The Application

I don’t think that Franz Kafka ever visited West Berkshire or, even less likely, fell foul of its planning system – but I suppose he might have done.

The room was long and, at the far end, faded into gloom. It was there that the others were taking their seats at benches and tables arranged in three sides of a rectangle. K himself had been told to sit on a stool at a small plain table on which there was nothing but a pen, an inkwell and a blank sheet of paper. The brightest light in the room was half way between where he sat and the end of the benches. It pointed down towards him so that every time he raised his eyes he was hit by the glare and had to squint.

The twenty people were engaged in muttered conversation, not one word of which K could catch. The bench and table directly facing him were slightly raised on a dais above the level of the others  Two people were seated but the middle space was empty. From somewhere above him a great iron bell tolled the hour. As the last peal died away, the door at the far end of the room swung open.

Everyone got to their feet and bowed at the newcomer. K, who had been given no guidance, was unsure if he should do likewise. Eventually he half stood up but found that one of his legs had gone numb. He crashed down in his seat again; then stood up, more successfully, just as everyone else was sitting down.

He wiped a bead of sweat from his face. The meeting had started and he still had no idea why he was there.

A letter had been delivered to his house the morning before. “You are summoned,” it read, “to appear in Room 102 at the Central Offices of the County of West-West at 5pm on 3 March.” That was all. There was an official stamp and an illegible signature with “Chairman” printed below it. There was no reference number, no contact details.

For the rest of the day K had brooded over the letter, once holding it up to the light to see if any clues could be found there. He had thought about showing it to the Doctor, the only person in the village with whom he felt even the slightest affinity. Once he had even started out down the drive: but something always held him back. Few people there regarded him with anything like favour since the fire the previous summer. He wasn’t even sure what the Doctor now felt about him. Their social meetings to drink tea and play chess had become less frequent, for reasons that seemed individually reasonable but now collectively suggestive. K did not know what he would think of this letter which, in its single sentence, conveyed to K all the signs of official displeasure.

At least he had little time to fret. With no knowledge of what he should read, check or bring with him, K left his house in good time and arrived a good hour early. He had not been admitted. “You must wait here,” a guard had said, pointing to a small, dank courtyard by the side of the building. Five minutes before the appointed time, a woman in a grey uniform had appeared and asked him to confirm his name. After doing so, he offered her the letter, which he had read, folded and re-folded many times.

“Why am I here?” he asked.

She made a dismissive gesture and motioned him to follow. Through several long corridors they went, she striding, he trotting after her still hopefully clutching the letter. She ushered him in to Room 102 and pointed to the chair. “For you,” she said, then swished out.

The man for whom everyone had risen stuck a small gong three times with a hammer. “The committee is now in session,” the thin voice of the Clerk piped up from next to him. K noted this information hungrily: so, it was a committee – but a committee of what?

Peering through the gloom of the far end of the room and the glare of the lights, to both of which his eyes were slowly becoming slightly more accustomed, K noticed other details. In front of each person was a card folded into a long triangle on which was printed their positions, though not their names. The man with the gavel was the President. On his right was the Vice-President; on his left, the Clerk. Several of the others were obscured but he could make out First Councillor, Third Councillor, Senior Officer, Under-Officer and Sergeant. This last confused him: was this a military committee, or was Sergeant ceremonial? He nodded to himself, rather stupidly as it must have appeared to anyone observing him, had they been doing so, as if he had gathered useful information about the proceedings.

For some while there was a mumbling conversation amongst the committee members which once again K could not decipher. Then for the first time the President looked at him.

“Applicant K,” his voice boomed down the room, “identify yourself.”

K’s brain froze. Must he produce a document proving he was both K and Applicant K, whatever that meant? He had no such document. Eventually he raised his hand. The clerk made a note.

“Mr President,” K said, “can you tell me why I am here?” His voice seemed both faint and shrill, exactly the combination he had been seeking to avoid.

There was a stunned silence. The President reached into his pocket and produced a pair of spectacles. By a strange transference, K could see the man more clearly once he had perched these on his nose. He was thin and wiry with large ears and piercing blue eyes which were now focussed on a point just above K’s right shoulder.

“Because you were summoned,” the President’s voice rapped out.

“Yes, but…”

“Silence!” the Under-Sergeant barked.

All the members turned to the huge files and bundles of paper which each had before them. From time to time the Clerk would squeak a page number or paragraph reference and, as one, the members would turn to appropriate part of the documents, each time setting up small clouds of dust. They would then confer for some time, occasionally shooting glances down towards where K sat.

More than once he considered again asking why his presence here was required. He could not, however, think of any way of accomplishing this that would be more successful than previously. His last intervention had not been met with approval. Why, then, should he risk compounding the error against what already seemed to be the slender chance of learning anything to his advantage? Using the few facts he possessed, he was calculating probabilities of outcome, weighing one unknown against another; slipping, however unwittingly, into the manners of the muttered conversations that were so inaudibly taking place before him.

Inaudibly: yet not quite inaudibly; for, every now and again, a word or phrase would catch his ear. “Policy 13” he heard more than once as well as “Condition B” and “retrospective”. “Klamm” was also referred to and appeared to be a person, perhaps present and perhaps not, whom the others held in great esteem and perhaps fear. He craned his head eagerly forward like a dog in the hope of hearing better.

This continued for about two hours. Shortly after the clock had again struck the hour the members put their files away, rose to their feet and bowed while the President left. Once again, K was slow off the mark. Then they all filed out after him, none of them giving him so much as a backward glance.

The side door through which K had entered opened and the same grey-clad woman appeared. She motioned for him to stand up and follow her. “You are to be here again at two o’clock tomorrow afternoon,” she said over her shoulder.

“Yes, yes – but why?”

“Because that is the order of the President.” She stopped and turned to face K. “It is his wish that you attend. Is that not reason enough?”

“Well, yes…but what for? What is the issue for which I am required?”

“That is not my concern,” she said as they moved off down the corridor. “You will be informed of everything you need to know at the appropriate time.”

That evening K went to see the Lawyer who lived on the edge of the village. The Lawyer was not well known to him but they had had dealings a few years before over a local matter concerning a hedge. As he knocked on the door he realised he could not recall on which side the Lawyer had acted nor whether he had been successful.

He knocked again. Finally, he saw a light going on and the door opened. At first the Lawyer, who was drunk, had no idea who K was. K explained as best he could where they had last met. Realisation of sorts finally dawned. The Lawyer clapped him on the back, led him into his drawing room and poured him a glass of vodka.

“Of course I remember,” he said. “Goodness me – you’re a good fellow, I’ll say that. I well remember that business with the blocked-up well last year – who was it? The Miller, that’s right. He should never have done that, certainly not – but we showed him, didn’t we? We showed him! Goodness, it’s good to see you, I must say. Sit down, my friend, sit down. What was the man’s name…? No matter. Well – here we are! Goodness me!”

He prattled on in this vein for some time, beyond the point where K could say that the Lawyer had him confused with someone else. More vodka was poured. K, who was of an abstemious turn, felt it wise to make no protest. Eventually he diverted the Lawyer’s conversation to the matter that was on his mind.

“Goodness me,” the Lawyer said as K offered him the letter, groping for his spectacles. “Yes…mmm…well. Room 102, eh? Well, it could be worse.” This was the first remotely good news K had received all day. The Lawyer reached for his cigars, hospitably offered on to K (which K politely refused), lit it and briefly vanished behind a cloud of smoke.

“102, eh? Goodness me, let me think, let me think…that’s the one normally used for…planning I think – hold on, let’s go through the others – 106 is legal, 105 is finance, 104 is…Klamm’s chamber – well, you won’t be dealing with him, I hope. A great man, oh yes, but, well…Room 100 – goodness me. Let me remember – yes…100 is political, 101 – well, the less said about that…102 – planning, that’s it! Sure of it. 102. There you are.” He took another enormous draw on his cigar and another gulp of vodka and sat back in his chair, beaming at K like a small, fat child.

“Planning?” K asked, bemused.

“Yes! You’re building something, yes? Applied for permission – actual, implied, potential, retrospective, it doesn’t say, but…”

“I heard the word “retrospective” mentioned,” K said.

“Well,” the lawyer said, tossing the letter down on the table, “That’s the very nub of it. They’re considering your retrospective application. There you are.” He poured more vodka. “That’s what it is.” And he patted K on the shoulder.

“But I haven’t applied to build anything,” K said. “Retrospective or otherwise. And no one has told me anything.”

There was a fairly long silence during which the Lawyer looked first at K, then back at the letter. “Well,” he said at last in a less animated tone of voice, “if that’s the way it is…” He drained his vodka and shambled to his feet “It’s getting late, old fellow. Look – wonderful to see you, but…well, I have a client to see tomorrow, early. Goodness me, is that the time?’ he added, though there was no clock in the room that K could see. “Anyway…” he made to pat K on the shoulder, as he had done so many times in the last ten minutes, but withdrew his hand. “Good to see you.” he manoeuvred K out of the room and to the front door. “So…”

At this point, words completely failed the Lawyer. He gave K a ghastly smile and a strange salute that could have meant almost anything and, with as much politeness as his changed manner permitted, shut the door in his face.

“Goodness me,” K said to himself as he walked down the drive in the twilight. He was both encouraged and alarmed by the interview. On the one hand, he had learned something about the reason for his summons – planning, if the Lawyer has been correct – but he was also now aware that his situation was equivocal at best. The Lawyer’s change of attitude – well, K allowed himself a small laugh at that. The man was clearly out of his depth and unwilling to offer an opinion on what was, to K, clearly a simple misunderstanding.

He felt heartened by this for a while: until the suspicion grew that such a misunderstanding would surely be a matter that any competent Lawyer could easily explain – not that K had asked him to act for him, assuming this would even be possible. He had seemed…K refused to accept the idea but it floated around the edge of his thoughts – there, K thought: let’s get it out in the open; he had seemed frightened. But this was surelt just a simple misunderstanding. Clearly the committee had him mixed up with someone else. He had made no application to build. His house, his only house, had stood where it stood for over two hundred years. Well – there you are! A misunderstanding. K would explain it tomorrow and that would be that.

The following day K turned up full of hope and was again ushered into his seat. The situation was now better as the light was not on and he could see the committee members more clearly, though still not hear. A large building plan had been placed on the President’s table. By standing up, he could get some sort of view of it. From what he could make out, the drawing seemed oddly familiar.

During a pause, he put up his hand. “Mr President,” he said in a stronger tone of voice than he had managed the day before. Twenty or so faces looked up and regarded him coldly. “Mr President, I would like to have clarified what is the reason for my attendance here. I believe it is due to a misunderstanding.”

Almost at once, K realised that he played a poor hand: for if he had no idea why he was there, how could he also think it was because of a confusion? The President seemed to see these thoughts: certainly, K read this reaction in the man’s sallow face. The President put his glasses on and seemed to be about to say one thing: then changed his mind and took them off again.

“Applicant K,” he said. K immediately and instinctively stood up. “The matter on which you have been summoned to appear here, concerning which you seem to be both ignorant and curious…” – he paused as if expecting some sycophantic titters from the benches on either side of his, which were duly supplied – “concerns an Application to Renew, reference 19/996554/HAU, on the site of the building known as the Kafkar Herrenhaus in the village of T–.”

“That is my house,” K replied. “But I have made no Application.”

“And yet we have it here.” The President held aloft a bundle of papers and treated K to a mirthless smile.

“May I see it?”

“The assumption is that you are familiar with it. “The court cannot waste time re-visiting such matters.”

“The court?” K asked. “You say this is a court? I thought it was a committee.”

“It is a committee with judicial powers to consider the Application.”

“I have already respectfully told the…the court that I have made no such Application and that it was unknown to me until a few moments ago that an Application had even been made.”

“That is not our concern.”

“By whom was this Application made?”

“Irrelevant,” the thin voice of the Clerk cut in.

“May I see the Application?”

“Permission denied,” the Clerk said.

“Be seated,” the President said.

K subsided into his chair. It was impossible to pretend that this exchange – promising though it had been in at least eliciting some information – had otherwise been satisfactory. He was unsure what rights, if any, he had in the matter, nor when he should try again to impose himself on the proceedings.

Over the next hour he was occasionally asked questions – “who is your agent?”, “what are the internal dimensions of the proposed extended living area?”, “how can Policies 13 and 43 be consistent with Condition J?”, none of which K was able to answer. Each time he repeated his assertion that, as he had not lodged an Application, it was not surprising that he was ignorant of its details but this was met with a mixture of disbelief and indifference.

Shortly after five o’clock, the President put down his pen and pushed the papers slightly away from him, with the air of a man who had just finished a satisfying meal. “The Accused will stand.”

K was thunderstruck. Who was the Accused?

“K, the Accused – stand,” the Clerk piped up.

K shambled to his feet.

“The Application, being retrospective, involves the question of whether permission be granted for works which have already taken place,” the president intoned. “Application 19/996554/HAU, on the site of the building known as the Kafkar Herrenhaus in the village of T–, involves the construction of a three-storey house of one hundred and eleven square yards with five bedrooms…etcetera. All the details are in the file. The question is this.”

For the first time, he gave K a glance which suggested a relationship that was, if not one of equality, then at least imbued with the assumption that they were both reasonable men and that, through discussion, some way could be found out of the difficulty which the wisdom of the court had exposed. K momentarily relaxed: then he recalled that he was no longer the Applicant but the Accused. How and why had this change come about? What were its implications?

As for the question, K assumed this concerned the simple fact that a house of just that description had existed for over two centuries. At last, he thought.

“The question concerns the oast house,” the President continued. “This is the aspect of the proposal which causes the court the most concern. If this were demolished then, well…” he made a gesture with his flattened hand that suggested compromise; hope, even. “You will need to demolish this structure. Then – well…”

“Mr President, gentlemen of the court – there is no oast house,” K said.

“And yet the Application clearly states that this has already been constructed,” the First Councillor said.

“In which case the Application, which I have neither made nor been allowed to see, must be wrong,” K said.

“Are you saying that the court is wrong?” the Second Councillor asked.

“I’m not saying that,” he stammered, “but…”

“In that case,” the First Councillor interrupted suavely, “you concede that the court is correct.”

“I am saying,” K retorted, “that the court is proceeding correctly but…”

“Good,” the President put in. “Your point is noted. In which case, do you agree that that the oast house will be demolished? It is on this matter, I assure you, that the entire issue turns.”

K took a deep breath. “It is, sir, impossible to demolish something that does not exist.”

“You do not need to accept the matter as being possible,” the President replied. “You only have to accept it as being necessary.”

K thought for a bit. “I could build an oast house and then demolish it. Would that satisfy the court?”

“Build it without permission?” the Senior Officer asked. “Out of the question.”

“But the court asserts that one already exists without permission,” K said. “If the issue is merely one of demolition, this would address it.”

The President tapped his finger on the table. “But that would leave the question of the original oast house unaddressed. You may build and demolish as many oast houses as you choose but this problem remains. Due process is not to be cheated in this way. For the final time, are you prepared to demolish the existing oast house?”

“As I have explained,” K replied, “that is not possible.”

“The point is noted,”the Clerk squeaked. “The court will now deliver its verdict.” The members leaned forwards into a huddle.

A sense of dread overtook K at the various traps into which he had been lured. Trembling, he awaited the President’s decision.

The huddle separated. “The decision of the court will be suspended until tomorrow at 10 o’clock,” the President announced. “The court will now rise.” The same bowing was repeated and within a minute K was left alone in the empty room.

Perhaps because the meeting had finished earlier than usual, the grey-suited woman was not there to usher him out. K went out of the door and, instead of turning left which led to the exit, looked to the right. There was a long row of doors with numbers on them. The first one on the right about twenty yards further down was, K presumed, the main entrance to the room in which he had spent much of the last two days. The Lawyer had been right, for it bore the number 102. Other similar doors stretched away from him until they became lost in the corridor’s unlit gloom.

K’s heart leaped. One of them was Klamm’s! What was the number the Lawyer had said? 104, that was it. Klamm – of course! He was by all account a man of power; a great man. Surely he would be able to intercede? At the very least K could put his case and know then that he could have done no more.

He hurried down the corridor and saw that 104 was at the very end. In front of it sat a man wrapped in a fur coat. K wondered if he too might be a supplicant but, as he got closer, he sensed he had something approaching a proprietorial air, albeit one of little power.

K stopped a few feet away and tried to adopt his most assertive tone. “Well,” he said, “This Mr Klamm’s room? 104 – I think so.”

The man nodded slowly.

“Well, my man,” K went on, rubbing his hands together in what he hoped was a masterful way, “Is he in?”

“He may be,” the man said.

“Surely you know?”

“It is not a question of whether I know, nor of whether he is in. I am the Doorkeeper.”

K thought about this for a moment. “Are you here even when Mr Klamm is not in?”

“I am always here.”

“If I wanted to see Mr Klamm, is this where I must wait?”

“Yes.”

“But you do not know if he is in nor, if he is, when he will come out?”

“I am the Doorkeeper,” the man replied with simple dignity. “You see, I am not without power, for no one may enter without my leave.”

“Even if Mr Klamm wishes it?”

“That remains to be seen.”

“I see,” K said, not seeing at all. “I shall wait for a while. My time is precious, but…”

The Doorkeeper gave a shrug that was neither dismissive not encouraging: he simply shrugged.

“Is there such a thing as a seat, eh? A chair, or something like that?”

The Doorkeeper pointed and K saw a stool pushed against the opposite wall. He moved it nearer the door and sat down. “Well, here we are. How long do you think I’ll have to wait, eh?”

The Doorkeeper gave another shrug.

For a while, K tried to keep up a desultory conversation but the Doorkeeper would not be drawn into any but the most taciturn remarks. As the evening began to set in, K found his chin slumping down to his chest and he fell into a fitful doze. He was awakened, by what he knew not, perhaps several hours later. The Doorkeeper was in the same position, as still and watchful as before.

“Goodness, I fell asleep,” K said unnecessarily. “How much longer, eh? It’s getting late, I think.” The Doorkeeper offered no opinion on either point. A couple of minutes later, the iron bell started to chime. “Nine o’clock already,” K said as the last peal faded away. There was a long silence.

K was starting to feel imprisoned by the Doorkeeper’s self-absorption. “Look here,” he said, fumbling in his pockets. “I’m a busy man. I can’t wait here all night for this gentleman Klamm, eh. Now – you seem like a good fellow. Here’s some gold – see!” He held four coins in his hand. He turned them so they glinted in the light of the dull lamp that hung over the doorway. “Here – take them. I just need to go in to see Klamm, just for two minutes. Everything can be explained in two minutes. Or I can write him a note, a quick note – if he’s not there. You see? Now – all I need is for you to open the door and let me in. Then I’ll be out of your way, and you can…” K’s words tailed off at this point. So that the Doorkeeper could do what? There seemed to be nothing that K’s presence was preventing him from doing.

The Doorkeeper reached forward and took the coins. “I’ll accept these so that you don’t think there’s anything you’ve failed to do,” he said. “However, I cannot promise anything.”

“So you will not promise let me in, after I have paid!”

“I did not ask for payment. All I can say is that if you are to enter, it will be by this door.”

K pondered the remark as if it were a riddle. “Is there another door?”

“Yes.”

“Which Mr Klamm uses?”

“Yes.”

“But you did not tell me that!”

“You did not ask.”

Tiring of this sophistry and annoyed, yet again, by his own misjudgements, K stalked away and eventually emerged into the dark courtyard. He turned up the collar of his coat and started to walk home.

The following morning on his way back in to town, K saw the Priest on the other side of the village square talking to a farmer. Although he had never cared for the Priest – and only a few months before they had had a bitter argument about a point of church doctrine which, on reflection, K was far from sure he himself really believed – K raised his arm in greeting. Both men turned away as if they had not seen him. The priest seemed particularly abashed. K went on his way disquieted, thinking of the Lawyer’s sudden change of mood two days before.

At ten o’clock, K was back in Room 102. After the usual preliminaries, The Sergeant, a large, florid man with epaulettes and crimson trousers who had so far taken no part in the proceedings, stepped forward. “Prisoner K,” he said in a loud voice, “be upstanding.”

K shuffled to his feet. He was a Prisoner now – Applicant, or Accused, no longer? How had this come about?

“It is the judgement of this court,” the Sergeant continued, “that the retrospective application reference 19/996554/HAU, on the site of the building known as the Kafkar Herrenhaus in the village of T– is refused. Moreover, because of the prisoner’s wilful refusal to demolish an illegal structure, the entirety of the aforesaid dwelling and its outbuildings are ordered to be demolished and all its contents removed and sold as chattels of the state and church. This process will begin immediately. The Prisoner is to be remanded in the cells until this is completed. Leave for appeal is not granted.”

For a moment K was unable to formulate his thoughts. All he possessed, as well as his unfinished life’s work, were in the Herrenhaus Kafcar. It was all he had ever known. And now…

“But I made no application!” he shouted. “You have been discussing something of which you don’t have the slightest understanding! What have I done wrong? There is no truth here! This is…”

“Silence!” the Sergeant shouted.

The President hurriedly struck the bell. “The meeting is concluded,” he said. “Lead the prisoner away.”

The Sergeant and Under-Sergeant moved towards K and grabbed him roughly, one at each arm.

“This is an outrage! I shall talk to Klamm…yes, Klamm, the great Klamm! I have already paid for my audience. Klamm will know what justice is. I demand to see Klamm now!”

For a moment, all the participants, who had been in the act of leaving the room, paused and turned to face him. Even the Sergeants slightly loosened their grip. For a moment, K thought that this might be a turning point in his case. Foolishly, he began to grin.

Wrapping his robes around him, the President walked slowly down the centre of the room until he stood a few feet from K. He smiled thinly, showing yellowing teeth, and sadly shook his head. “You fool,” he said. “You poor fool. Have you understood nothing? The court does not search for truth or provide justice: it follows process and delivers verdicts. As for Klamm, what do you know of him, mm? What?”

“Klamm is a great man. I will ask him…”

“Ask, then. Ask now. I am Klamm.”

At that point, K felt his legs crumple beneath him and he was dragged away to the cells.

Six days later, K was released. His steps automatically traced their way back to the village. On the way, he met various peasants going to work in the fields, men that he knew of old. Everyone turned their faces away from him as if fearful of even the slightest contact. Finally he reached his home.

Not a brick remained. The stable, the two outhouses, the greenhouse – and, of course, the glorious house itself – were all gone, not so much flattened, or razed, but carefully removed so that even the ground where once it had all stood seemed untouched. Amidst his shock and sorrow, he could do little more than remark on how total the work had been. He, and his entire life, had been excised from the world as if it had never been. His eyes blinking, he was forced to confront, and then almost admire, the majesty of the process which could accomplish this. His thoughts were otherwise turned to stone.

A rough fence, which he did not dare to cross, had been thrown around the property. At the far side, he could see the Priest supervising the loading of some final items onto a cart. He turned to face K and, unlike the day before, allowed his glance to lock onto K’s for a few moments: long enough for K to understand from where his doom had come. The Priest turned away, got in beside the driver and a few moments later had vanished down the track. K was left alone to survey the lone and level land.

After a while – it may have been two minutes or half an hour – K bestirred himself. He needed to go. Where? He had no idea. “Well,” he said out loud, “that’s that. Goodness me. What now? Well…”

His eyes briefly filled with tears: not so much for his loss but for the process of which he was wholly ignorant and which had defeated him in such an effective and implacable way. It was not the sorrow so much as the shame that now crippled his soul: and so he turned hopelessly away from this reminder of his failure, blinking and trembling as if this shame would forever outlive him.

Brian Quinn

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