Angus had not had much occasion to deal with the City Council. From time to time he exchanged greetings with members of the cleansing department as they emptied the bins – exchanges that were limited to observations on the weather and Cyril, whom Angus would be walking at the time.
Then there were his visits to the Central Library on George IV Bridge, when he would become aware of what the Council did in that regard, or the occasional function – the opening of an exhibition, or something of that sort – at which he would see the Lord Provost carrying out his formal duties. Beyond that, most people’s dealings with the Council took the form of complaints – about parking, lighting, air, water, roads, noise, drains, tourists, bagpipes, tennis-courts, litter, people, buildings, and seagulls. These were the issues that brought people into contact with their councillors, those long-suffering representatives who fielded the moans of the populace on all of the above subjects and who were never thanked nor praised for what they did. Angus, not being a complainer by nature, never wrote to his councillor about anything, and indeed had no idea who his councillor was.
Now, faced with the need to speak to somebody in the Council bureaucracy about the dead cat he had found in Drummond Street Gardens, Angus was at a loss as to how to proceed. Domenica was similarly uncertain as to which branch of local government might be responsible for this sort of thing, and suggested that the best tactic would be to call the main Council telephone number. From that number, one might be directed to the appropriate department.
“Tell them you’ve found a dead cat,” she said. “Tell them that and then ask to be put through to the people who deal with … well, with dead cats.”
Angus found the number. As he had feared, a machine answered, and gave him options. As the long list was recited, he began to doubt that he would be able to penetrate the electronic boundaries behind which authority now sequestered itself. But then, at last, a final option was presented. If you are concerned with none of the above and wish to speak to an operative, please … And at this point, the tape reached the end of the loop and the recital of the menu began again.
Angus decided that a random selection would at least get him into the system. Closing his eyes, he stabbed blindly at the keypad, to be immediately reward by the sound of ringing at the other end. A minute or two later, a voice came on the line.
“Trams,” said this voice, and then added, “Good morning.”
Angus’s eyes lit up. “Trams?”
He drew in his breath. “So you’re the people who built the trams?”
There was hesitation. “Well, we’re in charge of them. We didn’t actually…Well, let’s not go there.” And then the voice continued, “Is this a lost property enquiry?”
“It’s about a dead cat,” said Angus.
There was a further silence. Then, “Your cat’s been run over by a tram? Is that what you’re reporting?”
Angus laughed. “No, or at least I don’t think it was a tram.”
The voice was becoming short. Trams had been the frontline of a long war between officialdom and its critics. This was a field in which guerrillas presumably operated. “Then what is it?”
“I found a dead cat,” said Angus. “I want to speak to the department that deals with such matters. I’ve been put through to trams – obviously not the right place.”
The voice relaxed. “Oh, I see. Well, you don’t need us, do you?”
“No, I don’t,” said Angus. “But could you please put me through to the right place?”
This brought silence. Then the reply came, “Dog control, I think. I can transfer you.”
“It’s a cat,” said Angus. “A cat.”
“I heard what you said,” the voice retorted. “It’s just that we don’t have a cat department. But we do have Dog Control. That’s the closest I can think of. Would you like me to transfer you or not?”
“I suppose you don’t have cat control because it’s impossible to control cats.”
The voice listened. Then came the response, “Hah! No, you’re right about that. What do they say about herding cats?”
“That’s it. It’s impossible. You can’t herd cats.”
It had been a moment of real human contact, but now it came to an end. “Anyway, would you like to be transferred? They might be able to help you.”
Angus opted to be transferred, and after a civil goodbye a ringing tone could be heard once again. As he waited for his call to be answered, he imagined the person to whom he had been speaking. It was a male voice, but not an assertive one. It was the voice of tired official, one who probably did not like his job all that much, who might be counting the days to retirement, who had been stuck in trams for years, perhaps, answering public enquiries, fending off complaints about the impact of construction works, giving people details of fares and timetables, reuniting them with their lost umbrellas or briefcases, smoothing out the troubled relationship between homo sapiens Edinburgensis and the tram. Yet behind that official identity, there would be a person – a person who knew what it was like to be in love, a person who had hopes, who wanted to go somewhere, who believed in something or other, who had ideas about how the world should be. And in spite of all that human hinterland, with its richness and its pathos, the person himself was stuck in trams, like a press-ganged oarsman in a galley.
Dog Control answered. This time it was a business-like voice – that of one accustomed to the exercise of authority. This was a voice that dogs would dread: if this voice said Sit! dogs sat.
Angus began to explain himself. “I know that you’re in charge of dogs,” he said.
“Yes we are,” interrupted the voice. “Are you reporting a stray?”
“No,” said Angus. “The fact of the matter is that I’ve found a dead cat.”
For a few moments there was no response. Then, “This is a cat that’s been killed by a dog?”
“I don’t think so,” said Angus. “I don’t really know the cause of death. I just came across it in Drummond Place Gardens. It was lying there.” He wanted to mention the green eyes, but he did not.
“I’m sorry to hear this,” said the voice. “But I’m not sure that this is a matter for us.”
“I only asked to speak to you because you deal with dogs …”
“Yes, dogs. We deal with dogs. Your matter is …”
“Yes, I know,” said Angus. “I know it’s about a cat. But I thought you might know who deals with cats. That’s all. I’m not expecting you to deal with this. I just wanted …”
The voice interrupted him. “I see what you mean. Fair enough. But I don’t think we have a department that deals with cats.”
“Could you ask somebody?”
“I can transfer you up the line, so to speak,” the voice suggested. “I can escalate your call.”
Escalate my call! thought Angus. This was what every caller to any system most liked to hear. You’re being escalated.