This short story is taken from David Morisset's collection "Dreams Schemes & Teams".
It is set in Sydney in 2052.
They say that if you drink the right amount of single malt scotch every day, then you will live forever. I could not always afford such expensive whisky - but I drank a lot of several cheaper varieties in my middle years. And, now, here I am, about to turn one hundred years old. Of course, even with all that scotch plus the benefits of recent advances in medical science I am sure I will not live forever - and I am not sure that I want to – one hundred and twenty years will be perfectly sufficient.
Mid-way through this bitterly cold winter of 2052, I live happily in a part of Sydney that has changed a lot. If I had lived here when I was fifty, I would have had harbour views. But the harbour has long gone. The scientific community got global warming wrong. To give them some credit, climate change was indeed a problem - but not in the way that most of them thought.
I never understood it personally – you see I was educated in the sixties and seventies. As a result, my powers of reason and deduction are considered flawed. People my age cannot be relied upon to give useful advice on the problems that face our world in the middle of the twenty-first century. But, so what? There are some substantial compensations of modern life in the great state of New South Wales even for someone as ancient as me.
Because more than two-thirds of the men in the state are gay – and the proportion is closer to 90% in Sydney – heterosexual men are required to have at least four wives. Furthermore, strict anti-discrimination regulations mean that religious and ethnic diversity must be factored into all institutions, including marriage.
I never divorced my first wife – a gorgeous Australian girl with enough Mediterranean blood running through her family tree to make her very interesting company for the first forty years of our marriage. But she moved to Queensland to be closer to our son – or so she said.
To meet my obligations to the state, I now have three other wives living with me - a beautiful Muslim wife of Iranian descent (who is my favourite), a very energetic Hindi wife whose family came from Sri Lanka, and a rather beguiling Buddhist wife who is a recent arrival from Laos. I had to convert to all three of their religions but I think it was worth it. They are all aged in their late twenties – or so they say.
My wives seem happy – at least the three living with me seem happy – and their chances of finding a stray heterosexual man with enough youthful energy to be open to casual dalliance are fairly slim unless they travel interstate on business. Of course, they do travel interstate on business quite frequently. But I don’t ask any questions as long as the money keeps rolling into their bank accounts and the state prescribed portion of it finds its way into my pension fund.
We live in a four bedroom flat – sorry, type 21, section (b), sub-section (ii) compliant apartment – next to the site of Pinchgut. Of course, Pinchgut is long gone. It was too much of a reminder of colonial times and considered a blot on the modern Australian landscape. To be fair, when the harbour dried up in the 2030s, the old fort did look out of place.
The floor of the harbour is now criss-crossed with bicycle paths and bus lanes threaded between eye-catching medium density housing. Some of the most expensive dwellings were built from the debris of Blues Point Tower after it was destroyed – inadvertently they say - by the Australia Day fireworks display in January 2040. The old site was converted to a park for people to run their dogs without leashes.
I had always marvelled at the way the harbour dried up so quickly. When I was sixty I thought there was a pretty good chance my old house in Eastwood would have a water frontage once the ice caps really began to melt in earnest.
As it turned out, the fickle planet lurched into another cold snap. After a couple of decades of less than determined action to deal with global cooling we began to notice that all the desalination plants that were built between 2007 and 2030 had begun to suck the nearby oceans dry.
Luckily it kept raining and, because the rainwater was not harvested, the oceans had at least one reliable source of new water. But the combination of the reforming ice caps and the multiplying desalination plants meant that some seawater had to recede. Sydney Harbour’s share was one of the first to go.
I gather that things are much better in tropical climes. But there are some very upset people on the Gold Coast of Queensland. I understand that the old surf club at Broadbeach is fifteen kilometres inland. Also, the beachside tower I used to retreat to for Christmas holidays (now known as the Summer Solstice Festival) fronts a golf resort with savage bunkers.
Of course, climate change has had some positive effects. For example, the scenic walk due west from Frankston to Geelong draws more tourists every year and the long camel rides across Bass Strait are particularly well patronised during the summer months.
In anticipation of my hundredth birthday my wives combined to buy me a train ticket. Since my early seventies, I had promised myself that I would one day take the train from Blacktown to Richmond to see how the landscape had changed since I was a boy in the middle of the twentieth century.
Serena – my Sri Lankan wife (why otherwise sensible Asian women persist in adopting such exotic ‘European’ names remains a mystery even to this man of almost one hundred years) – drove me to Blacktown.
We proceeded along the old M2, took the old M7, and then found our way to Blacktown station. There were speed cameras all the way along both of the old motorways. But the tolls that I had known in my middle age had been lifted after the violent E-tag riots of December 2025.
As we travelled west, we noticed that more and more cars had no registration plates. So much for the speed cameras!
Serena dropped me off at Blacktown’s rather grand old railway station. The Minister for Graffiti has recently announced a major upgrade to this relic. With a smile that started in her ebony eyes, Serena waved farewell and promised to meet me at Richmond station.
I boarded a steam train of the modern variety. When I was a boy the old steam trains puffed by my house and sent soot everywhere. The new technology is much more sophisticated and any soot is collected in dozens of tiny aluminium cylinders under the engine. The full cylinders are sent offshore for burial in the shallow seabed in areas adjacent to various impoverished Pacific Islands.
The electric trains of earlier years are still operating in other parts of greater Sydney but the frequent blackouts are a nuisance. The double-decker monorail soon to be built between Kellyville and Castle Hill is expected to be so starved of power that it will make only four round trips each day when its single line is completed in time for the next state election in 2075. Since 25 year fixed terms were introduced by the state government in 2025, there has been much more scope for careful long term planning of this type.
As long as the trend towards working at home was in full swing, Sydney’s infrastructural shortcomings could be all but ignored by successive state treasurers eager to run budget surpluses for whatever reason. However, eventually, the heightened incidence of fraud and corporate malfeasance caused such alarm that the working at home trend simply had to be reversed. Because such huge numbers of people now need to travel around Sydney, most of its transport arteries are choked for most of the day – with the exception of the lunch period.
Not surprisingly then, the trip from Blacktown to Richmond was, as ever, a relaxing one when I boarded the train just after 12 noon (Australian eastern winter conserved daytime as adjusted for seasonal errors and parliamentary sitting days). As usual, only a few commuters were about at lunchtime. Most people would be working flat out so as to gain every possible advantage over any slack colleagues who chose to take a break.
I must point out, however, that my journey was disappointing. Most of the landscape was unrecognisable. There were no farms any more. The houses were impressive but predictable. The railway stations that were not vandalised were in distressing states of more general disrepair.
As we moved through Riverstone, I noticed that the old rugby league ground now hosted soccer posts. Rugby league and rugby union were both made illegal in 2027. Boxing had been prohibited in 2022 and then a series of other sports that encouraged unhealthy physical expression and vigorous competition were reviewed and found wanting. The New South Wales parliament is currently debating whether cricket is an acceptable pursuit in modern times.
Of course, ridiculous prohibitions and prescriptive regulations always have predictable results. Most of New South Wales’ rugby players and spectators simply moved to Queensland – just like my son, so he could watch his boys and their sons play. I am proud to say that, by doing so, he preserved a proud family tradition of playing one or both codes of rugby – the only one that goes all the way back to my maternal grandfather. Apparently, my ancestor was a slightly built winger with a deceptive swerve and a burst of speed that also came in handy off the field whenever the local police raided his illegal betting shop.
Interestingly, there have been persistent rumours in western Sydney that both rugby codes had gone underground and, so, survived. Apparently a composite game is being played in disused car parks under old shopping centres with fields utilising the new grass varieties that need no sunlight. Yes, the game they play in heaven has gone, literally, underground!
Of course, there had to be some rule changes. No ‘bombs’ – or any other types of tactical high kicks - are allowed. Goal kicks are ruled unsuccessful unless they completely avoid the ceiling. I long to be invited to a match.
Looking at the old football ground in Riverstone as the train raced westwards, I could remember so much. My uncle marking the lines with lime, my mother and father shouting encouragement to their boys, girlfriends waiting patiently on the sideline, and coaches making passionate expletive-ridden half-time speeches. Maybe I should move to Queensland and leave my compliant wives – but I would probably miss Sholeh (the Iranian one) too much.
Finally, the train stopped at Richmond and I walked slowly from the end of the main platform to the street. Again, most of the town was unrecognisable. The park was still there but there were none of the swings and slippery dips I remembered.
The old pub that my grandfather favoured for pre-dinner ales and animated discussions about Saturday’s horse races was long gone. It had been replaced by a needle exchange for heroin users.
Standing outside Richmond railway station on East Regulation Street (formerly East Market Street), I waited for Serena and looked towards the Blue Mountains (now mostly obscured by nondescript buildings). I had no money on me so there was not much I could do except be patient. In 2037 the state government had introduced legislation that made it illegal for people aged over 90 to carry any money or other valuables in public areas. If they did, they were liable to prosecution for recklessly provoking petty theft.
Not that there is much chance of actually being prosecuted. The courts are fully occupied with workers’ compensation cases and small business people being pursued by taxation authorities. In 2029 all aspects of tax evasion – as well as something called “passive minimisation strategies” - were made subject to serious criminal charges. Because the tax codes for all the states and the Commonwealth are now so complex that no-one can understand them in their entirety, everyone is vulnerable to criminal proceedings at the whim of a bureaucrat.
And then something took me by surprise. Across the road from the needle exchange was a familiar old dark brick house, which had apparently been declared a heritage site and, thereby, had managed to escape the waves of modernisation that reshaped the streetscape in recent times.
When I was in my first decade on this earth, my grandmother would take me there to visit her sister-in-law (my aunt). The old ladies would drink milky tea by the warm fire of the wood stove in the tiny kitchen and my brother and I would devour lamingtons and sponge cake.
Our rewards for sitting quietly while the old ladies chatted usually comprised a walk in the park, a chance to try all the swings and all the slippery dips, and, if we had a rugby ball with us, a bit of goal kicking practice in the fresh air without a ceiling.
Serena’s car pulled up just as I was about to go for a stroll through what was left of the park. For some reason, I suddenly felt thirsty. I really needed a single malt scotch.