The woman wiped sweat from her face as the door banged shut behind her. Inside the white-washed room, nine men, women and a child were sitting on two parallel rows of chairs. A tenth chair was empty, while at the opposite end a door with a brass doorknob was closed shut.
"I was out jogging, but at the traffic lights I must have taken a wrong turn," the woman said, pointing to her trainers and jogging shorts.
The group applauded her and pointed at the empty chair.
"Now we are ten, the Government is going to stop its experiments," a thin man wearing a black suit and a pair of spectacles said, sitting on the fourth chair.
"Four has got the wrong end of the stick as usual. Now we are ten, I will be forced to sit on Six's knee," a man said from the fifth chair, propping himself on top of the man next to him.
"Now we are ten, Five can start going to the gym," Six winced as his chair sank further into the floor.
"Now we are ten, the fund-raising concert for the new multi-faith temple can begin," a man with a dog collar around his neck said from the seventh chair.
"Seven is forgetting who arrived first. Now we are ten, the Out Patients bus will arrive on time and I'll be home for sausages and beans," an elderly woman replied from the first chair with a click of knitting needles.
"Sausages and beans are for sissies. Now we are ten, Mummy will cook me cheesy chips for tea," a boy said, waving a model aeroplane in the air.
"Two needs to find his manners. Then he could become a respectable person like Eight. Such a polite girl will net a wonderful husband," One winked at a girl hunched on the eight chair wearing khaki army fatigues and reading a book.
Eight tutted and turned a page.
"Now we are ten, we can cherish silence instead of verbal diarrhoea," a voice grumbled from underneath the third chair.
"Never mind Three's complaining. Ten needs to make herself at home," One said to the woman with a wave of a knitting needle.
Ten brushed down the top of the empty chair and perched on its seat. "Excuse my manners, but doesn't anybody have a name?" she asked.
"There isn't time for names. The concert is going to begin when the Rabbi arrives. Then we can settle down to a soothing spot of Bach," Seven said. Reaching into his pocket, he took out a silver flask, took a sip and sighed.
"Concerts have nothing to do with why we are waiting. I understand now why we are avoiding the niceties," Ten beamed.
"At last, someone else who understands the obvious," Three yawned from underneath his chair.
"We're in the Returns department at the shopping centre and have been given numbers for the queue. I always said my trainers were faulty. The soles leak in the rain," Ten said.
With a groan, Three turned on his side and went back to sleep.
"If no one's going to be more sociable, I have to collect the girls from play group. The trainers can wait for another day. When you remember your names, let's keep in touch on Facebook," Ten continued, standing up.
"Kindly sit down, my child. The concert's about to begin," Seven said. Reaching for Ten's arm, he pushed her back down to her seat.
"I happen to be thirty-three and a mother of two," Ten replied, removing his hand. "If I can't collect the girls, I'll be in more trouble. The other mothers gave my filthy looks when I forgot the class birthday cakes last week," she said, collapsing into tears.
Two ran up to Ten's chair as a wail of sobbing filled the room. With a sniff, she took his plane.
"I bet you give wicked presents at birthdays," Two said.
Her sobbing doubling, Ten returned the plane and buried her face in her hands.
"Have a tissue dear. You'll get used to the waiting. Since the cut backs, the buses have never arrived on time," One said.
"No disrespect to Ten, but life was perfect before she arrived," Nine said.
"Charming," Ten said from between her fingers.
"Ten is such an inconvenient number. Its double digits make us too constrained," Nine continued, sweeping his arm around the room. "With ten of us, we will bustle along like peas in the pod."
"Forgive Nine's delirium. He's still learning," Four said.
"You're only dismissing my concerns because you want to be in charge. Anyone would think our group is all about you. It's time to teach you a lesson," Nine said. Standing up, he braced his hands in front of him like a boxer.
"Nine deserves to be subdivided into more manageable pieces," Four replied. With a scrape of his chair, he raised his fists and began to dance around Nine in a circle.
"We're going to have a fight. I'm betting Nine will lose. He's fatter than Four," Two exclaimed, clapping his hands.
"We need to have hope instead of fighting each other," Seven said, placing himself between Four and Nine.
"Forget hope. Someone should open the second door," One replied with another click of her knitting needles.
In unison, the group looked at the closed door at the end of the room. It stared back at them, its door knob gleaming.
"We are fooling ourselves if we try again unprepared. Haven't we learned by now? You even tried the first door, but all we got was Nine," Four asked.
The group looked at each door in silence.
"Learned what? Anyone can open a door," Ten asked.
"That life is about finding glue for my wings," Two said, inspecting his plane.
"Or running out of wool," One added, holding up half a scarf.
"None of you are making sense. I'm obviously dreaming," Ten replied. "White-washed walls are so yesterday for a good night's sleep. I'm going to change the scenery."
"If you want to be useful, help us redecorate the temple. We're short of volunteers and I can offer you tea and biscuits. But no travel expenses. We're a charity," Seven said, straightening his dog collar.
Ten squeezed her eyes shut and began to wave her head from side to side with her mouth wide open.
"Ten's being a tadpole," Two said.
"Or a goldfish," Four said.
"Save me from temptation," Seven said, taking a sip from his flask.
"Temptation is what I'm wanting," Five replied, digging Six in his ribs.
"I can't hear you. Seagulls in Brighton are too noisy for chit-chat," Ten said, covering her ears. "The pebbles are fantastic for my bunions. I might pop into the sea for a swim after I've eaten my candy floss from the pier. My therapist is right. I have been working so terribly hard," she said.
"I just love the foreign language students at Brighton. They are so skilled at listening," Five said. Dragging Six upright, he then started unbuckling his trousers.
"There are children present," Seven said, covering Two's eyes.
"Two can play with his aeroplane. I'm going commando with Ten on the beach. Vitamin D is fantastic for the cheeks," Five replied.
As his trousers dropped to the floor, the group remained sitting on their chairs and looked at his bright pink knees trembling in front of them.
"I'm not suggesting an orgy. I have a civil partner, most of the time. You people lack imagination," Five said. Pulling his trousers up, he returned to sit on Six's knee.
"Sun's overcast. I'm going sightseeing in The Lanes before I catch the train back to London," Ten announced.
"The Government's been interfering with your brain. You're hallucinating. If you came back into the room you would feel saner," Four said.
"I'm giving away prizes for irony," Ten sniffed, opening her eyes.
"If you want to get away, absolutely and totally, there is only option left for us to consider. Anything else is useless," Four continued. polishing his spectacles with his tie.
"Trust in a higher power," Seven said.
"Poppycock. Trust in getting a bus pass," One replied, inspecting a stitch.
"If you want to ignore me, I'll leave the room by myself. But I'm prepared to share my secret if you'll help me defeat the Government in return," Four said.
The group glanced at each other and shrugged their shoulders.
"I'm listening, but only to get away from Five," Six replied, shifting his weight.
"We will need protection to get through the door," Four said.
"You said that before and we got nowhere," Seven replied.
"That's because I was testing my hypothesis. You have to be sure you are right before you commit your resources," Four replied.
"I've got plenty of protection exactly where I like it," Five said, pinching Six's cheek.
"You have to change the terms of reference if you want to beat the Government. We were too weak last time and they overwhelmed us," Four said.
Eight looked up from her book and raised an eyebrow.
"You must be reading my mind," Four said.
"Don't ask me to start any battles. I'm only a chef. My exam next week is about making pastries for the Officers' Mess," Eight said, holding up her book.
"Eight's being too modest. I know you're Special Forces. The Government made me telepathic as a by-product of their probe insertions," Four said, tapping his nose.
"I'm only special with éclairs," Eight replied, returning to her reading.
"But Eight is only a one. If we are going to stand a chance, Four needs to invent an army. His ego is large enough. Perhaps he should replicate himself," Nine said.
"Don't make insinuations about being on your own. Eight needs a weapon, not useless comments from the multiples," One said. With a squeak, One stood up and handed her knitting needles to Eight.
"You might have given me hints for making choux pastry instead," Eight said, balancing the needles on top of her book.
"That's the spirit. You can kill with a single stroke to the heart. I want to see the surprise on the Government's faces when you pounce on them," Four said.
"Some of us are making a power grab," Nine said, folding his arms.
"Some of us are welcome," Seven said, giving himself a top-up from his flask.
Dragging Eight up from her chair, Nine pushed her towards the door while the others crept behind her.
"You're stamping on my head," Three moaned from the floor. "But I'll join your errand for a consideration," he said, eyeing Seven.
"It's not an errand. We're escaping," Four replied.
"Whatever makes you happy," Three said.
Grabbing Seven's flask, he took a single, long gulp. When he handed it back, Seven turned the flask upside down and grimaced.
"I'm only acting under coercion," Eight said, holding out a knitting needle. With her right hand, she grasped the brass door knob.
"Be ready for surprised civil servants. They're probably not even getting overtime," Four said.
"I'd be a millionaire if my husband paid me overtime for housework," Ten grumbled.
As Eight opened the door, the group peered across her shoulders through the frame.
"Geronimo," Three said with a wobble.
Beyond the door a white-washed room was waiting for them. Eleven doors faced each other in two parallel rows and a door was closed shut on the opposite wall.