I go out by the back door, into the garden, which is large and tidy: a lawn in the middle, a willow, weeping catkins; around the edges, the flower borders, in which the daffodils are now fading and the tulips are opening their cups, spilling out colour. The tulips are red, a darker crimson towards the stem, as if they had been cut and are beginning to heal there.
This garden is the domain of the Commander’s Wife. Looking out through my shatterproof window I’ve often seen her in it, her knees on a cushion, a light blue veil thrown over her wide gardening hat, a basket at her side with shears in it and pieces of string for tying the flowers into place. A Guardian detailed to the Commander does the heavy digging; the Commander’s Wife directs, pointing with her stick. Many of the Wives have such gardens, it’s something for them to order and maintain and care for.
I once had a garden. I can remember the smell of the turned earth, the plump shapes of bulbs held in the hands, fullness, the dry rustle of seeds through the fingers. Time could pass more swiftly that way. Sometimes the Commander’s Wife has a chair brought out, and just sits in it, in her garden. From a distance it looks like peace.
She isn’t here now, and I start to wonder where she is: I don’t like to come upon the Commander’s Wife unexpectedly. Perhaps she’s sewing, in the sitting room, with her left foot on the footstool, because of her arthritis. Or knitting scarves, for the Angels at the front lines. I can hardly believe the Angels have a need for such scarves; anyway, the ones made by the Commander’s Wife are too elaborate. She doesn’t bother with the cross-and-star pattern used by many of the other Wives, it’s not a challenge. Fir trees march along
the ends of her scarves, or eagles, or stiff humanoid figures, boy and girl, boy and girl. They aren’t scarves for grown men but for children.
Sometimes I think these scarves aren’t sent to the Angels at all, but unravelled and turned back into balls of yarn, to be knitted again in their turn. Maybe it’s just something to keep the Wives busy, to give them a sense of purpose. But I envy the Commander’s Wife her knitting. It’s good to have small goals that can be easily attained.
What does she envy me?
She doesn’t speak to me, unless she can’t avoid it. I am a reproach to her; and a necessity.
We stood face to face for the first time five weeks ago, when I arrived at this posting. The Guardian from the previous posting brought me to the front door. On first days we are permitted front doors, but after that we’re supposed to use the back. Things haven’t settled down, it’s too soon, everyone is unsure about our exact status. After a while it will be either all front doors or all back.
Aunt Lydia said she was lobbying for the front. Yours is a position of honour, she said.
The Guardian rang the doorbell for me, but before there was time for someone to hear and walk quickly to answer, the door opened inwards. She must have been waiting behind it. I was expecting a Martha, but it was her instead, in her long powder-blue robe, unmistakeable.
So, you’re the new one, she said. She didn’t step aside to let me in, she just stood there in the doorway, blocking the entrance. She wanted me to feel that I could not come into the house unless she said so. There is push and shove, these days, over such toeholds.
Yes, I said.
Leave it on the porch. She said this to the Guardian, who was carrying my bag. The bag was red vinyl and not large. There was
another bag, with the winter cloak and heavier dresses, but that would be coming later.
The Guardian set down the bag and saluted her. Then I could hear his footsteps behind me, going back down the walk, and the click of the front gate, and I felt as if a protective arm were being withdrawn. The threshold of a new house is a lonely place.
She waited until the car started up and pulled away. I wasn’t looking at her face, but at the part of her I could see with my head lowered: her blue waist, thickened, her left hand on the ivory head of her cane, the large diamonds on the ring finger, which must once have been fine and was still finely kept, the fingernail at the end of the knuckly finger filed to a gentle curving point. It was like an ironic smile, on that finger; like something mocking her.
You might as well come in, she said. She turned her back on me and limped down the hall. Shut the door behind you.
I lifted the red bag inside, as she’d no doubt intended, then closed the door. I didn’t say anything to her. Aunt Lydia said it was best not to speak unless they asked you a direct question. Try to think of it from their point of view, she said, her hands clasped and wrung together, her nervous pleading smile. It isn’t easy for them.
In here, said the Commander’s Wife. When I went into the sitting room she was already in her chair, her left foot on the footstool, with its petit-point cushion, roses in a basket. Her knitting was on the floor beside the chair, the needles stuck through it.
I stood in front of her, hands folded. So, she said. She had a cigarette, and she put it between her lips and gripped it there while she lit it. Her lips were thin, held that way, with the small vertical lines around them you used to see in advertisements for lip cosmetics. The lighter was ivory-coloured. The cigarettes must have come from the black market, I thought, and this gave me hope. Even now that there is no real money any more, there’s still a black market. There’s always a black market, there’s always something that can be exchanged. She then was a woman who might bend the rules. But what did I have, to trade?
I looked at the cigarette with longing. For me, like liquor and coffee, cigarettes are forbidden.
So old what’s-his-face didn’t work out, she said. No, Ma’am, I said.
She gave what might have been a laugh, then coughed. Tough luck on him, she said. This is your second, isn’t it?
Third, Ma’am, I said.
Not so good for you either, she said. There was another coughing laugh. You can sit down. I don’t make a practice of it, but just this time.
I did sit, on the edge of one of the stiff-backed chairs. I didn’t want to stare around the room, I didn’t want to appear inattentive to her; so the marble mantelpiece to my right and the mirror over it and the bunches of flowers were just shadows, then, at the edges of my eyes. Later I would have more than enough time to take them in.
Now her face was on a level with mine. I thought I recognized her; or at least there was something familiar about her. A little of her hair was showing, from under her veil. It was still blonde. I thought then that maybe she bleached it, that hair dye was something else she could get through the black market, but I know now that it really is blonde. Her eyebrows were plucked into thin arched lines, which gave her a permanent look of surprise, or outrage, or inquisitiveness, such as you might see on a startled child, but below them her eyelids were tired-looking. Not so her eyes, which were the flat hostile blue of a midsummer sky in bright sunlight, a blue that shuts you out. Her nose must once have been what was called cute but now was too small for her face. Her face was not fat but it was large. Two lines led downwards from the corners of her mouth; between them was her chin, clenched like a fist.
I want to see as little of you as possible, she said. I expect you feel the same way about me.
I didn’t answer, as a yes would have been insulting, a no contradictory.
I know you aren’t stupid, she went on. She inhaled, blew out the smoke. I’ve read your file. As far as I’m concerned, this is like a business transaction. But if I get trouble, I’ll give trouble back. You understand?
Yes, Ma’am, I said.
Don’t call me Ma’am, she said irritably. You’re not a Martha.
I didn’t ask what I was supposed to call her, because I could see that she hoped I would never have the occasion to call her anything at all. I was disappointed. I wanted, then, to turn her into an older sister, a motherly figure, someone who would understand and protect me. The Wife in my posting before this had spent most of her time in her bedroom; the Marthas said she drank. I wanted this one to be different. I wanted to think I would have liked her, in another time and place, another life. But I could see already that I wouldn’t have liked her, nor she me.
She put her cigarette out, half-smoked, in a little scrolled ashtray on the lamp table beside her. She did this decisively, one jab and one grind, not the series of genteel taps favoured by many of the Wives.
As for my husband, she said, he’s just that. My husband. I want that to be perfectly clear. Till death do us part. It’s final.
Yes, Ma’am, I said again, forgetting. They used to have dolls, for little girls, that would talk if you pulled a string at the back; I thought I was sounding like that, voice of a monotone, voice of a doll. She probably longed to slap my face. They can hit us, there’s Scriptural precedent. But not with any implement. Only with their hands.
It’s one of the things we fought for, said the Commander’s Wife, and suddenly she wasn’t looking at me, she was looking down at her knuckled, diamond-studded hands, and I knew where I’d seen her before.
The first time was on television, when I was eight or nine. It was when my mother was sleeping in, on Sunday mornings, and I would get up early and go to the television set in my mother’s study and flip through the channels, looking for cartoons. Sometimes when I couldn’t find any I would watch the Growing Souls Gospel Hour, where they would tell Bible stories for children and sing hymns. One of the women was called Serena Joy. She was the lead soprano. She was ash-blonde, petite, with a snub nose and huge blue eyes which she’d turn upwards during hymns. She could smile and cry at the same time, one tear or two sliding gracefully down her cheek, as if on cue, as her voice lifted through its highest notes, tremulous, effortless. It was after that she went on to other things.
The woman sitting in front of me was Serena Joy. Or had been, once. So it was worse than I thought.