2050 Version 1.15

When I was four there was a nuclear war. Now I’m thirty-seven and radiation is my world. Nobody had thought it could happen, but two egotistical nut-jobs became the leaders of North Korea and the USA, one thing led to another and suddenly nearly a quarter of the world’s land surface became uninhabitable. In Australia, those living in the far north had to move south, but we were not as directly affected than many others. From what I gather from my parents, most people at the time were living in fear of climate change and/or terrorism, so the sudden reality of nuclear missiles destroying cities took them by surprise. The survivors shook their heads and asked each other, “What the fuck?”

The nukes from both sides detonated on the ground, meaning the debris sucked into the mushroom clouds became radioactive and landed before it could decay, contaminating vast areas of land for decades. Apparently, before the war the general public had believed there was a refugee crisis, but after the war, there actually was one. Everyone wanted to avoid more conflict and atom bombs, so they all shut up and accepted that it was going to get a bit more crowded around here, and also everywhere else.

I grew up without the sense of space entitlement that previous Australians had, but the bright side was that the world had finally shocked itself out of the nuclear age. Not one atom has been split since the war, not for weapons, power or even medicine. Of course we are still dealing with contamination issues, as well as the ongoing problem of storing all the radioactive waste that had been stockpiling since the middle of last century. These challenges have kept our generation occupied for decades, so that we’ve had little time for petty disputes or political unrest. I suppose the demands of survival on a toxic planet has brought humanity together in some way.

Like many others, I am employed in the decontamination industry. My focus is agriculture. We investigate ways to grow safe crops in increasingly close proximity to the hotspots, and I love the work. Although my personal memories of wartime are patchy, I believe the world population has developed like a family that has survived a tragedy and found itself smaller, closer and with new priorities. Even those born after the war have been moulded by its legacy. We are determined not to be defeated by our dark history, which is why the recent mysterious cancer epidemic has received so much attention around the globe.

My colleague, Liam Nolan, is one of the alarming number of those to be diagnosed with lung cancer during the past eighteen months. Though the prognosis is now reasonably positive for the disease, it still involves unpleasant and costly treatments over several years and my heart sinks at what he is about to experience. After spending his entire working life making soil safer and achieving significant breakthroughs, he doesn’t deserve this. Why him and not me, for example? All we can do is continue with our research and hope the oncologists progress with theirs.

Liam insists on showing up at the office every day, despite his numerous medical appointments and flagging energy. It is inspiring, but some selfish part of me would rather not be reminded of his suffering on a daily basis. It distracts me from the concentration I need for work. Of course I could never admit this to anyone. My strategy is to exchange a few sentences with him first thing in the morning, then block out his presence until it’s time to go home. We used to be close, so I’m sure he notices, but I don’t know what else to do.

One day he passes the cafe where I’m having lunch. Without preamble, he sits opposite me and says, “You know, the worst part of this ordeal is when my friends avoid me.” I feel like crying.

“I’m sorry. I guess I’m too weak to deal with cancer. If I think about you, I can’t get anything done.”

He looks at me with fury in his green eyes. “I’m going to be fine. All I need is a bit of support from the people I care about.”

My stomach contracts as I discover I’m in love. It should’ve been obvious. Tears fall, hands touch and I say again, “I’m sorry.”

His hands pull back and he stands, demanding that I prove it. I clutch his body against mine in despair, wishing I could withstand the tornado of emotions that sweeps away all my sensible intentions. We kiss and, at the centre of a spiralling wind of foreboding, hope drifts up like a feather. This love doesn’t feel like before, but perhaps any love is worth holding onto.

We spend our evenings and weekends together, yet I still try to avoid seeing or thinking about Liam at the office. Although it is not always easy and it continues to upset him, it’s the only way I can attempt to accomplish anything. Even so, I have made little progress in these past weeks. My brain needs calm to focus, and life with Liam is the opposite of that. He is sick, he is angry, he is passionate, he is tired. I am confused. It takes an effort of will for me to not daydream about him constantly. In the fight against my feelings, I am losing. I am contaminated by my love. If I could, I would spend all my days and nights in bed with him, but I need to work.

When he’s admitted to hospital, I must divide myself in two in order to carry on. It takes almost all of my energy, but it is successful. Somehow I manage to forget about Liam during business hours and I actually do some of my best work for months. Afterwards I go to the hospital and try not to fall apart. The battle against his disease is fierce and unrelenting. Sometimes we laugh until we cry at the seriousness of it all. Sometimes he is so tired that he just wants me to tell him stories. I tell him about my childhood in northern New South Wales, then he startles me by asking about my former husband.

“I can’t talk about him. I never talk about him. Sorry, baby.”

But now the subject has been released and I remember that there is yet another area of my mind that has been walled-off with great care. Desperately, I struggle not to peek behind that wall, but I am worn down by years of forgetting. The walls collapse, the memories flood back and I know I shouldn’t tell Liam about Victor. Instead, I read him an article about the healing powers of meditation, while I think about my husband’s hands, his toes, his voice, his back, his laugh and his eyes, his eyes which were as black as outer space, which is not totally black.

We’d been married for five years when we found out he had leukaemia. I remember everything about those five years, and the two years before and the three months after. When Victor died I built an impenetrable fortress around those memories, but it seems they have been quietly surviving ever since. I have not been able to relive that loss in my mind, so how could I ever relive it in reality? I can’t do it again. I can’t, but I don’t think I have a choice. This love is different, unwanted, maybe doomed, but it holds me and I won’t let go.

This is a chapter of my book “Futures”, which investigates different versions of life in 2050. You can read the next chapter here.

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