Extract: I Who Have Never Known Men

Sisterhood. Secrets. Survival.
Read an extract from I Who Have Never Known Men by Jacqueline Harpman.

As far back as I can recall, I have been in the bunker.

Is that what they mean by memories? On the few occasions when the women were willing to tell me about their past, their stories were full of events, comings and goings, men… but I am reduced to calling a memory the sense of existing in the same place, with the same people and doing the same things – in other words, eating, excreting and sleeping. For a very long time, the days went by, each one just like the day before, then I began to think, and everything changed. Before, nothing happened other than this repetition of identical gestures, and time seemed to stand still, even if I was vaguely aware that I was growing and that time was passing. My memory begins with my anger.

My memory begins with my anger.

Back then, I wasn’t curious about things, and it didn’t occur to me to ask what the point of periods was. Perhaps I was naturally quiet, in any case, the response my rare questions did receive wasn’t exactly encouraging. More often than not, the women would sigh and look away, saying ‘What use would it be for you to know if we told you?’, which made me feel I was disturbing or upsetting them. I had no idea, and I didn’t press the matter. It wasn’t until much later that Anthea explained to me about periods. She told me that none of the women had much education; they were factory workers, typists or shop assistants – words that had never meant very much to me, and that they weren’t much better informed than I was. All the same, when I did find out, I felt they hadn’t really made an effort to teach me. I was furious. Anthea said that I wasn’t entirely wrong and tried to explain their reasons. I may come back to this later, if I remember, but at the time I want to write about, I was livid. I felt I was being scorned, as if I was incapable of understanding the answers to the few questions I asked, and I resolved not to take any further interest in the women.

Gradually, I turned my attention to the guards who paced up and down continually outside our cage.

I was surly all the time, but I was unaware of it, because I didn’t know the words for describing moods. The women bustled about, busying themselves with the few day-today activities but never inviting me to join them. I would crouch down and watch whatever there was to see. On reflection, that was almost nothing. They’d be sitting chatting, or, twice a day, they’d prepare the meal. Gradually, I turned my attention to the guards who paced up and down continually outside our cage. They were always in threes, a few paces apart, observing us, and we generally pretended to ignore their presence, but I grew inquisitive. I noticed that one of them was different: taller, slimmer and, as I realised after a while, younger. That fascinated me. In their more cheerful moments, the women would talk of men and love. They’d giggle and tease me when I asked what was so funny. I went over everything I knew: kisses, which were given on the mouth, embraces, making eyes at someone, playing footsie, which I didn’t understand at all, and then came seventh heaven – my goodness! Given that I’d never seen any sky at all and had no idea what the first heaven or any of the others in between were, I didn’t dwell on it. They would also complain about the brutality. It hurt, men didn’t care about women, they got them pregnant and then walked out, saying, ‘How do I know it’s mine?’ Sometimes the women would declare that it was no great loss, and at others they would start to cry. But I was destined to remain a virgin. One day, I screwed up the courage to put aside my anger and question Dorothy, the least intimidating of the two elderly women.

‘You poor thing!’

And, after a few sighs, she came out with the usual reply:

‘What point is there in your knowing, since it can’t happen to you?’

‘Because I want to know!’ I raged, suddenly grasping why it was so important to me.

I would never make love, they would never make love again

She couldn’t understand why someone would want knowledge that would be of no use to them, and I couldn’t get anything out of her. It was certain that I would die untouched, and I wanted to satisfy my curiosity at least. Why were they all so determined to keep silent? I tried to console myself with the thought that it was no secret anyway, because they all shared it. Was it to give it an additional sparkle that they refused to tell me, to give it the lustre of a rare gem? By remaining silent, they were creating a girl who didn’t know and who would regard them as the custodians of a treasure. Did they only keep me in ignorance so they could pretend they weren’t entirely powerless? They sometimes claimed it was out of modesty but I could see perfectly well that, among themselves, they had no modesty. They whispered and tittered and were lewd. I would never make love, they would never make love again: perhaps that made us equal and they were trying to console themselves by depriving me of the only thing they could.

I’d never seen kittens and I had absolutely no idea what fine weather might be...

Often, in the evening, before falling asleep, I would think about the young guard. I drew on the little I’d been able to guess: in another life, he’d have come and sat beside me, he’d have asked me to dance and told me his name. I’d have had a name which I’d have told him, and we’d have talked. Then, if we were attracted to each other, we’d have walked hand in hand. Maybe I wouldn’t have found him interesting: he was the only one of our six jailers who wasn’t old and decrepit, and I was probably indulgent because I’d never met any other young men. I tried to imagine our conversation, in a past that I hadn’t known: Will it be fine again tomorrow? Have you seen next door’s kittens? I hear your aunt’s going on holiday … but I’d never seen kittens and I had absolutely no idea what fine weather might be, which put an end to my reverie. Then I’d think about kissing, imagining the guard’s mouth as precisely as I could. It was quite wide, with well-defined, thinnish lips – I didn’t like the full lips that some of the women had. I pictured my lips drawing close to his: there was probably something else I needed to know, because I felt nothing in particular.

But then, one evening, instead of falling asleep from the boredom of trying to imagine a kiss that would never happen, I suddenly remembered that the women had spoken of interrogations, saying they were surprised that there’d never been any. I embellished the little they’d said: I imagined the guards coming to fetch one of the women, taking her away screaming and terrified. Sometimes, the woman was never seen again, sometimes she’d be flung back among us in the morning, covered in burns, injured, moaning, and would not always survive. I thought: ‘Ha! If there were interrogations, he’d come and get me and I’d leave this room where I’ve always lived. He’d drag me along unknown corridors, and then something would happen!’