فصل 37

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فصل 37

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CHAPTER 37

We go along the corridor and through another flat gray door and along another corridor, softly lit and carpeted this time, in a mushroom color, browny pink. Doors open off it, with numbers on them: a hundred and one, a hundred and two, the way you count during a thunderstorm, to see how close you are to being struck. It’s a hotel then. From behind one of the doors comes laughter, a man’s and also a woman’s. It’s a long time since I’ve heard that.

We emerge into a central courtyard. It’s wide and also high: it goes up several stories to a skylight at the top. There’s a fountain in the middle of it, a round fountain spraying water in the shape of a dandelion gone to seed. Potted plants and trees sprout here and there, vines hang down from the balconies. Oval-sided glass elevators slide up and down the walls like giant mollusks.

I know where I am. I’ve been here before: with Luke, in the afternoons, a long time ago. It was a hotel, then. Now it’s full of women.

I stand still and stare at them. I can stare, here, look around me, there are no white wings to keep me from it. My head, shorn of them, feels curiously light; as if a weight has been removed from it, or substance.

The women are sitting, lounging, strolling, leaning against one another. There are men mingled with them, a lot of men, but in their dark uniforms or suits, so similar to one another, they form only a kind of background. The women on the other hand are tropical, they are dressed in all kinds of bright festive gear. Some of them have on outfits like mine, feathers and glister, cut high up the thighs, low over the breasts. Some are in olden-days lingerie, shortie nightgowns, baby-doll pajamas, the occasional see-through negligee. Some are in bathing suits, one piece or bikini; one, I see, is wearing a crocheted affair, with big scallop shells covering the tits. Some are in jogging shorts and sun halters, some in exercise costumes like the ones they used to show on television, body-tight, with knitted pastel leg warmers. There are even a few in cheerleaders’ outfits, little pleated skirts, outsized letters across the chest. I guess they’ve had to fall back on a mlange, whatever they could scrounge or salvage. All wear make-up, and I realize how unaccustomed I’ve become to seeing it, on women, because their eyes look too big to me, too dark and shimmering, their mouths too red, too wet, blood-dipped and glistening; or, on the other hand, too clownish.

At first glance there’s a cheerfulness to this scene. It’s like a masquerade party; they are like oversize children, dressed up in togs they’ve rummaged from trunks. Is there joy in this? There could be, but have they chosen it? You can’t tell by looking.

There are a great many buttocks in this room. I am no longer used to them.

“It’s like walking into the past,” says the Commander. His voice sounds pleased, delighted even. “Don’t you think?”

I try to remember if the past was exactly like this. I’m not sure, now. I know it contained these things, but somehow the mix is different. A movie about the past is not the same as the past.

“Yes,” I say. What I feel is not one simple thing. Certainly I am not dismayed by these women, not shocked by them. I recognize them as truants. The official creed denies them, denies their very existence, yet here they are. That is at least something.

“Don’t gawk,” says the Commander. “You’ll give yourself away. Just act natural.” Again he leads me forward. Another man has spotted him, has greeted him and set himself in motion towards us. The Commander’s grip tightens on my upper arm. “Steady,” he whispers. “Don’t lose your nerve.”

All you have to do, I tell myself, is keep your mouth shut and look stupid. It shouldn’t be that hard.

The Commander does the talking for me, to this man and to the others who follow him. He doesn’t say much about me, he doesn’t need to. He says I’m new, and they look at me and dismiss me and confer together about other things. My disguise performs its function.

He retains hold of my arm, and as he talks his spine straightens imperceptibly, his chest expands, his voice assumes more and more the sprightliness and jocularity of youth. It occurs to me he is showing off. He is showing me off, to them, and they understand that, they are decorous enough, they keep their hands to themselves, but they review my breasts, my legs, as if there’s no reason why they shouldn’t. But also he is showing off to me. He is demonstrating, to me, his mastery of the world. He’s breaking the rules, under their noses, thumbing his nose at them, getting away with it. Perhaps he’s reached that state of intoxication which power is said to inspire, the state in which you believe you are indispensable and can therefore do anything, absolutely anything you feel like, anything at all. Twice, when he thinks no one is looking, he winks at me.

It’s a juvenile display, the whole act, and pathetic; but it’s something I understand.

When he’s done enough of this he leads me away again, to a puffy flowered sofa of the kind they once had in hotel lobbies; in this lobby, in fact, it’s a floral design I remember, dark blue background, pink art nouveau flowers. “I thought your feet might be getting tired,” he says, “in those shoes.” He’s right about that, and I’m grateful. He sits me down, and sits himself down beside me. He puts an arm around my shoulders. The fabric is raspy against my skin, so unaccustomed lately to being touched.

“Well?” he says. “What do you think of our little club?”

I look around me again. The men are not homogeneous, as I first thought. Over by the fountain there’s a group of Japanese, in lightish-gray suits, and in the far corner there’s a splash of white: Arabs, in those long bathrobes they wear, the headgear, the striped sweat-bands.

“It’s a club?” I say.

“Well, that’s what we call it, among ourselves. The club.”

“I thought this sort of thing was strictly forbidden,” I say.

“Well, officially,” he says. “But everyone’s human, after all.”

I wait for him to elaborate on this, but he doesn’t, so I say, “What does that mean?”

“It means you can’t cheat Nature,” he says. “Nature demands variety, for men. It stands to reason, it’s part of the procreational strategy. It’s Nature’s plan.” I don’t say anything, so he goes on. “Women know that instinctively. Why did they buy so many different clothes, in the old days? To trick the men into thinking they were several different women. A new one each day.”

He says this as if he believes it, but he says many things that way. Maybe he believes it, maybe he doesn’t, or maybe he does both at the same time. Impossible to tell what he believes.

“So now that we don’t have different clothes,” I say, “you merely have different women.” This is irony, but he doesn’t acknowledge it.

“It solves a lot of problems,” he says, without a twitch.

I don’t reply to this. I am getting fed up with him. I feel like freezing on him, passing the rest of the evening in sulky wordlessness. But I can’t afford that and I know it. Whatever this is, it’s still an evening out.

What I’d really like to do is talk with the women, but I see scant chance of that.

“Who are these people?” I ask him.

“It’s only for officers,” he says. “From all branches; and senior officials. And trade delegations, of course. It stimulates trade. It’s a good place to meet people. You can hardly do business without it. We try to provide at least as good as they can get elsewhere. You can overhear things too; information. A man will sometimes tell a woman things he wouldn’t tell another man.”

“No,” I say, “I mean the women.”

“Oh,” he says. “Well, some of them are real pros. Working girls” — he laughs — “from the time before. They couldn’t be assimilated; anyway, most of them prefer it here.”

“And the others?”

“The others?” he says. “Well, we have quite a collection. That one there, the one in green, she’s a sociologist. Or was. That one was a lawyer, that one was in business, an executive position; some sort of fast-food chain or maybe it was hotels. I’m told you can have quite a good conversation with her if all you feel like is talking. They prefer it here, too.”

“Prefer it to what?” I say.

“To the alternatives,” he says. “You might even prefer it yourself, to what you’ve got.” He says this coyly, he’s fishing, he wants to be complimented, and I know that the serious part of the conversation has come to an end.

“I don’t know,” I say, as if considering it. “It might be hard work.”

“You’d have to watch your weight, that’s for sure,” he says. “They’re strict about that. Gain ten pounds and they put you in Solitary.” Is he joking? Most likely, but I don’t want to know.

“Now,” he says, “to get you into the spirit of the place, how about a little drink?”

“I’m not supposed to,” I say. “As you know.”

“Once won’t hurt,” he says. “Anyway, it wouldn’t look right if you didn’t. No nicotine-and-alcohol taboos here! You see, they do have some advantages here.”

“All right,” I say. Secretly I like the idea, I haven’t had a drink for years.

“What’ll it be, then?” he says. “They’ve got everything here. Imported.”

“A gin and tonic,” I say. “But weak, please. I wouldn’t want to disgrace you.”

“You won’t do that,” he says, grinning. He stands up, then, surprisingly, takes my hand and kisses it, on the palm. Then he moves off, heading for the bar. He could have called over a waitress, there are some of these, in identical black miniskirts with pompoms on their breasts, but they seem busy and hard to flag down.

Then I see her. Moira. She’s standing with two other women, over near the fountain. I have to look hard, again, to make sure it’s her; I do this in pulses, quick flickers of the eyes, so no one will notice. She’s dressed absurdly, in a black outfit of once-shiny satin that looks the worse for wear. It’s strapless, wired from the inside, pushing up the breasts, but it doesn’t quite fit Moira, it’s too large, so that one breast is plumped out and the other one isn’t. She’s tugging absent-mindedly at the top, pulling it up. There’s a wad of cotton attached to the back, I can see it as she half turns; it looks like a sanitary pad that’s been popped like a piece of popcorn. I realize that it’s supposed to be a tail. Attached to her head are two ears, of a rabbit or deer, it’s not easy to tell; one of the ears has lost its starch or wiring and is flopping halfway down. She has a black bow tie around her neck and is wearing black net stockings and black high heels. She always hated high heels.

The whole costume, antique and bizarre, reminds me of something from the past, but I can’t think what. A stage play, a musical comedy? Girls dressed for Easter, in rabbit suits. What is the significance of it here, why are rabbits supposed to be sexually attractive to men? How can this bedraggled costume appeal?

Moira is smoking a cigarette. She takes a drag, passes it to the woman on her left, who’s in red spangles with a long pointed tail attached, and silver horns; a devil outfit. Now she has her arms folded across her front, under her wired-up breasts. She stands on one foot, then the other, her feet must hurt; her spine sags slightly. She gazes without interest or speculation around the room. This must be familiar scenery.

I will her to look at me, to see me, but her eyes slide over me as if I’m just another palm tree, another chair. Surely she must turn, I’m willing so hard, she must look at me, before one of the men comes over to her, before she disappears. Already the other women with her, the blonde in the short pink bed jacket with the tatty fur trim, has been appropriated, has entered the glass elevator, has ascended out of sight. Moira swivels her head around again, checking perhaps for prospects. It must be hard to stand there unclaimed, as if she’s at a high school dance, being looked over. This time her eyes snag on me. She sees me. She knows enough not to react.

We stare at one another, keeping our faces blank, apathetic. Then she makes a small motion of her head, a slight jerk to the right. She takes the cigarette back from the woman in red, holds it to her mouth, lets her hand rest in the air a moment, all five fingers outspread. Then she turns her back on me.

Our old signal. I have five minutes to get to the women’s wash room, which must be somewhere to her right. I look around: no sign of it. Nor can I risk getting up and walking anywhere, without the Commander. I don’t know enough, I don’t know the ropes, I might be challenged.

A minute, two. Moira begins to saunter off, not glancing around. She can only hope I’ve understood her and will follow.

The Commander comes back, with two drinks. He smiles down at me, places the drinks on the long black coffee table in front of the sofa, sits. “Enjoying yourself?” he says. He wants me to. This after all is a treat.

I smile at him. “Is there a washroom?” I say.

“Of course,” he says. He sips at his drink. He does not volunteer directions.

“I need to go to it.” I am counting in my head now, seconds, not minutes.

“It’s over there.” He nods.

“What if someone stops me?”

“Just show them your tag,” he says. “It’ll be all right. They’ll know you’re taken.”

I get up, wobble across the room. I lurch a little, near the fountain, almost fall. It’s the heels. Without the Commander’s arm to steady me I’m off balance. Several of the men look at me, with surprise I think rather than lust. I feel like a fool. I hold my left arm conspicuously in front of me, bent at the elbow, with the tag turned outward. Nobody says anything.

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