Take A Number Please By Tamara Jones

Take A Number PleaseHarry and Oliver sat on the bench at the bottom of the stairwell and stared morosely at the lino floor beneath their feet.

‘Getting a bit boring this,’ said Harry, scuffing his boots on a large patch of worn lino and grimacing.

‘Got boring ages ago,’ said Oliver, shuffling on the bench and looking around vainly, but not for the first time, for a clock. ‘Must be getting on for lunchtime, don’t you reckon?’ Silence. ‘How much longer before our numbers come up do you think?’

Harry shrugged dismissively, but before he could say anything the doorway from outside opened and a man entered the waiting room. Harry and Oliver stared at the newcomer and watched curiously as he stood looking around the room, at the benches against the walls and at the stairway leading up to the blue sky filled doorway above.

‘Good morning,’ he said, nodding politely at Harry and Oliver as he sat down on the bench opposite them.

‘Good morning,’ replied Oliver, keen to open a conversation with the stranger, anything to relieve the tedium of the endless waiting in this endlessly empty and endlessly boring ante room.

‘What’s your number?’ he asked the stranger, wondering whether he too would be forced to wait as long as he and Harry had been waiting.

‘Number?’ queried the newcomer.

‘Ticket number,’ offered Harry. ‘Over there’s a dispenser, you take the next ticket, that’s your number, that’s where you are in the queue.’

‘Ah!’ said the stranger. He looked pointedly around at the obviously empty room. ‘I wouldn’t have thought I’d have needed a number.’

‘Well yeah,’ said Oliver, ‘there’s been quite a few people come and go in here, they’ve all needed numbers otherwise who would know who is next.’

The stranger looked at him. ‘And where are they all, if they’ve been and gone since you’ve sat here with your ticket numbers?’

Oliver looked at Harry, who rolled his eyes.

‘Dunno,’ said Oliver finally. ‘Well only yesterday… or was it the day before…’ he frowned in recollection. ‘Can’t remember now, but it wasn’t that long ago, a man came in and went straight up the stairs, obviously his number was before ours.’

‘And then there were those two blokes,’ added Harry, ‘who came in and sat here for a while, but they got really ticked off at having to wait, they didn’t stay long did they, they screwed up their tickets and left in a right huff, their numbers were well after ours.’

The stranger said nothing.

‘I’m Harry, and this here is Oliver,’ said Harry, to break the tension growing in the silence.

The stranger nodded and said, ‘My name is Gates. I don’t think I need a ticket though,’ he added, ‘I won’t be staying long.’ With that he fell silent and bowed his head.

Harry and Oliver exchanged glances but remained silent too.

They had been sitting in silence for what seemed a long time when Mr Gates suddenly stood up.

‘Do you have your tickets?’ he asked. ‘Give them to me,’ he ordered, and without question they handed their little squares of white paper to him.

He looked at the numbers and sighed, shaking his head. He tore the two tickets into small pieces and scattered them on the floor in front of Harry and Oliver.

‘That was your door at the top of those stairs,’ he said, ‘but the doorway is now closed.’ The door above them suddenly swung to and shut with a loud snick.

Harry and Oliver sat staring open mouthed at Mr Gates, who nodded and stepped quietly out of the room without looking again at them.

They sat for a long time without speaking after he had gone, neither of them looking up at the closed door at the top of the stairs.

Finally Harry stirred and stood up decisively. ‘We had better get ourselves another ticket, or we’ll never get seen to will we?’ He stepped across to the ticket dispenser and tore off a ticket for each of them.

Oliver took his ticket and folded it carefully into his wallet. ‘Do you think it’s lunchtime yet?’ he asked.


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