I walk along the gravel path that divides the back lawn, neatly, like a hair parting. It has rained during the night; the grass to either side is damp, the air humid. Here and there are worms, evidence of the fertility of the soil, caught by the sun, half dead; flexible and pink, like lips.
I open the white picket gate and continue, past the front lawn and towards the front gate. In the driveway, one of the Guardians assigned to our household is washing the car. That must mean the Commander is in the house, in his own quarters, past the dining room and beyond, where he seems to stay most of the time.
The car is a very expensive one, a Whirlwind; better than the Chariot, much better than the chunky, practical Behemoth. It’s black, of course, the colour of prestige or a hearse, and long and sleek. The driver is going over it with a chamois, lovingly. This at least hasn’t changed, the way men caress good cars.
He’s wearing the uniform of the Guardians, but his cap is tilted at a jaunty angle and his sleeves are rolled to the elbow, showing his forearms, tanned but with a stipple of dark hairs. He has a cigarette stuck in the corner of his mouth, which shows that he too has something he can trade on the black market.
I know this man’s name: Nick. I know this because I’ve heard Rita and Cora talking about him, and once I heard the Commander speaking to him: Nick, I won’t be needing the car.
He lives here, in the household, over the garage. Low status: he hasn’t been issued a woman, not even one. He doesn’t rate: some defect, lack of connections. But he acts as if he doesn’t know this, or care. He’s too casual, he’s not servile enough. It may be stupidity, but I don’t think so. Smells fishy, they used to say; or, I smell a rat. Misfit as odour. Despite myself, I think of
how he might smell. Not fish or decaying rat: tanned skin, moist in the sun, filmed with smoke. I sigh, inhaling.
He looks at me, and sees me looking. He has a French face, lean, whimsical, all planes and angles, with creases around the mouth where he smiles. He takes a final puff of the cigarette, lets it drop to the driveway, and steps on it. He begins to whistle. Then he winks.
I drop my head and turn so that the white wings hide my face, and keep walking. He’s just taken a risk, but for what? What if I were to report him?
Perhaps he was merely being friendly. Perhaps he saw the look on my face and mistook it for something else. Really what I wanted was the cigarette.
Perhaps it was a test, to see what I would do.