I’m a car-park attendant. My proper title is ‘Patrol Officer’, a much more grandiose name. The ‘Patrol’ part of the title is clear enough. I patrol the car park, several times a day. As for ‘Officer’: well, I don’t have men under my command, nor do I issue orders, nor am I a government official. But I do issue tickets, and this is the source of my power, of my office. I have the power to fine people. The fine is £25, £15 if paid within 14 days.
I can fine people if they stay in the car park for more time than they are allowed, or park in a disabled bay without an orange badge, or park in the parent and toddler bays without an infant in the car. I can fine people for bad parking, for parking at an angle, or parking in the staff car park without an official permit. Occasionally, I’ve fined people for not shopping in the supermarket. I can whip out my ticket-book with a flourish whenever I catch someone up to no good, flip up the cover and, licking my pen (a dramatic rather than a functional gesture), write out a ticket in bold, emphatic letters. People may wheedle. They may beg forgiveness, promising never, ever to do it again. But nothing can deter me. I am Patrol Officer Dredd of Mega Car Park One, judge, jury and executioner, coldly dispensing car park justice.
Well, not entirely. I’m quite a civil car-park attendant. Anyone can get round me if they try hard enough. The old ladies really like me. It must be the uniform. I’ve never worn a uniform before.
I have a crisp, white shirt with epaulettes, a navy-blue, police-style pullover with epaulettes, an electric blue tie with diagonal darts of yellow script, a fluorescent yellow waistcoat with the name of the car-park company emblazoned across the back, a fluorescent yellow all-weather jacket (also with epaulettes) and a pair of navy-blue Sta-pressed polyester trousers with creases like the neat edges of a piece of plastic casing, sharp and precise. The creases are fixed into the material of the trousers, as if they came out of a mould. No need to iron. They were made like this. My only regret is that I don’t have a peaked cap. I would have liked to have worn a peaked cap. I would have saluted myself every time I saw myself in the mirror.
I work for a well-known car-park company in the car park of a well-known supermarket chain. I won’t tell you the names, in case it gets me into trouble. But it could be in Muswell Hill, or Lewisham, or Greenwich or Hackney. Or it could be in Belfast or Birmingham or Burton-on-Trent, for that matter. It makes no difference. The same set of car-park companies, and the same supermarket chains, dominate the landscape everywhere you go. The same set of car-park attendants wearing the same uniforms. The same supermarket assistants in the same livery. At least the accents vary.
What I do: I walk around the car park punching numbers into my hand-held computer. The computer is made by Psion, the same company that popularised the computer note-book. But mine’s a much more sturdy object. It is shaped like a blunted ‘T’, wider at the top where the screen flashes, and palm-sized about the body, where the rubber buttons are planted. It has a stretchy rubber strap along the back which fits around the hand so that the whole object sits comfortably in your palm. There’s a satisfaction in holding it. Hand-sized and hand-shaped, warmly rounded: a bit like a gun, I imagine. Maybe I should get a holster to practice my draw.
The job is entirely dependent on the technology. Thirty years ago it would have taken a computer the size of half a house to accomplish the same task. People used to talk about the bright new future we were moving into: the Information Age. People wondered how this fierce, cutting-edge technology would be used. We imagined all sorts of possible humanitarian and beneficial uses for it. Instead of which it’s used for managing car-parking spaces.
So there are letters and there are numbers. The letters are in alphabetical order, and the numbers are in numerical order. We punch in the letters and we punch in the numbers, and there you have it: a registration number. It doesn’t take a lot of brains. We start at the beginning of the car park (although where a car park actually ‘begins’ is a matter of debate), and we take all the numbers. And then, when we get to the ‘end’, we start all over again.
There’s a time-limit for how long a car can stay. Two hours. Once you have passed that time limit – and we have put your number into the computer for the second or third time – the computer lets out a high-pitched bleep and flashes up a screen. ‘Issue Leaflet’ it says. So we issue a warning leaflet. It tells the owner of the car that he or she is parked illegally and that next time he or she will be liable to a fine. And if the car is parked illegally the next day (or the next week or the next month: the computer remembers for up to a year) then the computer bleeps irritably, twice in quick succession, and flashes up another screen. ‘Issue Ticket’ it says. So we issue a ticket. This is the £25 fine which is the source of our power. And if the car is still parked illegally on the third day or the third week or the third month, then the computer bleeps three times – sounding quite hysterical by now – and flashes up yet another screen: ‘Issue Ticket And Notify Office.’ So that’s what we do. We issue another ticket, and then make a note, and then, when we send off our paperwork at the end of the week, we write down the car’s make and colour and registration number on a special form, and we send it off to the office to deal with in whatever way they do. I’m not really sure. Send out the death squads I expect.
When I say ‘we’, I mean Harry and me. Harry is the other car-park attendant in charge of our domain. We’re co-dictators. He runs it one half of the week, and I run it the rest. He’s in his fifties, retired. I hardly ever see him, since when he’s working, I’m not, and when I’m working, he’s not. We ring each other up instead, to discuss strategy. He has a habit of saying, ‘I’m not being funny or anything,’ whenever he wants to complain. And he’s right. Whenever he says that, he’s not funny.
But we have a good relationship. He tells me what has been going on in his half of the week, and I tell him what has been going on in mine. We have a co-ordinated response. And we both suffer the same kind of abuse. One day he gave someone a ticket, and the person left him a note, saying ‘Fuck you, you thirty pound a day piece of shit.’ It was the ‘thirty pound a day’ which was meant to be the most insulting. Well, neither of us would mind, except that we don’t even earn thirty pounds a day.
So this is how our days are spent, wandering around a car park punching registration numbers into a hand-held computer and handing out the occasional ticket. You develop a sort of rhythm in your head, since most registration numbers contain the same number of letters and the same number of numbers. Dit dit dit, dot dot dot. Dash. Like that. Over and over again. You start to go loopy. You start reading words into the registration numbers. It’s as if the mind has to find something to hang on to amid all the abstraction. So anything with an ‘F’ and a ‘K’ in it (in that order) necessarily spells ‘Fuck’. ‘FKL’ spells ‘Fuck All’. ‘FKU’ spells ‘Fuck You.’ For some reason it’s the Anglo-Saxon words which register. It’s as if the mind is in rebellion against the restriction of registration numbers, against the arbitrary concatenation of letters in the DVLC format, and trying to make sense out of things, even when there’s no sense to be had.
But this is odd since, of all the letter combinations which can occur in the DVLC format, the letters F, U and C, and the letters F, U and K – in that order – never occur. The DVLC won’t allow them. It seems the DVLC has the same kind of mind as I have, with the capacity to read ‘Fuck’ into everything.
Once a month the Patrol Officers get a newsletter, the Patrol Officer Bulletin. It contains regular features, such as ‘Man of the Month’ where satisfied customers write in praise of their favourite Patrol Officer, and a poetry section, where Patrol Officers submit their poetry. Yes, Patrol Officers are poets, too. It’s full of quaint little homilies. One is called ‘Pause For Thought’.
‘Think of an alarm clock,’ it says, ‘with its alarm ringing out frantically to attract your attention. Now look at the face of the clock, you will see that the thinnest arm takes just about five seconds to move from one number to another, whilst the tallest arm takes 300 seconds to cover the same distance. In the same way the third arm takes 3600 seconds for it to cover the distance.’ And he goes on to say that no matter how fast or how slow people work, everyone has a function.
This is a startling image, and very accurate when it comes to car-park management. It’s what we do. We go round and round and round the car-park at regular intervals, just like the hands of a clock. The technology may be digital, but the human beings are clockwork. Clockwork dictators in the case of Harry and me. Yet we’re not quite dictators. There’s a small fleet of about four or five taxis employed by the supermarket to take customers home. And the taxi drivers are a law unto themselves. They sit around in their taxis reading newspapers for hours on end and drinking tea out of flasks, and we’re not allowed to give them tickets or even issue warning leaflets. Sometimes they park at a diagonal, or take up two spaces instead of one. All we can do is shrug: ‘how’re y’doin’ mate?’ Whenever they see me issuing a ticket they say (every time): ‘Book’im Dano. Murder One.’ I’ve been listening to that joke for over five months now.
The other task we perform (which is only slightly less interesting than punching numbers into a hand-held computer) is counting the available spaces. We do this every hour. We count every disabled space and every parent-and-toddler space, and then every other space in the car park, and note them all down in a little book. And then, at the end of our shift, we transfer all this data into our ‘Space Availability Analysis Book’, copies of which go to the office once a week. It passes the time.
One of the taxi drivers has made it his special quest to disrupt me in this task. Whenever I pass his taxi, counting away in my head – ‘97, 98, 99, 100 ...’ – he’ll shout a series of numbers to confuse me. ‘27, 254, 919, 61.’ Usually I can ignore him. But one day he caught me. He was outside the taxi. He’d been to the shop. I could see his intentions in his eyes as he approached. He grabbed hold of me and marched me around the car park barking numbers into my ear, and I forgot what number I’d got to and had to start again. Afterwards I developed a sort of neurosis about this. Whenever I see him I panic. I know he’s going to start shouting numbers at me and that I may get confused and have to start all over again. None of which is good for my dignity. Judge Dredd would have shot him. ‘Take that, Perp. I am the Law!’