I find it hard to believe in these whisperings, these revelations, though I always do at the time. Afterwards though they seem improbable, childish even, like something you’d do for fun; like a girls’ club, like secrets at school. Or like the spy novels I used to read, on weekends, when I should have been finishing my homework, or like late-night television. Passwords, things that cannot be told, people with secret identities, dark linkages: this does not seem as if it ought to be the true shape of the world. But that is my own illusion, a hangover from a version of reality I learned in the former time.
And networks. Networking, one of my mother’s old phrases, musty slang of yesteryear. Even in her sixties she still did something she called that, though as far as I could see all it meant was having lunch with some other woman.
I leave Ofglen at the corner. “I’ll see you later,” she says. She glides away along the sidewalk and I go up the walk towards the house. There’s Nick, hat askew; today he doesn’t even look at me. He must have been waiting around for me though, to deliver his silent message, because as soon as he knows I’ve seen him he gives the Whirlwind one last swipe with the chamois and walks briskly off towards the garage door.
I walk along the gravel, between the slabs of evergreen lawn. Serena Joy is sitting under the willow tree, in her chair, cane propped at her elbow. Her dress is crisp cool cotton. For her it’s blue, watercolour, not this red of mine that sucks in heat and blazes with it at the same time. Her profile’s towards me, she’s knitting. How can she bear to touch the wool, in this heat? But possibly her skin’s gone numb; possibly she feels nothing, like one formerly scalded.
I lower my eyes to the path, glide by her, hoping to be invisible, knowing I’ll be ignored. But not this time.
“Offred,” she says.
I pause, uncertain.
I turn towards her my blinkered sight.
“Come over here. I want you.”
I walk over the grass and stand before her, looking down.
“You can sit,” she says. “Here, take the cushion. I need you to hold this wool.” She’s got a cigarette, the ashtray’s on the lawn beside her, and a cup of something, tea or coffee. “It’s too damn close in there. You need a little air,” she says. I sit, putting down my basket, strawberries again, chicken again, and I note the swear word: something new. She fits the skein of wool over my two outstretched hands, starts winding. I am leashed, it looks like, manacled; cob- webbed, that’s closer. The wool is grey and has absorbed moisture from the air, it’s like a wetted baby blanket and smells faintly of damp sheep. At least my hands will get lanolined.
Serena winds, the cigarette held in the corner of her mouth smouldering, sending out tempting smoke. She winds slowly and with difficulty because of her gradually crippling hands, but with determination. Perhaps the knitting, for her, involves a kind of willpower; maybe it even hurts. Maybe it’s been medically prescribed: ten rows a day of plain, ten of purl. Though she must do more than that. I see those evergreen trees and geometric boys and girls in a different light: evidence of her stubbornness, and not altogether despicable.
My mother did not knit or anything like that. But whenever she would bring things back from the cleaner’s, her good blouses, winter coats, she’d save up the safety pins and make them into a chain. Then she’d pin the chain somewhere – her bed, the pillow, a chair-back, the oven mitt in the kitchen – so she wouldn’t lose them. Then she’d forget about them. I would come upon them, here and there in the house, the houses; tracks of her presence, remnants of some lost intention, like signs on a road that turns out to lead nowhere. Throwbacks to domesticity.
“Well then,” Serena says. She stops winding, leaving me with my hands still garlanded with animal hair, and takes the cigarette end from her mouth to butt it out. “Nothing yet?”
I know what she’s talking about. There are not that many subjects that could be spoken about, between us; there’s not much common ground, except this one mysterious and chancy thing.
“No,” I say. “Nothing.”
“Too bad,” she says. It’s hard to imagine her with a baby. But the Marthas would take care of it mostly. She’d like me pregnant though, over and done
with and out of the way, no more humiliating sweaty tangles, no more flesh triangles under her starry canopy of silver flowers. Peace and quiet. I can’t imagine she’d want such good luck, for me, for any other reason.
“Your time’s running out,” she says. Not a question, a matter of fact.
“Yes,” I say neutrally.
She’s lighting another cigarette, fumbling with the lighter. Definitely her hands are getting worse. But it would be a mistake to offer to do it for her, she’d be offended. A mistake to notice weakness in her.
“Maybe he can’t,” she says.
I don’t know who she means. Does she mean the Commander, or God? If it’s God, she should say won’t. Either way it’s heresy. It’s only women who can’t, who remain stubbornly closed, damaged, defective.
“No,” I say. “Maybe he can’t.”
I look up at her. She looks down. It’s the first time we’ve looked into each other’s eyes in a long time. Since we met. The moment stretches out between us, bleak and level. She’s trying to see whether or not I’m up to reality.
“Maybe,” she says, holding the cigarette, which she has failed to light. “Maybe you should try it another way.”
Does she mean on all fours? “What other way?” I say. I must keep serious.
“Another man,” she says.
“You know I can’t,” I say, careful not to let my irritation show. “It’s against the law. You know the penalty.”
“Yes,” she says. She’s ready for this, she’s thought it through. “I know you can’t officially. But it’s done. Women do it frequently. All the time.”
“With doctors, you mean?” I say, remembering the sympathetic brown eyes, the gloveless hand. The last time I went it was a different doctor. Maybe someone caught the other one out, or a woman reported him. Not that they’d take her word, without evidence.
“Some do that,” she says, her tone almost affable now, though distanced; it’s as if we’re considering a choice of nail polish. “That’s how Ofwarren did it. The wife knew, of course.” She pauses to let this sink in. “I would help you. I would make sure nothing went wrong.”
I think about this. “Not with a doctor,” I say.
“No,” she agrees, and for this moment at least we are cronies, this could be a kitchen table, it could be a date we’re discussing, some girlish stratagem of ploys and flirtation. “Sometimes they blackmail. But it doesn’t have to be a doctor. It could be someone we trust.”
“Who?” I say.
“I was thinking of Nick,” she says, and her voice is almost soft. “He’s been with us a long time. He’s loyal. I could fix it with him.”
So that’s who does her little black-market errands for her. Is this what he always gets, in return?
“What about the Commander?” I say.
“Well,” she says, with firmness; no, more than that, a clenched look, like a purse snapping shut. “We just won’t tell him, will we?”
This idea hangs between us, almost visible, almost palpable: heavy, formless, dark; collusion of a sort, betrayal of a sort. She does want that baby.
“It’s a risk,” I say. “More than that.” It’s my life on the line; but that’s where it will be sooner or later, one way or another, whether I do or don’t. We both know this.
“You might as well,” she says. Which is what I think too.
“All right,” I say. “Yes.”
She leans forward. “Maybe I could get something for you,” she says. Because I have been good. “Something you want,” she adds, wheedling almost.
“What’s that?” I say. I can’t think of anything I truly want that she’d be likely or able to give me.
“A picture,” she says, as if offering me some juvenile treat, an ice cream, a trip to the zoo. I look up at her again, puzzled.
“Of her,” she says. “Your little girl. But only maybe.”
She knows where they’ve put her then, where they’re keeping her. She’s known all along. Something chokes in my throat. The bitch, not to tell me, bring me news, any news at all. Not even to let on. She’s made of wood, or iron, she can’t imagine. But I can’t say this, I can’t lose sight, even of so small
a thing. I can’t let go of this hope. I can’t speak.
She’s actually smiling, coquettishly even; there’s a hint of her former small-screen mannequin’s allure, flickering over her face like momentary static. “It’s too damn hot for this, don’t you think?” she says. She lifts the wool from my two hands, where I have been holding it all this time. Then she takes the cigarette she’s been fiddling with and, a little awkwardly, presses it into my hand, closing my fingers around it. “Find yourself a match,” she says. “They’re in the kitchen, you can ask Rita for one. You can tell her I said so. Only the one though,” she adds roguishly. “We don’t want to ruin your health!”