For the generations that come after, Aunt Lydia said, it will be so much better. The women will live in harmony together, all in one family; you will be like daughters to them, and when the population level is up to scratch again we’ll no longer have to transfer you from one house to another because there will be enough to go round. There can be bonds of real affection, she said, blinking at us ingratiatingly, under such conditions. Women united for a common end! Helping one another in their daily chores as they walk the path of life together, each performing her appointed task. Why expect one woman to carry out all the functions necessary to the serene running of a household? It isn’t reasonable or humane. Your daughters will have greater freedom. We are working towards the goal of a little garden for each one, each one of you – the clasped hands again, the breathy voice – and that’s just one for instance. The raised finger, wagging at us. But we can’t be greedy pigs and demand too much before it’s ready, now can we?
The fact is that I’m his mistress. Men at the top have always had mistresses, why should things be any different now? The arrangements aren’t quite the same, granted. The mistress used to be kept in a minor house or apartment of her own, and now they’ve amalgamated things. But underneath it’s the same. More or less. Outside woman, they used to be called, in some countries. I am the outside woman. It’s my job to provide what is otherwise lacking. Even the Scrabble. It’s an absurd as well as an ignominious position.
Sometimes I think she knows. Sometimes I think they’re in collusion. Sometimes I think she put him up to it, and is laughing at me; as I laugh, from time to time and with irony, at myself. Let her take the weight, she can say to herself. Maybe she’s withdrawn from him, almost completely; maybe that’s her version of freedom.
But even so, and stupidly enough, I’m happier than I was before. It’s something to do, for one thing. Something to fill the time, at night, instead of sitting alone in my room. It’s something else to think about. I don’t love the Commander or anything like it, but he’s of interest to me, he occupies space, he is more than a shadow.
And I for him. To him I’m no longer merely a usable body. To him I’m not just a boat with no cargo, a chalice with no wine in it, an oven – to be crude – minus the bun. To him I am not merely empty.