a utility provider. He had dallied no longer and gently pushed the brass fingerplate of the wooden entrance door and crossed the threshold of the Ministry.
His immediate impression was of entering a large, light-filled space. Almost simultaneously he experienced mild confusion, since the interior appeared to expand in all three dimensions exponentially. As his eyes adjusted slowly to the bright sunlight streaming downwards from the glass atrium, he attempted to describe the space he had entered. A contemporary airport terminal, perhaps? And he was currently standing in the equivalent of a check in concourse.
He was perplexed at his ease of entry. He had expected to pass through a security area, or a bag or person check, or at the very least some sort of barrier. Either the security precautions were well hidden or the Ministry was taking unacceptable risks. Since the latter was unlikely, he assumed the former must be correct. He looked around for some helpful signage, but there was none. There were plenty of people milling about, but most looked preoccupied and unapproachable.
In the centre of the concourse were a number of counters, arranged in a circle around a central pillar. Visible behind each counter was the head and shoulders of a receptionist. He was unsure which counter to approach, since his letter of appointment merely stated the address and time. He had also calculated that he was fifteen minutes too early and thought it most likely that he would have to wait. At random, he chose the counter directly ahead of him, but slightly to his right, at which a woman was seated. By way of introduction, John smiled. She returned the smile. He handed her his letter of appointment and said, a little apologetically, ‘I know that I am somewhat early, but I wonder if you could direct me to the correct department?’
She remained silent while she read the letter and then, lifting her head, spoke clearly. ‘You are correct that you are early, but that is no bad thing. It is good that you wonder and I can direct you to a department, but I will first need to ask you some questions to ascertain which department is the correct one.’
John was taken aback by the exactitude of her response. ‘I must pose my questions more carefully,’ he mused. But for the moment he was more concerned by her admission that she did not know which department he was to attend. Seeing his confusion, she proceeded to explain.
‘We normally ask applicants to give us a synopsis of their main arguments before we suggest a department. We often find that we have misunderstood the case they have come to argue.’ She laughed somewhat apologetically. ‘This happens very often.’ She titled her head a little to one side. ‘Can you summarise your main arguments for the retention of chickens?’
John was rather reluctant to acquiesce, since he had spent considerable time and effort honing his written arguments. However, he thought it might appear churlish to refuse her request. ‘Well, I suppose my first argument is that chickens are necessary to provide us with eggs.’
He was pleased and encouraged when she nodded vigorously. ‘Yes, you are quite correct but, I’m afraid, that is an argument for hens’ eggs specifically, not for all eggs and, unfortunately, not for chickens.’
Before he could fully digest her response, she bent her head down to look at her computer screen. ‘We next hear cases for the retention of hens’ eggs on the 16th of February. Do you want to make another appointment to return on that day?’
Her tone was matter of fact and her expression serious. John was perplexed. He thought rapidly. Was she right? Had he spent time and effort arguing for the retention of eggs and only hens’ eggs at that and not for chickens? He decided to press his case. ‘But surely without chickens there would be no hens’ eggs?’
She shook her head. ‘I’m afraid not. We can make artificial hens’ eggs.’
‘Oh?’ John paused. He had seen liquid egg, but that wasn’t quite the same as an actual hens’ egg. He put this point to her.
Again she shook her head. ‘We can make eggs that are identical to hens’ eggs, shell and everything.’
This was news to John. He thought about suggesting that these man-made eggs would not be ‘natural’, but he considered that just because a product did not derive directly from nature, didn’t mean it was any less good. If she was correct and hens’ eggs could be replicated, then his argument that chickens were needed for egg production was indeed nullified. Worse than this, he realised, his next argument, that chickens provided poultry meat for humans to eat, was an argument for poultry meat and perhaps an argument for people eating poultry meat and perhaps even an argument for humans enjoying eating poultry meat, but not a case for chickens. He thought it very likely that if hens’ eggs could be replicated, so could poultry meat. He asked her if this was the case and she nodded. ‘Clearly, I was unaware of these two scientific advances,’ he conceded.
Her reply was conciliatory. ‘Please don’t feel bad about it. Few people are aware of what can be achieved in this area.’
John considered that he might actually have wasted his time. To fall at the first hurdle and with such an obvious flaw in his arguments was discouraging, but entirely his own fault. He would have been better off tending to his chickens.
She seemed to sense his defeat. ‘Please don’t be discouraged. This happens a lot, more than you would imagine. People come here all the time with an argument for something which they then realise is actually an argument for something else entirely.’
‘Oh?’ He was unsure how else to respond.
She seemed keen to encourage him. ‘Do you have any other arguments for the retention of chickens?’
John paused. ‘Well, chicken manure is an excellent fertilizer …’ Before she could interject, he added, ‘I imagine you would tell me that there are other manures available.’
She nodded once again. ‘Yes, I would say that.’
He had one final argument, but it was one that he was rather reluctant to advance. However, since he already felt a bit foolish, he considered he had little to lose. ‘I actually think that chickens are both interesting and entertaining in their habits and in my opinion rather beautiful.’
He expected her to smirk or laugh, but instead, her expression became more serious as she studied him. He felt suddenly hot and could feel droplets of perspiration trickling down his back as he pulled distractedly at his restrictive shirt collar.
‘All chickens or just some breeds?’ she asked.
John thought about it. ‘Well, I have only crested cream legbars and have never kept any other breeds, but other breeds are all quite beautiful in their way. All have different plumage, combs, beards, crests, temperaments and idiosyncrasies and so on, but since I have only experience of the crested creams, I should probably only argue for the retention of this breed. Although,’ he took a breath, ‘I think I could make a good case for almost any other breed of chicken.’ He paused, and since he judged that he still had her undivided attention, continued, ‘But since you require me to be as exact as possible and I would imagine that your time is limited for each applicant, I’ll content myself with making the case for crested cream legbars and hopefully someone else who keeps a different breed, say Araucana, Sussex or Wyandotte, will make the case for their retention.’ As he finished his rather impassioned plea, John was convinced that he would be summarily dismissed, but his inquisitor merely continued to chew on her pencil. After a few seconds she said, ‘What if I told you that there is no time limit on your argument, would you argue for all breeds and not just crested cream legbars?’
John didn’t hesitate. ‘If you gave me more time for research I think I could argue for the retention of most chicken breeds, although currently I can’t claim to be knowledgeable about more than say seven or eight.’
She smiled and put down her pencil. ‘I think you should keep the appointment.’
John was unsure whether to be pleased or not. Their conversation had thus far bordered on the surreal, but as she had finally permitted him to keep his appointment, he felt that he should probably take advantage of the offer.
She changed the subject. ‘You should go on the tour first. We schedule all applicants to attend at least an hour before their appointment so that they can take the tour. You have arrived even earlier than scheduled and so you benefit from a longer tour.’
‘I would like to go on the tour very much,’ he replied.
‘Good, I thought you might.’
John decided to take this as a compliment.
‘Sometimes we supply a guide and you’ll find plenty of them about, but I don’t think you need one. You can probably get around on your own.’ This sounded like another compliment. John stayed silent. He didn’t want to jeopardise his chances of a hearing. ‘It’s quite surprising, but many applicants disappear after the tour and don’t bother to keep their appointment at all.’ She did not expand on this information and John did not ask her to explain. Instead, he thought it might be wise to change the subject and ask what he considered to be a straightforward question.
‘Are you busy today?’
She smiled. ‘We are busy every day, thank goodness.’ She stood up and came out from behind the desk to stand alongside him. ‘If you would like to follow me, I can suggest where to start.’
Together they crossed the concourse. She led him to a door, painted yellow, which was set in the wall. On the front of the door in large, bold lettering were the words ‘This way’.
‘That,’ thought John, ‘is most peculiar.’
She turned the ornate handle and the door swung inwards and she then motioned for him to go ahead and pass over the threshold.
John was stunned by what greeted him. He stood rooted to the spot as his eyes registered and then his brain processed the vision in front of him. They were standing on a raised, almost floating, walkway which appeared to span the entire circumference of the circular interior, much like a belt around a waist. Directly in front of him lay another floating walkway, perpendicular to the first and seeming to reach clear across to the other side. Although there was no one visible on either walkway, John sensed the presence of others above and below. He took his lead from his guide and moved a few steps onto this second walkway and then stopped. As far as he could see, right, left, above and even beneath him, there were what appeared to be storey upon storey of niches or maybe booths, lit from within. He tried to count the storeys above him but gave up after thirteen. They extended far too far, and he was unable to see the ceiling, even when he craned his neck backwards. He took a few more hesitant steps forwards, to peer over the glass balustrade which lined either side of the walkway. There were also countless storeys extending below him, deep into the bowels of the building. Each of the storeys had a central floating walkway, similar to the one he was standing on and each walkway had numerous, smaller branches heading off to the right and left. Either side of these smaller walkways were rows of booths. John couldn’t work out how you got to the upper or lower storeys, as there was no obvious lift or stairway.
As he tried to take in the scale and complexity of the structure, a thought struck him. Why on earth had he never seen pictures of this incredible interior before? His heart beat fast.
His guide was still at his elbow. ‘It affects most people like that.’ He was glad that she was still here. The door in the wall which led back to the main concourse was still visible, but it had swung shut.
As his eyes adjusted to the subdued illumination of the walkways, the brightly lit interior of the booth closest to him permitted a limited view of the interior. He could distinguish the familiar outline of people. He also sensed, rather than heard, talking since curiously there was no sound. He asked his guide for an explanation.
She smiled broadly. ‘Yes, it’s a new system. You have to enter the booth before you start to hear the conversation. Out here you can hear nothing but a subdued humming. If we didn’t have the system, you can imagine that the sound would be deafening.’ She motioned towards a nearby booth. ‘Inside each booth you will see at least one official and an applicant behind a one-way mirror. They are therefore oblivious to the visitors. It seems to be a satisfactory system,’ she finished, still smiling.
John remembered that when he had written to the Ministry to request a hearing, their one rule was that all cases must be heard in public. There were no exceptions. He thought it amazing that the Ministry had sufficient officials to accommodate these countless hearings simultaneously. They must be very well funded. He looked around for any signage to help him ascertain which department he was in, or indeed even what floor of the building he was on, but there wasn’t any. It was most disconcerting.
He felt a reassuring hand on his elbow. ‘Please move forward at will, you can approach any booth, in any order. There will always be a suggested next booth to enter when you’re finished and although you don’t have to follow our suggestions, most people find them helpful. If you need help, just press any button marked “Guide”. The buttons can be found at intervals on the walkways and in each booth. Exit at any time through any door in the wall and you will find yourself back in the concourse.’ Before he could ask her what department he was in, she departed through the door by which they had entered and John was left alone. He took a few tentative steps forward. He was now faced with a myriad of choices.
On both his left and right, extending into the unseen distance, were numerous smaller walkways, branching from this main artery. How on earth was he to choose? On an impulse, he took the first offshoot to his right and ducked into the first booth on his left. There was an illuminated number above the entrance. It read 42.
The booth he entered was well lit and warm. On his side of the mirror were rows of red plastic seats facing forwards. He was the lone observer. Directly ahead of him and behind the one-way mirror, two men were seated in lounge chairs. Although he could hear the conversation between the two men clearly, only their profiles were visible. The decor of the room they were sitting in was reminiscent of a British front parlour circa 1950. The wallpaper and floor coverings were floral, but somewhat faded. There was an abundance of unmatched brown furniture, a standard lamp, various ornaments and a lit fire. The setting was strangely familiar and reassuring and it reminded John of long Sunday afternoons spent as a child in his grandmother’s house. Still having no idea which department he was in, or what case was being heard, he decided to listen to the conversation for a while in the hope that perhaps things would become clearer.
The man on his left, John guessed, was the Ministry official, since he was smartly dressed. He sat well back in his chair, legs crossed, some papers balanced on his lap. The other man, the applicant, was less formally attired and he sat far forward in his seat, occasionally lifting his arms or hands as if to emphasise his point. John judged that he was irate but was attempting to control himself. Based on his accent, John identified him as an American.
As he listened, the substance of the applicant’s case became clear. The man was arguing that he had the right to fire a gun because it was written in the American Constitution. John was surprised that this British Ministry would get involved in hearing cases on this subject, since it seemed to him well beyond their remit.
The official lifted up a piece of foolscap and began to read aloud in a clear voice. ‘The second amendment to the American Constitution states: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”’ At this point the official offered the piece of paper to the applicant, which he took. ‘The amendment to the Constitution does not state,’ said the official, ‘that you have the right to fire a gun.’
The applicant shook his head and said that the Constitution did give him that right.
Patiently, the official read aloud the actual words again. His tone, though firm, was non-confrontational as he pointed out that, firstly, the applicant wasn’t specifically named in the Constitution, that ‘Arms’ were not necessarily guns, that just because a person had a right to didn’t mean they had to and, further, even if an individual kept or bore ‘Arms’ they didn’t have to load them. Finally, there was nothing in the second amendment that mentioned firing guns and that since this was the case the applicant was advancing, the reference to the Constitution was not helpful.
The applicant paused and appeared to consider these points. He must have decided that the point pertaining to the definition of ‘Arms’ was easier to argue. ‘Well, what do you mean by “Arms” then, if not guns?’
The official said how he defined ‘Arms’ was not relevant since he was not the applicant.
‘But it is generally accepted that guns are “Arms”,’ argued the applicant.
The official replied that the applicant’s assertion may or may not be correct, but that cases regarding the interpretation of the American Constitution and its subsequent amendments were not handled by this department. This department was specifically for applicants who wished to make the case for the firing of guns.
The applicant was clearly angered by this response. ‘I carry a gun because I have a right to bear Arms as laid down in the American Constitution.’
The official made no reply.
The applicant leaned forward provocatively. ‘Well?’
‘Well, what? You haven’t asked me a question; you have made a statement of your position.’
The applicant appeared confused by this. He leaned forward in his chair and his eyes narrowed. ‘Look, the American Constitution is sacrosanct. It cannot be changed.’
The official paused. ‘You have made two additional but separate statements both of which are different cases. The case for whether or not the American Constitution is sacrosanct is handled by a different department and whether or not it can be changed was resolved sometime ago.’
The American continued to look confused. ‘What do you mean the American Constitution can be changed? I’ve never heard anything so ridiculous.’
The official replied calmly. ‘But you have quoted to me an amendment to the Constitution, the second I believe. In any case, this department is only hearing cases for the firing of guns.’
‘Are you telling me I don’t have the right to own a gun?’
The official said. ‘I am not telling you anything. I am here to consider your case for the firing of guns.’
The American laughed. ‘But that’s nonsense. No one owns a gun without firing it.’
The official shook his head. ‘That is not strictly correct. Many people own guns without ever firing them.’
The American paused. ‘Who? Who the hell has a gun they don’t fire?’
The official paused. ‘Collectors of guns who admire the workmanship, people who keep guns with no bullets, guns that are no longer serviceable, and so on.’
The American shook his head. ‘Are you saying that it’s OK to have a gun if you never fire it?’
The official shook his head. ‘My opinion is not relevant. I am here to consider cases for the firing of guns.’
‘You’re a bit of a smart ass, aren’t you?’ said the American.
The official smiled.
John saw a button marked ‘Guide’ and got up from his seat and pressed it. A moment later a young man appeared. John motioned to the mirror. ‘Can you tell me how long they have been in there?’
The guide shook his head. ‘I don’t know. A long time, I believe.’
How long do sessions usually last?
‘Oh, that depends on the applicant. They are free to leave at any time.’
John considered this. ‘But that guy could go on for a long time, he seems adamant that he is correct. What if he never gives up?’
The guide smiled, ‘Oh, sometimes discussions can go on for a very long time, but you don’t have to stay. You are free to move on. He pointed to two illuminated signs on the wall opposite. One read ‘Previous Booth’ and the number ‘4’ and the other ‘Next suggested Booth’ and the number ‘56’. ‘Or you can move to any booth of your choice or indeed leave at any time. You are only on the tour.’
John decided to move to booth number 56 since he was fascinated. He found the booth easily, since it was located on the same walkway. The booths had no logical system of numbering, which he found mildly annoying. The layout in this booth was exactly the same as the previous one. Again, there were two men seated facing one another, behind a one-way mirror, in an interior reminiscent of the previous booth. This time, however, there were two other visitors, a man and a woman. John assumed that they must be taking the same tour as himself, so he greeted them with a smile which they returned.
As before, as he listened, several things became clear. He was still in the same department which, he had deduced, was the department for hearing the case for the firing of guns. However, this applicant, who sounded as if he came from the West Country, seemed to be using a different argument to justify his ownership of several guns. The official, who was extremely polite, was explaining that the applicant was in the department which heard cases for firing guns, not owning them.
‘But I do fire guns occasionally,’ the man acknowledged.
‘Very well,’ said the official. ‘If you wish to argue that case, then you are in the correct department. What is your case for firing a gun?’
The applicant was irritated. ‘This is nonsense. It’s self-evident that all gun owners will fire them.’
The official shook his head, ‘No, not all owners of guns choose to fire them.’ John seemed to remember this argument having arisen in the previous booth.
The applicant made no immediate response; presumably he took the official’s point.
The official repeated his question. ‘Do you have an argument for firing your gun?’
The applicant in a more thoughtful tone explained that he was a farmer and that he needed to shoot foxes that were killing his chickens. John sat further forward in his chair, since he was particularly interested in this argument.
The official nodded, seeming to agree, but said that whilst the farmer was making a case for the control of foxes, he was not making a case for the firing of guns. There was a different department which heard cases for the control of foxes. There was, it seemed to John, no end of departments in this building.
The woman seated next to John turned towards him. ‘Are you enjoying the tour?’ John replied that he was, but admitted to being both fascinated and confused at the same time. She smiled knowingly. ‘Yes, me too, I’ve been here some time and it has taken me some considerable time to begin to understand.’
‘Well, you’re doing better than I am,’ John smiled. ‘What case did you come to argue, if you don’t mind my asking?’
She smiled again. ‘No, I don’t mind your asking, I came to argue for the retention of carrots.’
‘Oh.’ John didn’t know what else to say but thought that she probably had as much right to argue for the retention of carrots as he had to argue for the retention of chickens. ‘Can I ask you what your main arguments were?’
She smiled again. ‘Of course you can ask. In fact, the woman at the desk in the main concourse asked me the same thing.’ She shifted slightly in her seat and seemed more interested in talking to John than following the discussion between the two men behind the mirror. ‘My main argument was that carrots are a good source of carotenes. The woman at the desk in the concourse agreed, but pointed out that I was actually arguing for carotenes not carrots and of course I realised she was quite correct. When she said that, I also realised my mistake, because you see not even carotenes are truly essential.’
John was interested, mainly because his fellow visitor had evidently had a similar experience to his own. ‘I thought it was carotenes that helped you see in the dark, or have I got that wrong?’ he queried.
She laughed. ‘Oh, that’s an old wives’ tale, but there is a grain of truth to it. Carotenes are found in several fruits and vegetables, even some green varieties, and they can be converted into vitamin A. Vitamin A is essential for the retina, hence the old wives’ tale, but it is the vitamin that is essential, not the carotenes, and anyway we could obtain carotenes from other sources if there were no carrots.’ John was intrigued but kept silent. She continued. ‘She then asked if I had any other arguments for the retention of carrots and I started to rhyme off all the essential nutrients they contained, and my inquisitor agreed with me that these were all essential for humans, but wasn’t it true that all of these nutrients could be obtained from other foods as well?’
‘And can they?’ asked John.
‘Oh yes, she was quite right. They can. I was quite disheartened at this point, until she asked me if I had any other arguments. To be honest, I was a bit reluctant to explain to her that I really enjoy eating carrots, they are my favourite vegetable. But, nowadays, I don’t worry too much about what other people think, so I told her that I really enjoyed eating carrots and, most surprisingly, she agreed that that actually might be an argument for their retention and she let me come on this tour. And I’m so glad she did.’
John was struck by the similarity between his and his fellow observer’s introductory experience of the Ministry. He thought that he might move on, and so he took his leave and looked at the number of the next suggested booth. It was 143.
He exited the booth and continued to the end of the walkway, but could not locate the booth. He retraced his steps all the way back to the secondary walkway. From here, he tried several other different branches, both left and right, but with no success. He passed other people en route, all of whom were searching for booth numbers. Most nodded and smiled, but were too engrossed in their search to linger or chat. In mild frustration, he called for a guide and one appeared almost instantaneously and gave him instructions for locating booth number 143.
The layout in the booth was the same as before but, once again, John was the only visitor. ‘No wonder,’ he thought as he took a seat, ‘this booth was extremely difficult to locate and most people probably gave up a long ago in frustration.’
Behind the mirror sat a large burly man, dressed in tweeds. As John listened, it became clear that he was arguing for the right to fire guns to kill game birds. The official asked the man why he wanted to kill game birds and he replied that he liked to eat them. John himself had often enjoyed some pigeon, so he listened carefully.
The official suggested to the applicant that he was putting forward two cases. Firstly, a case for killing game birds and, secondly, a case for enjoying the taste of game bird flesh. The applicant looked at the official as if he was an idiot. Unperturbed, the official continued. It seemed that the case for enjoying the taste of game bird flesh had been such a popular case that the Ministry had responded to it some time ago by developing sustainable, identical man-made replacements for all varieties of game bird flesh. He then asked the applicant why he wanted to kill game birds. The applicant’s face registered disbelief and he rose from his chair as if he was about to exit the room, but he obviously thought better of it and sat down again. It was clear that he wanted to make some further points.
He leaned forward and addressed the official in a manner not unlike that of a parent to a silly child. John admired the official’s ability to remain calm and not take offence. ‘Look. I imagine you have never taken part in the sport, but what I actually meant to say is that I quite enjoy game bird shooting.’
Again the official nodded, but pointed out that he was now unsure if the man was making the case for enjoying killing game birds, or for taking part in sport, both of which were different departments. At this point the man rose to his feet, angry and aggressive.
‘You are purposely misunderstanding me and putting words in my mouth,’ he yelled.
The official said he had not wished to do either, but that perhaps the man wished to rephrase his case.
Fortunately, the applicant seemed to regain control of his temper and he sat down again. The official’s expression remained as implacable as ever.
‘Look, I think what I meant to say was that I really enjoy being with other people and being in the countryside.’
Again the official nodded and said that he understood, but that these were different cases, one for the benefits of the countryside and the other for the benefits of being with other people. The Ministry had long ago accepted both these cases. At this point, looking dejected, the applicant got up and exited.
John looked at the next suggested booth number. It was 78.
In booth 78 sat a young man. His accent was difficult to identify, but John thought he might be Russian. His head was shaven, and he wore a black leather jacket and torn jeans. He had tattoos on both his hands and neck. There were three other people seated alongside the female official, whom John thought might be interpreters. Three seemed to him rather excessive, but as the discussion progressed it became obvious why they were required.
The official insisted that each interpreter in turn relay what she had said to the applicant and asked each one individually to convey their version of what the applicant had said in response. As he listened, John identified slight differences between the three interpretations. There were also slight nuances or variations in the way each translated for the applicant. Presumably the official and the applicant were each making their own assessment, based on all three interpretations. Consequently, the whole discussion was extremely laborious. ‘There must be a computer programme that could facilitate this process,’ he thought.
The main substance of the young man’s argument seemed to be that he wanted to fire guns because everyone around him in his neighbourhood fired guns. John was very perplexed by this argument and assumed that some crucial point had been lost in translation. The official likewise seemed unsure that she had understood the argument and asked all three interpreters for clarity. All three agreed that this was indeed the applicant’s main argument. The official addressed all four people in the booth. ‘For clarity, the case being advanced is that the applicant should be allowed to do the same as everyone else in his neighbourhood. Is that correct?’
After a pause, in which this was put to the applicant by all three interpreters, the youth gave his response and the three interpreters agreed that the applicant’s argument was that he should be allowed to do the same as everyone else in his neighbourhood.
The official then asked the youth, via the interpreters, whom he meant by ‘everyone’. Again, this question was relayed three times, with slight differences in emphasis, by each of the three interpreters.
The youth thought about the question and then replied. All three interpreters agreed that by ‘everyone’, he meant the gang members in his neighbourhood all of whom fired guns.
The official then asked him if there was anyone in his neighbourhood who didn’t fire guns. The youth replied that there were. The official then suggested that the applicant’s argument was to fire guns because the gang members in his neighbourhood fired guns and not because everyone in his neighbourhood fired guns and that he was in fact advancing an argument for gang membership and not for firing guns.
The youth appeared perplexed at this and stated again that all the gang members fired guns.
The official replied that she wasn’t disputing this, but that the applicant was not arguing for firing guns, he was arguing for gang membership. Since the applicant gave no immediate response to this, she suggested that perhaps there were other aspects of being a gang member that were appealing to the applicant.
The youth appeared keen to answer this question and replied that there were many aspects of being a member of a gang that were appealing. He also said that he had only ever lived in the same place, which was a very small town in Ukraine and that this was his first trip abroad to visit this Ministry.
The official displayed no obvious reaction to this additional information, but instead attempted to summarise. ‘Your argument is that you wish to fire guns to emulate or copy those people you know who are in gangs. Is that correct?’
After much interpretation and verification the applicant must have decided that he should broaden his argument and said that it was not just the people he knew who fired guns, he saw many people in the movies and on TV all of whom carried guns.
The official pointed out that most of these people were not real.
The applicant pointed out that American policemen carried guns and that they were real.
The official agreed and asked the applicant if he was now arguing to fire guns to emulate American policemen?’
The disgust on the applicant’s face needed no translation, but the interpreters all agreed that he said, ‘Of course not, those guys stink.’
The official paused and asked for clarification that ‘stink’ was the correct translation. All three interpreters agreed that this was the nearest equivalent in English. The official then suggested that the applicant was advocating firing guns to emulate those in gangs whom he knew, some fictional characters he’d seen on TV and in the movies, but certainly not American policemen. After much further verification the applicant and interpreters all agreed that this was correct.
As John watched, the official sat back in her chair and for a moment he thought he caught a glimpse of resignation in her expression, but it was gone almost immediately. Via the three interpreters, she patiently pointed out that the applicant was making a case for copying certain groups of people, but not a case for the firing of guns.
The youth looked confused and, in what John thought was an attempt to be helpful, the official asked him if he copied gang members in any other respects. This took some time to translate and the youth still looked puzzled, so the official rephrased the question. ‘I am asking if, for example, all the people in gangs that you know dress similarly to you?’
This was easier to translate, and the youth replied that the gang members all wore leathers, jeans, had shaved heads and had gang membership tattoos, just as he did.
The official nodded. ‘But, presumably, these are not the only people you know. I imagine that other people in your village do not dress like this?’
The youth nodded and gave several examples: the priest, his mother, the town doctor and his girlfriend.
Again, the official nodded. ‘But if I understand you correctly, you do not wish to copy them?’
The youth shook his head to indicate that he didn’t, but he seemed less certain of his response and he started on a different argument altogether. Once translated and confirmed, this new case for firing a gun seemed to centre on his feeling naked without his gun. The official asked the applicant via the interpreters if ‘naked’ was the word he meant to use, since, as she explained, the case for humans not being naked was one which the Ministry had settled long ago.
The youth thought about the word and then used a different word, which again the official was at pains to authenticate. This time the word translated as ‘vulnerable’.
She nodded eagerly. ‘Yes, I understand, but the case for not feeling vulnerable is a different case and is often not related to firing guns at all. There is a very large department dealing with these cases, but that is not the case you asked to present.’
At this point, the youth abruptly got to his feet and left the room. The official and interpreters got up shortly afterwards and the room was left empty.
John decided to move to the next suggested booth, which was number 256. He was seriously considering not following the suggested booth numbers, just to be different, but he was enjoying the discussion on this topic so much that he decided to stick with the suggestions for a little longer.
On entering the next booth, he again found himself to be the only visitor. He sensed that he had come in late to this case and it took him some time to understand what argument was being advanced. The male applicant, another American, was making a case for firing a gun because he had a right to fire a gun if he chose to do so. He tempered his argument by saying that he was a responsible citizen and abided by the rules of registration, storage and so on.
‘If I understand you correctly, you are arguing for your choice, which in this case is to fire a gun. Is that correct?’
The man nodded. ‘Yes, my choice to fire a gun.’
The official paused and ruffled a few of his papers then leaned slightly backwards in his chair. ‘Well, technically that is an argument for your choice and there is an extensive department which hears those cases more or less 24/7, but it may be worth examining your argument a little further before I suggest you make an appointment at that department.’ The applicant seemed content with this suggestion. ‘Do you always get your choice in everything you do in your life?’
The applicant laughed, not particularly pleasantly. ‘No, never. I hardly ever get my choice, but I want the choice to fire my gun.’
The official asked, ‘How do you make your choices?
The applicant shook his head and made a face at the official as if to indicate he thought he was mad. ‘What do you mean, how do I make my choices? That’s a crazy question.’
The official was patient. In John’s opinion, far too patient. ‘Well, let me explain. You are arguing that you should have the choice to fire a gun and I am merely trying to obtain from you some indication of how you go about making your choices on a daily basis. For example, how did you decide what employment to adopt?’
The man shook his head. ‘I didn’t. I inherited my father’s farm and I run it my way now. I changed it from cattle to sheep.’
The official paused to consider this information.
‘May I ask if you are married?’ The applicant didn’t appear to object to the question. ‘I was married for a short time in my teens, no children, but she ran off with another guy and I divorced her soon afterwards.’
‘I see. Thank you for sharing that with me. Do you share your life with anyone currently?’
The applicant shook his head, folded his arms and crossed his legs.. ‘What the hell has that got to do with anything? I’ve come here in my own time to put the case that I should have the choice to fire a gun. Whether I share my life with anyone or not is irrelevant.’ He glared at the official.
The official paused and scratched his head. ‘Perhaps you’re right. Let me try a different question. Can you remember a time in your life when you have been faced with a difficult choice?’
After a short pause, the applicant shook his head. ‘No, never.’
The official now stood up and started to walk around the room. He returned to his seat and faced the applicant again. ‘Do you think your choices are always correct?’
Without hesitation the man replied, ‘Yes, my choices are always correct.’
‘Always?’ The official’s question was, thought John, remarkably measured given the provocation. Since the applicant made no immediate response, the official tried to elaborate. ‘Can you conceive of a situation when you may possibly have made a poor choice?’
The applicant appeared to pause and consider the question more seriously. This at least, thought John, was progress.
‘I think,’ said the applicant, ‘that I may have made the wrong choice once, if I’m honest.’
The official brightened. ‘Oh? When was that?
‘In coming all the way to this fucking Ministry.’ And with that the applicant got up, knocking over his chair as he did so and left. Shortly afterwards the official also left the room.
John was left alone. His wrist watch had stopped and he couldn’t look at his smart phone, since applicants had been asked to leave them at home. He calculated that he must have been on the tour for at least an hour and he sat for several minutes reflecting on what he had witnessed.
Even though the case under discussion was totally unrelated to his, like him, all of the applicants seemed convinced of their arguments. Although their logic stuck him as flawed, none seemed to acknowledge it and most were unwilling to engage in reasoned discussion with the officials. Compared with his own concerns about chickens, these cases seemed extremely serious and he began to seriously question his own reason for coming.
He exited the booth and stood motionless in the corridor, no longer sure what to do. A female guide appeared and he was momentarily distracted. ‘Mr Andrews, you have been here a long time and much as we would like you to stay, we are aware that you have an appointment to keep.’ John nodded. The guide continued. ‘I don’t wish to presume, but there is one additional booth which you may be interested in viewing, since it relates to your own argument about chickens.’
John was grateful for the intervention. ‘Yes, thank you.’ The guide led him to a booth numbered ‘3’.
‘What is the case being made here?’ John asked her as they stood at the entrance.
The guide paused and tilted her head. ‘Well, as yet we are unsure. We think that it is an argument for beauty, but it may actually be an argument for something else.’ John looked puzzled. The guide smiled. ‘I don’t mean to talk in riddles. It is quite difficult to explain, but I shall try. This applicant has a large collection of antique pistols and he argues that he reveres their workmanship, their design, the mother of pearl handles, the finely tooled leather cases, the drawing back of the trigger, the smooth turning of the barrel and so on. And we are minded to believe him, but we are not yet sure and are questioning him further.’ The guide gestured to the interior of the booth. ‘Would you like to listen?’
John didn’t hesitate. ‘No, thank you. I don’t wish to listen to that argument.’
The woman nodded. ‘I was hoping you would say that.’ She paused as if consulting someone else, when clearly there was only John present. ‘I have a couple of alternatives I am permitted to suggest, but you may wish to exit at this point.’
John was tempted to leave. His concerns over his chickens had evaporated and he was beginning to think that he had been on a fool’s errand.
The guide seemed to sense his hesitation. ‘Have you enjoyed the tour?’
‘What do you make of the Ministry?’
John thought carefully. ‘The officials seem to be asking open-ended questions. Perhaps they are hoping that the applicants will come to some kind of reasoned understanding of the flaws in their arguments. Is that it?’
She nodded. ‘Yes, that is correct. This Ministry is founded on the principle of Socratic questioning. We all of us have strongly held beliefs and sometimes these can …’ she hesitated, ‘… cause problems. What was the case you came to argue, if you don’t mind my asking?’ John told her. ‘I see. And why did you want to make a case for the retention of chickens?’
John opened his mouth to explain, but realised he had nothing to say. The guide was waiting patiently for his answer and, to cover his embarrassment, he tried to change the subject by reminding her that she had mentioned some alternatives.
She smiled very broadly. ‘I’m so glad you asked, I wish more people would. The suggested options are as follows. There is a department on another floor which is hearing cases for making guns extinct.’
John was encouraged, ‘Oh, like woolly mammoths?’
‘In a way, she said. ‘In fact, I hadn’t thought of it quite like that, but that it is a good analogy. Perhaps, like woolly mammoths.’
‘And the other suggested option?’
‘Your choice,’ said the guide.
John considered. ‘I think I’ll go with my own choice, but thank you for the suggestion.’
‘Fine by me,’ said the guide, and she departed.
Purely on instinct, John popped into booth number … He was unable to distinguish the number above the door of the booth, since it was obscured. This booth had obviously been found by many people, which John considered encouraging. On closer inspection, the apparel of several of his fellow visitors indicated that they were religious leaders. He suspected that there might be an entirely different case under discussion in this booth and he took one of the few vacant seats and started to listen.
Within a short time it became clear that the applicant was making a case for God not existing. He was very eloquent and convincing, but John didn’t linger since he had long ago come to his own view on this subject, based on his own experience. He found his way back to the secondary walkway, spotted a door in the circular wall, opened it and stepped quickly into the light-filled concourse. He then immediately exited the Ministry and returned home to his family whom he loved and his crested cream legbars whom he considered beautiful.