As I entered the Centre, I could see the Co-Ordinator in her office, engaged in what seemed to be a somewhat vocal debate with one of the immigrants I'd seen earlier. Her face was flushed with anger and shock at the disrespect being shown to her position, her hands wrapping the cardigan around herself as if the cheap grey wool were body armour protecting her from the angry words clearly heading her way.
I sat in the chair next to the Terminal and, as I shrugged the messenger bag from my tired shoulders, the edge of it just clipped the computer mouse. The screen instantly flashed to life - only it wasn't displaying the usual BBC News page.
I looked closer. Looked again, struck with disbelief at what I was seeing. What was on that screen was something I'd never seen, never even dreamed of seeing. It was the Registration Page. Access was permitted only to those Public Sector officials authorised to grant Labour Party Membership.
My eyes flicked right, to the computer itself. The Co-Ordinator's ID card was wedged in the reader, where she'd left it* in order to become embroiled in her current argument. I looked to the left, back toward the office. The row showed no sign of abating. My eyes returned to the screen. The Registration Page. A cursor in the 'NAME' box, winking at me in the knowledge of what I could do.
*(In contravention of the Data Protection [Terror Regulations] Act of 2014, in case you were wondering.)
The Registration Page. Salvation.
There was no conscious decision. My hands, unbidden, caressed the keys and, with no apparent action on my part, there I was in the NAME box. I'd already entered my Number in the second field when what I was doing hit me. But I couldn't stop. I might only have a few brief moments. An eternity of microseconds later, the Registration Page was completed.
I hit the 'Enter' key, bracing myself for all sorts of alarms. None came. Just a final dialog box on the screen, saying:
I hadn't been any of these things. I clicked 'yes' anyway.
Bureaucracy is like nuclear fission. Once you reach a certain amount of it, it tends to be self-sustaining. It reaches critical mass, and takes on a life of its own - paperwork surmounting paperwork, database on database, the creation of bureaucracy becoming both the end and the cause. And there's an upside to this incredibly convoluted paperchase - it becomes so complex that auditing and cross-checking becomes largely impossible.
I had to trust that the bureaucracy was so weighed-down with the burden of its own creation that it would take as gospel the word of one of its own bureaucrats. I was sure - at least, I hoped - that I wouldn't be verified or cross-checked. But the potential reward of Labour Party Membership was too great NOT to take the risk.
I'd pushed my luck far enough. A glance to my left showed the argument still going on, but the Co-Ordinator seemed now to be winning as she drew herself up to her full girth** and met the eyes of her accuser directly. I clicked 'NEW', and the Registration Page returned, the cursor once again winking expectantly in an empty box.
**(This was, trust me, not a joke one would make in polite company, or in any public place. The Harman Act of 2012 had made any form of humour aimed at another person a Hate Crime. The Walliams Two were still doing six months for implying that a fictional Welsh character was gay.)
I pushed my chair back, and with the nonchalance of the truly guilty I started for the door. Ten steps away I heard her door opening. Footsteps behind me. Nine, eight, seven, six. The hand on my shoulder and the questions were coming, I could hear the footsteps. Five. Four. Three. Close behind now, ten beats of my racing heart. Two. The immigrant who had been arguing barged past, bumping me to one side and slamming through ahead of me. One. Door.
I rode home, the dusk gathering around me, thoughts flying as fast as the pedals. What I'd done wasn't an offence, really*** - but if I was caught, it would definitely make it more difficult to get the Membership that I needed. But the system was so slow, so mired in minutae, that to get that Membership might take years. And I needed a job. I wanted a life. Membership meant exactly that. The chance was worthwhile, even as I found myself nearly crashing from riding with my neck craned to look behind for Community Rule Enforcement Officers. It was worth it.
<***(Well, technically it was an offence under the archaic Computer Misuse Act. But since almost nobody had a computer any more, it was just one of those 'laws' that sat on the Statute Book gathering dust, like the right to drive hedgehogs down the High Street on Midsummer Eve.)