Chapter no 10

The Handmaid's Tale

Sometimes I sing to myself, in my head; something lugubrious, mournful, presbyterian:

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound Could save a wretch like me,

Who once was lost, but now am found,

Was bound, but now am free.

I don’t know if the words are right. I can’t remember. Such songs are not sung any more in public, especially the ones that use words like free. They are considered too dangerous. They belong to outlawed sects.

I feel so lonely, babyI feel so lonely, baby,

I feel so lonely I could die.

This too is outlawed. I know it from an old cassette tape, of my mother’s; she had a scratchy and untrustworthy machine, too, that could still play such things. She used to put the tape on when her friends came over and they’d had a few drinks.

I don’t sing like this often. It makes my throat hurt.

There isn’t much music in this house, except what we hear on the TV. Sometimes Rita will hum, while kneading or peeling; a wordless humming, tuneless, unfathomable. And sometimes from the front sitting room there will be the thin sound of Serena’s voice, from a disc made long ago and played now with the volume low, so she

won’t be caught listening as she sits there knitting, remembering her own former and now amputated glory: Hallelujah.

It’s warm for this time of year. Houses like this heat up in the sun, there’s not enough insulation. Around me the air is stagnant, despite the little current, the breath coming in past the curtains. I’d like to be able to open the window as wide as it could go. Soon we’ll be allowed to change into the summer dresses.

The summer dresses are unpacked and hanging in the closet, two of them, pure cotton, which is better than synthetics like the cheaper ones, though even so, when it’s muggy, in July and August, you sweat inside them. No worry about sunburn though, said Aunt Lydia. The spectacles women used to make of themselves. Oiling themselves like roast meat on a spit, and bare backs and shoulders, on the street, in public, and legs, not even stockings on them, no wonder those things used to happen. Things, the word she used when whatever it stood for was too distasteful or filthy or horrible to pass her lips. A successful life for her was one that avoided things, excluded things. Such things do not happen to nice women. And not good for the complexion, not at all, wrinkle you up like a dried apple. But we weren’t supposed to care about our complexions any more, she’d forgotten that.

In the park, said Aunt Lydia, lying on blankets, men and women together sometimes, and at that she began to cry, standing up there in front of us, in full view.

I’m doing my best, she said. I’m trying to give you the best chance you can have. She blinked, the light was too strong for her, her mouth trembled, around her front teeth, teeth that stuck out a little and were long and yellowish, and I thought about the dead mice we would find on our doorstep, when we lived in a house, all three of us, four counting our cat, who was the one making these offerings.

Aunt Lydia pressed her hand over her mouth of a dead rodent. After a minute she took her hand away. I wanted to cry too because

she reminded me. If only he wouldn’t eat half of them first, I said to Luke.

Don’t think it’s easy for me either, said Aunt Lydia.

Moira, breezing into my room, dropping her denim jacket on the floor. Got any cigs, she said.

In my purse, I said. No matches though.

Moira rummages in my purse. You should throw out some of this junk, she says. I’m giving an underwhore party.

A what? I say. There’s no point trying to work, Moira won’t allow it, she’s like a cat that crawls onto the page when you’re trying to read.

You know, like Tupperware, only with underwear. Tarts’ stuff. Lace crotches, snap garters. Bras that push your tits up. She finds my lighter, lights the cigarette she’s extracted from my purse. Want one? Tosses the package, with great generosity considering they’re mine.

Thanks piles, I say sourly. You’re crazy. Where’d you get an idea like that?

Working my way through college, says Moira. I’ve got connections. Friend of my mother’s. It’s big in the suburbs, once they start getting age spots they figure they’ve got to beat the competition. The Pornomarts and what have you.

I’m laughing. She always made me laugh.

But here? I say. Who’ll come? Who needs it?

You’re never too young to learn, she says. Come on, it’ll be great.

We’ll all pee our pants laughing.

Is that how we lived then? But we lived as usual. Everyone does, most of the time. Whatever is going on is as usual. Even this is as usual, now.

We lived, as usual, by ignoring. Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance, you have to work at it.

Nothing changes instantaneously: in a gradually heating bathtub you’d be boiled to death before you knew it. There were stories in the newspapers, of course, corpses in ditches or the woods, bludgeoned to death or mutilated, interfered with as they used to say, but they were about other women, and the men who did such things were other men. None of them were the men we knew. The newspaper stories were like dreams to us, bad dreams dreamt by others. How awful, we would say, and they were, but they were awful without being believable. They were too melodramatic, they had a dimension that was not the dimension of our lives.

We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print. It gave us more freedom.

We lived in the gaps between the stories.

From below, from the driveway, comes the sound of the car being started. It’s quiet in this area, there isn’t a lot of tra c, you can hear things like that very clearly: car motors, lawn mowers, the clipping of a hedge, the slam of a door. You could hear a shout clearly, or a shot, if such noises were ever made here. Sometimes there are distant sirens.

I go to the window and sit on the window seat, which is too narrow for comfort. There’s a hard little cushion on it, with a petit-point cover: FAITH, in square print, surrounded by a wreath of lilies. FAITH is a faded blue, the leaves of the lilies a dingy green. This is a cushion once used elsewhere, worn but not enough to throw out. Somehow it’s been overlooked.

I can spend minutes, tens of minutes, running my eyes over the print: FAITH. It’s the only thing they’ve given me to read. If I were caught doing it, would it count? I didn’t put the cushion here myself.

The motor turns, and I lean forward, pulling the white curtain across my face, like a veil. It’s semi-sheer, I can see through it. If I press my forehead against the glass and look down, I can see the back half of the Whirlwind. Nobody is there, but as I watch I see Nick come around to the back door of the car, open it, stand stimy beside it. His cap is straight now and his sleeves rolled down and buttoned. I can’t see his face because I’m looking down on him.

Now the Commander is coming out. I glimpse him only for an instant, foreshortened, walking to the car. He doesn’t have his hat on, so it’s not a formal event he’s going to. His hair is grey. Silver, you might call it if you were being kind. I don’t feel like being kind. The one before this was bald, so I suppose he’s an improvement.

If I could spit, out the window, or throw something, the cushion for instance, I might be able to hit him.

Moira and I, with paper bags filled with water. Water bombs, they were called. Leaning out my dorm window, dropping them on the heads of the boys below. It was Moira’s idea. What were they trying to do? Climb a ladder, for something. For our underwear.

That dormitory had once been co-educational, there were still urinals in one of the washrooms on our floor. But by the time I’d got there they’d put the men and women back the way they were.

The Commander stoops, gets into the car, disappears, and Nick shuts the door. A moment later the car moves backwards, down the driveway and onto the street, and vanishes behind the hedge.

I ought to feel hatred for this man. I know I ought to feel it, but it isn’t what I do feel. What I feel is more complicated than that. I don’t know what to call it. It isn’t love.

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