The Truth about the Lieutenant is a story Sophia consciously set outside the universe of her other sci fi stories. Sophia wanted to look at the psychological implications of totalitarianism, its subtle but pernicious impact. In The Truth about the Lieutenant, she depicts the totalitarian state not in its bloody extremity, but as a chilly dystopia marked by the suffocating constriction of human feeling. As much poem as narrative, The Truth about the Lieutenant is designed to evoke the estranging distance of dreams…
The Truth about the Lieutenant
Our lives no longer feel ground under them. At ten paces you can’t hear our words.
She stood in the centre of the railway station and positioned herself under the skylight, under the perfect blue eye which she could never resolve to think of as sublime or funny, which reminded her of love. She was meant to be listening to the War Minister who was saying something patriotic to the assembled class of graduate secret police. She really did mean to listen to him, she was a loyal servant of the state, but the blue morning kept drawing her eye.
“I am glad to have the chance of seeing you before I receive my orders,” said a voice, unexpectedly near her chair. The Minister must have finished and the audience started to mill around on the stage.
She was embarrassed by the thought he might have noticed her inattention, scared even. She was guilty. She ran her hands across her hips as if they were wet. “Lieutenant,” she said out loud and then whispered, “I couldn’t bear the thought of our separation.” She bit her lip.
He smiled in a fashion others would have considered superior, condescending even. She could not bring herself to regard it as such; she wanted to see in it something between the funny and the sublime. “I’ll meet you tonight at eight outside the barracks,” he said.
When he saw the War Minister coming, he took his foot off the chair next to her where he had placed it so that he could lean over her conspiratorially, and he sauntered off. She noticed that he held his hands in fists behind his back, as if he were always holding onto something.
She looked towards the Minister. He was grave and fatherly but younger than he looked in photographs. Did he perhaps look graver than usual—he couldn’t possibly know about her interest in the skylight? No, he beckoned to her impatiently and turned away. She retrieved her briefcase and notebook, gathered up the skins she had sloughed off, appeared at his elbow.
He smiled in the flashbulb of one of those cameras that would make him look older, clutching the hand of an earnest, uniformed, young man who would, no doubt, look younger in photographs. When he pulled away to descend the stairs of the dais, she followed her Minister as if he were tied to her with string. He said nothing; he looked so grave that she wondered if he ever would. A car door was opened for them; they climbed in. It smelt of industrial alcohol inside, like a sickbed after the patient had died. She coughed.
“I am about to tell you something you need to know,” said the Minister abruptly and she realised for the first time how sheeny his eyes were. It was as if they were sweating. “The President is dying.” He wasn’t crying, his eyes were sweating, they were polished like billiard balls.
She gasped, looked at the black upholstery of the floor, knew better than to ask about the news footage last week that seemed to show he was walking unaided and signing state papers. She swallowed. She knew.
The car drove them back to the headquarters. The Minister had an important meeting. She sat at her desk, outside his door. Her eyes kept being drawn to the emblem of the Party on the other wall. It was bright and simple, chosen from the centre of the colour wheel. It reminded her of the eye at the railway station—except, of course, that it was not remotely funny. She did not think about what might be going on in the important meeting.
Someone knocked, slipped themselves in without waiting for an answer. It was one of the other girls who worked in the building—though of course it was suspected that she did not work in the building really so much as watch the people who did. The War Minister’s secretary had no opinion on this. She took her hands off the desk. “The Minister is in an important meeting,” she said, noticing the other woman was buttoning and unbuttoning her cuff. She had a great deal of veins in her wrists.
“Actually, I wanted to see you. You need to know the truth about the Lieutenant.” The woman who might or might not work in the building paused. “A colleague of mine,” the Minister’s secretary knew she did not work in the building, “has become aware that the Lieutenant possesses some sensitive documents. We know that he is planning to blackmail the War Minister.”
The agent sat back in her chair, which she had taken without asking, her cuff was buttoned, the chair was uncomfortable. The Minister’s secretary gasped, swallowed, wanted to be surprised, found it beyond her, now she knew. “Why are you telling me?” She hadn’t meant to sound so sharp. She might be under suspicion.
“We would like you,” the agent’s fingers fondled her cuff again, “to help us recover the documents.” She sat back, she was testing, prodding inside the wound to see if it hurt. The chair was still uncomfortable. She made some adjustments to her spine.
“I’m meeting him tonight at eight outside the barracks.” The War Minister’s secretary said it too quickly, bit her lip. Could she still not bear the thought of their separation? Was this betrayal? She allowed herself for a second to think that he might be maligned. Would she be relieved if he was? No, she felt giddy.
They decided to take her there in their car. They wanted to keep her in sight. They did not say this. Along with the woman who did not work in the building, there was her colleague. They sat on the backseat together facing her—she was backwards. She couldn’t see the driver. The car smelt of leather. The upholstery was overstuffed and muscular, as if it was still flesh. Because she was backwards, she only saw the lights when they were already slipping away.
The window behind the two agents was like a skylight. It was a frame for blankness. She tried to keep her eyes fixed on it. The woman’s colleague was calm. He spread his legs out. He had the kind of expression one has if one is trying to recollect a forgotten tune. The light slid off his face like butter in a hot pan—he was too hot, too smooth. “You will tell him,” he said, his eyes still fixed on the lightshow outside, “about the conversation you had with my colleague. You will tell him you are worried for him. You will offer to help him.” He looked at her now. His eyes were sky blue. The woman had unbuttoned her cuff.
The War Minister’s secretary knew she was being tested. The fingers in the wound had discovered where it most hurt. She knew; she nodded. The car stopped.
She got out and walked round an angle through the shadows, avoiding the searchlight without thinking. She could see his back, he was smoking, he was bent a little looking down. When she was near enough for him to sense her, he turned around. He walked over to her and kissed her. He had never kissed her like this before; he had an urgency, a passion. This was exactly what she had wanted before. It was as if he knew.
“I was so worried, “she said, gasping for breath. “I love you.” She did not bite her lip, he bit it for her. They stepped reflexively together out of the sight of a searchlight.
“Why would you worry?” He knew—something. He was worried himself. Did he know?
“The woman who watches our building came to me at work and told me you were involved in something. She said you had some sensitive documents. I think she was testing me.” She told the truth. She was scared. They stood so close together.
He smiled broadly, every tooth visible in the faint glint. It was not an affectation, it was somewhere between the sublime and the funny. “I’m sure they were, my love. We are always testing.”
She wanted to cry but all her eyes did was become as sheeny as the War Minister’s. “I want to help you.”
His eyes were strange. “I’m sure you would, my dear, but that would be too dangerous.” He paused for a second, calculated, chuckled. “You know what those documents are? They’re photographs of the woman from your building and her superior.” He was telling the truth, there was a desperate humour to his words that made it undeniable.
Her cheeks flushed. “She said you were trying to blackmail the War Minister.”
“No, you know I would never do that.” He was clenching his hands in front of him now.
She thought he would. She always had. “I want to help you.”
In the car the two agents and the driver were huddled together. The woman’s colleague got out to meet the War Minister’s secretary as she walked back through the shadows. She spoke quickly. Her throat had contracted. “I don’t know if he knew but he said it was too dangerous for me to help him.” She swallowed.
The agent put his hand on her elbow. His eyes were sweating. “The President is dead.” A lot of muscles seemed to be in use to hold up his jaw. “We will return you to headquarters. The War Minister will need you.”
On the way back, the other woman sat beside the driver. The War Minister’s secretary was the right way around. She could feel the lights on her face. She saw afterimages. “What will happen to the Lieutenant?” she asked. She swallowed. She did not bite her lip. She did not know.
“He is very well connected,” said the agent who sat beside her. The black night behind her drew her in. The Lieutenant would be standing outside the gaze of the searchlights. “And so are you,” he continued. “You are an extraordinary young woman.”
He moved closer to her, almost as close as the Lieutenant had been. He probably looked older in photographs. She stared into a perfect blue eye, neither sublime nor funny. He blinked, “I want to help you.”
by Sophia Nugent-Siegal ©