This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
Mike Townsend left his Census Officer Training with a spring in his step, despite being supplied with Census collection forms approximating his body weight. The extra money he anticipated making would contribute the difference between his savings and the price of a new racing bicycle. His cardio training regime would not be overly compromised because fifty percent of the working time would be spent walking up hills. The Census Officer position was a second job with a lot of advantages for a weekend waiter studying to be a structural engineer.
When he arrived back at his rental house, Mike unpacked the census materials and prepared for the next day. It would be Sunday, and he would spend a few hours distributing the forms, and return home for a quick gym session and lunch, before starting his work as a waiter at Mario’s Pizza and Pasta at 4pm.
He opened his diary and checked over his schedule for the coming weeks.
Monday was Mike’s longest day at University, with two lectures, two tutorials, and three group study sessions. He planned to sleep in Tuesday, and start the Census work late morning and continue into the afternoon. Wednesday would be University again, and then back to the Census work on Thursday. He had two tutorials on Friday at 11.30 am and 3pm, inconvenient times. Saturday included a training ride in the morning, some more census work, and another shift at Mario’s.
Downing a protein and vegetable smoothie prepared in the latest kitchen gadget belonging to his absent housemate, Mike decided he’d rinse it out in his study break. He went to his bedroom, sat down in the office chair at his wooden desk, and became absorbed in structural physics. The examples of buildings constructed both well and ineffectively were numerous, and he enjoyed the diagrams. Their ordered beauty fascinated him.
Two hours later he was interrupted by his housemate, Shelley, “Mike that’s the last time you can use my processor. I’m hiding it in my room. Protein powder and vital greens form a bloody cement if you don’t clean the thing straight away.”
He acknowledged her concern with appropriate frowns, along with promises he was sure, in the moment, he would keep. She was not to be swayed. She threw a manual shaker at him, and that was the end of that. He was sure he heard her mutter, “I hope the fleas on your dog get fleas.”
He took offence on behalf of his lovable black Labrador, Bounder, and felt smug about his flea protection regime. Bounder rarely scratched and he was confident that fleas were under control.
Women, he thought, so uptight.
He stretched and went to the kitchen for black coffee and a cheese sandwich before leaving for the restaurant.
The next morning, Mike woke to loud country rock: he always chose a song rather than beeping for his alarm. After twelve wheat biscuits with sugary milk and two cups of strong coffee for breakfast, the route for his first round of the Census was clear in his mind.
The hours between midnight and two am had been crazy at Mario’s last night. He felt fortunate that it was not his turn to remove the pieces of cheesy pizza, thrown by drunken patrons, from high up on the restaurant’s 12 foot walls. The hour that disgusting chore would have taken could have pushed his bedtime back to 3.30 am.
Entering the yard to unchain his bicycle to ride to his Census work, he was greeted by Bounder’s high leaps and slobbering tongue. He was sorry he couldn’t take Bounder with him, but cringed at the thought of the dog scaring the general public with his exuberance.
A strong maple tree was the anchoring place for the bicycle when he arrived at his destination. Mike shouldered his satchel and set off along his route. He was working one block anti-clockwise, and finding about fifty percent of his assigned residents weren’t home when he reached 18 Fyans Street, an attractive 1930s bungalow. The roses were pruned, the paths neatly edged, and the yard tidy. He strode up the front path and pressed the doorbell. He heard it ring, and noticed the sound seemed to echo. Perhaps the house is being renovated, he mused.
He scanned a census form with the phone app, and was placing it under the doormat, when he heard a voice.
The voice was a moist squealy* sound. Its high note of air being expelled from a balloon did not mask the words, “Good afternoon, are you the Census Officer?”
Mike blinked. He couldn’t see a body for the voice to come from. He peered into the decorative wire door thinking a person had opened the wooden door behind it while he was looking down. The door was shut, and he looked for an intercom speaker. Nothing. He glanced from the corner of his eye at the nearby window, someone’s speaking through there. At training they had told him never to peep into a window to determine if a resident was present. No one.
Dormer window. He stepped off the verandah, and looked up. The window that rose from the roof line was not open, and nobody was visible. He shrugged and began to walk back down the path. The voice spoke again, its’ sound fainter, “Good afternoon, are you the Census Officer?”
Mike looked around, frowning. He didn’t want to be rude but he had no idea where the voice was coming from. Feeling silly, he spoke loudly into the air, “Good afternoon.”
A man passing on the street, called out “Good afternoon”, and nodded at him.
Mike looked straight ahead.
Now multiple voices, in the same irritating tone, called out “Good afternoon, are you the census officer?”
Mike shuddered and jogged to the gate throwing it open and he walked a block before he realised he would have to retrace his steps to number 20, the strange house’s neighbour.
A white haired lady called out to him, as he walked past her garden, “Hello, are you the census officer? I never got my form.”
He dealt with her before restarting at number 20.
The following Wednesday when he was out with his mates he went easy on the beer; he drank water every other glass. His mates thought he was being extra health conscious because he had a race coming up.
He thought, bloody stress might be causing auditory hallucinations. take it easy.
When he had a moment to think about what happened at 18 Fyans Street, he recalled his mother talking about one of her friends who had suffered hallucinations during times of stress. He did more squats, and hit the hills with enthusiasm when he was out on his census rounds.
Exercise uses up excess adrenaline in your body. He was sure he’d heard that somewhere.
The second round of census visits began and it was time to visit the house again. The census form was gone, he noted, and he left a calling card. As he stepped down from the verandah, he heard the door behind him open. Now I get to meet one of the world’s finest practical jokers.
He turned around and stared, there was nobody standing in the doorway. He shuddered. Before he could escape he heard the voice again.
In an accusing tone, it said, “You only left us one form, we need ten thousand forms.”
Mike stepped away. A cacophony of sound arose, as squealing and spitting like a strange mix of nails on a blackboard and deflating balloons, rent the silence. Mike put his hands over his ears, then half-lifted one hand. He could distinguish words, the fact amazed him: language could be discerned from such a sound.
“That’s right you morons, fill out the government forms like the bureaucratic stooges you are. I don’t trust the system. The online system shut down on August 9, our information’s not secure.”
“I’m happy to fill it out. No-one’s ever suffered from fillin’ out a census form.”
“I’ve never filled out these things, and no-one can make me. It’s a free country!”
“What about all those politicians who aren’t filling out the form? If all those politicians aren’t filling it out, I don’t have to.”
Mike hated it when a person used the word all as a weapon to let anybody know their opposing opinion would be attacked.
“Give the forms to me mate, we’ll talk about it.”
Mike scanned and laid an extra form on the doormat: he could see the humour in the joke. Who has the time to work out such pranks?
That night, an exhausted Mike fell into bed. In the early hours he woke to an excruciating itch on his feet and lower legs. He thrashed about, something was biting him. He felt around for his lamp switch. The glow revealed white lumps over his legs and feet.
The voice started, “We don’t want the census form, we want refusal forms. 5,000 of us want to refuse.”
I’m breaking out in hives from stress, and hearing voices. Last year I coped fine with exam stress and my job. This is ridiculous.
He thought of his mother, maybe I can ring her up and go home for the weekend. His Dad came to mind, “This is your chance to make your own way. Be a man, son.”
He shown the bright lamp directly on his sheets. He couldn’t see anything. Get a grip.
Though it was four o’clock in the morning, he took his heater and books to the kitchen table and spent the time until dawn studying.
Visit three came up on Mike’s Census round, and the day it began was a lovely day. The sun warmed his back as he rode to his starting point. He strode up Fyans Street, full of confidence. The last week he had been feeling less stressed. He recalled discovering the bites on his legs were caused by fleas, and Shelley and his friend Jay laughing about this fact on the previous evening.
“Shelley’s a full on witch, she’s cursed Bounder.”
Jay had found it hilarious after a few beers. Shelley and Mike laughed with him.
“If I had magic powers, I’d be using them to find out what’s on my nursing exams, not giving Bounder extra fleas.” They toasted to the hope of brilliant exam results.
He approached 18 Fyans Street, and knocked on the door. He was back at the gate after leaving a calling card when he heard the voice, Rats, I thought the joker wasn’t home.
“We rang the ABS. You’re not doing your job. Give us the forms.”
A group of voices began, “We want to refuse.”
Mike threw his hands in the air, and strode back to the door. “I can record a refusal for you. Do you want me to do that? “
“Yes, Yes. We want to record 5000 refusals”
“Sorry, you will be known as the resident, and I will only record one refusal.”
Mike felt a wave over his body as if all his hair was standing on end. He began to slap and scratch. Two ladies walking by stopped to stare. Looking fearful, they hurried off.
Mike felt itchy all over, even in the most private places. He walked back to his bike and rode home. He felt like the whole world knew there were tears running down his cheeks, and he was losing it.
When he walked in the door, he heard Shelley shouting. “He’s here. He’s here now. I’m going to talk to him.”
She walked into the hall and stared at him, “Mike, look at my feet.” He frowned at her but did what she asked. Her feet were covered in white lumps. Some looked blistered, others red.
“You need to treat Bounder with tons of flea stuff. He’s spreading fleas through the house.” Then she leaned in whispering, “Did you hear voices when you got bitten by them? Do their bites make you crazy?’
He wanted to shout in relief. If she was hearing voices too, he wasn’t losing it.
“I don’t know. What were the voices saying?”
She spoke louder, “They were saying that you are the worst census officer ever. You’re meant to distribute forms but you don’t.”
“Maybe you should lie down.”
He turned his face away from her so she couldn’t see him smile.
“I couldn’t relax with all this itching if I tried. My mum told me to go buy calamine lotion and flea bombs. See you later.” He heard the front door close behind her.
He went into his room, and chopped up 30 census forms into 5,000 pieces.
These will be big enough for fleas.
At 7.25 pm he dropped the pile of paper on the door mat of 18 Fyans Street. He wrote a note: “I will record one refusal for this residence.”
As he walked away, the front door creaked open. He could distinguish a few sentences from the cacophony.
“That’s right you idiot. Give in and fill out the stupid government form. I told you I don’t want to fill out the fuckin’ thing.”
He called out with a smile on his face, “Have a nice evening!”
Two blokes walking along the street called back, “We plan to.”
*It’s in the urban dictionary and I want to use it.
The flea image is from the website http://www.petinformed.com