Wives aren’t Allowed

And so we set out.

We glide together through the darkening streets. The Commander has hold of my right hand, as if we’re teenagers at the movies. I clutch the sky-blue cape tightly about me, as a good Wife should. Through the tunnel made by the hood I can see the back of Nick’s head. His hat is on straight, he’s sitting up straight, his neck is straight, he is all very straight. His posture disapproves of me, or am I imagining it? Does he know what I’ve got on under this cloak, did he procure it? And if so, does this make him angry or lustful or envious or anything at all? We do have something in common: both of us are supposed to be invisible, both of us are functionaries. I wonder if he knows this. When he opened the door of the car for the Commander, and, by extension, for me, I tried to catch his eye, make him look at me, but he acted as if he didn’t see me. Why not? It’s a soft job for him, running little errands, doing little favours, and there’s no way he’d want to jeopardize it.

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The checkpoints are no problem, everything goes as smoothly as the Commander said it would, despite the heavy pounding, the pressure of blood in my head. Chickenshit, Moira would say.

Past the second checkpoint, Nick says, “Here, Sir?” and the Commander says “Yes.”

The car pulls over and the Commander says, “Now I’ll have to ask you to get down onto the floor of the car.”

“Down?” I say.

“We have to go through the gateway,” he says, as if this means something to me. I tried to ask him where we were going, but he said he wanted to surprise me. “Wives aren’t allowed.”

So I flatten myself and the car starts again, and for the next few minutes I see nothing. Under the cloak it’s stifling hot. It’s a winter cloak, not a cotton summer one, and it smells of mothballs. He must have borrowed it from storage, knowing she wouldn’t notice. He has considerately moved his feet to give me room. Nevertheless my forehead is against his shoes. I have never been this close to his shoes before. They feel hard, unwinking, like the shells of beetles: black, polished, inscrutable. They seem to have nothing to do with feet.

We pass through another checkpoint. I hear the voices, impersonal, deferential, and the window rolling electrically down and up for the passes to be shown. This time he won’t show mine, the one that’s supposed to be mine, as I’m no longer in official existence, for now.

Then the car starts and then it stops again, and the Commander is helping me up.

“We’ll have to be fast,” he says. “This is a back entrance. You should leave the cloak with Nick. On the hour, as usual,” he says to Nick. So this too is something he’s done before.

He helps me out of the cloak; the car door is opened. I feel air on my almost bare skin, and realize I’ve been sweating. As I turn to shut the car door behind me I can see Nick looking at me through the glass. He sees me now. Is it contempt I read, or indifference, is this merely what he expected of me?

We’re in an alleyway behind a building, red brick and fairly modern. A bank of trash cans is set out beside the door, and there’s a smell of fried chicken, going bad. The Commander has a key to the door, which is plain and grey and flush with the wall and, I think, made of steel. Inside it there’s a concrete-block corridor lit with fluorescent overhead lights; some kind of functional tunnel.

“Here,” the Commander says. He slips around my wrist a tag, purple, on an elastic band, like the tags for airport luggage. “If anyone asks you, say you’re an evening rental,” he says. He takes me by the bare upper arm and steers me forward. What I want is a mirror, to see if my lipstick is all right, whether the feathers are too ridiculous, too frowzy. In this light I must look lurid. Though it’s too late now.

Idiot, says Moira.

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