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Je Vais

Author: Lily Raper
Year: Future

Future. At my age, it’s supposed to be a happy word, full of opportunity and potential, stretching out in front of me like a yellow-brick road leading towards a glittering Happily Ever After. Career, mortgage, family, kids, the perfect suburban dream.

The word “future” no longer carries the associations it once did. It’s a strange time to be graduating, just as it’s a strange time to be doing just about anything. Eating, working, living, breathing, all done with that heavy black cloud hanging overhead, future. Every day the word sounds more like a threat.

My last exam was a French oral. I was asked questions about feminism, the film industry, art and culture through the safety net of my computer screen. And, finally, more of a parting query than a real interrogation: what are your plans for after graduation? I got as far as “je vais” before realising that I no longer had an ending for the sentence in any language. In a few short months, all my plans had been obliterated as the pandemic blew the working world apart.

What will the commencement speech they give at my webcam graduation sound like? These kinds of events are supposed to be uplifting, encouraging us to soar to new heights, seize tomorrow today, and whatever else they found on inspirationalquotes.com. Perhaps they’ll replace their generic platitudes with honest disclaimers: your career is not guaranteed; your health is not guaranteed; your civil rights are not guaranteed; your planet’s health is not guaranteed; your future is not guaranteed. None of this would be news, of course, but at least we wouldn’t be pretending otherwise. The billboard advertising green pastures and white-picket fences rings false in the face of the four-lane pileup below.

Graduation used to be a summit; now it looks more like a cliff edge. I studied French for five years, thinking of careers in teaching, translation, tourism. I’ve arrived at the peak just in time to watch borders slam shut in my face, and at my back lies the devastation of a global pandemic. I live in one of the most developed nations in the world – I’m one of the lucky ones. My parents and I drag kitchen furniture out onto the driveway and sunbathe while cyclists and dog walkers pass at a two-meter distance. We must look like a postcard of lockdown privilege.

The sunniest Spring on record, the news said today. They placed the item at the end of the broadcast in the slot where they usually have a fluff piece to detract from the wall-to-wall horror preceding it. Forty thousand dead, peaceful protestors beaten and gassed, but at least it’s sunny. Taps aff, yippee.

It’s a delightful reminder of the backburner cataclysm waiting for us on the other side of the mass graves. How many years left before we burn? Sixty? Forty? Twenty? Never enough, no matter how much optimism I can dredge up to face off against the onslaught of science.

In my day, we expected a nuclear apocalypse, mum tells me. We all thought the end of the world was coming at the push of a button. Will the world end with a bang? A whimper? A Tweet? This cliff edge is beginning to feel like a knife edge. How do I plan for a future that could be blown apart at any moment? How does Generation Discontent cope with broken promise after broken promise? How do I write a story about Schrodinger’s future? How do I plan for a life that is falling apart?

The answer is that I don’t plan. I write. I write and write and write in the hope that it gets me somewhere before time runs out. The yellow brick road holds nothing but broken promises and empty gestures. There will be no Happily Ever After at its end. I can only make my own path, and hope.