Once upon a time, says Chris Addison, there was a simple man who was given a simple job to do. Little did he know what lay in store for him …

The grey-faced mandarin smiled a sickly smile as he opened a door. Proudly marked on it in gold lettering, were the words: “Buckets and Mops (Non-Squeegee Only).” These had been hastily crossed out in magic marker. Underneath was scrawled: “Chief Construction Officer”.

“This, sir, is your office,” said the mandarin. “Do mind the puddle on the way in. It’s a little annoying at first, but most of our tsars come to see them as a character feature.”

“Most of our tsars?” said the chief construction officer quizzically, lifting a Church’s brogue out of the cloudy slick.

“Oh yes, sir,” said the mandarin enthusiastically. “All our tsars are along this corridor. We call it the Winter Palace. The health tsar’s in the old paper towels room, the education tsar’s squeezed in next to the emergency generator and the drugs tsar is in the cupboard where we keep the cleaning fluid. You’ll know her when you see her – she always smells of lemons. There used to be an environment tsar but he turned the light on while standing in his water feature. There’s a health and safety tsar in his room now.”

The CCO looked about the dank room at the metal shelves with mop-shaped rust stains, the trestle table with an in-tray shoved haphazardly on it and the old Bakelite phone, whose twisted, severed cord ran off into another puddle. He turned to the mandarin.

“Listen, ah …”

“Goyt, sir.”

“Listen, Goyt. I’m beginning to sense that the government isn’t all that committed to this enterprise.”

“Good Lord, sir,” said the mandarin, aghast. “Whatever makes you say that?”

“Little things. Being given a visitor’s pass at reception was when I had the first inkling.”

Goyt waved his hand in what might have been a dismissive manner or simply an attempt to get rid of the smell. “That’s just a temporary measure,” he said.

“Temporary until when?” asked the CCO with deep scepticism.

The drugs tsar is in the cupboard where we keep the cleaning fluid. You’ll know her when you see her – she always smells of lemon

“Until they fire you,” said Goyt.

“Fire me?” exclaimed the CCO. “Why would they fire me?”

“What’s the good of having a tsar if you can’t fire him?” asked Goyt, decidedly rhetorically.

“And on what grounds might they do that?” said the CCO, unable to keep a note of indignation from his voice.

“Lack of commitment to the role,” said Goyt matter-of-factly. “The usual.”

“They’ll have a hard time proving that.”

“I shouldn’t think so,” sniffed Goyt. “Look at the state you keep your office in.”

The CCO looked at him for a moment. “Very well,” he said. “We had better get started then. I want to see every member of the government responsible for some aspect of the construction industry in this office at three o’clock.”

The mandarin shook his head and noisily sucked in air, like a car mechanic who’s been asked to perform a relatively simple repair at a reasonable price.

“Problems, Goyt?”

“Well, sir, it’s not the biggest of offices, is it? I’m not sure they’ll all fit in. In any case, the minister for bricks and the mortar secretary won’t be in the same room.”

The CCO looked puzzled. “The minister …?”

The minister for bricks is a nightmare at these meetings. He just sits in the corner bitching with the junior moat secretary.

“… for bricks, sir,” said the mandarin. “He’s had a lot on his plate since they extended his portfolio to breezeblocks. He’s a nightmare at these meetings. He just sits in the corner bitching with the junior moat secretary.”

“Wait – why do we have a junior moat secretary?” asked the CCO.

“I know, I know,” said the mandarin, rolling his eyes. “It’s so much more civil engineering than construction.”

“Why on earth,” asked the CCO, becoming a little animated, “do we have this absurd number of departments?”

“Cutbacks, sir,” said the mandarin, sadly. “It’s meant an awful lot of mergers.”

From the corner of the room opposite the trestle table desk came a cough. The CCO started and looked around to see two middle-aged men in suits sitting on folding chairs. “Good Lord!” he said.

“Apologies, sir,” said Goyt stepping towards them. “I meant to tell you these gentlemen are waiting to see you.”

“I can see that, Goyt. Who are they?”

“The minister for elbows and the minister for arses, sir.”

“And which,” asked the CCO, wearily, “is which?”

The mandarin considered them for a second. “I really don’t know, sir,” he said.

The CCO nodded sadly. “Of course you don’t,” he said.