JOSE’S CERTIFICATE

There will never be another job like this, mused B., as he sat at his desk and watched Jose leave through the door to the verandah, putting back on his head the battered, greasy hat he had politely removed before entering the office ten minutes ago. Jose was about fifty years old, black, and he walked like a lifeless zombie; his clothes were tattered, tears and scuffs remained unstitched; his eyes were vague  and watchful but without response, his face an expressionless cover. B knew some of his background, the unsavoury bits related by his Brazilian staff who steered very clear of Jose. They said he was a murderer, he had hacked his wife to death with a machete and, after coming out of prison, he had driven away other women who had gone to co-habit with him.

There were no technical names for the people who did these things in general usage at that time. Jose was probably a psychopath, or a schizophrenic, but here in Nova Lima he was a ‘mal sujeito’ – a bad element; someone you gave a wide berth to. B hadn’t known Jose’s potted history when he first turned up at the Olaria office, one of many hundreds; applicants for company houses whom he interviewed regularly. When asked for information about himself he said he had a partner and worked for senhor Jack at the Reduction Department as an unskilled labourer. His work record was unimpressive although he didn’t cause trouble at work but, besides his prison sentences for violence – always against women – and the longer one for the murder of his wife which meant his absence from work, he was also away frequently, even when not in prison. He said this was because of his headaches,

Why Jose was retained in his job was a mystery to B even though he knew that the Brazilian labour laws at that time stated categorically that an employee with over 10 years service in a company could not be dismissed for any reason other than for a crime committed at the work place. A crime committed outside the place of work, even murder, was not a justification for dismissal. An employee with more than 10 years service could agree to leave, and if he did, the employer was obliged to pay two months wages for every year worked. This often amounted to the equivalent of several years wages for a pay-off, besides months of legal wrangling with the union lawyers over terms, and so dead-wood employees like Jose were left in place on the company payroll, a growing drain on resources and morale in general. Every department had problem cases, although few as bizarre as Jose. Jack Leworthy at the Reduction Plant who had drawn the short straw in having to allocate work to him didn’t particularly mind. Jack was a bit zany himself. But most managers and supervisors, lumbered with these problem characters spent more time than they could spare, trying to manage the unmangeable, and this was detrimental to their work.

Hugh Watson, the new MD, was looking into ways to tackle the cancer eating into the company, but the neglect had gone on so long that attitudes were hardened into rigidity. There was no doubt that Jose was sick and in most peoples’ view, evil, but he was an employee of the mining company and as such was as entitled as any other to be considered for company accommodation. Of course single employees would only rate one or two rooms in the bomsera barracks where most had illicit unions with women. But a married man could ask for a small house and Jose always insisted he was married. True, he had been married and ended up slaughtering his wife. After serving his prison sentence a number of women in succession had tried to live with him, but were all frighted away.

He would come to B’s office regularly, removing his old hat and sitting down on the chair available for callers by the desk, his dull eyes would fasten on B’s face and his passive attitude implied a dogged expectancy that this day would be the day B was going to arrange a house for him. He had made it clear that he wouldn’t accept a bomsera. ‘Good morning Jose.’ Good morning senhor.’ B always paused here to try and pressure the interviewee to do the talking. Most of them needed little encouragement; this was an opportunity to relate to him all their problems, and not only housing ones, and they took full advantage of it. He was a good listener, and sometimes after someone had sat talking to him without stopping until they had talked themselves out, they would get up saying, ‘so, no houses available?’ And he would say, no, no houses today. Goodbye.’ But Jose never took the bait and B would have to say ‘what can I do for you?’ To begin with Jose used to say, ‘do you have a house for me?’ And B would reply, ‘no, no change from the last time you were here.’ Then Jose would sit and stare in front of him and B would sit and wait for Jose to say something more or get up and go.

There were lists up in all the departments of those Company houses empty and available for applicants to apply, but Jose was illiterate and B would never mention this because there was no way that any house would be made available for him. But Jose found out about the lists and got someone to read out the addresses for him. The next time he had turned up at the office and B had asked him what he wanted, he replied, ‘can you give me the house at 51 Rua Christais?’ ‘That house has five rooms and is for a married couple with children,’ B replied. ‘I am married,’ said Jose. ‘Have you children?’ ‘I have nephews and nieces.’ ‘They don’t count before sons and daughters.’ The cat and mouse game continued with Jose appearing to accept that he couldn’t inflate his family claims with an assortment of relatives, real or imaginary; but he would continue to insist that he was married.

‘You have to bring the certificate so we can enter it on your application form.’ He was told and brought along a small bundle of official looking papers the next time he came. The Housing Department’s record’s clerk sorted them through with visible distaste and said it included a marriage certificate. There was no death certificate of the slaughtered wife in the bundle. It was necessary to tread carefully. The sessions continued with Jose sitting in the chair, passively staring ahead at B and a ritualistic ¬†conversation developed between them, punctuated by long silences. B attempted to steer the conversation away from the certificate and Jose always brought it up. Having had the identity of that particular document confirmed by the clerk he brought it along with him every time he came to ask for a particular house, spreading it out on the desk in front of him and somehow intimating that his wife was as anxious as he was to rent a company house.

B had many odd cases to deal with, that no one else in the Company was prepared to handle, and resigned himself to this particular one continuing indefinitely. He and Jose had by this time developed a sort of easy relationship, almost like that of a doctor and his patient. The range of their talking never strayed beyond the confines of the houses Jose wanted to rent. He never stayed longer than 10 minutes – too long for the other applicants waiting their turns, who made no effort to conceal their evident loathing of him – more than half the time of the interview was spent in silence. Just silent staring.

But nothing is changeless and there was a break-through in the dealing with the union on the matter of paying off long serving, non-productive employees and a preliminary list had been drwan up containing the names of the most cronic cases. Jose’s name was on the list. Through the union he was offered a sum of money to waive his rights as an employee and he accepted this offer. On his final visit to B’s office he entered in his usual sleep-walking way, removing his hat before sitting down. B waited for him to speak, but Jose sat silently, meaning he wanted B to speak first. ‘Well Jose, you won’t be needing a Company house now.’ ‘I’m going away.’ ‘You can do what you like now.’ ‘Thank you.’ ‘Thank….?’ A long stare followed. ‘You helped me.’ ‘I helped you?’ ‘Yes. Thank you. Goodbye.’

He rose and stretched out a hand. Jose was not a big man, but his hand was huge; he held it, fingers pointed downwards, the palm and finger tips pinkish, the back a greyish black. It was clear that shaking hands was not a familiar function for him, but in his strange mind he believed that B had helped him in some way and he wanted to show his appreciation. B took the proffered hand. It was like touching a piece of cold, dead meat; there was no warming to this tormented soul, but he had to say some words. They were as few as possible. ‘Goodbye Jose.’ But Jose had said all he was going to say, and said nothing more. He rose and moved towards the door before replacing the awful hat on his head. For once B’s philosophically inclined mind let him down and all he could think as he leaned back in his chair, – I’ll never have another job like this.

DECEMBER 1958