I keep thinking about a scene from the first series of The Handmaid’s Tale TV adaptation. It’s a flashback, with the main character Offred remembering a trip to the café she took with a friend after going for a run together. They get to the till to pay for their drinks and her card is declined — there are “insufficient funds” in her account, even though she says she deposited her paycheck the day before. It’s weird, but cards sometimes glitch, so she politely asks the barista to process it again.
But then she notices it’s not Claire, the woman who usually works there, but a new guy with a slicked down retro fascist haircut. Suddenly he’s verbally abusing them until they leave for their own safety, in a way that no male employee would ever do to a female customer unless something fundamental had changed about the way society and justice worked.
Because of course that is what has happened: even if you haven’t read or seen a version of this book, you’ll know because of its pop cultural ubiquity that Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel is about a totalitarian, theocratic society that controls women’s fertility as its principal commodity. I stopped watching the TV show when it departed from the book in the second series because there was just too much onscreen torture of women for my taste, but I liked the first because of flashbacks like this one. They made visible what Atwood mostly leaves implied in the book. You don’t suddenly wake up one morning and find that you’re an indentured surrogate for a hideously oppressive regime. Major societal upheaval happens in small yet profound shifts, each one stranger and less palatable than the last. It’s the boiled frog thing.
Offred doesn’t know it yet in that scene, but her card has been declined because since the last time she tried to buy something (presumably the day before) it’s become illegal for women to own property or have their own bank accounts. Her money is now in limbo until a male relative takes control of it on her behalf. Which is a massive and awful alteration in her rights, but she first experiences it as a small irritation: a card not working and a man being unnecessarily horrible to her about it. For the viewer, it’s all laden with meaning and points towards the terror to come, but Elisabeth Moss does a great job of portraying oblivious frustration (which of course only adds to the foreshadowing effect).
I’m not thinking about this because I want to compare the current global response to coronavirus to a Handmaid’s Tale style dystopia, nor do I necessarily think that the measures enforced where I am in the UK this week to keep people in their homes to prevent infection from spreading are the “thin end of the wedge” when it comes to a degradation of civil liberties or anything. I mean, they might be, who knows, but I’m neither expert enough nor calm enough at the moment to research that properly. This scene keeps replaying in my mind I think because I’m so aware of how very little has changed and yet so much. My mind keeps returning to dwell on the relationship between Offred unsuccessfully swiping her card at one end and the complete confiscation of all women’s property at the other, because it’s a dynamic that I recognise in my own life at the moment.
I am unbelievably, ridiculously lucky that I’m well, my family is well, and that both I and my husband have jobs that will carry on paying us to work at home. And that we have a home to be in, one that we aren’t in danger of losing as the economic consequences of all this hit. On an hour by hour level, life has not changed very much for me, which is shocking in its own way (I should have worked less and got out more when I had the chance). For the past almost three years I’ve done my writing at home, and I didn’t tend to go out much because I’m lazy and prone to working all the time for no real reason. Almost all of my job, besides public events connected to my podcast and book or travel for research, happens online. Aside from only being allowed to do one dog walk a day instead of my usual two and having my husband at home full time now, you could say that everything is exactly the same for me.
I feel a bit sick even typing that because looking out at the rest of the world I know that nothing will ever be the same again. I’m constantly talking to family and friends in big cities with massive outbreaks and fearing for their safety. My South African relations are bracing for a nationwide 21 day lockdown from tomorrow and feeling fearful at seeing so many soldiers in the streets again. And yet by comparison my own situation is like Offred swiping the card: a tiny, barely perceptible manifestation of a huge and seismic shift everywhere else.
In the past 10 days since we put our household in proper isolation, I’ve been having an odd sensation of double vision. Or perhaps I can better describe it as the feeling that someone has broken into my life, rifled through all my stuff, and then put it back just ever so slightly wrong. All my things are an inch to the left of where I expect them to be. In this analogy, I put my hand out to grab my headphones where they always hang on the hook by my desk, but they’re not there — they’re on the windowsill instead, even though I definitely put them back on the hook last time I used them. It’s that tiny unsettling jolt of a card being declined, over and over again, and I’m not used to it yet.