Top Down, by Artur Azevedo

(My translation of the short story De cima para baixo)

O

ne day the minister arrived in his office in a bad mood and immediately sent for the director general of the Secretariat.

The latter, as if propelled by an electric battery, promptly appeared before His Excellency, who received him with clenched fists.

“I’m furious!” the minister shouted. “I’ve just been humiliated in the presence of His Majesty the Emperor. And all because of you!”

“All because of me?” asked the director general, with his eyes almost popping out of his head and his hands splayed on his chest.

“You sent me an appointment decree without the name of the appointee!”

“But how could that happen, Your Excellency?…”

The minister threw the decree at him. And the director general, who was as humble and submissive towards his superiors as he was arrogant and severe towards his subordinates, caught it just before it hit him in the face. As soon as he’d managed to set his pince-nez in place he confessed in a strangulated voice:

“It’s true! I hadn’t noticed! I don’t know how it…”

“Unforgiveable negligence! One would think you’d pay more attention to the documents for His Majesty’s signature, especially as you’re well aware that the cabinet secretary is off sick!”

And banging his fist on the table, the minister continued:

“You could have caused a ministerial crisis. So unpleasant were the words I was forced to hear from the august mouth of His Majesty that I offered my resignation!…”

“Oh!…”

“But His Majesty didn’t accept it…”

“Of course not. His Majesty was quite right.”

“The reason he didn’t accept it is that he thinks very highly of me and knows that it’s easy for a minister who’s as busy as I am not to notice a badly copied decree.”

“I can’t apologise enough, Your Excellency,” whimpered the director general, who’d been terribly impressed by the word “resignation”. “It was the build-up of work that caused me to miss such a grave error; but I assure Your Excellency that from this moment I shall take the greatest care in ensuring that nothing of this kind ever happens again.”

Shrugging his shoulders, the minister turned his back on him, merely remarking:

“Alright. Get this mess sorted out!”

The director general left the room, bowing several times on his way. When he arrived back in his own office he summoned the head of Section 3, who found the director general in a state of fury.

“I’m livid! I’ve just been humiliated in the presence of the minister! And all because of you!”

“Because of me?”

“You sent me an appointment decree without the name of appointee!”

At which he three the document on the floor.

Astonished, the head of Section 3 bent to pick it up and, having confirmed the error, gibbered:

“I beg forgiveness, Sir… These are things that happen… There was so much work… And everything was so urgent!…”

“I’m not surprised the minister was exasperated! But he treated me personally with respect and cordiality, even though I could see he was beside himself!”

“But there was no need for that…”

“No need? Now look here! His Excellency told me I should suspend the section head who sent this!”

“Me?… Sir?…”

“But I’m not going to suspend you. I’m just going to give you a simple warning, as per regulations.”

“Me?… Sir?…”

“Quiet! I haven’t asked your opinion. Now get out, and get this mess sorted out!”

***

Crestfallen, the head of Section 3 retreated and headed straight for the desk of the clerk who had so carelessly copied the decree:

“I’m furious, Sr. Godinho! I’ve just been humiliated in the presence of the director general! And all because of you!”

“Because of me?”

“You’re incorrigibly inept, lazy and negligent! This appointment decree doesn’t have the name of the appointee!”

And he threw the document at the clerk.

“I’d be inclined to propose your suspension for a fortnight or a month! But I’m going to make do with a warning, as per the regulations. I can’t imagine what the director general might have said, had he not shown such respect and cordiality towards me personally!”

The clerk didn’t even have time to re-read what he’d written…

“Well?”

“I thought you’d have checked it, Sir…”

“Quiet!… Do you think I’m going to take lessons from you on how to do my job!…”

“No, Sir. I beg forgiveness for the mistake…”

“I’ve already told you to keep quiet. Just go and sort out this mess!”

***

The clerk obeyed.

When he’d finished, he rang the bell. A messenger duly appeared.

“I’ve just been humiliated in front of the section head! And all because of you!”

“Because of me?”

“Yes, because of you! If you hadn’t taken so much time yesterday to bring me the box of imperial paper I requested, I wouldn’t have had to draw up the fine copy of an appointment decree so hurriedly that I left out the name of the appointee!”

“But I…”

“No excuses! You’re a very unreliable messenger! If the chief didn’t have such a high opinion of me, I’d have been suspended, and it would have been your fault! Now get out!”

“But…”

“Didn’t I tell you to get out? And you can consider yourself lucky I’m not goint to make an offical complaint!…”

***

The messenger departed and went straight off to take it out on a black servant who was having a snooze in one of the corridors of the Secretariat.

“I’m furious! I’ve just been humiliated by a jumped-up idiot! And all because of you!”

“Because of me?”

“Yes. Why did you take so long when I sent you to the storeroom for that box of imperial paper yesterday?”

“It was…”

“Quiet! When I tell you to go somewhere, you go straight there! Do you understand? Beause if I ever make a complaint to the storekeeper you’ll be out on your ear. There’s no shortage of servants out there!…”

“The black man said no more.”

***

The poor fellow had no one beneath him on whom he could take out his humiliation at the hands of the messenger. So, after he’d had a dispiriting meal in the dive where he normally ate, he went home and made do with giving his dog a hefty kick.

The wretched animal, which had come running up to welcome him, ran away whimpering, before returning to lick his master’s feet in all humility.

And so the dog paid for the servant, the messenger, the clerk, the section head, the director general and the minister.

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