Fifty years from now, I am an old woman with ugly feet. It is the future and I have collected an extensive display of wrinkles and an extensive array of stories. I have become that which once perplexed me: the elderly. Still they sit, with their gummy mouths and powdery cheeks, in their white rows, in nursing homes and hospitals, their eyes glazed over with the memories of a dimming life. My eyes, my dimming life.
Yet I can’t really say I feel sad. It’s not quite the right word for it. I feel a little bit tired, as you do when you have taken a long and very slow walk through an enormous museum, and you have passed all the interesting displays, and now you just want to sit down in the cafeteria and enjoy a cup of coffee.
There is the loneliness, of course. But the friends started dropping off back in our fifties, and after a while even those losses start to numb. It sounds awful for me to say this, but eventually, funerals become like weddings. Too many in a row and you’re sick of the speeches.
It’s only the few that really hurt.
I now spend most of my days in a dressing gown: a pale blue one made of the softest synthetic fabric, with pictures of clocks on it. Some mornings I pass in the armchair by the bed; on alternate days I wander into the recreation room to gawp at the other residents. I try to keep things lively.
The bed is a single bed, low to the floor so there’s no chance of me falling off and breaking a hip in the night, spread with plain white sheets and a soft grey blanket. There’s a reading lamp and a bookshelf full of books that used to sit in a real house with a real family to love them.
It’s not half bad here, though. No one disturbs me. The nurses are genial. The screamers and the snorers are kept in a separate wing. I can’t ask for much more.
One day—I am not sure of the date or the day, because in the sameness of this place, it no longer matters—the warden announces that we have visitors.
Young girls from a local girls’ school, he tells us. Private school ladies who are thinking of becoming doctors, nurses and carers. I want you all to be on your best behaviour.
I cast my mind back half a century and try to remember the trappings of my schooldays: blazers and knotted ties and short skirts over stockings. Boys’ schools and horrible teachers. The terrible dramas of friendship. I am surprised by how vividly the impressions of youth rush back into my mind’s eye. I feel like the young me is simply trapped in this old, saggy shell, waiting to cast off these shrunken lungs and weary heart, and reclaim all the possibilities of childhood.
I smile at my own melodramatics as I return to my room. I walk with steady, slow steps across the blue carpet. It’s funny how as a child, everything seems so big; but as you grow, the world shrinks until you feel as though you can conquer it with a few giant steps. What you don’t find out is that when you grow old, you lose your Seven-League Boots: everything towers over your head, moves much faster than you do, and takes twice as long to cross.
I am plodding, but I make it. I shut the door and walk to the basin, where I soak a towel in warm water and wash my face. I comb my hair gently. I dress myself in a long wool dress and a cardigan.
The nurse comes with a trolley of drinks. I ask for tea, and once she is gone, I settle into my armchair with the hot drink and a book.
It is not long before the girls arrive like an army. I smile wryly as they march through the nursing home. They are not at all what I imagined, and yet exactly what I expected. They stride possessively from place to place, with the confidence of those who know they will one day own the world, following their teacher but paying her no heed. They wear their long hair in a mess. They are shiny from their thick lips to their fingernails to their thin legs. The old men who normally sit like tombstones over their card games perk up so suddenly that I am worried that one of them will have an arrest.
Nevertheless, even I am struck by the girls’ beauty. I blink once or twice over the top of my book. The girls pretend to listen as their teacher points out the residents’ wings, the kitchen and the rec room. They loll across the counters and the couches, leaning with their young, taut bodies, oozing the smell of womanhood. The smell of bubblegum and perfume. It is such an unfamiliar smell in a place that normally sits in a musk of stale urine, disinfectant and talcum powder. It is almost as though I have scented the trail of a predator, or a rival. The hairs on the back of my neck prickle.
Perhaps it’s just that I haven’t seen young people for a long time. That must be why their smooth, pert skin and their brazenness astonish me.
I shake my head. No, it’s not just youth that I am seeing. They are too perfect. I remember the girls that filled city streets in my day: girls who looked stunning, bizarre, frightening, adorable. There were girls who loped around in hipster jeans, white rolls of fat spilling over waistbands. Girls who caked on makeup to hide their pockmarked skin. But these girls are too perfect. I am sure they have stepped freshly from a magazine. These were the kind of girls I would have regarded with roaring envy, years ago.
The schoolgirls come traipsing past my room, and I stare at them so openly that only a few return my gaze. Even close up, they are still very beautiful. Most of them are tall: the shortest is about five foot four, the tallest almost six foot. They are very well proportioned, with long, lean legs and slim torsos. I peer into their eyes: wide, double-lidded, fringed thickly in dark lashes. They chatter to one another in a quick slang that washes over me.
Then, within a minute, they have moved on to another room. I shrug and return to my tea. I understand why they look like that now. I remember my daughter coming to me and asking for permission to have plastic surgery on her chin. That was many decades ago. Now they fix everything: chins, noses, eyes, legs, tummies. Limps and lisps. Squints and pimples.
I have read about these opportunities to be beautiful in articles written by beautiful people, in magazines that encourage you to be the most beautiful you that you can possibly be. In the newspaper, I have read about campaigns for equal rights to be beautiful. Government funding must make these services available to rich and poor alike. Ugliness is an injustice.
An hour later, there is a knock on my door.
“Come in,” I call.
The door slides open awkwardly and a girl steps through. She is wearing a short dress that reaches halfway down her thigh. Her legs are golden tan and I can see the sharp line of her quadriceps and calves. She has dark brown hair in a high ponytail. Her lips glimmer in pearl. “Hello,” she says.
I greet her with mild surprise and ask her if she would like to sit. She perches on the edge of the bed and throws her bag at her feet. Her name is Sonya, and she flashes me an uncertain smile.
“I saw you looking at us before when we came by your room,” she explained. “You seemed interesting. Do you mind if I talk to you?”
“Interesting!” I exclaimed, and laughed to myself with great amusement. “Well, isn’t that a compliment. Of course you can talk to me. I haven’t talked to someone young like you for a long time.” I was saying everything that old people used to say to me. Funny how true those words rang now.
“Thanks. That’s really nice of you.”
I feel like a nice, helpless old lady, and so I ask her, “How old are you, Sonya?”
“Fifteen,” she says. “I’m in Year Ten.” Her eyes are roving around my room, looking at my books and photographs. I wonder how sharp she is. She snaps a piece of gum in her mouth, and I wince.
“And what do you want to be when you finish school?”
“A nurse, I think,” she replies. “I know you’re going to ask me why. I’m not really smart enough to be a doctor, and I don’t want to be working my butt off my whole life. It sounds like a pain. I want to be a nurse and a housewife and have time to take care of my kids and stuff. If I get married.”
Sonya stares at me defiantly, as if threatening me to challenge her life plan: dark, startling eyes that could have been a feminist’s eyes in another decade, but in this case most certainly are not.
As if reading my mind, she goes on, “I’m not a feminist. Some of my friends are big on the whole thing, but I don’t care too much about it. I want to have a husband who makes all the money so I can swim around in our backyard pool all summer long.”
“Smart girl,” I quip, regarding her with undimmed suspicion.
She returns the sentiment. “Aren’t you old people supposed to tell me to work hard, seize life, and make the most of every opportunity?”
I put down my book properly and close the pages over the bookmark. “I would regard that as a mistake.”
Sonya folds her arms. “What do you mean?”
“I wish I did less of the working hard, and more of the lying around in backyard pools.” I study her carefully. She has a rosy glow in her cheeks and perfect green eyes. “Do you want to get married, then?”
“Maybe,” she shrugs. “If I can find a good guy. The boys my age are idiots. I think I’ll marry someone older.”
“The boys your age will be older soon,” I say.
Sonya finally notices that I am examining her features as though she is a wall display. “They’re not real, you know,” she says.
“My eyelashes. I had them done just a couple of months ago. Do you like them?” She bats her lids at me.
“I do,” I say sincerely. “They’re very pretty. You girls don’t look like the girls of my day. I suppose we’re a dying species now.”
Sonya shrugs again. “Well, there’s a lot more pressure nowadays. But there are a lot more opportunities to be pretty. When you start puberty, you go to a special doctor where you can choose how tall you want to be. And you take these pills for as long as you want to keep growing, and you stop taking them when you’re as tall as you want. And there are other pills to keep you thin and toned, and there’s always lipo if you get a bit pudgy over winter. It’s great. They’ve almost completely wiped out obesity. The human race is so much healthier now.”
She jumps off the bed and holds a hand up to the top of her head. “See? My base height is 173cm and my base weight is fifty-eight kilograms. Every few months I go to the doctor and he tweaks my regimes if I’m a little off.”
“Your tan?” I ask. “It’s lovely. Is it real?”
“Oh, my tan’s real. I just came back from a holiday. But I’ve had my nose fixed and my skin lasered. Don’t look so shocked! Everyone does it, nowadays. You can’t go walking around in your old skin.”
“I’ve done it for seventy years, no problem,” I say, a little huffily.
The girl and I stare at each other, and, unexpectedly, we break into laughter.
At last I sigh and gaze out the window. “I never looked like you, not even when I was twenty years old. If I had maybe more people would have loved me. Or maybe not. It didn’t matter, because all of us ordinary-looking people found happiness anyway.”
Sonya wanders around the room and picks up a photo frame from the bookshelf. She studies the faces in it carefully. “I see you. Is this man your husband?”
“And the lady?”
“That’s my daughter, Rachel.”
She puts down the photo and comes back to the bed. “Do you miss him?”
Her question startles me, but I hide it. I suppose it’s obvious I wouldn’t be in this place if I still had someone at home with me. “Of course I do, girl. That’s a silly question.”
“Sorry,” says Sonya. After a pause, she says, “You’re pretty lucky.”
“Why do you say that?”
“You had a family. You looked happy. My family would never look like that. My dad’s great, but he’s very successful and expects a lot from us. My stepmom is a huge whore—when she met my dad, she was going out with a guy fifteen years younger than her. Gross. My brother’s all right, but he’s always bringing home girls who look like models. And I’ve got a sister who’s a total freak: she’s a protester against plastic surgery. Never been touched by the doctor. She’s overweight and looks like she just emerged from the Dark Ages.”
Just then there is another rap on the door and a nurse pokes his head through. Seeing that I have an attractive guest, he opens the door entirely and steps in. His name is Carl, and though he is far from handsome in any language, he is what I would describe as non-offensive. He has unblemished skin in a homogenous brownish shade, and not a speck of facial hair. It is as though he had been moulded out of putty. His arms are equally brown and hairless, and his eyes are bright blue circles.
I don’t like him very much. “What are you after, Carl?”
“Just checking if you need anything, love.”
“Don’t call me love, and no, thank you. I’m perfectly fine.”
Carl winks at Sonya and shakes his head as if to say, “How d’you put up with her?” before he ducks out.
Sonya giggles to herself.
I gape at her. “Don’t tell me you thought he was cute.”
Sonya shuts her mouth. “He was all right!”
“Good grief,” I say. “When you go home tonight, you hop on your computer and Google ‘James Franco,’ you hear me?”
“Who’s James Frank?”
“Ah, never mind.” I watch her fidget like a restless puppy. “Do you have a boyfriend?”
“Only one at the moment, and only sort of. Some of my friends have two or three.”
Sonya makes a face. “We slept together a few times, but neither of us really liked it that much, so I don’t think we’re really compatible. My real mum always told me how important it is to make sure you’re compatible.”
“What does compatibility mean?”
Sonya pauses. “I dunno. I guess you make each other happy in every way you can, without having to try.”
I laugh bitterly at her reply. “I’m sorry to break this to you, Sonya, but you can never make someone happy all the time without trying some of the time. It just doesn’t work like that.”
She stares at me queerly, and then glances at her watch. “I’m sorry, I’ve got to go. The bus is taking us back to school.”
“That’s fine. It was nice meeting you, Sonya.”
“You too.” She stops in the doorway to regard me, crumpled and grey and content, in my armchair. “I wouldn’t mind looking like you when I’m old,” she says before she walks out.
After Sonya is gone, I slowly finish my cold tea. It tastes like factory fare, as always, and I try not to swill it around my mouth for too long before I swallow it down. Steady sunlight is pouring through the window, and it draws me up out of my chair like the teleportation beam of a UFO. I drift to the window, the blanket falling from my shoulders, and press my face up to the glass. Vertical bars obscure part of my view: I am on the tenth floor, and a fall from this height would reflect badly on the name of the nursing home. Directly across from me is a tall building that must be an office of some sort; across the road is a hotel, and further on, a long row of shopping centres. The city stretches on and on until the skyscrapers meet the horizon in a mass of grey.
Beneath me, a thousand people are bustling through the streets. It’s lunchtime, the peak time of the weekday. Their minds must be filled with a million things to do. All those uncompleted tasks drift up towards me, a miasma of anxiety, up and up those ten stories until they reach the spot where I am standing, but they have no effect on me. They merely drift on by to the unheeding clouds.
I close my eyes and remember happier days. I don’t feel sad now, but I know I am sad. I have put up a humble wall between my past and my present. I know that my life really ended a long time ago; that this is my purgatory; that I am only waiting for something more, or for oblivion.
Far below, I glimpse the school bus filling up with the long-legged, wild-eyed girls, and I experience an unexpected rush of sadness for Sonya. For I know that life will be much tougher for her than it ever was for me. There’s little peace in a world that travels at the speed of fibre optics, and little love to be found among those who find it unacceptable for a child to wear her real face.