2050 Version 1.2
I look in the mirror through tears. There are definitely two new crow’s feet at each eye, and the lines between my eyebrows get deeper every day. If a stranger had to describe me in one word, they would probably say haggard. My pores are huge, my skin tone is uneven and there are disgusting bags under my eyes. The body is okay; it will hold out for another five years I reckon, but the face needs another lift ASAP. But how can I afford it?
It’s been two years since the farm made any profit, and the Fire and Flood Subsidy has been cut again, so it’s barely enough to feed us. I’m spending every spare minute sewing dresses for the market, but my darling husband is spending all his spare minutes drinking and gambling, so where is the money for surgery? There is a fist inside my stomach and my eyes burn from too much crying. I can’t stand it any more. I’ll just have to talk to him; there’s no way around it.
Usually Victor comes home for lunch, but during the past week he has been staying out in the fields all day. I guess he’s making sure we don’t miss what’s left of the sad soya bean harvest. While I’m scrubbing the shower, wondering how I can broach the subject with him, an idea pops in my mind like a small balloon. If Victor is too busy to come home for lunch, I could ride out on Sheba and take him a picnic. When we were first married I used to do that sometimes, until I fell pregnant and it all became too difficult. He’ll be so surprised! Maybe he’ll give me the money I need out of shock.
I can make some bread and boil some eggs, and take some tomatoes and a bit of ham maybe. Why haven’t I thought of this before, in all these years? There’s been too much work to do and too much resentment I guess, but now my mood suddenly swings up and I’m full of enthusiasm. I prepare a picnic box (sadly, we don’t own a hamper), saddle up Sheba and follow the newest tractor tracks out through the paddocks.
He is a long way from the house and it takes about twenty minutes before I see the old yellow tractor and rusty combine harvester. It’s parked at the edge of the field near the creek bed. I nudge Sheba into a quicker walking pace, but we can’t go too fast with this box perched on the front of the saddle. As we get closer, I scan the landscape but I can’t see Victor anywhere. I suppose he might be resting out of view behind the machinery. We arrive and circle the rig, but there is still no sign of my husband.
I dismount with the food, place the box on the tractor and walk in the direction of the old creek, as I don’t know where else he could be. As I reach the small embankment I hear something from the other side. Peering through the scraggly bushes, I see a chestnut horse grazing in the neighbours’ field. He is called Sam, and I can’t imagine why he has strayed so far from their house. Unless… My suspicions aroused, I step as carefully and quietly as I can down the slope and into the dry creek bed. There is still no sign of life, but I think I can hear something around the bend. I creep over the rocks and now I’m sure there is a strange noise. It gets louder as the bed curves to the left and then I see them. The neighbour’s wife is spread on a large rock, with her long, blonde hair flowing like water around her naked body. Victor’s muscular brown back steadily convulses over her. It is devastating, of course, but I also appreciate the splendour of the scene. It looks like a painting from years ago. I watch silently until it is over.
For some reason, even now, I can’t reveal myself. They stay on the rock and tell each other unintelligible things. I slink back up the creek, and return to my horse and the tractor. I see the picnic box and pick at the food. Powerful emotions make me strangely hungry. Before I can decide what to do next, Victor emerges from the embankment, alone. He freezes when he sees me, but says nothing and after a few seconds walks steadily towards the tractor. Words come out of my mouth, louder than I expect. “I saw you.” He is silent, considering what to say. “I brought you lunch,” I continue, more quietly.
I have no idea if what I have seen will help my cause, or if it means it is already too late to save our marriage and I’m about to become divorced and homeless, living on the street with my children. Will he feel guilty and want to make it up to me with money, or is he planning on leaving me for her? When he eventually responds, his sad tone takes me completely by surprise.
“I’m sorry Ruby. It wasn’t planned. It doesn’t mean anything. She pursued me, and in the end I couldn’t resist, but it’s just sex. You know I love you.”
What?! I did not know that. It confuses me out of my vocabulary. I hold up my hand, and stutter that I’ll see him back at the house. He loves me? Unsteadily, I mount Sheba and gallop away. When I arrive home my state of mind is no clearer. I just cannot process the information. How could anybody’s words and actions be so incongruous? Why does he treat me with such contempt if he loves me? Why is he totally disinterested in anything the children or I do? Why does he never want to spend time with me? But why would he say it if he didn’t mean it? Why would he bother to lie? I don’t know what I should do, so I fall back on my usual housework and exercise routine, and afterwards the inspiration hits me that I should make Victor’s favourite pie. The kids are both staying at friends’ places tonight, so I have enough time.
If it is true that he loves me, I should turn the situation to my advantage. It may be my last chance.
I try my hardest to get it perfect for once; the pastry must not be too flaky, the meat not too tough and the mushroom sauce not too watery. While I cook, I rehearse in my head what I will say to him. I want you to be attracted to me. Don’t you want to feel proud when we’re in the village together?Unfortunately, while I’m concentrating on this imagined conversation I overcook the beef. Why am I so stupid? Crying again, I spoon it into the dog’s dish and start chopping another precious cut of steak. This time I will keep all thoughts at bay, apart from the recipe my mother taught me. Warm smells from the pastry case in the oven and the mushrooms simmering on the stove seep through the house. Finally it’s finished and it looks pretty appetising. It makes me hungry anyway.
I hear the tractor in the driveway and run to the mirror to arrange my agreeable face and powder under my eyes. As he opens the front door his expression is wary. I can see that his attitude has already turned defensive, so I make the first strike.
“Guess what? I made beef and mushroom pie! And I don’t want to talk about what happened.”
“Right. What do you want to talk about?”
“Nothing,” I say, flinching. “Well, maybe something. After dinner.”
He rolls his dark eyes and slumps at the table. He seems drained. I serve him the pie and a beer, which he consumes quickly while I hover in the kitchen, crunching carrots nervously. He finishes the plate, so it can’t be too bad. After I clear the dishes I sit with him at the table. He looks at me with suspicion. “So?”
“Well, I know things aren’t going very well for us financially, but the thing is, I really think it’s time for another facelift. I’ve been training very hard and I think my body will be okay for another few years, but really there’s not a lot more I can do for my face without surgery. And… if we fix it maybe you won’t need to look for other girls. If you really do love me, I want to make you happy…” He looks at me intently for the first time in months. “Yeah Ruby, I guess you could do with more work, but I just don’t have that kind of money lying around.”
“Well, I don’t know. I thought perhaps we could start saving. Cut back on a few things.. maybe? It’s for you, Victor. I want to you to like what you see when you look at me.”
“Don’t worry about me. I’m not going to leave you.”
“If you want surgery you’re just gonna have to sell more dresses.” He pauses, studying my face. “Oh look, I guess I can let you have fifty bucks a week. And ya never know, maybe the next season will be a good one and then I can give you more. It can’t get much worse, anyway.” I leap up and kiss his cheek. I can’t believe it worked! “Thank-you, Victor!”
I calculate as I do the washing up. Fifty dollars a week falls far short of what I need, but it will definitely help. How can I get the rest? At the markets I’ve heard stories about women making piles of money on the Internet. There are a few options: live sex chats; fetish websites, strip channels; even housekeeping blogs. The big problem is finding a computer. I would have to go to the city, pay a lot of money and be very lucky. Even if I found one, I don’t know if I’d be able to update the software enough to make it useful online.
This thought brings me back to my childhood, and fills me with nostalgia for all the beautiful devices and appliances we used to have. The house where I was born was full of remote controls, touch screens and so many different games. There seemed to be no work and only play. Our cupboards were full of perfect, ready-made clothes and bright, plastic toys. My parents had a fast, shiny, red car which we drove to visit my grandparents. Other people’s houses had even more and fancier stuff than ours. Everything has changed so much!
I remember when the Embargo started in China, after Australia finally closed its borders completely. Technology quickly started becoming obsolete, machines started breaking and it became harder and harder to replace them. Our stupid government reacted belligerently and India joined the Embargo, then Taiwan and Indonesia. My parents went to the anti-racism rallies, but no-one seemed to take any notice. Australia started mass deportations of migrants, and Malaysia and Japan stopped trading with us. We kicked out everyone of foreign descent, and most of the world’s nations joined the Embargo. At first we could source some products from our American allies, but it wasn’t too long before they were brought to their knees in the Middle Eastern War and had no money left for manufacturing. We lacked the knowledge, resources and infrastructure to make our own products, and life just got harder and harder. Mamma and Papà never stopped fighting against our grim reality and the stress was intense. Papà had a fatal heart attack and Mamma went to prison where she eventually also died. They never told me how.
I notice tears dripping into the soapy sink and try to refocus on the issue at hand.
Money. There is always one option, but I don’t want to think about it. Now it’s in my head though, and I can’t stop myself. I could sneak away on the horse while he’s out in the field… Apart from the husband of Victor’s lover, there are two other neighbouring farmers, and in the village there is the schoolteacher, the shop-keeper, the banker and the postman, as well as the guys at the petrol station. Surely a few of them would give me something for sex. It would definitely be a lot more lucrative than sewing dresses. I’m not wild about the idea, but what else am I going to do? I can’t keep going like this. I’ll just get uglier and uglier and he’ll kick me out, no matter what he says now, and then I’ll probably have to walk the streets anyway. People would talk about me, but people talk anyway, and there are so many lies going around that nobody knows what is true these days. Oh, I don’t know what to do! I decide to put it out of my mind, at least until tomorrow.
Most of the next day I spend profitably, making a dress. It is super cute in my opinion, and very fashionable. I wish I could afford to keep if for myself. In Sydney I could get more money for it, but unfortunately women out here don’t care so much about the latest styles. If only I had access to ebay! Well, there’s no point in wishing for the impossible, and now it’s time to pick up the kids from school anyway.
I saddle up my horse and ride into the village. It is a hot, clear autumn day: sunny and dry as ever. The dead branches are brittle under Sheba’s hooves. When I cross the bridge, my eyes automatically search the creek bed, but there’s never any sign of water. All is quiet in the village, apart from a couple of groups of children walking home together. My two kids are waiting for me on the footpath, looking bored. I help them up on the horse and we ride home slowly. I try to engage them in conversation, but nobody seems very interested.
After about fifteen minutes of silence, Dylan comes up with a topic which always interests him.
“Mum, did you know in Taiwan all the kids have Xphones, and they even use them in school! Max said when he went there he got to play Cyber Combat for four hours! And he’s going back there at Christmas and they’re going to PixarWorld too! Why can’t we go to Taiwan, Mum?”
“Because we can’t afford it, sweety. It costs a lot of money.”
“But Jake went there on a container ship and it was almost free!”
“I’ve told you before Dylan. People only do that if they want to live there forever, and it’s very hazardous. You have to stay in the container for the whole trip, and when you get there they might keep you in jail for years. We don’t want to do that.”
“But Jake did it,” he whines.
“Well, Jake’s parents had no choice. They were in a lot of trouble from the government. We’re okay and we don’t need to take that risk. Jake is probably in jail now, and not playing Cyber Combat like you think.”
Cindy has been quiet, staring into the distance, but now she suddenly pipes up, “Can I make cupcakes tonight?” Sighing, it occurs to me that she has possibly become even more vacuous in the two years since she started school.
“Yes sweety, but only one each, ok?” Everyone descends into petulance until we arrive home.
After dinner and one cupcake each, Cindy helps me with the washing up, while Dylan plays with his grandfather’s toy cars and Victor drinks beer and talks to his bookmaker on the phone. My daughter is cajoling me to make a new dress for her, but I stand firm that for now, dresses are only for selling and not for wearing. I think about when I became pregnant and we found out it was going to be a girl. Victor was far from enthusiastic and I knew things would be tough for her, but I kept picturing the pretty baby clothes I could make, and I was determined to keep her. She is sweet and helpful and of course I love her, but sometimes it seems as if she is completely empty inside and I wonder if it is all my fault.
Maybe I wanted a doll to play with, and that is exactly what I got.
We do our exercises, I bathe her, brush her blonde hair, put her to bed and return to inspect the mirror. Things seem even worse than yesterday, although I’m sure that can’t really be possible. Something has to be done! I feel the fist grabbing and twisting my intestines as I recall looking in the mirror in my twenties. My hair used to be as soft and shiny as Cindy’s. I want to feel like that again! Tomorrow, I resolve, I will really make an effort at earning serious money. It just has to be done. I need to be beautiful.
I wake up before dawn and spend a long time washing and dressing, then hurry the kids to get them ready early. I tell Victor I want to talk to their teacher before school, which is true. Sheba is not eager to increase her usual leisurely pace, but eventually she complies. We arrive at about eight o’clock. The kids run off to the playground and I feel my jugular vein throbbing as I walk up the stairs into the tiny, wooden building. It is not an accident that I have chosen the teacher for my first attempt at prostitution. Mr Nolan- I try to think of him as Liam– is probably the only male acquaintance I have who does not completely disgust me. He’s not exactly a movie star, but he has nice green eyes and is not overly aggressive, leering or idiotic.
He is working at his desk. I lean on it facing him, and realise I don’t know what to say. He looks up at me slowly and I hear my childish voice mumbling that I really need money. His eyebrows lift as I let my leg touch his, lean forward to reveal my perfect cleavage and whisper in his ear that I can do anything he wants. Before he knows what he’s doing, he grabs my breast so hard I can feel his hand through the silicone. A second later he lets go, controls himself and tells me he doesn’t make much money.
“I only need $1000,” I say, as my confidence builds and I slide into his lap and stroke his neck.
He coughs,“That’s too much.”
“Really Liam?” I arch my back and push my body against his. He is nervous but definitely aroused. “How about $900?” I whisper.
He ponders this for a while, looking down my top, then nods quickly, glances around the room and pulls me into a small storage cupboard. Hastily, he rips off our clothes and I try to turn off the light, but he stops me. I find the condom in my purse and roll it on as his breathing gets noisier, then he turns me around over the shelves of cleaning equipment and slams against me, eventually finding his way inside. It hurts, but I manage to stay quiet. Please be quick. Liam pounds away for a while and the pain gets less, but the shelves dig into my thighs and forehead. His sweat is damp on my skin. I desperately want him to finish, so I start to move with him and moan softly. I bring his hands up to my breasts and finally I can hear it happening and know that it will soon be over. He muffles his groans into my hair, then we pull apart like dogs. We stand separate, still while his breathing returns to normal. My face is hot with shame as we dress. Quickly I powder my nose and cheeks, carefully open the door a crack and peek into the classroom. It’s all clear.
We return to his desk. “You’re lucky I’ve got money for the rent today,” he says, and opens the drawer. While he fumbles around for his wallet I check my buttons and straighten my skirt. He hands me the cash, then spins me around again to slap me hard on my rear. If this is the best-behaved man I know, what will the others be like? That’s when I see her standing just inside the doorway, her eyes sparkling. It’s Cindy.
“Why did Mr Nolan give you all that money? Can I get a new dress now?” she asks.
“No, Cindy. This money is for Mummy, to make her pretty again. But you can’t tell anyone. It’s a secret, okay?”
“But I want to be pretty again tooooo.” Liam smirks and tells her she is already very pretty.
“Don’t worry, Cindy,” he says. “In a few years you’ll be able to earn your own money and buy your own dresses!” Somehow she understands the threat in his voice and her eyes turn tearful.
I grab her arm and drag her outside and down the stairs. She sniffs and looks at me questioningly. Cindy, my daughter, what kind of life have I given you? Why did I ever let you be born? Again, I can’t think of anything to say. There is nothing to say.