The Free World
They had awoken thirsty and famished, but fortunately Uwe had taken it upon himself to prepare an elaborate dinner for them. Of course, he had nothing better to do, and he was greatly in the Spendler’s debt for the free lodging they had provided him all these years; but they thanked and praised him profusely nonetheless. Pamela also remembered to praise the canvas that hung in the dining room: a Kuefer original with groups of blue and green diagonal lines on an oppressively black field, entitled “Progress.” She guardedly commented on the proportion of traversed and untraversed darkness, which reminded her of the proportion of inhabited and uninhabited areas in Canada. Uwe smiled politely at her remarks but was obviously unimpressed by such forced attempts at explanation and palliation. In fact, he remained almost mute during the entire meal, answering questions with “yes” and “no” and allowing Richard to dominate the conversation with assorted complaints and some descriptions of the latest consumer products to hit the oriental markets.
“The big thing right now is security implants,” Richard explained. “You get these things surgically implanted right under your skin—in your arm, say, or in your ass—I guess it doesn’t matter—and it acts like a kind of electronic signature with a thousand digits, so it can’t be guessed. Even you don’t have to know what it is, and you can’t forget it or lose it, since it’s part of you. Anyway, people have these things rigged now so that you can walk into a bar, say, and have your drinks, and a magnetic sensor will recognize your implant code and deduct your bill right out of your bank account—you don’t even have to swipe a card any more. It’s totally fool-proof,” Richard declared enthusiastically. “But I didn’t have it done. Hell, I still use cash. I still like the feel of it, and some places out in the countryside don’t even take credit yet.”
Richard continued his monologue all through their meal, and it was only after the noise of eating and cutlery had ceased that Uwe said anything significant. “That’s all very fascinating, Rick,” he began. He leaned back in his chair and stretched his arms behind his head with such an affected languor that it became apparent he was about to announce something momentous.
“We’re lucky to have this house, you know,” he observed. Richard assented but was uneasy about Uwe’s self-inclusion in the “have” part of the statement.
“You’ve heard, of course,” Uwe continued, “that the Department of Housing here has been—ah—relocating people.”
“You mean forcing wealthy people out of their homes,” Richard translated.
“It’s not all that simple, actually. You can have and keep as big a house as you like, so long as it’s fully occupied—or unless you built the house yourself—which you didn’t. This house, for example, has five bedrooms and could easily accommodate six adults if two of them sleep together. So according to regulations it has to have at least four people living in it to be considered fully occupied.”
“Well what if there aren’t four of us?” cried Richard, glancing nervously at his equally anxious wife.
“If there aren’t, and you can’t find a fourth . . . well, they’ll force you out—relocate you, as they euphemise it—into a smaller dwelling.”
“But you’ve been here alone all this time!” Pamela protested.
“That’s why we’re lucky. I know how to deal with these self-appointed bureaucrats, you know. When the regulations first came into effect, I told the inspectors that they can’t just seize the house, because the real owner is abroad and I’m just taking care of it until he comes back. They agreed that it wouldn’t be right to relocate me until you returned, within a reasonable time. So they just recommended that I arrange to lodge someone else here in the meantime—which I didn’t—and they went on their merry way. They haven’t bothered me since, but I’m sure they’ll be back soon.”
“And now that we’re back, are they going to try to ‘relocate’ us?”
“Well, that’s up to you, really. You see, if you can prove that there are four people living here, the place stays yours. If not, we’ll all be moving somewhere else. In my case, it would have to be an apartment or condo, if I’m living alone. . . . You guys might still find a small house with a two tenant minimum.”
“This is bullshit,” Richard declared, punctuating the statement by rising abruptly. He made a sweeping gesture and proclaimed “I own this house and everything in it. I worked hard for it and earned it. Nobody’s going to tell me I have to move out into something smaller!” There was silence once his voice stopped echoing, silent but for the ticking of the antique clock on the wall.
“I agree with you, man,” enjoined Uwe. “But hey, you’ve got to play ball with these guys. They run the game now. Besides, you still know a lot of people in this town, don’t you? I’m sure you can think of one or two who wouldn’t mind moving in with you.”
Richard’s mind began to work as furiously as his temper, which was manifest to the others by his ostentatious pacing. He thought of ten different people he could call, but each of them appeared in his mind in the guise of annoying, dirty-dish-generating, wife-stealing pests. He thought of ten others who would undoubtedly refuse the offer; in fact, he could easily imagine that all the friends and associates he still had in the capital region were perfectly happy where they were living right now. Pamela began to suggest names, but Richard either would have nothing to do with these persons, or Uwe would inform her that so-and-so had children now and was living in another city. Finally, Pamela asked Uwe whether he knew anyone from their old circle who might move in with them and whom Richard could tolerate. The artist pulled at his beard meditatively.
“You remember Anthony Bounderby, don’t you?” he said.
“Of course. He manages our mutual fund portfolio—or at least he used to.”
“Mine, too; that’s how I know him. Anyway, Tony’s wife left him not too long after the big shake-up, and their son, Philip, was the only one who wanted to stay with his father. The two of them live in a condo out in the West End, and I’m sure they’d consider moving here since it’s closer to downtown and all.”
Richard was confused and somewhat frightened by this information. “So they took that beautiful house away from him . . . and Vicky left him. . . .”
“Not exactly in that order. In fact, he’d have kept the house for sure if she’d stayed with him. Tony doesn’t like to talk about it much, but everyone knows that Vicky’s a high-ranking government official now. They split up for ideological reasons. Tony’s been a big wheel in a monetarist activist organization since then.”
“It’s all so bloody ridiculous,” Richard said with a mixture of anger and gloom. “I mean, Tony was one of the nicest guys you could ever meet—wasn’t he, Pamela?” She did not respond, either because she did not agree or because she was thinking of something else with an intensity that shut out the world. Richard read her silence as arising from the same disbelief he felt then, whereas a more astute man might have ascribed it to the strong impression that this news about Tony Bounderby’s wife had made upon a woman in a parallel situation; Tony was not as coarse a man as Richard (at least in public), and yet . . . Victoria was a wise woman. . . .
“Nice guy or not,” Uwe rejoined, “the fact is, they split up and Tony’s got the boy living with him.”
Richard looked away thoughtfully for a moment. “Do you really think Tony would want to give up his privacy and live with people he doesn’t really know that well? he asked.
“It’s worth a try, Rick. Last I talked to him, he wasn’t too happy out there. I guess his neighbours are kind of a nuisance.”
“Hmph. Guess I’ll call him tonight, then. If he’s a committed monetarist, he’s certainly welcome in my house.” He left the table with its dirty dishes and immediately began to search for Tony’s number in the telephone directory. It did not even occur to him to consult Pamela further on the matter; once he had resolved upon contacting Tony, it was as though she disappeared from view.
And so Richard called, and it turned out that Tony was eager to change his residence—that is, once he had been reassured of his old client’s solidarity with the monetarist cause.
“You know me,” Richard told him, “I’m a practical man, and as far as I’m concerned, there’s only one economic system that’s really practical.” Tony was impressed, and their common distaste for gratuitism became the beginning of a conversation that lasted a good hour, after which it was clear that their acquaintance might become a friendship. Richard was doubly pleased: not only had he secured his house against the pillaging hordes, he had, through Tony, established a contact with a political organization for which he intended to work. For it seemed to him that the only kind of thing worth volunteering for was something which would lead to monetary rewards in the monetarist future. The future was theirs, after all; as he and Tony and many others predicted, the gratuitist system would collapse in one to three years, and it would then be these same monetarist political groups to which the country would turn for ideas and reorganisation. Richard planned to emerge from this dark age with the same social position he had been dragged down from, if not a better one: he would be a well-paid, powerful policy maker in a reborn monetarist government.
Thoughts of this sort ran in a loop through his mind as he lounged in front of the television later that evening (someone else had taken care of the dishes) with the remains of a bottle of wine before him. He thought, too, of the way things used to be and could be again: of the luxury of having an enormous house to oneself (except for the live-in cook and housekeeper), the pleasure of exerting one’s authority over a mere mouthpiece of a minister of finance, the satisfaction of selling dear what one had bought cheaply—the satisfaction of knowing that no matter what happened in the volatile markets, you always had the brains to come out ahead of inflation. What a land of opportunity, he fantasised further, when monetarism flourishes once again!—And I’ll still have a pile of hard Chinese currency while everyone else has to start from scratch again, since the old, defunct currency will have to be replaced. . . .
Because he was so engrossed in this reverie, Richard failed to take any notice when Pamela informed him that she was about to phone her parents.
He soon began to take note of what was on television, however. The rerun of a frothy American sitcom he had been partly watching was not, of course, punctuated by ordinary commercials (commercials having perished with commerce), but by more infrequent “public service” announcements. These took the form of “efficiency tips” and “volunteer drives” for projects that few people would think to take on voluntarily. What caught Richard’s eye, however, was a segment recommending that city dwellers replace their yards with vegetable gardens so that land would be used more efficiently.—Of course, he scoffed, they show some bogus statistics estimating how much gasoline could be saved in farmer’s machinery, transports, and consumer cars. “Next,” he thought aloud, “we’re going to turn city parks into pastures and garages into chicken coops. Wouldn’t that smell delightful in the summer?”
There followed another information clip proclaiming a massive decrease in the number of smokers and problem drinkers over the past two years. “What excellent propaganda!” Richard declared. Any casual observer could, of course, have predicted a general decrease in consumption, but only an uneducated gratuitist (or professional misinformer) would have attributed the change to “the reduced stress in the lives of so many labourers and blue-collar workers.” The propagandists had to admit that both legal and illegal drugs were simply not as available as they once were; even so, they insisted that this was more an effect, rather than the cause, of the decrease in drug abuse. According to this logic, one did not produce what one didn’t want, hence tobacco wasn’t available because legions of smokers had decided they would rather do without it than get their hands dirty on a tobacco farm. This effect was tidily reduced to the axiom, “only the things worth having are worth working for.” As though someone else were present to hear, Richard mocked the voiceover: “—worth working for, that is, unless you’re a lazy parasite, in which case you’ll want everything but work for nothing.” He took a sip of the wine Uwe’s friend had made, as though in reward for this clever comment.
As another sitcom began, Richard started to think of more specific criticisms of gratuitist economics such as he might one day be called upon to make before an audience.—If I’m going to become a monetarist activist, I had better make my ideas clear to myself, first. He looked at the wine glass—a perfect example. People would, as they had always done, make their own wine and beer, and they would share it with their friends and relatives. This kind of small-scale manufacture was a hobby, not a job, and it was (as he was told) actually fun.—On the other hand, ten guys working in a winery, who divide their labour into specific tasks, can provide a whole city with wine for a season, whereas the same ten working the same hours at home couldn’t produce one-fiftieth as much. The gratuitist system encourages the less efficient method because the work isn’t as tedious, and you can do it in the comfort of your own home. You don’t even have to coordinate your efforts with the nine others; no one would have to make compromises to fit into someone else’s schedule. The ten workers in the winery would be doing jobs that were more repetitive and tedious, which was why such jobs weren’t being done. And so it would go for all industry that could be done on a smaller, less efficient scale: cooking, garment making, agriculture, house construction, and so on. People did and would work, of course, since life would eventually become too boring without it, but efficiency would decline until life became as it was before the industrial revolution.—This, he concluded, was the only way things could turn out. No, worse—it was already happening, had been happening for years! Only the momentum of habit kept the machine running now . . . .
But Richard soon lost his confidence in his ability to understand circumstances of the present or to predict events of the future. Pamela had finally finished with her phone call, and when he perceived that she had entered the room behind him,—the yellow light streaming into the dark living room from the kitchen became partially obstructed by her body—when he noticed this, he remembered what she had been doing and asked her what her parents had to say.
“They said I could stay with them for a while,” she muttered resignedly.
“Oh yeah? I didn’t know you were planning to visit them.—Don’t you want to be around while Tony and Philip move in?”
“No. I don’t want to be around at all.”
—At all? That sounded final. “What do you mean?” he asked pensively.
Pamela sighed but remained standing in the kitchen threshold behind Richard. As she began to speak, it became clear that this was very difficult for her: “I won’t be coming back. I don’t want to put up with you anymore.”
Richard was alarmed, but not as much as he would have been had he perceived that she was in earnest. He turned in his chair and regarded her rather clinically. Here was a problem to solve; here was a matter of diplomacy which could no doubt be cleared up if only he could locate exactly what it was that was bothering her.
“Is there something you don’t like about Tony?” he asked, recalling that she’d given no assent when he had commended his friend earlier that evening. “Has he ever tried to hit on you?”
“Actually, he has,” Pamela mused almost wistfully, as though it reminded her that men of all kinds, some of whom she had encouraged, had once propositioned her and would, no doubt, do so in the future. “But that’s not it at all. It’s you that I don’t like, in case you haven’t noticed these past three years.”
“Oh, I’ve noticed; in fact, I’d say you haven’t really liked me since I got my post in China. And I think you know that I don’t like you as much as I did when we got married. But we’ve still stayed together, right?”
“That’s right,” Pamela conceded. She had paced across the hardwood floor and was absently toying with one of the glass figurines that decorated their bookcase.
“That’s because we’re a team,” said Richard; “we’re partners. We still need each other. If you need something else too, well, you’ve always had that option. I’ve never made much of a fuss about your flings, have I?”
“Well, I wouldn’t now, either. You’ve always been discreet about them, and I respect you for that.”
“Too bad I can’t say the same about you,” she sneered. This gave Richard pause, as though a minister of trade had suddenly pointed out that certain terms of a treaty had been kept up on their side, whereas our side used its political clout to infringe on the foreign market. . . .
“No, I guess you couldn’t,” agreed Richard, who knew how to turn weakness into advantage. “But you also couldn’t say that I ever had any real affairs because I always went to working girls.”
“Which is worse.”
“Maybe. But it’s also never going to happen again, don’t you see? There aren’t any prostitutes here, so I couldn’t see one even if I wanted to. I’m all yours now, Pam, just like when we were first married.”
“You don’t understand,” she blurted exasperatedly, “I DON’T LIKE YOU ANY MORE.” She thought for a moment, realising that this was what she had started saying; it was obviously not clear enough. “I don’t need you, either,” she went on; “I don’t need your money, your house, your tacky jewellery [tacky! started Richard], your car,—I don’t need any of it. I hung on to you because I thought you made life so goddamn easy with your cleaning ladies and your cook and your gold card. Now you can’t even offer me those. If you had an attractive personality I might have stuck it out here, even with that piggish friend of yours hanging around. I’m not surprised Vicky left him,” she added, to Richard’s astonishment.
“You’re a smooth talker. You talked me into marrying you, but you can’t talk me into staying with you. I’m a little smarter than I used to be; I know that I can do a lot better than you. What are you now, anyway? All of your contacts and your barroom business brokering—they’re about as relevant in this country as a snowmobile in Singapore.” She was grinning with smug confidence now. “You’re pathetic. You can’t even do your own laundry. You don’t even have your own tools—do you think you’ll be able to get Uwe to fix everything for you? Do you think he’s going to clean up after you? He’ll be out of here before you know it.” Pamela paused to look for signs of remorse or fear in Richard’s face, but there was only the irreverent forbearance of a man who will not take an angry woman seriously. “You’ll be sorry, Mr. Spendler. You’re on your own now.” With those words and a final, disdainful narrowing of the eyes, she strode from the living room, up the stairs, and out of sight.
“You’re not exactly easy to live with either!” Richard called after her. Not surprisingly, there was no reply. Somehow the silence, more than all the words Pamela had unleashed upon him,—the silence brought it home to him that there would be no sequel to this confrontation. The game was over, he had lost.
He thought of many things afterwards: things he might have said or done to change Pamela’s mind; things he might say that would make him feel even with her (how dare she leave the room before he could say them!). He thought of things he hated about her which would ameliorate his feelings of remorse for having lost something valuable. He pictured her at her very worst, as a vindictive, lazy, irresponsible, intemperate, cowardly, moody, and above all, a selfish woman. She refused to use her mouth for anything better than telling lies and complaining.
Then Richard remembered the day before—no, he thought, it was earlier today, it just felt like the day before because they had slept in the afternoon—when he had taken her upstairs and availed himself of her body, when he had been angry and it had felt so good to let that anger out in an explosion of passion. What, he wondered, would he do if she was no longer around? But she was somewhere else most of the time anyway: anaesthetised, waiting for him to finish. He had tried, but she would not be pleased. What did she want from him?
“All I want is some respect,” said a voice from the television.
“How much does that cost?” said another. Richard registered the voices and had to chuckle at the coincidence, but he was quick to distinguish himself from the sitcom characters; he had no reason to respect his wife, especially now that she was moving in, however briefly, with her gratuitist parents.
“Of course,” he remarked aloud, “she was on the phone with them.” He decided that “those meddling people” were responsible for this initiative of hers; she could not, after all, think for herself! And so, after emptying the bottle of wine he had been drinking, he picked up the phone and called them (though it was getting very late), accused them, and cursed them unmercifully. It was very relieving for him to yell at someone; and, failing to notice that her father had hung up after the first minute of the call, Richard went on to swear an oath at the end of his mirthless tirade: “we’ll see who’s smarter when the rule of monetarism returns, and you find out that I’ve got a cabinet post and can make your petty lives so miserable, you’ll want to sell her back to me just so you can eat!” Feeling satisfied that he had frightened his opponents sufficiently, he switched off the phone with as much violence as such a dainty motion would permit and went back to his seat in front of the TV. He flipped through the channels with stereotypically masculine haste. There was nothing on which interested him, but he wasn’t paying much attention to the flickering screen anyway; the events of the last hour kept his mind occupied, kept replaying themselves in his mind without coming to any conclusion.
Later, as he undressed for bed (Pamela was, of course, locked into her auxiliary bedroom), Richard yearned again for a certain young woman in a luxurious house on the outskirts of the great Oriental metropolis. Surely, he thought, I will find one just like her right here in Ottawa: a girl who would stay with him not because he was rich, but because it was her duty as a wife, and to divorce him would be a disgrace to her family. And she would not drink, and she would cook and clean and stay quiet, except in bed where she would moan like a woman in distress to show that the pleasure was simply too much for her. This was Richard’s fantasy as he released himself into the dark seas of sleep. . . .
“It’s still easy for you, with your kids,” remarked Meri’s friend Julia as she sipped tea and watched the children playing in the yard. “They’re still young enough that they don’t roam the neighborhood without you. Or at least they don’t go around purloining chocolate bars and candy everywhere they can.” She turned from the window to regard Meri, who was relining as best she could on one of the old wooden chairs that Julia kept at her kitchen table. “Just wait until they turn five and six, then you’ll see that black mane of yours turn grey.”
“Ha!” Meri pounced, “as if it isn’t grey already. This is just dye, you know.”
“Be that as it may—really? You already dye it?”
“I’ve aged a little too fast. Too many traumatic experiences.” Meri said this without any hint of self-pity, although she might have felt it in another context. In Julia’s presence, “too many traumatic experiences” sounded farcical, for Julia was forever discussing personal problems—some ridiculously inconsequential, some genuinely disastrous—in terms of “traumatic experiences.”
"Be that as it may," Julia resumed, "you're going to discover that gratuitism makes it a lot harder to be a parent, when you've got a six or seven year old. They'll go into stores and take things you don't want them to have. And you can't expect a high price to stop them. Not now."
"Come on, it's not like they're taking cigarettes or knives or anything really dangerous. It's just a little junk food."
"A little!" Julia raised her hands as if to ask for mercy. "They come home in the afternoon with no appetite left for supper, and chocolate stains on their faces so you'd think they fell into a vat of it. God only knows how rotten their teeth are going to be by the time they're teenagers."
Meri frowned at what seemed to her yet another of her friend's trivial complaints. "It could be worse, though don't you see? They could have been *stealing* those chocolates, if that's the kind of kids they are, and if we still lived by money. Then you'd really have something to worry about. They might have even stolen money from you."
"My boys would never do that—they've got respect for policemen, and authority. It's only my authority that they don't heed."
"What about the husband?"
"Scott? Oh, they'll listen to him, when he's here instead of flying around the world for the airline. He's just not here enough to make a strong impression on them," Julia lamented.
"What's his problem? He can take time off whenever he wants, right?"
"I'm afraid it's not that easy, dear. He's made certain commitments, and he's not going to back down from them, and I respect him for that."
Meri sighed exasperatedly and absently rubbed the rim of the teacup before her.—Why can't Julia handle this problem herself? All she has to do is discipline those boys properly. . . . "Have you tried sitting them down and explaining to them that candy just isn't good for them? Or that if they want to grow up big and strong, they've got to eat what you tell them to?"
"I tried that. It worked for about a week.—Dammit, if only we hadn't elected this stupid government. When I cast my ballot, all I thought about were the benefits of gratuitism, the big picture. All of these details never even occurred to me." Julia came away from the window and sat at the table opposite Meri. "It's not just this problem with junk food that worries me, either. What am I going to do when they get older and I really have to control them—I can't take away their allowance as a punishment, because they don't need an allowance. I can't reward them for good behaviour by buying them a new toy, because they can walk into any store and pick out whatever toys they want right now. My God, what would stop them from leaving home at thirteen and fourteen? They'd have nothing to worry about, they wouldn't need me any more."
"Do you realize what you're saying?" Meri challenged her with a stern look. She held Julia's gaze until the other could not help but see the implications of her complaint, until she had to bring her hand to her forehead to hide her eyes from that searching gaze.
"I think—I think I'm saying that the only thing that makes me important to my children is that I provide for them . . . that I provide material things."
"That's what it sounds like to me," Meri averred.
"But it's not true! I give them love, I teach them, I take care of them when they're sick. . . ." Julia reached out imploringly. "I just find it hard to believe that they recognize how important all that love and attention is. I certainly don't want them to find out the hard way how much they need me."
Meri sat back and regarded her friend more tenderly. "I think that if your kids undervalue you, it's because you undervalue yourself. And if you ask me, you undervalue yourself because you're still thinking in terms of money and exchange, and we never used to get paid for being mothers. Not that you need a reward for being a good mother, but if you find yourself better esteemed for making money than you would be for just raising children, well, that's got to warp your thinking, right?"
"I think I see what you mean." Julia reflected for a good minute before speaking again, so that the only sound in the room was the echo of children's laughter from outside. "I still don't know how I'm going to stop them from eating all that chocolate," she said at last.
Meri thought for a moment. "Well, maybe the merchants who stock their shelves with junk food ought to take some responsibility. Maybe they shouldn't let kids take too much at a time, just like when the whole thing started and they had to put in safeguards against hoarding."
"You think every kid should be issued a card and a PIN number so they can be monitored and rationed? I don't think a little corner store is going to bother with the hassle."
"Maybe not, but if you tell a storekeeper not to let your kids take something—and I don't care what it is—they ought to respect your wishes and watch that it doesn't happen."
"I don't know if I can count on these people around here, though," Julia said with a pout.
"I think you can," returned Meri.—That's what this free world always comes down to, she thought—whether or not you can count on other people to do their part; or, whether you think you can count on them or not. After almost a year of living with gratuitism, she was finding that one could count on others most of the time. But as Julia had put it, there were all those details that made the system seem unworkable sometimes. . . .
It was not until the day after the day Pamela had left that Richard began to feel composed again. He felt terrible, having spent the better part of the first day drinking himself into oblivion, beginning with Pamela’s rum (which he drank before she had a chance to take it with her that morning) and ending with vodka that Uwe had discovered at a rare distiller’s give-away. Uwe, who was always happy to share his chronic misery, had stayed with Richard in this time of trial. He, too, had been pained by this calamity; he was a friend to both of them and therefore somewhat torn by their separation.
“I don’t understand it, Richard,” he kept saying. “You were such a happy couple when you left for your job at the embassy. What happened?” Then Richard would explain to him, quite truthfully, that they had drifted apart, and it was mainly his fault for not paying enough attention to her. All those meetings, trips to cities in the north, all those affairs he had had, all of her affairs—what marriage could survive under such circumstances?
“But I don’t give a shit,” Richard kept saying. “I don’t need her.”
And so the two men had sought to drown their sorrows together while Pamela deliberated over what she would take with her, which in the end turned out to be little more than clothes and a few boxes of kitchen things. This confused and grieved Richard even further; he had always thought of his wife as a woman obsessed with finery and luxury, a woman who had bought cupboards full of glassware, hand-carved masks and soapstone sculptures, and antique furniture which no one wanted to sit on for fear of blemishing it. He had always thought that if she were ever determined to divorce him (a thought which was by no means foreign to him in the past), it would be a difficult task to wrest any of these possessions away from her. And yet there she went (he could still see the image clearly the next day), walking out the front door carrying nothing but clothes, shoes, worthless trinkets, and a few of Uwe’s smaller canvasses. It was as though she had only enjoyed buying all those other things; it had given her something to do.
—What was it that was going through her mind, he wondered, when she was rummaging through the house and throwing this or that into a box? Surely there were moments of hesitation, moments when she asked herself if it was wise to leave so many things behind when she still believes that the gratuitist system will collapse soon, giving way to a new monetarism. Why did she leave all the seldom-used silver behind, and take half of the stainless steel utensils? Why did she leave behind the four thousand-dollar Maori carving and take the two hundred-dollar Samoan one? Richard could only surmise that she would come back for the other things on a later occasion, for otherwise it would make no sense.
When the car pulled up in front of the house, Richard recognised at once the cab driver Pamela had summoned and put to the task of carrying away her heaviest box, which was loaded with photographs, books, and Cds. So this is the new man, Richard had called to them from the porch as they loaded her things into the trunk: a cab driver. That’s one with class. Don’t let her fool you, Neil, she’ll be screwing some other cabbie two weeks from now. The young man had looked confused and concerned, but Pamela signalled to him to ignore the drunk in the doorway. You’re such an idiot, she had said. Those were her final words to him.
“An idiot for having married you,” he thought aloud now, surveying himself in the mirror and bracing himself on the bathroom counter. He looked as terrible as he felt, he decided; but he was not about to become depressed about this or anything else. He was not the kind of man who became depressed, he told himself, nor was he about to allow his appearance to slide just because his good-for-nothing wife had left him. After all, today was to be the beginning of a new chapter of his life, the day Tony Bounderby would be moving in. So Richard showered, brushed his teeth briskly, then shaved the unattractive growth of beard that had darkened his chin. Just like any other day, except that he made a point of rinsing away the bits of beard that had fallen into the sink, for there would be no cleaning woman today, or any time soon for that matter.
“There,” he said to the mirror, “young again.” But then he began to examine himself more carefully, more critically, perhaps, than ever before. —My nose never used to be this big. Why should my nose be getting bigger? And it’s got those big pores starting to develop, like an alcoholic, like my father’s nose. . . . The corners of his mouth seemed bracketed by permanent creases.—Age will do that, he thought. Then there was the margin of grey that had begun to show near his temples (at thirty-six! he groaned), an annoying degeneration to which he would apply some cosmetic as soon as he could. A well-seasoned appearance was still attractive to young women who liked the aura of confidence that generally surrounded an older man, yet Richard suspected he would need to lose ten years to attract the kind of young woman he wanted. She would have to be very young indeed, for he wanted a girl who was not yet wise: one who had never met a better man and would therefore think that all men were like him. Pamela, he reflected, was naive like that in the beginning, but he had made the mistake of letting her run around. He had allowed her to discover the pleasure of playing the dominant role with her lovers. He had allowed her to find effeminate puppets who flattered her profusely and who probably made fun of her husband in entertaining new ways.
I must stop thinking about her, he told himself as he went to his room to look for some fresh socks. However, as he approached his dresser Richard had the misfortune of stepping, barefoot, on the diamond ring she had returned to him. As he stopped to pick it up, he remembered that it was he who had hurled it across the room in a drunken rage; nevertheless, its location underfoot symbolised for him what Pamela had done, even what gratuitism had done. Had they not cast aside the most valuable things in life? Had they not brought him pain?
Richard was plagued by these thoughts as he sat on the edge of his bed in the dimly-lit room where he slept. The dark curtains remained drawn against the bright sun outside, and the dark blankets remained heaped in disarray next to him.—I once had a maid in the Orient, he thought, who would make the bed as soon as I got out of it. He noticed the layer of dust that lay upon the dark wood of his dresser. He once had help for that kind of thing, too. Once upon a time.
He might have spent an entire hour sitting there had he not remembered that he wasn’t the kind of man who became depressed about the vicissitudes of life—angry, yes, but never depressed. Hence, he sprang to his feet, finished dressing, and forced himself out into what was becoming another cloudy day. It was much too bright for his bleary, oversensitive eyes, and he was forced to squint at first while they adjusted to the light. The fresh air, however, made him feel better at once. There was something invigorating about the stiff wind that blew against him as he made his way toward Bank Street; he felt as though it swept away a dark cloud that had been befogging his head, and it gave him something to contend against which was visceral, unlike those intangible, spectral desires and memories that had been plaguing him all morning and all week. As he walked, he gazed at the sharper features of the landscape—the dark black of branches and twigs against the white sky, the trim and corners of the old brick houses along his street, the converging lines of the road—as though by looking at these things he would be able to focus the blurriness he felt inside; and oddly enough, it was working, for he felt more conscious now.
There were, as Uwe had informed him, a number of restaurants on Bank Street, although there were, of course, no more banks, these institutions having been closed since the day after the gratuitists passed their laws. The restaurants, too, had become relatively rare, and those that remained were extremely popular despite the inconvenience they generally presented. For meals were served at certain hours only, and if one did not show up early it was impossible to find a table; everyone ate at the same time. The restaurants were, however, more attractive to Richard than the ubiquitous eating houses, those private residences where one had to phone ahead, arrive on the minute, and eat whatever they served you. Judging by his experiences with service industry types in the new economy thus far, Richard decided he would do well to avoid such houses. Why else would someone run such an establishment, other than to bring unsuspecting strangers into their lair and treat them with unwarranted intimacy? Richard recoiled at the idea; it would be like dinner with one’s in-laws.
—What, Richard wondered, are all these people doing walking along the street? Just goes to show how inconvenient it’s become to maintain a car here. And why the hell are they all walking so slowly? You’d think they’ve got all the time in the world (time is money). Judging by the way those ones are smiling, you’d think they had all the money in the world. There’s nothing to smile about. It’s starting to give me the creeps—it’s like walking amongst the brainwashed townsfolk of a stunted civilisation on some rerun of Star Trek. Can’t they see that their standard of living has gone down? Aren’t they worried that maybe they’ll soon be unable to drive private vehicles at all? Then we’ll see how happy they are to be walking!
Richard felt envious (though he would not admit it to himself) as he observed the number of couples and families strolling past shop windows. Many of them were already picking up seeds for spring planting or equipment for spring cleaning, even though there was still snow on the ground. How many of these people, Richard wondered, would have been doing something productive in an office right now if things were back to normal? What is society losing by their strolling around here instead? It would be much more efficient, he thought, for these men to be building something new and letting their wives take care of the children and the shopping. He did not quite go so far as to think “why should they be together when I have to be alone?” but he could feel the temptation of self-pity tugging at his pride.
He could also feel the hollowness of his stomach quite acutely now, and therefore considered himself fortunate to spot a sign displaying a lunch menu in front of an Indian restaurant. Luckily for Richard, the meal was supposed to commence in ten minutes or so, and he could see through a window that there were tables still available. “Tandoori Chicken,” he read hungrily; “that’ll purge this poison out of me.”
He entered the place and was promptly greeted by the smells of curry, sandalwood, and, a few moments later, by the outstretched hand of a smiling, portly, white-shirted and dark-skinned proprietor.
“Welcome,” said the man without detectable accent. “Please—sit wherever you like.” The customary “smoking or non-smoking?” which one still heard in Chinese establishments was absent here, for smoking in public places had been banned long ago, even before the gratuitists had come to power. It made no difference to Richard, who didn’t smoke, although he would have liked to have had the privacy of a booth. He chose a table towards the kitchen and sat with his back to the other guests.
—Ahh, he exhaled as his host poured him a glass of water—so nice to be served without having someone offer to exchange names or life histories.
“What will you have to eat, sir? The chicken or the vegetarian plate?”
“The chicken, please,” Richard answered politely.
“Another chicken ladies!” the man called, without even bothering to walk towards the door that led to the kitchen. A woman's voice acknowledged the order, which set Richard thinking: in the kitchen, out of sight—these Orientals know how to keep their wives away from other men. He actually heard several female voices from behind the door, which conjured in his mind the image of an entire harem of exotic beauties, at least until these ladies actually appeared carrying their steaming trays of food. They seemed one extended family, dressed in similar clothes and aprons, from girls no more than twelve to a matriarch in her seventies—like having dinner at one’s in-laws, Richard groaned. This impression became uncomfortably pronounced when they brought out the second set of trays.
“Will someone be joining you?” inquired the fellow who had poured his water. Richard answered no, assuming that the man meant to take the opposite chair for another table. But it soon became clear that the second set of trays were for the staff themselves, including the maître d’, who seated himself directly in front of Richard. Richard, in turn, froze with shock.—Servers do not sit with customers in my country, he thought.
“Is there something you need?” asked the man when he noticed his guest was not eating.
“I need privacy.” This was said with great seriousness, but it provoked the laughter of the maître d’.
“There’s no privacy to be had in my house,” he chuckled, gesturing to the seven women who had either joined customers or taken seats along the far wall, where they ate with their plates in their laps. “If I don’t dine with you, one of them will.”
His manner was disarming enough that Richard felt he could relax and eat (it helped that the stuff on his plate smelled so good, too). Richard even felt charitable enough to strike up a conversation with him. The atmosphere of the entire room had, in fact, become very conducive to talking once the kitchen banter began to spread and infect the customers, some of which spoke rather loudly to make themselves heard across the room.
“Are you—related to all of these women?” Richard wanted to know.
“Mm. Oh yes,” said his host after swallowing a mouthful of rice. “That’s my mother-in-law, and my wife next to her at the table here—my sister-in-law—her daughter—and by the wall there, my mother and my two daughters, Jana and Helena.”
“And your male relatives?”
“Oh, they’ve never been involved with the restaurant. My wife’s family are mainly carpenters and bricklayers—that’s her brother-in-law there, with the work boots—they don’t always come by for dinner. Mm. They’re busy men. My father is an engineer, came out of retirement after the big change. . . .” He caught his mother’s eye and called out to her in Hindi, to which she replied. He translated: “the girls did most of the cooking today. Delicious, isn’t it?”
“Great,” Richard agreed. He glanced at the elder daughter and noted her ripe figure. “How old are your daughters?”
“Thirteen and nineteen. Troublesome age. Helena ought to get married, now that she can cook so well.” He smiled proudly as he looked over at her, and she looked back at him.
“Are you looking for a husband for her?” inquired Richard. Unexpectedly, the man laughed his hearty laugh again, which embarrassed Richard warmly.
“My daughter needs no help finding suitors, sir; she needs help deciding between them. In any case,” he added, becoming serious, “it is not for us to make the choice. Our daughters are free to do as they wish.”
Richard misread the seriousness. “That’s the trouble with us Westerners, eh? We let our women do as they wish.”
“As it should be,” returned his host, fixing Richard with a grave stare. The welcome had gone from his eyes, and Richard suddenly felt as though he should leave. He hastily ate the rest of his chicken without another word, then went to the door without thanking anyone. He felt naked again, not having paid.
“Excuse me, sir,” said the younger daughter as he was about to depart, “would you care to help with the dishes?”
Richard could not tell whether this was meant as a rebuke for his silence, as a social invitation, or whether it was merely customary for strangers to be asked such things in this alien regime. Whatever the implications of the request, however, he refused without deliberation.
When he stepped out into the anonymity of the street again, he decided he should avoid the place in the future; if he went out to eat again, it would be at a cafeteria or soup kitchen, and if he were alone he would sit next to people already engrossed in a conversation to which he could not and would not contribute. Since he expected to become a good friend to Tony, however, he expected he wouldn’t be eating alone much in the future anyway.
© 2003 Robert Zimmer