I walk with Ofglen along the summer street. It’s warm, humid; this would have been sundress-and-sandals weather, once. In each of our baskets are strawberries – the strawberries are in season now, so we’ll eat them and eat them until we’re sick of them – and some wrapped fish. We got the fish at Loaves and Fishes, with its wooden sign, a fish with a smile and eyelashes. It doesn’t sell loaves though. Most households bake their own, though you can get dried-up rolls and wizened doughnuts at Daily Bread, if you run short. Loaves and Fishes is hardly ever open. Why bother opening when there’s nothing to sell? The sea fisheries were defunct several years ago; the few fish they have now are from fish farms, and taste muddy. The news says the coastal areas are being “rested.” Sole, I remember, and haddock, swordfish, scallops, tuna; lobsters, stuffed and baked, salmon, pink and fat, grilled in steaks. Could they all be extinct, like the whales? I’ve heard that rumour, passed on to me in soundless words, the lips hardly moving, as we stood in line outside, waiting for the store to open, lured by the picture of succulent white fillets in the window. They put the picture in the window when they have something, take it away when they don’t. Sign language.
Ofglen and I walk slowly today; we are hot in our long dresses, wet under the arms, tired. At least in this heat we don’t wear gloves. There used to be an ice-cream store, somewhere in this block. I can’t remember the name. Things can change so quickly, buildings can be torn down or turned into something else, it’s hard to keep them straight in your mind the way they used to be. You could get double scoops, and if you wanted they would put chocolate sprinkles on the top. These had the name of a man. Johnnies? Jackies? I can’t remember.
We would go there, when she was little, and I’d hold her up so she could see through the glass side of the counter, where the vats of ice cream were on display, coloured so delicately, pale orange, pale green, pale pink, and I’d read the names to her so she could choose. She wouldn’t choose by the name, though, but by the colour. Her dresses and overalls were those colours too. Ice cream pastels.
Jimmies, that was the name.
Ofglen and I are more comfortable with one another now, we’re used to each other. Siamese twins. We don’t bother much with the formalities any more when we greet each other; we smile and move off, in tandem, travelling smoothly along our daily track. Now and again we vary the route; there’s nothing against it, as long as we stay within the barriers. A rat in a maze is free to go anywhere, as long as it stays inside the maze.
We’ve been to the stores already, and the church; now we’re at the Wall. Nothing on it today, they don’t leave the bodies hanging as long in summer as they do in winter, because of the flies and the smell. This was once the land of air sprays, Pine and Floral, and people retain the taste; especially the Commanders, who preach purity in all things.
“You have everything on your list?” Ofglen says to me now, though she knows I do. Our lists are never long. She’s given up some of her passivity lately, some of her melancholy. Often she speaks to me first.
“Yes,” I say.
“Let’s go around,” she says. She means down, towards the river.
We haven’t been that way for a while.
“Fine,” I say. I don’t turn at once, though, but remain standing where I am, taking a last look at the Wall. There are the red bricks, there are the searchlights, there’s the barbed wire, there are the hooks. Somehow the Wall is even more foreboding when it’s empty
like this. When there’s someone hanging on it at least you know the worst. But vacant, it is also potential, like a storm approaching. When I can see the bodies, the actual bodies, when I can guess from the sizes and shapes that none of them is Luke, I can believe also that he is still alive.
I don’t know why I expect him to appear on this wall. There are hundreds of other places they could have killed him. But I can’t shake the idea that he’s in there, at this moment, behind the blank red bricks.
I try to imagine which building he’s in. I can remember where the buildings are, inside the Wall; we used to be able to walk freely there, when it was a university. We still go in there once in a while, for Women’s Salvagings. Most of the buildings are red brick too; some have arched doorways, a Romanesque effect, from the nineteenth century. We aren’t allowed inside the buildings any more; but who would want to go in? Those buildings belong to the Eyes.
Maybe he’s in the Library. Somewhere in the vaults. The stacks. The Library is like a temple. There’s a long flight of white steps,
leading to the rank of doors. Then, inside, another white staircase
going up. To either side of it, on the wall, there are angels. Also there are men fighting, or about to fight, looking clean and noble, not dirty and blood-stained and smelly the way they must have looked. Victory is on one side of the inner doorway, leading them on, and Death is on the other. It’s a mural in honour of some war or other. The men on the side of Death are still alive. They’re going to Heaven. Death is a beautiful woman, with wings and one breast almost bare; or is that Victory? I can’t remember.
They won’t have destroyed that.
We turn our backs to the Wall, head left. Here there are several empty storefronts, their glass windows scrawled with soap. I try to remember what was sold in them, once. Cosmetics? Jewellery? Most
of the stores carrying things for men are still open; it’s just the ones dealing in what they call vanities that have been shut down.
At the corner is the store known as Soul Scrolls. It’s a franchise: there are Soul Scrolls in every city centre, in every suburb, or so they say. It must make a lot of profit.
The window of Soul Scrolls is shatterproof. Behind it are printout machines, row on row of them; these machines are known as Holy Rollers, but only among us, it’s a disrespectful nickname. What the machines print is prayers, roll upon roll, prayers going out endlessly. They’re ordered by Compuphone, I’ve overheard the Commander’s Wife doing it. Ordering prayers from Soul Scrolls is supposed to be a sign of piety and faithfulness to the regime, so of course the Commanders’ Wives do it a lot. It helps their husbands’ careers.
There are five different prayers: for health, wealth, a death, a birth, a sin. You pick the one you want, punch in the number, then punch in your own number so your account will be debited, and punch in the number of times you want the prayer repeated.
The machines talk as they print out the prayers; if you like, you can go inside and listen to them, the toneless metallic voices repeating the same thing over and over. Once the prayers have been printed out and said, the paper rolls back through another slot and is recycled into fresh paper again. There are no people inside the building: the machines run by themselves. You can’t hear the voices from outside; only a murmur, a hum, like a devout crowd, on its knees. Each machine has an eye painted in gold on the side, flanked by two small golden wings.
I try to remember what this place sold when it was a store, before it was turned into Soul Scrolls. I think it was lingerie. Pink and silver boxes, coloured pantyhose, brassieres with lace, silk scarves? Something lost.
Ofglen and I stand outside Soul Scrolls, looking through the shatterproof windows, watching the prayers well out from the machines and disappear again through the slot, back to the realm of
the unsaid. Now I shift my gaze. What I see is not the machines, but Ofglen, reflected in the glass of the window. She’s looking straight at me.
We can see into each other’s eyes. This is the first time I’ve ever seen Ofglen’s eyes, directly, steadily, not aslant. Her face is oval pink, plump but not fat, her eyes roundish.
She holds my stare in the glass, level, unwavering. Now it’s hard to look away. There’s a shock in this seeing; it’s like seeing somebody naked, for the first time. There is risk, suddenly, in the air between us, where there was none before. Even this meeting of eyes holds danger. Though there’s nobody near.
At last Ofglen speaks. “Do you think God listens,” she says, “to these machines?” She is whispering: our habit at the Centre.
In the past this would have been a trivial enough remark, a kind of scholarly speculation. Right now it’s treason.
I could scream. I could run away. I could turn from her silently, to show her I won’t tolerate this kind of talk in my presence. Subversion, sedition, blasphemy, heresy, all rolled into one.
I steel myself. “No,” I say.
She lets out her breath, in a long sigh of relief. We have crossed the invisible line together. “Neither do I,” she says.
“Though I suppose it’s faith, of a kind,” I say. “Like Tibetan prayer wheels.”
“What are those?” she asks.
“I only read about them,” I say. “They were moved around by the wind. They’re all gone now.”
“Like everything,” she says. Only now do we stop looking at one another.
“Is it safe here?” I whisper.
“I figure it’s the safest place,” she says. “We look like we’re praying, is all.”
“What about them?”
“Them?” she says, still whispering. “You’re always safest out of doors, no mikes, and why would they put one here? They’d think nobody would dare. But we’ve stayed long enough. There’s no sense in being late getting back.” We turn away together. “Keep your head down as we walk,” she says, “and lean just a little towards me. That way I can hear you better. Don’t talk when there’s anyone coming.”
We walk, heads bent as usual. I’m so excited I can hardly breathe, but I keep a steady pace. Now more than ever I must avoid drawing attention to myself.
“I thought you were a true believer,” Ofglen says. “I thought you were,” I say.
“You were always so stinking pious.”
“So were you,” I reply. I want to laugh, shout, hug her. “You can join us,” she says.
“Us?” I say. There is an us then, there’s a we. I knew it. “You didn’t think I was the only one,” she says.
I didn’t think that. It occurs to me that she may be a spy, a plant, set to trap me; such is the soil in which we grow. But I can’t believe it; hope is rising in me, like sap in a tree. Blood in a wound. We have made an opening.
I want to ask her if she’s seen Moira, if anyone can find out what’s happened, to Luke, to my child, my mother even, but there’s not much time; too soon we’re approaching the corner of the main street, the one before the first barrier. There will be too many people.
“Don’t say a word,” Ofglen warns me, though she doesn’t need to. “In anyway.”
“Of course I won’t,” I say. Who could I tell?
We walk the main street in silence, past Lilies, past All Flesh. There are more people on the sidewalks this afternoon than usual: the warm weather must have brought them out. Women, in green, blue,
red, stripes; men too, some in uniform, some only in civilian suits. The sun is free, it is still there to be enjoyed. Though no one bathes in it any more, not in public.
There are more cars too, Whirlwinds with their chauffeurs and their cushioned occupants, lesser cars driven by lesser men.
Something is happening: there’s a commotion, a flurry among the shoals of cars. Some are pulling over to the side, as if to get out of the way. I look up quickly: it’s a black van, with the white-winged eye on the side. It doesn’t have the siren on, but the other cars avoid it anyway. It cruises slowly along the street, as if looking for something: shark on the prowl.
I freeze, cold travels through me, down to my feet. There must have been microphones, they’ve heard us after all.
Ofglen, under cover of her sleeve, grips my elbow. “Keep moving,” she whispers. “Pretend not to see.”
But I can’t help seeing. Right in front of us the van pulls up. Two Eyes, in grey suits, leap from the opening double doors at the back. They grab a man who is walking along, a man with a briefcase, an ordinary-looking man, slam him back against the black side of the van. He’s there a moment, splayed out against the metal as if stuck to it; then one of the Eyes moves in on him, does something sharp and brutal that doubles him over, into a limp cloth bundle. They pick him up and heave him into the back of the van like a sack of mail. Then they are inside also and the doors are closed and the van moves on.
It’s over, in seconds, and the tra c on the street resumes as if nothing has happened.
What I feel is relief. It wasn’t me.