by Rachel Watts
I printed it clearly on the form:
Toying with the pen, I stalled. Is that all? The old clock on the wall above my head ticked like a challenge. “And? And? And?” it said.
I looked at what I’d written and decided it was enough. It said all that needed saying.
The office was quiet in the mid-afternoon, but washed out clerks still scurried back and forth. Outside the heart burnt down on an empty street. Resistance posters still covered the building walls, faded, from a barely remembered moment of strength. Gone now. I waited behind a sign that said QUEUE HERE. A glum ceiling fan squeaked as it rotated. On the wall beside the counter an electronic ticker scrolled through commodity prices: Anger: 1 cent. Resentment: 3 cents. Honesty: 11 cents.
Eventually a man in a brown suit noticed me and took the sheet of paper with my carefully counted cash.
“I’m sorry Ma’am, you must have made a mistake,” the clerk said, peering over his glasses. He was thin in a way that suggested some lack of a vitamin. Or not enough hugs.
I took the form from him and squinted at it.
“No, it’s right. All correct.”
The clerk’s eyebrows creased together. He was wrestling with himself, I could tell. He wanted to ask what my story was. Along with the hot, dusty walk to between the office and whatever crumbling apartment tower he called home, this inner turmoil was probably the most activity he would have all day.
“It’s just, there must be some out there,” I said, by way of explanation. “Surely Hope can’t evaporate.”
The man’s eyes wandered as he pondered it.
“Religion disappeared,” he offered.
“But that’s a structure,” I said. I put my old handbag down on the counter, warming to the conversation now. I had been thinking about this a lot. “There’s a whole apparatus around Religion that needs to be maintained. Hope isn’t like that. Where could it go?”
He looked at the form again and exhaled. I smelt dust and duty on his breath.
“Do you know what I think?” I asked him. His glasses made his eyes unnaturally wide. “It’s like supply and demand.”
“Hope versus Fear, and one undermines the other,” I continued. “We’ve got too much fear.”
He nodded slightly, in acknowledgement or agreement I couldn’t tell.
“There’s a glut of Fear on the market, that’s for sure,” he said as he stamped the form.
“There’s an afternoon special, so here, perhaps get a little extra protein powder for tonight.” He handed back two of my coins with a watery smile. “But if you’d like, you could invest what you saved in Anger. Very cheap today.”
I glanced at the coins in the palm of my hand. The electronic ticker scrolled: Jealousy: 4 cents. Sense of Achievement: 10 cents. Guilt: 6 cents.
“How much for Love?”
The man recoiled, aghast.
“Love?!” he exclaimed with a smile. “We haven’t had Love in stock for, oh, donkey’s years!”
He looked around at his beige colleagues as though I had told a joke, then leaned towards me, conspiratorially.
“You know, Desire is pretty good though,” he said. “And not as pricey as you might think.”
I smiled and shook my head.
“You know, I might save this.” I put the coins in my handbag. I’d already decided I would buy some cat food on the way back to the abandoned weatherboard house I had found to hole up in. Not protein powder. Humans need something to chew. Simple pleasures. “I’ll hold out for Hope.”
Rachel Watts is a writer from Perth, Western Australia. She reviews books and writes commentary at www.wattswrites.com.
Image credit: Marcin Wichary via Flicker, All Creative Commons.
Image is of a brown-red tiled wall, with the word hope printed on a metal panel of the same colour screwed into the center tile. The paint has been scratched away from the word hope to show the grey metal underneath.