2050 Version 1.1
They just keep coming. What else can they do? Their islands are going under. Ours is too, but fortunately for us our island is big enough to provide dry land for our population to live on for many years to come. The truth is we have enough land for all these poor people as well, but what about food and drinking water? And we can’t just let them take all our jobs and use all our coal. So I’m here behind this sand dune shooting at the two vessels as they approach the beach, and they’re shooting back, although they haven’t got a chance. I can’t believe they’ve even made it this far in those creaky and overcrowded old boats.
We hold them off for half an hour, until we hear the sound we’re waiting for. The drone rips the air above us and swoops low across the waves as bombs splash the water, obliterate the wooden boats and leave the beach full of screams and smoke. Unlike some of my colleagues, I don’t feel particularly pleased about this. I hear children crying, think about my own troubled kids and wish there could be another way. Since I can’t begin to imagine what that way might be, I know this is a futile train of thought. I should block my regrets and just be relieved that I see the coastguard boat coming in to clean up the mess. Soon I can go home.
Some of the soldiers want to celebrate, or whatever you want to call it, at the club and although part of me is tempted to numb my conflicted mind with alcohol, I decline and walk towards the bus stop. I message Victor to say I’m coming home and he replies that he’s already there with the kids, and can I pick up some bread? He sensibly completed his military service when he was young and now he works in the shipyard making aircraft carriers. I kept delaying my service with studies and children until, at thirty-seven, I couldn’t put it off any longer. As always when I think about these things, I silently pray to the universe that I can make it through these two years alive, uninjured and without killing too many people in the process.
Sighing, I cross the road to join the queue at the bakery. Now I will miss the bus and have to wait at least another half hour for the next one. Well, the children have to be fed and these are the sacrifices we must make. I know I should just be thankful my country isn’t disappearing under the sea.
At home Victor is trying to ignore the noise of kids fighting, while he watches the video box with his earphones in. They all stop what they are doing when they see the loaf of bread and everyone helps prepare plates, margarine, lettuce and the remainders of last night’s chicken. It’s quiet around the kitchen bench as everyone eats hungrily. As I finish my sandwich, I’m already looking forward to the time we can kill the next chicken.
“So what happened at school today?” I ask. Cindy shrugs, and Dylan says, “Nothing.” I turn to Victor, “How about you? Anything interesting in your world?”
“I helped build more machines of war. The usual. How was your day? Kill many people?”
He’s been drinking. I glare at him and the kids kick each other under the table. “Okay kids. D’you want to watch a video?” I usher them to their bedroom and shut the door.
When I return Victor has retrieved his rum and is drinking it from the bottle. “How about using a glass, at least,” I suggest, but he ignores me. Against all good judgement, I continue, “Well, I’d appreciate it if you could try to avoid scarring the children any more than is strictly necessary.”
“What’s the fucking point? If they survive childhood, this country’s not going to be any place for well-balanced adults. They may as well get used to being traumatised when they’re young.” He actually makes a surprising amount of sense. Maybe he hasn’t drunk that much.
“Come on Victor. I know things don’t seem great right now, but we’ve got to try to make things better don’t we? We chose to have kids and now we’re responsible for them,” I plead, trying to find the speck of optimism still buried inside me.
“Make things better? How are you going to that exactly? What’s your plan, Ruby?”
“I don’t know. At least try to raise our children well. And we can.. try to stop climate change getting worse… talk to people.. ” I trail off. He looks at me with astonished contempt.
“Sometimes you really are an idiot. When are you going to face reality? It’s too late! Nothing is ever going to get better. It’s only going to get worse. Worse and worse and then fucking terrible. We were deluding ourselves when we had those kids.”
“Those kids!! Well, we’ve had them now, and they’re here and they’re human beings! You’re their father! It’s your duty to take care of them!” I’m yelling now, but I can’t stop myself. The frustration is too much. Victor obviously feels the same, as he grabs his bottle and leaves the house, slamming the door behind him. The shining tower of hope I was trying to build in my mind crumbles at my feet. It had no foundations, and was empty inside.
When I wake, my first pleasant thought is that it’s a day off, until I smell Victor’s rummy breath and remember what happened yesterday. At least he came home. I sneak out of the bedroom and find the kids playing quietly at the kitchen bench. That makes a change. I kiss them and heat some oats for their breakfast. They seem okay, but it’s so hard to tell with children. After we eat they get ready for school. I’m just helping Cindy with her shoes when Victor appears, looking like hell. Dylan opens the front door and proposes a race to the bus stop, and they’re gone.
“Do you want me to call in sick for you?” I offer. He nods, collapsing on the couch. I hand him a bowl of porridge, and phone the shipyard with the usual lies.
“Shall we do something today?” I venture.
“I don’t know. Go for a bike ride?”
He groans. “I’m really not up for that today, sorry. Maybe tomorrow.”
“All right. I’ll go by myself.” I pack a bag to take, without much enthusiasm, but I’ve got to do something. I’m not giving up on this life yet, even if Victor is. Already, I find myself rebuilding that hollow tower. I leave him on the couch and ride out into the late autumn day. It’s just like midsummer from my childhood: no clouds, a burning sun and a hot wind. I don’t want to think about how much has changed since I was little, so I try to dig up pleasant memories from my adult years instead.
There was a time when Dylan was newly born when life seemed to have promise. Victor had finished his military duty in Indonesia and was brimming with relief to be alive and gratitude to be home. We somehow imagined I could keep delaying my service forever. In those couple of years it seemed as if Australia might escape the worst effects of the crazy weather and rising sea levels. Especially though, our magical baby was the symbol of hope that we craved. It was impossible to be cynical in the face of so much innocence and trust. I remember feeding him in bed, half-asleep, while Victor stroked his head. We smiled at each other and it didn’t matter if he woke us up five times every night, because we believed his new life could mean a new life for us as well.
It was almost the same when Cindy was born two years later, but not quite, because of the floods that month. They tore through Queensland and New South Wales with terrifying destruction and although we were not directly affected, so many around us were. Victor’s parents lost their house and their dog. Our optimism did not have exactly the same quality as before, though our love for Cindy was no less. She was our sunny, blonde baby.
I have been riding along an old bike path, along the dunes behind the beach. There are no boat arrivals today, so no soldiers are around, although there are signs of them everywhere: bullet shells, hastily built and covered pit toilets, tree branches bent over for camouflage. The path has not been maintained for years, and there are several potholes and large rocks to navigate. If I stretch up, I can just see the ocean beyond the dunes. Today the waves are small and regular, and an onshore breeze wafts warm, salty air in my face.
Maybe we could have been happy here, if only the future was not so depressing.
After Cindy was about three months old everything went downhill. The news consisted only of natural disasters, climate refugees, food rations, disease outbreaks and military conflicts. These stresses brought some families closer together, but for whatever reason ours couldn’t cope and seemed to get torn apart. Why? I want to go back to those younger days! With my babies and my loving husband! Maybe it’s my fault. Maybe I have become too bitter. Even if it’s not my fault, they say you can’t change anyone but yourself. Actually it was my mother who used to say that. She seemed wiser than I, but she didn’t live in a time of all-out war. Still, I know she fought her own battles trying to prevent the hell that is life today. Of course she lost, but she did try her best, and at least she managed to keep her family together. I should probably try to be more caring and forgiving like she was. I should work harder on my family. They are all I have. I am struck by a wave of determination and turn my bike around to ride home.
Victor is lying on the couch staring at the ceiling. I kiss his brown forehead and suggest a movie. He consents. I connect the video box to the big screen and choose an old favourite we haven’t seen for a while. I lift his head on my lap and stroke him like a cat as we watch. He loves that. Halfway through he begins to touch my body, and I know he’s in the mood for love, so to speak. It’s been a long time. I lie on top of him on the couch, and we writhe around a bit before he pulls off my shirt. He asks if we need a condom, but I don’t have one. Luckily my period’s just finished so it’s not really necessary. We get naked and roll onto the floor with the movie still playing beside us. Life is hard, but there is still some joy to be had. For a few minutes I feel young again. The worried lines are gone from Victor’s brow. Afterwards, we both nap a little on the rug.
Before the children come home, I collect what vegetables I can find in our unloved garden and a couple of eggs from the chickens. I’m going to make a quiche and we’re going to eat it together and try to open the channels of communication. I tell Victor my “happy family” mission and he agrees to make an effort. I don’t know if it’s the hangover or the sex that is making him so acquiescent, but maybe he still loves us after all.
When the kids walk through the door, the quiche is in the oven and I tell them to put their bags away, then come and sit with me. “Why!?” whines Dylan.
“Because I want to hear about what happened at school and then we’re going to eat the nice quiche that I made. We need our family to be closer, stronger, more positive, okay?” I say. I can hear the desperation in my voice, but I’m hoping it’s not too obvious. Dylan rolls his eyes at Cindy, but they do as I ask. I beckon Victor and we all sit at the bench and look at each other awkwardly.
“Cindy, let’s start with you. Tell us how school is going, sweety.”
“It’s all right,” she says shyly. I suddenly realise just how inattentive to her I have been lately.
“Tell me something about it. Your teacher, your friends, anything.”
“Wellll… my best friend Jade, she doesn’t come to class any more. Her father died in north Queensland and she got really sad and now she doesn’t come any more.” She looks up at me with her blue eyes, wondering whether I can somehow fix this situation.
“Oh darling, that’s terrible. You must miss her. How about we give her a call?”
She nods slowly. “But what am I going to say?”
“Well, you can just ask her how she’s going and if she needs anything, if she wants you to visit her, if her Mum wants to talk to me, maybe? We’ll do it after dinner, okay?” Cindy seems to like the idea, and feeling like a successful parent, I turn to Dylan.
“What about you, Dyl? What’s going on with you?”
“Nothing!” he snaps. I flash a look at Victor, and he joins the conversation.
“Come on, little man, there must be something happening. What’s your favourite subject?”
“None of them!”
“Okay, who’s your best friend?” he persists.
“All right, sweety,” I say. “If you don’t feel like talking now that’s fine, but we’re always here if you want to tell us something, okay?. Who wants dinner?”
“Meeeeee!” both kids chorus, so I serve the quiche, and everyone focuses on eating for fifteen minutes or so. I watch Dylan wolfing down his food and brush my fingers through his black hair. He recoils from my touch. I try smiling at him and he stares back blankly. Well, mending our broken relationships will take time. I have to expect that.
After we clean the dishes I look up Jade’s mother and dial the number, with Cindy standing expectantly at my knee. Sadly, the call goes to voice mail, so all I can do is leave a message. Cindy is disappointed, but I distract her by suggesting a family game of scrimble. Victor doesn’t join, as his hangover has become too much and he needs to sleep. Dylan is sullen, but he agrees to participate. While the children think about which words they will make, I think about their future. Of course, it does not look good right now, but who knows what could happen? Things have changed so much since I was a child, for the worse of course, but it is possible things could change for the better. How else are we supposed to live, if we don’t believe this?
Two days later my plans for a family picnic are ruined when the phone rings very early and my commanding officer tells me a boat is approaching the shore, and I must immediately report for duty. The unit truck picks me up and as we drive I am informed that a drone malfunction has allowed the refugees to land and evade all border protection measures. By the time we arrive, their rickety little boat is abandoned on the beach, and no-one is to be seen. We fan out with our machine guns ready and push through the bush behind the dunes. Soon I hear a splatter of shots and screams a couple of hundred metres away, so I know they can’t have gone too far. Every cell in my body yearns for me not to find anyone.
Not too long after the first shooting I hear another, then all is quiet for a long time. I stray farther from the other troops until I am well out of sight and can breathe a little easier. This is not how I wanted to spend my Sunday. I lower the gun from my shoulder and wander slowly through the undergrowth. I hear a distant yell and more gunshots, and then very close a stick snaps loudly. Nooo! I try not to look at anything, but I can’t help seeing a young woman behind a tree a few metres to my left. Her long, black hair is full of leaves and her almond eyes are full of tears.
For a few moments both of us are motionless, until she whispers to me with utter desperation,
“Please don’t kill me! I have a baby. Please don’t kill me. I’ll give you money, anything. Please!”
Oh, Jesus! It’s too much for me. I do not have the strength for this. There is no way I can shoot her. I’m going to have to hide her.
“Okay. Come here,” I hiss. With a thudding heart, I drag her west, where the vegetation gets very thick. We’re almost running and I charge through the tangled branches until we reach the hidden ti-tree creek. I point to a decrepit jetty in the distance on the other side and whisper in her ear,
“Swim to that jetty. Don’t let anyone see you. I’ll meet you there in a few hours.” Her eyes are wide.
“I can’t swim.” Now my eye are wide. And my teeth clamp together.
“You’ll just have to learn. It’s mostly shallow. There is no other way.” She nods quickly, once, then slips into the water and crawls along the creek bed. I can’t watch her. I crash back through the trees and resume my pretend search.
After over an hour and several more shootings, the captain radios in that the mission is over. We muster at the parking lot with the bodies, make our reports and the company is dismissed for the remainder of the weekend. I try to appear calm, but I’m not the only one shaken up after this operation. The refugees very rarely make it ashore, so our battles are typically fought at much greater distances. Seeing the faces up close is not something we are used to. Many of the soldiers want to go to the club, but I tell them I’ve made arrangements with my kids and I catch the bus home.
Fortuitously, the bus is nearly empty this Sunday, so I stay on it for two stops past my house without arousing suspicion. I alight and attempt to look casual as I stroll up the street. As soon as the bus has turned the corner, I run back and in between two houses to the overgrown path to the jetty. Nobody spends time at the creek these days. They are too busy fighting wars or scrounging for food. There are no fish left here, so there is no reason for anyone to come, but I used to swim and skim rocks at this place as a child.
The path completely disappears after a while, but eventually I find myself at the water’s edge. There is no sign of the refugee, so I step out carefully onto the old jetty to look down the creek. It is more like a lagoon than a creek at this point. I know there are some deep places, and I’m quite worried that she has drowned, although that would simplify things for me. I can’t see anything so, very gingerly, I sit down on the edge of the pier. A few minutes go by before she makes herself known. She steps out of the bushes behind me, drenched and shaking. I give her my camo jacket, and look for something in my backpack to dry her. All I have is a handkerchief. I try to make her look as normal as possible, then we creep back along the path to the road.
Quickly and silently, we walk along the suburban streets to my house. There are very few people around and those that we see are too busy with their own problems to pay attention to us. Even so, I expect an officer at every turn, and my stomach churns with anxiety. At last we arrive at my door and I turn the handle with an unsteady hand. We enter and my family look up from the video box. They all appear confused when they see the refugee, but Victor’s expression quickly turns to fear, then anger. I say nothing and usher her hastily into the bathroom where I tell her to shower and give her a change of clothes. Victor is waiting in the hall when I come out, and we go to the bedroom and close the door.
“I’m sorry Victor! I just couldn’t kill her. She begged me and I didn’t have the courage to pull the trigger,” I whisper.
“Great! So what are we going to do now? Do you want to hide her!? Where is she going to sleep? How do you think we can feed her?”
“I don’t know! It wasn’t a plan. It just happened. Maybe we can find her a job and she can get a flat? She speaks English.”
“Oh my God!” He rubs his scalp with both hands. “We’re all going to get killed.” I hear a noise in the hall and open the door. Dylan and Cindy look up at me like little wallabies in headlights. “Why are we going to get killed?” asks Cindy. I hold them, one arm around each. “We’re not going to get killed. It’ll be okay. Don’t worry,” I say, with no sincerity. “We’re going to have a guest for a few days, but it’s going to be a secret. A very big secret. You are not allowed to tell anyone at all, okay?”
From the doorway Victor adds, “If I find out either of you have told anyone, believe me, you’ll be extremely sorry.”
“Who is she?” Dylan demands. How can I tell him I don’t even know her name?
“I’m going to explain it all later, but first I have to talk to her for a bit,” I say, as the bathroom door opens. Victor takes the kids back to the video box and I bring the visitor into the bedroom and close the door again. We sit on the bed.
“So,” I begin, “who are you? What is your story?” She tells me her name is Angela Chan, and she is from Fiji. Her island, like mine, has been inundated with refugees, battered with cyclones and ravaged with disease. Of course, the smaller size of that island has concentrated the problems, and racial conflicts have been added to the mix. People of Chinese descent, such as Angela’s family, are now persecuted savagely. After she gave birth to twin girls, somebody threw a rock through the window of their house and killed one of the babies. In despair, she and her husband made the decision to take their surviving child on a terrifying ocean voyage with the impossible hope of escaping to Australia. The rest of their families were already dead. They left behind their house, their café, which had been robbed so many times it was virtually empty, and their friends, who were no longer able to help them.
The journey was unbearable, but somehow they bore it.
They passed through a storm, which was fortunately not quite severe enough to sink their small boat. There was not enough food, but they were all seasick so they couldn’t eat anyway. The baby cried continuously. However, on the final approach to Australia they had the incredible luck to be unseen by any drones, air patrols, coast guard boats or ground troops. Her husband had the baby in a sling as they splashed into the water and ran across the sand and under the trees. They held hands and crept over the leaves, without any knowledge about where they might be going. Soon they heard the shouts of my unit arriving and not long after that, footsteps which were much too close. There were two decent-sized trees near them, and they crouched behind one each.
The rustling got louder. Paralysed with fear, Angela saw a soldier appear through the branches and then she heard the familiar, heart-wrenching sound of her daughter’s whimper. Naturally, the soldier also heard the sound and immediately pointed his gun at the tree and slowly walked towards her family. Her husband pleaded for his life, as she had done, but on that occasion there was no mercy. The soldier grabbed the baby with one hand and shot the man in the head with the other. He looked at the tiny girl, as if unsure about what to do for a moment, before throwing her on the ground and shooting her as well. Her mother almost passed out, but through some kind of miracle, managed to stay quiet and undetected throughout this nightmare. The soldier stuffed the baby in his backpack and returned to the beach dragging her father behind him. Angela stumbled through the bush mindlessly until her encounter with me.
After the story we both remain silent for a while, stunned by the horror of this life. She begins to cry and I hug her with arms that have never felt so inadequate. My mind is utterly devoid of ideas about what to say or do next. At that moment Victor opens the door, so I leave Angela sobbing on the bed to whisper to him in the hall. I give him the synopsis of her history and tell him I don’t know what to do and that I am sorry. So sorry. He stares at me in disbelief and says, “Well it’s done now, and I guess we have to deal with it.”
Returning to the bedroom, I introduce Angela and Victor. I know we must make some sort of plan of action. “You can sleep on our couch for a few days. Maybe we can say you’re a friend from Sydney? Will that work? We’ll have to find you a job,” I say, thinking aloud. “What about this story? Your husband has just been killed fighting in Indonesia. You had to leave Sydney because of the bad memories. You want to start a new life here, so we’re helping you out for a little while. We met you…. where?”
“How about when we went to Sydney to get your passport, for military service?” Victor says, in a monotone.
“Angela showed us the way to the Embassy in town and we ended up staying the night with her and her husband. What was his name?”
“Alfred,” she says in a barely audible voice. Her tears splash on the floor.
“We’ll call you… Amber and Michael… Lao? So, now we’re repaying your kindness, and helping to find you work.”
Angela inhales deeply and wipes her face with her sleeve. “I’m a chef,” she offers. “I used to work in a big resort in Suva.”
“In the Harbourside Plaza in Sydney,” I correct her, “which was destroyed in the ’48 cyclone.”
“Okay. And that’s the story for the kids as well. Everyone got it?” asks Victor. We all nod and go to disturb the children from the television to try out our fiction on them. We tell them it’s a secret, because Angela is very sad, and doesn’t want to talk about what happened. They accept it without comment, and after gaping at our guest for a few seconds, their eyes return to the screen.
The following day I don’t have to work, so I help Angela to write a believable employment history and take her around to the local restaurants. There are not many left, but there are still a handful of extremely wealthy people left in this town. The few who invested in weapons or prisons around twenty years ago, or those high up in the drug cartels, have reaped the benefits and they support a small hospitality industry in the main street. I wait outside while she asks for managers and hands out résumés. She is wearing my only good dress, which is too short for her long legs.
Her English is impressive, but her accent is clearly not Australian and this causes a fair amount of suspicion.
However, there is a ray of hope in the end. A waiter at the Vietnamese restaurant tells her there may be an opening for a kitchen hand and they take her number, which is of course my number. He says the manager will be in later. After that, there is one more place to try, unsuccessfully, until we have been to every dining establishment in town. Next we stop at the op shop to buy Angela some better-fitting clothes and then head home.
As we step off the bus in my street, I stop breathing and my heart starts to bang at my rib cage as if it wants to escape. Lieutenant Colonel Nolan, my commanding officer, is walking straight towards us. I shoot Angela a meaningful glance and turn back to attempt to greet him cheerfully. He barely acknowledges me before demanding, “Who is this?” I repeat the story we have rehearsed with the children. His piercing, green eyes never leave her face, as he extends his hand for shaking. Now Angela comes up with her own brilliant improvisation, and I could kiss her. She shakes his hand, then croaks and mimes that she has lost her voice. Hastily, I explain that she has the ‘flu. His suspicious expression makes me feel faint, but I tell him that I will see him tomorrow and wave goodbye. We proceed down the road towards my little house.
Once inside, we hug briefly, and as our pounding hearts return to normal, I make us a pot of tea. “That was great- the lost voice thing. You should keep that up with everyone,” I say, “except if the Vietnamese restaurant call back. I think they’ll be okay.” The kids and Victor return home and, although once or twice they peer sideways at our visitor, they are all generally on their best behaviour. Evening approaches, and Angela insists on cooking for us, so she investigates the garden while I take a shower. I appreciate the break from kitchen duties. While she makes dinner, I actually get the kids to do their homework for a change. I begin to think having Angela around could be a blessing for our family. Maybe she is our tower of hope.
She is really a creative cook, and manages to make an inspiring meal from our simple ingredients. We all eat ravenously as always, but with far more pleasure than usual. Just as we are finishing, my phone rings and it is the manager of the Vietnamese restaurant. He assumes I am Angela and asks if I’m available to come in for an interview tonight. I don’t bother to correct him and agree to meet him in an hour. When I relay the message she looks so nervous that I offer to go with her and Victor does not argue, which is a pleasant surprise. He supervises the after-dinner clean-up while Angela changes into the interview outfit we bought for her a few hours before.
I walk with my new friend into the cool, suburban darkness. The stars are out, and as we wait for the bus, Angela tells me about the splendour of the infinite skies which she saw on the clear nights of her sea voyage. On one particularly memorable evening dozens of dolphins appeared, sparkling with blue phosphorescence and racing each other in the bow-wave of the boat, and the refugees clung to the hope that beauty could still be found in this world. We are silent on the bus, as the other passengers look at us curiously. When we approach the bright lights of the main street most of the stars are no longer visible. The restaurants are busy with rich people getting drunk, and Angela asks me to come inside with her to her appointment.
The interview does not go well. It is her voice that is the problem. Accents used to mean “just off the boat” which was a very undesirable thing. These days different accents are simply never heard, particularly in small regional towns such as this one. When the manager hears Angela speak he looks up sharply, then glances around to see who else is listening. She tells him she immigrated to Sydney on a plane when she was young, which is possible though not very likely. He barely looks at her résumé and only asks a couple of questions before saying he will be in touch if they need her. Afterwards, I don’t know what to say. The mood on the bus ride back is dejected and as soon as we arrive home, Angela collapses on the couch and I retire to my bed, where I spend hours trying to think about dolphins and keep the tower from falling.
Victor and I both have to work today, and Angela is going to put notices up around town, advertising cleaning and cooking services. This is risky, but we don’t really have a choice. Our family cannot afford another mouth to feed, even if it is attached to a talented chef and a likeable companion. I leave her with a map and the advice not to talk to anyone unless it is completely unavoidable. Today at work I am not in combat, but training, which is fortunate because my mind is not on the job. Anxiety for Angela and for my family makes my chest tight and my brain throb.
During the lunch break things take a turn for the worse, as I see Lieutenant Colonel Nolan approach my table. I stand and salute, but he takes a seat next to me and gestures me to sit down. Oh shit.
“You seem distracted today, Copetti,” he begins, not unkindly.
“Sorry sir. I’m feeling a bit sick,” I tell him truthfully.
“Right. Probably caught that bug off your house guest. Amber, was it?” Oh Jesus. “About this young lady, I was thinking, if she really needs a job, why doesn’t she sign up with us? We’re always looking for volunteers.” He tries to appear helpful, but is not concealing his real motivation.
“Um, well, she has already done her service, sir, and with her husband getting killed, I don’t really know if she would want to do that. But I will suggest it, sir.”
“Yes, do that. Living in this country is a privilege, you know. We all have a duty to defend it against those who are jealous of our freedoms. I don’t know how she came to be here, but I do know she owes her life to Australia.” He pins me to my seat with those green eyes for moment, before slowly rising and walking away. Oh shit.
At home I find the children helping Angela to prepare dinner. She is explaining to Dylan how to fold an omelette and he is listening attentively. In spite of the distressful events at work, my heart soars to see him so involved. I ask about their days and both kids expound enthusiastically on tonight’s menu. Angela laughs, but regrettably her job-hunting mission was not as successful as her cooking class.
While the children make a salad, I whisper to her the conversation I had with my boss. Naturally she looks concerned, but we wait to discuss the problem until later, when Victor gets home and the kids are in bed. My opinion is that Colonel Nolan clearly does not believe our story or he wouldn’t have said what he did about not knowing how she got here. I told him she was from Sydney, and I definitely implied she had been here all her life, even if I didn’t make it explicit. Victor is certain he is investigating Angela’s background, and that it is only a matter of time before the military police are banging on our door at dawn.
“What do you think Angela?” he says quietly. “If you signed up, they could never touch you. After five years you could leave with a pension and start a new life. I really don’t know what other option you have, to tell you the truth.”
“So, you think I should join the army that killed my husband and my baby, and spend my days shooting people in despair, people running for their lives, people just like me, probably people from my own country, people who have just as much right to live as you or I do,” she says, her volume increasing with each phrase. Victor and I look at the floor.
“No, of course you shouldn’t have to do that,” I mutter. “It’s just that we don’t know any other way.”
“Look. I don’t want to be ungrateful. I know you saved my life and I thank you for that. But I can’t kill other refugees. It’s just not… not something I am able to do. But I don’t want to put your family in danger any more. I’ll go to another town. I’ll find a way to start again. Don’t worry about me, okay? I’ve survived this far, and I can keep surviving.”
Victor shakes his head. “Do you know how far the next town is? You would never make it, and even if you did, they would find you there.”
“Angela, don’t run away just yet. You can stay with us for a couple more days. Even if they are investigating you, it’s going to be a while before they find anything,” I say.
A couple more days turn into a couple more weeks. No-one answers Angela’s work-wanted notices, but the kids and I love having her around and we all enjoy the food. It is not because of the diet that Victor’s blood pressure appears to be rising a little every day. While the quality of our meals has definitely improved, the quantity is decreasing as our resources are stretched to their limit. He tries to remain calm but I can see the way his eyes become alert whenever he is outside the house. His fears are understandable and of course I have my own, but being able to talk to a friend makes everything seem easier. Angela projects an image of cheerful amiability. Underneath the façade I know she is also consumed with worries for the future as well as grief for the past. We are trying to live in the tower, but we all know it’s condemned.
One night after the children are asleep Victor breaks open a box of wine, and we all sit at the kitchen bench and swap stories of our youth. I tell Angela how I met Victor at a nightclub, of all places. He remembers the crazy music we used to love, and the track that was playing when we found each other on the dance floor. We married very young and our wedding was a party that continued for three days. Angela recounts how clumsy she was on her first date with her sophisticated husband, how she almost fell off her chair in the restaurant when the waiter pushed it in for her, and she laughs until she cries and then the tears turn tragic. Victor starts to say something but instead gulps down his wine and refills the glass. I make meaningless reassurances and pat her arm. What are we going to do? I don’t know how we can help her and it seems as if now we have come too far to ever turn her away.
In the morning she has solved our dilemma. She is gone, along with my gifts of a toothbrush and a few pieces of clothing. There is no point looking for her; she could be anywhere. The house is quiet and sad, and I am terribly afraid for her. I cannot imagine how she could survive out there in that bleak and hostile world, but I try to see the bright side. Now that she is gone our position is substantially less dangerous, and it also means maybe I will have more energy to work our own family’s problems. Part of me knows this is a ridiculous rationalisation. For one thing the children are heart-broken at her disappearance. Not long ago I was trying to turn her into my tower and now I’m attempting to find hope in her absence. Victor takes the news with unexpected dread.
“Her life is already over,” he says, but I refuse to accept this evaluation.
At work, while waiting behind the dunes for an incoming vessel, my commanding officer asks again about “Amber” and I tell him she has decided to sign up, and that she is just preparing the paperwork which might take a few weeks. I know this will probably cause problems later on, but I hope it will give her enough time to get away.
The next day I hear on the radio that an escaped refugee has been captured and imprisoned in rural New South Wales. No more information is offered and I know it will be never be possible for me to find out for sure if it is Angela. I might as well have killed her when I first saw her, I think, sinking into the couch with a migraine. Desolation fills my chest but after only a couple of days, it is squeezed out by a new source of anxiety. I leave my sick-bed to pace the floor. My period is late. I suspect that I may have been a little too cavalier about the timing, last month on the living room floor. This is the last thing we need. My powers of optimism are nowhere near enough to stand against this horrible possibility.
I return to work and on my way home, after a nervous day avoiding Nolan and his questions, I decide I will have to find out for sure, even though the thought makes me physically sick behind the bus stop. My breath is short and shallow and my skin clammy as I walk around the corner to the pharmacy to buy a pregnancy test.
The kids are watching a video in the living room, but luckily Victor’s not home yet. So this is it. I lock myself in the bathroom and follow the directions on the packet. They say to wait three minutes, but long before the time is up I can see the distressing truth. Materialising in the white window is a small blue line that will change my life. After the initial shock, I surprise myself with a totally unforeseen emotion. Some deranged part of my mind is cautiously, quietly, building up another small tower of hope in there. I remember my babies who were the only real happiness I’ve had in my adult life, and I think, why not feel that happiness again? I imagine the tiny, grasping hands and soft, chubby cheeks. What other chance will I ever have?
Even as I place these bricks in the tower, I know it will never stay upright. We’re struggling to hold together a family of four and another child would only make it harder, both financially and emotionally. Victor would be furious. Nolan would be furious. I would have to defer the rest of my military service for another year, when I would be even older and more worn out. Everyone will want me to terminate the pregnancy, and I know that would be the logical thing to do, but the yearning to hold my baby and smell her hair is overwhelming. God, what am I going to do? I wish I could talk to Angela about it. It’s time to leave the bathroom before the kids wonder what’s happening, so I blow my nose, try to make myself presentable and open the door to my future.
Nobody seems to notice anything unusual as I prepare our food, or when Victor comes home, or as we eat our substandard dinner, play a game and put the children to bed. Now there is no more delaying and I will have to tell him the news. The veins in my neck throb. The blood drains from his face. We stare at each other without words. Eventually, he asks me in a whisper what I want to do, and he doesn’t seem surprised when I tell him I want to keep the baby.
“Why Ruby? It’s crazy. There is no future for a child in this world! There’s only misery. Look at Dylan and Cindy! Do you really think they’re happy? Do you think they will grow up and get to choose a career or have holidays or go to concerts? Even if they make it to adulthood, all they will know is war, famine, disease, floods, fires, blah, blah, blah. How can you want to bring another life into all this shit?!”
“I don’t know. I just do,” I mumble.
“Well, I don’t! If you do this, you’re on your own. I can’t take it any more. You’re just not living in reality. Wake up!” He looks like he wants to punch something, then he turns and storms out the front door. I hear Cindy crying in the bedroom. Shit! I go to reassure her, and she asks me again when Angela will be back. I tell her lies, forcing back my own tears and stroking her arm until she’s finally asleep, then I lie in my bed and I wonder if he’s right.
In the morning he’s beside me, smelling boozy again. Again, I’m thankful that at least he came home. I guess he’s got nowhere else to go. I remember the decision I made in the middle of the night and I feel dead all over. I don’t know if I’m taking the easy path or the hard path, but I know that now I have chosen it does not seem possible go back. Lying there, waiting for Victor to wake up, I can’t remember ever feeling so numb. There is absolutely nothing going on in my brain. After maybe an hour he opens his bloodshot eyes and looks at me, trying to focus.
“Hi,” I say, and touch his forehead. “I have to tell you something. Are you okay?” He nods. “I was thinking last night, and you’re right. It doesn’t make sense to bring another person into this world, or into this family. I want to try to hold on to what we’ve already got, so I’m going to terminate it.” He pulls me closer and holds me. I can’t feel anything. I try to envision the baby inside me but my mind is blank. The tower in my mind disintegrates into a pile of fine powder and a puff of wind carries it away. It can never be rebuilt.