I have been in this queue my whole life.
We can faintly hear the murmurs of the person at the front, talking to the person in charge of whatever it is we are queueing for. Sometimes, from a change in volume or tone, it seems as if the front person might be about to wrap up their business and then I and everyone else who has been in this queue their whole life will experience what it is like to move up one place. But I think we have all known too many times the feeling of rising hope that then coasts and peters out as that person’s voice goes back to its usual tone. So, we try to protect ourselves from that hope and disappointment whenever we hear something unusual.
My body has changed. To be honest, I worry that if we ever are called on to move forward, I might not be able to. I haven’t had the courage to test it out definitively but I feel fairly certain that my legs have formed a new membrane between them that has slowly been thickening and might now be growing interlocking veins. It’s more or less the same feeling as when a liquid has dried on you, and the residue is hardening and shrinking and is tugging on your skin. All up and down the insides of my legs I feel that soft but insistent tugging feeling and I’m afraid to jerk my knee and find that it now pulls the other knee with it because they’re conjoined.
The light is very bright outside the windows. In here, it’s dim. Everything is painted an institutional glossy yellow-cream colour and there is grey dust on the internal windowsills.
There’s a man in front of me who sometimes half turns his head. I’ve never seen his whole face but I’ve seen his profile. I used to be irritated by the sight of his half-face, because I felt he was unsubtly trying to look at me with his peripheral vision. I don’t like false actions – I wanted him to turn fully around and look at me plainly, to take responsibility for his curiosity. That’s how I used to be at some time in the past – certain that the queue and everything in it must be to do with me, and thinking constantly about what other people were doing wrong and how they ought to behave. Now I am so happy when I see his profile because I interpret it as a sign that he is thinking of me; although we can’t actually talk, this gesture implying he would have liked to is usually a great comfort. I have named him Dmitri because that is the only name I know – it’s on an infographic card pinned to the wall across the room from us.
The infographic card is about a citizen named Dmitri who queues correctly. He stays in his standing position, he does not eat or drink or pass gas, he doesn’t speak to others in the queue or call out, he doesn’t hum or wriggle, he doesn’t ask to the open air “What’s taking so long?”, he doesn’t scream or cry – this part isn’t mentioned – and, above all, he does not leave his place. Obviously I despise this Dmitri, who is made exclusively out of primary school shapes – circle, square, rectangle, triangle – in bland blues, greys, creams and browns. You might think it’s strange for me, then, to name the man in front of me Dmitri, when I like him so much. Isn’t it better to leave him nameless? But a name is something you can handle and be close to within your own head, and the word is so completely transformed when it’s attached to him that Dmitri and Dmitri are two different words.
I try to stay calm internally as well as externally. Everyone else in the queue is always calm externally. I have never seen anyone move violently or heard anyone but the person at the front speak at all. It’s impossible to tell if they feel the same feeling as I do, sometimes for hours on end. It comes up through my internal organs. The back of my neck seizes up, then all my skin is prickling, spirals and fireworks blot out my eyesight and every muscle and every cell is screaming and screaming and screaming and my heart is coming right up to the back of my teeth. All I want, when it comes, is to hurl myself across the ground and to thrash and kick and convulse and to finally let loose the loudest, most horrifying, most ear-splitting sounds, as hot fluids pour from my eyes and nose. I want to drag myself around the room on my hands, pulling my grown-over trunk-leg behind me, and to grab onto people’s ankles, rub my head against their shins, pull their hands down and wipe my sodden face on them and kiss and bite them and reach up and tug on their ears and scream into their round faces. But on the outside – I believe – all that Dmitri can see out of the corner of his eye is my blank expression.
It’s not a good idea to think about this. If I let myself into the idea of it even for a second and imagine it fully, the temptation to act nearly destroys me. I am forced to pitch every inch of my will against myself. Sometimes I become locked in that battle of will for hours and hours and hours.
Eventually the feeling passes again. The moment just before it passes is the worst of all – when I have finally packed it down into whatever deep place in my intestines it comes from and am about to close the lid. At that moment I feel a pulse of nausea – yellow and bitter and far milder than any of the feelings that have just passed through me – that tells me in no uncertain terms that I am dying of this.
And then the lid closes, soft boredom spreads through me again – peace! – and I go back to waiting.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 10, 2022 as "Queue".
For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.
All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.
There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.
Select your digital subscription