I write my diaries daily, with details of my exercise and of the flowers, birds, and small animals we see in the gardens. I write nothing private or personal, as I am sure the keepers read my writings to ensure I am doing no wrong. The diaries are small red-bound books, about the size of the palm of my hand, with thin yellowish paper. I write with black ink and when a pen grows dry the keepers bring me another.
The books I am given to read are, I think, carefully chosen not to upset the even tenor of our lives. They are mostly stories of the old world, before the bombs and the plagues, and are often about animals, or such supernatural beings as flowered in the imagination of writers all those years ago. I miss the library in the place I was before, where I was permitted to read what I liked, so long as I remained quiet and cooperative. I learned much, but I never speak of it. The books I am now allowed reside on a shelf in the small sitting room which number eight and I have taken for our own. My diaries, however, live on a little writing desk beside my bed. I am lucky enough to have a bedroom to myself, as do number eight and two other girls. This is a privilege granted to us because we behave well, and never cause our keepers any trouble.
When matron visits at new moon, our names are never in the book for chastisement; we are always praised and held up as an example of the decorous behaviour expected in those who breed for the aristocracy.
If the keepers knew our innermost thoughts, we would be less petted. If they knew how we hate them, and how much we loathe their use of us, I think we would both be dead by now. But they do not, and we keep up our facade of colourless amiability in the hope that one day their carelessness will give us an opportunity to escape. It is a forlorn enough hope, but one we cling to.
From time to time there have been raids on this place. Breeders are a valuable commodity, and it is our guess that our masters are not the only ones who would make use of fertile wombs. When raiders come, we are hustled into a windowless, soundproof room, where we wait. Sometimes we wait for hours. Sometimes we wait for days. One time we waited so long that supplies were running low, and we began to fear we had been forgotten. When they finally let us out, all our old keepers were gone. One of the new ones let slip that their predecessors had either been killed or taken.
Since then, eight and I take care to be where the keepers cannot find us when the raid warnings sound. Unless we are heavy with child, we can easily climb the garden wall and hide among the servants. If climbing is out of the question, we take little-known passageways and conceal ourselves in curtained niches, or in the attics that run the length of this sprawling building. The first time we avoided the panic room, we thought there would be punishment coming our way, but the keepers only seemed pleased that we were back in our beds when the raid was over. We theorise that they would be punished for losing sight of us and so they choose to overlook this one misdemeanour in our otherwise blameless lives.
Sometimes, there have been questions about our seeming passivity, but we have grown wise to the signs of these, and we know what to say to which of our keepers to keep the curiosity of others at bay. We are always courteous to the keepers, and the midwives, and the many servants who buzz around the place largely ignored. Betimes, there have been new girls come among us who have had a mind to trouble. We have always seen the signs early, and ensured such as they leave us well alone. Eight is big and strong, and knows how to give pain without leaving a mark on the victim’s skin. I am not so big, but it is soon learned that anyone challenging me can expect to suffer subtle, but dangerous vengeance. If they are unable to find fuel for their malice among their fellow breeders, some of these disaffected girls have sought to have servants punished for imagined, or imaginary, infractions. We have thought this unfair, and spoken of the wrongness of the accusations with those among our keepers who are charged with discipline. We have always been believed. Mayhap we have made enemies, but we have also made friends. The friendship of servants is a better thing for our comfort and safety than the double-faced affections of most of our peers.
From The Barefoot Runners by Jane Jago.
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