I have just treated myself to a café latté at the Barista when the Wizard appears floating besides me on my way up to the 9th floor in the lift. By now I am used to him showing up in the strangest of places.
“Good morning Bakerman,” I smile at him as the lyrics of the song get stuck in my head for the day. “Buenos dias.” As the lift opens on the 9th floor, I usher him into a neighbouring meeting room and close the door quickly. Not sure what my colleagues would think of me talking to a Wizard cat on a pink fluffy cloud. “Why do I keep getting panic attacks? Am I also in a dark place?”
“No. You get them because you don’t have sufficient knowledge,” the Wizard looks at me comfortingly. It’s at moments like these that his eyes turn a brighter shade of blue rather than turquoise and I get completely locked into his gaze. “Or you believe you don’t. You doubt yourself too much. What are you panicking about?”
“This morning in the shower I was panicking about the au-pair and whether I can afford it,” I confess looking down and fumbling with the rings on my fingers. “Then I got annoyed with myself, breathed deeply and told myself to go earn some good money.”
“Good girl,” the Wizard pats me on my upper arm with his soft padded paw. “I need your help.”
“Oh tell me. What can I do?” I exclaim. This is sudden news. The Wizard asking me for help. I feel alarmed as I can’t think why he would be turning to me. I’m just a silly woman of 41 with 3 kids and struggling with my own shadow. “I can actually do something for you? Oh goodie!”
“Wait,” the Wizard breaths deeply as he wants me to take it in very carefully. “I want you to confirm I stayed with you for a few months and paid rent for a bedroom.”
“Okay… but wait a minute,” I stutter as I feel doubt seeping in as the idea starts to take shape in my head and I see multiple doom scenarios popping up in my head and everywhere I look. “Who is it for and why? Will this ever fall in the hands of Wim?” I try to save the day by adding: “Happy unbirthday by the way. Sorry I forgot.”
“Thanks,” the Wizard brushes me off curtly. “It’s for the RVA.”
“The who?” I don’t know which governmental institution he is referring to. I have never been unemployed in my entire life, so I am literally clueless.
“VDAB,” the Wizard throws another institution at me. “Its for my ‘uitkeering’. You know, my monthly unemployment allowance.”
“What does your staying here have anything to do with your ‘uitkering’?” I don’t quite get the plot and panic is starting to creep into my voice. I can actually feel my heart beating in my throat. “From when till when did you stay here? And what kind of rent did you pay? The property is half Wim’s. Is there a document you are meant to fill in? What about where you really stayed? Your friends and the White Queen? Why is my place better? Am I a better front than the White Queen? Is there a form to be filled in or a number to call?”
“No,” the Wizard snaps at me.
“No what?” I ask him tartly.
“It is during the time I was away,” the Wizard goes on telling me. But it doesn’t make sense to me. I am not aware of his going abouts, or what he does, or where he is, or supposed to be. It is all very confusing. “They are asking me to show where I was living as I had signed out of Oz and not signed in anywhere for 11 months. So I want to spread out the months between friends all over the place. No form to fill in.”
“Ok,” I say but I am really not okay at all. I am thinking about all the possible consequences this written letter could have on me, my relationship, my taxes… and ultimately my kids.
“Ok what?” the Wizard snaps at me again. He is clearly wanting to get somewhere with me, but the destination is still very unclear to me.
“But then what do you need? And what time period?” I ask again trying to sort things out in my head. “Have you ever done this before? Will there be a control?”
“A short letter that can be backed up by answering the phone and saying the same thing without giving a long story,” the Wizard sighs heavily. His impatience and annoyance are almost tangible.
“I know these bastards,” I spit out. “Before you know it they are at your door asking to confirm the story. And that’s when Wim answers the door.”
“No it is my first time,” the Wizard is now avoiding eye contact.
“Which time period?” I repeat in total despair now. “You were in Keerbergen after Oz. What if they ask proof of payment?”
“It happened 9 months ago. I will give you the exact dates,” the Wizard retorts. “All you say is we are friends not lovers. I stayed with you for the time stated and I left. You don’t know where I went but I did say I will stay at another friend. I contributed to costs and bought my own food. Cash between friends no proof required.”
“How hard is this going to backfire?” I ask him anxiously. “I am worried Wim will find out and then I am solely responsible for my own sabotage.”
“Why should it?” the Wizard lifts an eyebrow, and then shakes his head. “I see it’s too difficult for you. Don’t give it another thought. It’s not a train smash. I just want to avoid paying money back to the RVA.”
“So only now they are asking about where you live?” I ask in disgust with the inefficiency of Belgian bureaucracy.
“Yes,” the Wizard blinks at me.
“Typical Belgium,” I let out still excited now my anxiety has started to ebb away. “How did they get hold of you? I thought you were in Keerbergen before you left.”
“I signed in at the White Queen for three months,” the Wizard tells me but I can’t remember anything of the kind.
“In reality or fiction?” I ask him as the story and timeline aren’t matching up in my head.
“In reality,” the Wizard gives me an annoyed look.
“Oh and then you were off to Cuba.”
“But I never stayed there,” the Wizard says just to make matters more complicated. “Yes.”
“Is that end of 2016?” I am still trying to puzzle the pieces together.
“No,” the Wizard replies impatiently.
“Didn’t they ask where you were going?” I enquire again as none of this makes sense at all.
“During 2017,” the Wizard corrects my previous thread.
“How old are you now?” I suddenly ask him. I have started Googling the Belgian legislation on allowances and where you are supposed to be living to be entitled to one.
“6,” the Wizard answers. He must mean he’s six years old in cat years.
“I think you are allowed to travel abroad after 60 and keep your ‘uitkering’,” I tell him my eyes glued to my iPhone screen. “But you need to be registered in Belgium. Where are you registered?”
“I am not 60,” the Wizard corrects me rather hurt.
“You’re not?” I ask him bewildered. I tried calculating cat years. How many cat years for a human year?
“No,” the Wizard shakes his head at me, eyes locking me into his. “51.”
“Oh shit I can’t remember,” I am feeling distressed at my inability to place events in time and at my inaccuracy of the moment to make a simple calculation. “You are not 51. You are like ancient old.”
“Today I am,” the Wizard teases me amused at my visible inner struggle.
“Let me think,” I urge him to let me think for a moment. “No you are not.”
“48,” the Wizard throws my way again.
“You are 62. I am sure of it,” I cry out looking at him questioningly. “Well almost. Or 59?”
“Really I must have lost a few years somewhere,” the Wizard jokes. “Yes let’s agree that I am 45.”
“Phew. Felt a little mad then,” I decide to let it go as well. “Brain won’t work. Ok so you have to stay home naughty man. Where are you registered? Or did you go off the grid?”
“I go off the grid soon,” the Wizard replies mysteriously. He is toying with me like a cat with a mouse, but I am too pre-occupied to notice or to be bothered by it.
“Hmmm. You know I am not registered in Tremelo but in Mechelen,” I remind him. “Who did you stay with this time?”
“Yes I know,” the Wizard winks at me.
“How did you do this when you went to Australia?” I continue to press him for answers.
“Its not important,” the Wizard is becoming defensive and evasive again.
“It is,” I urge him. I finally want to know what has been going on. I know so little.
“I went off the grid in Australia,” the Wizard tells me and I am having a hard time deciding whether he is lying or telling me the truth.
“You ask one damn thing and I go chicken shit,” I finally admit. “I am useless.”
“Yes,” the Wizard nods in agreement. “Sorry I asked.”
“You know part of me still thinks that was a smoke screen,” I remind him of my ideas on his disappearance acts. “No I am sorry I am not doing better. What about the White Rabbit? Can’t you have stayed with her?”
“Advice I don’t need,” the Wizard brushes me off. My ideas are useless too.
“Poop,” I sulk. “How much money is it?”
“Anything from 3.600 to 12.000,” the Wizard whispers at me.
“Shit loads of money,” I add in dismay.
“Yes,” the Wizard blinks at me again looking at me intently. He is obviously taking in every clue I am blatantly giving off in my body language.
“Can’t you say you were desperate and you slept on the street?” I ask him. “This does happen.”
“Yes it does,” the Wizard nods with a smile.
“It is called SDF, ‘sans domicile fixe’,” I inform him as if he is indeed only six years old. “Then you should tell them off. How can they let something like that happen?”
“Yes…” the Wizard hisses.
“In our day and age, and all the fucking social security I pay,” I am starting a rant. “No?”
“You tell them,” the Wizard looks at me bored.
“I’m not helping, am I?” I ask as at least I understood the look on his face.
“No,” the Wizard admits still amused.
“I don’t want to mess up,” I plead with him. “Knowing my luck it will boomerang back at me.”
“I understand,” the Wizard reminds me this is a conversation based purely on gut feeling. And the hidden message is still mine to uncover.
“Wim will throw a fit and explode his stoma and I will be out on my fanny,” I voice my ultimate doom scenario.
“Don’t worry about it,” the Wizard soothes me in a monotonous tone.
“What about the homeless option?” I know I am pushing my luck now. “I am just reading up about it.”
“It’s not an option,” the Wizard cuts me short.
“No I can imagine,” I answer as I know the Wizard is a proud man. “But they let you go off the grid. I don’t understand that.”
“Ok. It’s not a topic of conversation,” the Wizard informs me he has had enough of this conversation and that it is time I think about the deeper meaning. “I will solve it.”
“You know this means I can’t tell you all my silly thoughts anymore,” I sulk deeply.
“It does?” the Wizard turns around at me with a huge grin on his face.
“Well yes. I am always complaining,” I tell him. “You always listen. And I can’t return the favour. Epic friend fail.”
“True,” the Wizard says as he starts fading away in thin air. “I am in a meeting now.”
“Good,” I am happy to see him go for once. “Pay attention.”
As for the hidden message, the only one I could think of was how this situation resembles my sissy fit when the Star refused to babysit Winston and Lilly on Wednesday afternoons. Her allowance as an employee in an endangered environment might be up for discussion. I had been set straight by a cat Wizard. Don’t mess with red-tape administration. Don’t ‘sjoemel’ with your ‘uitkering’.
* Disclaimer : Any resemblance between the fictional characters in this story and any persons, living or dead, is a miracle by chance more than by choice.