Margaret Atwood Dancing Girls and other stories



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Margaret Atwood

Dancing Girls and other stories

Copyright © 1977, 1982 by O. W. Toad, Ltd.



The War in the Bathroom

Monday


Late this afternoon she moved out of the old place into the new one. The moving was accomplished with a minimum of difficulty: she managed to get everything into the two suitcases and was able to carry them herself for the three blocks that separate the old place from the new one. She only had to stop and rest twice. She is quite strong for her age. A man came along and offered to help her, rather a pleasant-looking man, but I have told her never to accept help from strangers.

I think the German woman was glad to see her go. She always regarded her with a certain amount of suspicion. She stood on the wooden porch in her slippers, watching, her arms in their gray ravelled sweater-sleeves folded across her fat stomach, her slip hanging an inch below the figured cotton housedress she always wore. I, for one, have always disliked the German woman. I had become tired of seeing that certain things in the room had been moved (though she took pains to set them back in the approximate proper spot, she was never quite meticulous enough), and I had begun to suspect lately that she was looking at the mail: the envelopes had greasy thumbprints, and it is still too cold for the postmen to go without their gloves. The new place has a landlord instead of a landlady; I think, on the whole, I pre­fer them.

When she reached the new place she got the keys from an old man who lives in the ground-floor front room. He answered the doorbell; the landlord was out, but had told him she was to be expected. An agreeable old man with white hair and a benevolent smile. She took the suitcases up the narrow staircase to the second floor, one at a time. She has spent what was left of the day arranging the room. This room is smaller than the old one, but at least it is clean. She put the clothes into the cupboard and some of them into the bureau. There are no shelves so she will have to keep the saucepan, the cup, the plate, the silverware, and the coffee­pot in one of the bureau drawers. However there is a small table, and I decided that the teapot may be left on it, even between mealtimes. It has a decorative pattern.

She made up the bed with the sheets and blankets that the landlord had provided. The room has a northern expo­sure and will be chilly. Fortunately there is an electric heater in the room. She has always been partial to warmth, although I myself have never been overly conscious of tem­perature. A compensation: the room is the one next to the bathroom, which will be handy.

The Notebook will be kept on the table, beside the tea­pot.

Tomorrow she must go outside for some groceries, but now she will go to bed.


Tuesday


She was lying in bed this morning trying to get back to sleep. I was looking at the clock and agreeing with her that indeed the mattress was thin and quite hard, harder even than the one at the old place. It was almost nine and I told her to reach out and shut off the clock before the alarm went off.

Someone came up the front stairs, slowly, with a limp­ing step, and went into the bathroom, closing and locking the door. I have discovered that the walls are not thick and noises tend to carry. She was about to turn over and sleep again when the person in the bathroom began to cough vio­lently. Then there was a sound of clearing and spitting and the toilet being flushed. I am sure I know who it was: it must be the old man from downstairs. The poor man must have a cold. He stayed in the bathroom exactly half an hour though, which is rather long; and he managed to make a number of unpleasant noises. I can see that the room beside the bathroom may have its disadvantages and I am begin­ning to realize why the landlord was willing to rent it so cheaply.

I finally persuaded her to get up and close the window (I have always felt fresh air to be necessary for one's health, although she is not fond of it) and turn on the electric heater. She began to go back to bed but I told her to put on the clothes: she had to go shopping, there was nothing to eat. She went into the bathroom, none too soon because there were other footsteps approaching. I thought that the bathroom could have been cleaner; however, this morning she just washed in the basin. Plenty of hot water at any rate.

She went back into the room and put on her coat and overshoes. I told her she had better put on the scarf too as I had noted frost on the storm window. She picked up the purse and went out of the room, locking the door behind her. The bathroom door was closed as she went by; the light showed through the transom. When she reached the bottom of the stairs the old man was in the hall, sorting out the mail on the small dark table that stands near the front door. He was wearing his bathrobe; below it his striped pyjamas went down, then his thin ankles and maroon-leather bedroom slippers. He smiled beautifully and said good morning. I told her to nod and smile back.

She closed the front door behind her and took the gloves out of her pocket and put them on. She made her way down the porch steps, carefully, since they were icy. I have often noticed that it is much less dangerous for her to go up steps than to go down them.

She walked along the street towards the place, a few blocks along, where I knew there was a store. I gloated over the houses on the street as she passed them, fondling them, placing them in order: red brick houses, double houses mostly, like the one that the room is in, with twin wooden porches. The houses near the old place had been bigger. I had been on this street before, of course (it was not far from the old place), but now I could regard this street for the first time as mine, as part of the new territory through which I could trace out pathways and my own familiar routes. These trees were mine. This sidewalk was mine. When the snow melted and the trees blossomed, the damp earth and the new leaves and the spring water running in the gutters would be mine.

She turned onto a main street with cars moving on it and walked a block and turned and walked two more blocks until she reached the store. There had been another store nearer to the old place. I had never been in this partic­ular store.

She went in the glass doors and through the turnstile. Then she hesitated: she did not know whether to take a pushcart or a wire basket. She felt that the pushcarts are easier, wire baskets are heavy to carry; but I said she wouldn't be buying that much and pushcarts get in the way and slow things up so she finally took a basket.

I always have to watch how much she spends. She would like to buy steak and mushrooms, of course, and olives and pies and pork roasts. Her old habits are hard to break. But I insist that she get things that are cheap and nourishing. It is, after all, the middle of the month, and the government cheque will not come for some time. After the rent has been paid there is not a great quantity of money left for other things. I must remember to have her make out a change-of-address card. She dislikes wieners but I made her buy a package of six. They have a lot of protein for the money. She got bread, and butter (I draw the line at marga­rine) and a quart of milk and some packaged soups, they are nice on a cold day, and some tea and eggs and several small tins of baked beans. She wanted some ice cream but I told her to get a package of frozen peas instead.

The check-out girl was rude to her simply because some of the things got mixed up with those of the woman ahead. Also I suspect she would have tried to short-change if she had dared. I wonder if it is worthwhile walking the extra distance to the old store?

She carried the parcel back easily enough and put the milk and the eggs and the frozen peas into the refrigerator, which is in the ground-floor hallway. The refrigerator has a peculiar odour. Perhaps the landlord should be told to clean it. She then went upstairs and got some water from the bathroom and made herself a cup of coffee on the one-burner hotplate (the coffee came in the suitcase along with the sugar and the salt and the pepper) and ate some bread and butter. While she was eating, someone went into the bathroom; not the old man this time, but a woman. She must talk to herself; at any rate I distinguished two voices, one high and querulous, the other an urgent whisper: most curious. The walls are thin but I could not quite hear what she was saying.

When the footsteps had gone out she took the cup and spoon into the bathroom and washed them in the basin. Then she lay down and had a nap. I felt she deserved it after all the walking she had done. It was suppertime when she woke up. She opened one of the cans of beans. When the cheque comes she must buy a new can-opener.

After I finish this I will do a little reading in the Bible (the lighting in this room is better than I would have ex­pected) and then she will go to bed. Note: tomorrow she must take a bath.

Wednesday


This appears to be a daily occurrence. At nine o'clock ex­actly I was again awakened by the old man limping into the bathroom. He has a most rending cough. It sounds as though he is vomiting. Perhaps it would be possible for her to change the position of the bed so that her head is farther away from the wall. But when I consider the size and shape of the room I can see that there is only one place for it. Really it is annoying. Somehow when she coughs herself it is quite different from listening to someone else cough. If he keeps on coughing like that he will soon cough up every­thing inside him. I suppose I should feel sorry. Again this morning he stayed in the bathroom for half an hour.

Later, when she had got up and put on the clothes, she went downstairs to get the milk from the refrigerator. The old man had arranged the letters on the hall table: one letter in each corner of the table, and one in the centre. I must remember to have her fill out a change-of-address card.

Several times during the morning the woman with the two voices came into the bathroom. She seemed to be emp­tying pails or saucepans of water into the basin. Again I could hear the high voice and the harsh whisper. Talking to oneself is a bad habit. When she went in to wash the cup and plate after lunch, she found a potato peeling caught in the drain.

Later in the afternoon I told her that she must take a bath. She would like to have avoided it because the bath­room tends to be chilly, but I keep telling her that cleanliness and good health necessarily go together. She locked the door and I had her kneel beside the bathtub so that I could inspect it thoroughly. I found a small hair, and some lint around the drain.

At the old place there was only one other person who used the same bathroom, a working girl who used to wash her stockings and leave them on the towel-rack. There is something repugnant about sharing the bathroom with other people. She always feels that the toilet seat is warmer than it ought to be, and I must say that I find even the thought of brushing one's teeth in the same basin used by total strangers disagreeable. I told her that someday soon she would have a bathroom of her own again, but I think she did not believe me. I must have her get a fresh bottle of antiseptic: the present one is almost empty.

The water was hot and she had a pleasant bath, though it was not as leisurely as it might have been. There were anxious footsteps walking outside the door, several times. It would certainly help if the landlord would install another bathroom; perhaps there is space for one in the basement.

Of course I had her clean the bathtub thoroughly after using it. The landlord has provided a sponge for this pur­pose, as well as a can of cleanser, which indicates that he, at least, has the right idea. Today also she washed out the un­derwear and hung it over the electric heater to dry.

Thursday


This morning it rained, which, I can see from the window, has melted the snow in the backyard considerably. If it con­tinues warm she will have to start keeping the butter in the refrigerator; thus far the cupboard has been quite cool enough for it.

The old man is becoming intolerable. I am beginning to sense a certain aggressiveness about his activities in the bathroom. I feel that he does not want her in this house: he is trying to make her leave. This time he gargled, making a most repulsive sound. He must be discouraged; he must be made to understand that I cannot put up with it for long. She needs her sleep and must have peace. I am sure it would be possible for him to do that sort of thing in his own room, out of earshot.

I had her leave a note for the landlord about the smell in the refrigerator, but by suppertime, although the note was gone from the table, the refrigerator had still not been cleaned. Some people are quite difficult.

The woman with two voices continues to be active. To­day she had a bath. I am beginning to think that she is actually two people, there was such a lot of splashing in the tub; but I can distinguish only one set of footsteps going in and coming out. The whispering voice becomes more vio­lent, almost hysterical. The other voice remains formless.

The food supply is running low. Today she finished the frozen peas and the milk. Soon she will have to go to the store again, but I hope that it will be on a day when it is not raining. The overshoes are none too solid, and I agree with her that wet feet are unpleasant as well as being bad for the health.

Friday


She passed the old man on the stairs today. After his nine o'clock ritual, an even nastier one than usual this morning, he had the gall to smile, as though he is not even aware that I live next to the bathroom (although he must have heard her walking down the hall). There was something malevo­lent beneath the innocence of his smile. I told her not to smile back: she frowned and closed her mouth more tightly. He must not be encouraged to think that he can continue to get away with it.

Today I found a piece of cooked macaroni stuck in the drain. That is the doing of the woman with two voices. Perhaps she is a foreigner. Whatever she is, she is obviously not a neat person.


Saturday


Today she went to the store again, before lunch. I thought she could do without the scarf, as the sun was out. The streets are almost clear of snow now but there will doubt­less be another storm before spring. As she walked I thought about the old man. Clearly something must be done soon. I cannot relay a message through the landlord: he is evidently untrustworthy. The refrigerator still has not been cleaned. If she begins to keep the butter in the refriger­ator I know it will pick up the smell. The windowsill may be cool enough.

She bought more milk and another package of wieners, and a tin of tunafish for variety (although the latter was quite expensive). She bought also a quarter of a pound of cheese and a package of brown rice. One must regulate one's vitamins. When the cheque comes she will be able to get some oranges. This time she went through a different check-out counter and there was no trouble.

I thought that it would not do to talk to him in person. He would only take offence, or pretend that he did not know she was being awakened, or that no one had any right to question what he did in the bathroom. He will have some evasive answer and will continue to behave in the same way every morning. I kept thinking about the time: he is always so punctual. I wonder what would happen if his pattern were to be interrupted? Everyone else in the house seems to regard the half hour between nine and nine-thirty as his; at least, no one is ever in the bathroom just before nine. Cer­tainly it would let him know that I know, and that it will be difficult for him to continue. He will not be allowed to drive her out.

When she was going up the steps I thought I saw him looking out from behind the Venetian blind in the front window. Is he trying to keep track of her movements?

This afternoon I decided that I had to know about the woman with two voices. She went into the bathroom about mid-afternoon, and there were loud splashing noises. I strained, trying to tell the separate voices apart, but they seemed to overlap. I told her that she had to wait behind the door and open it quickly as soon as she heard the key being turned in the bathroom lock. She managed to time it just right. I was able to confront the woman as she was coming out. I know now that there are two women. The one that whispers is an old lady, very thin, with small dark eyes that are like holes in her head. She was wrapped in a blanket and was being carried by the other woman; her legs and her crooked bare feet dangled from the blanket. When she saw me she nodded and grinned. The other woman is heavy set and muscular, with a round vacuous face. She stood in the doorway and stared until the old woman said something to her in a sharp whisper and prodded her with a twisted hand. Then she turned and carried the old woman down the hall, plodding on her thick feet, replying in a high whine that had no words in it at all. The old woman's head looked over her shoulder, grinning, until they disappeared around the corner of the hall.

I told her to close the door. She was upset so I let her lie down for a short rest. I will never allow her to live like that.

After supper I thought about the old man again. I had her sit up later than usual so that I could listen for the clock of the church on the corner strike the hour. I set the alarm exactly.

Sunday


The alarm went off at twenty minutes to nine. I had allowed for the usual five to ten minutes that it takes to urge her out of bed. She put on the dressing gown and the slippers that I had her leave on the chair, ready, the night before, and shut the window and collected the things together: soap, tooth­brush, bath towel, nail brush, Notebook, antiseptic bottle, room key, and the clock. At ten minutes to nine she went out of the room, locking the door, and went into the bath­room and turned the key carefully in the lock. She cleaned the bathtub and disinfected it and ran the bathwater till the tub was quite full. I thought how pleasant it was that the sound of running water drowned out all the noises from the rest of the house. It is a true luxury to make noises that the outside people have to listen to while being unable to hear any that they may make in return. I thought, this bath­room is mine now. It is my territory; I can go into it and out of it whenever I please. It is the only place where I am safe.

She placed the clock and the Notebook on the floor and' lay back in the warm water. I told her not to be disturbed.

At nine o'clock exactly I heard his limping steps coming down the hall; she smiled. The footsteps paused outside the door, shuffled hesitantly, then began to pace back and forth. The clock ticked. I told her to make some splashing noises. At twenty minutes past nine the footsteps began to jig up and down impatiently outside. Then he knocked on the door. I told her not to say anything; she put her hand over her mouth to keep from laughing out loud.

The knocking increased to a pounding. He was ham­mering on the door with both fists. "Let me in," he shouted, pleading. His voice was frantic. I pictured his thin legs in the striped pyjamas, and the bathrobe and the ma­roon slippers.

At nine-thirty the pounding stopped. He made a chok­ing noise, an inarticulate sound of rage and despair, and the footsteps limped away down the hall. Urgently, almost run­ning. She smiled and swirled some of the water over her stomach. She keeps her figure remarkably well.

The footsteps went down two or three stairs; then there was a crash and a thumping sound and a wail of pain that faded into silence. I could hear other doors being opened.

She made a movement to get out of the bathtub but I told her to stay where she was. She lay in the bathtub, star­ing at her pink toes floating on the surface of the water, while I listened. I knew the bathroom door was securely locked.

For the time being I have won.




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