On the top of my desk there are initials, carved into the wood, and dates. The initials are sometimes in two sets. These seem to me like the inscriptions I used to read about, carved on the stone walls of caves, or drawn with a mixture of soot and animal fat. They seem to me incredibly ancient. The desk top is of blonde wood; it slants down, and there is an armrest on the right side, to lean on when you were writing, on paper, with a pen. Inside the desk you could keep things: books, notebooks. These habits of former times appear to me now lavish, decadent almost; immoral, like the orgies of barbarian regimes. M. loves G., 1972. This carving, done with a pencil dug many times into the worn varnish of the desk, has the pathos of all vanished civilizations. It’s like a handprint on stone. Whoever made that was once alive.

There are no dates after the mid-eighties. This must have been one of the schools that was closed down then, for lack of children.

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They made mistakes, says Aunt Lydia. We don’t intend to repeat them. Her voice is pious, condescending, the voice of those whose duty it is to tell us unpleasant things for our own good. I would like to strangle her. I shove this thought away almost as soon as I think it.

A thing is valued, she says, only if it is rare and hard to get. We want you to be valued, girls. She is rich in pauses, which she savours in her mouth. Think of yourselves as pearls. We, sitting in our rows, eyes down, we make her salivate morally. We are hers to define, we must suffer her adjectives.

I think about pearls. Pearls are congealed oyster spit. This is what I will tell Moira, later; if I can.

All of us here will lick you into shape, says Aunt Lydia, with satisfied good cheer.

The van stops, the back doors are opened, the Guardian herds us out. At the front door stands another Guardian, with one of those snubby machine guns slung over his shoulder. We file towards the front door, in the drizzle, the Guardians saluting. The big Emerge van, the one with the machines and the mobile doctors, is parked farther along the circular drive. I see one of the doctors looking out the window of the van. I wonder what they do in there, waiting. Play cards, most likely, or read; some masculine pursuit. Most of the time they aren’t needed at all; they’re only allowed in if it can’t be helped.

It used to be different, they used to be in charge. A shame it was, said Aunt Lydia. Shameful. What she’d just showed us was a film, made in an olden-days hospital: a pregnant woman, wired up to a machine, electrodes coming out of her every which way so that she looked like a broken robot, an intravenous drip feeding into her arm. Some man with a searchlight looking up between her legs, where she’d been shaved, a mere beardless girl, a trayful of bright sterilized knives, everyone with masks on. A co-operative patient. Once they drugged women, induced labour, cut them open, sewed them up. No more. No anaesthetics, even. Aunt Elizabeth said it was better for the baby, but also: I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children. At lunch we got that, brown bread and lettuce sandwiches.

As I’m going up the steps, wide steps with a stone urn on either side, Ofwarren’s Commander must be higher status than ours, I hear another siren. It’s the blue Birthmobile, for Wives. That will be Serena Joy, arriving in state. No benches for them, they get real seats, upholstery. They face front and are not curtained off. They know where they’re going.

Probably Serena Joy has been here before, to this house, for tea. Probably Ofwarren, formerly that whiny bitch Janine, was paraded out in front of her, her and the other Wives, so they could see her belly, feel it perhaps, and congratulate the Wife. A strong girl, good muscles. No Agent Orange in her family, we checked the records, you can never be too careful. And perhaps one of the kinder ones: Would you like a cookie, dear?

Oh no, you’ll spoil her, too much sugar is bad for them.

Surely one won’t hurt, just this once, Mildred.

And sucky Janine: Oh yes, can I Ma’am, please?

Such a, so well behaved, not surly like some of them, do their job and that’s that. More like a daughter to you, as you might say. One of the family. Comfortable matronly chuckles. That’s all dear, you can go back to your room.

And after she’s gone: Little whores, all of them, but still, you can’t be choosy. You take what they hand out, right, girls? That from the Commander’s Wife.

Oh, but you’ve been so lucky. Some of them, why, they aren’t even clean. And won’t give you a smile, mope in their rooms, don’t wash their hair, the

smell. I have to get the Marthas to do it, almost have to hold her down in the bathtub, you practically have to bribe her to get her to take a bath even, you have to threaten her.

I had to take stern measures with mine, and now she doesn’t eat her dinner properly; and as for the other thing, not a nibble, and we’ve been so regular. But yours, she’s a credit to you. And any day now, oh, you must be so excited, she’s big as a house, I bet you can hardly wait.

More tea? Modestly changing the subject.

I know the sort of thing that goes on.

And Janine, up in her room, what does she do? Sits with the taste of sugar still in her mouth, licking her lips. Stares out the window. Breathes in and out. Caresses her swollen breasts. Thinks of nothing.

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