You stare at your boots, doing complex equations. If you walk-bus-walk to your doctor's appointment, you'll be exhausted and hazy when the doctor is talking to you. Your legs will shoot with pain and tonight you won't be able to stand long enough to prepare a meal, so you'll probably have to order food. Twenty-three dollars, plus about five dollars for the bus. And the takeaway dinner won't be very nutritious, so with that plus the worsened pain, you probably won't have the energy to do any chores tomorrow.
If you take an Uber to the doctor's office, it will cost you fifteen dollars. You'll be able to walk into the appointment with minimal pain, which means you'll be able to concentrate on asking the right questions. You double-check that you put your list in the purse. Yes; only eight items today. You and your GP never get to every item but it helps you to prioritise your health issues. You weren't supposed to need another doctor's visit until after next pay but this urinary tract infection sprung up and it's agony. You realise that you're leaning over your boots. Colourless fog hangs over your memory; weren't you doing something? Were you taking these off or putting them on? List … doctor … Ah! The fog parts and you grab at details. You're deciding whether to take an Uber. It will cost you thirty dollars to ride there and back again; that's about three home-cooked meals. You only have enough food left in the cupboard for about five more meals.
It's still a week until pension day. Maybe someone will have a dinner next weekend and invite you. That would make six meals. The nutritionist, physio and psychologist all get mad when you only eat one meal a day and sleep through the other two. Food is fuel. You can't get more energy without it. You're tired of people telling you to take care. You've taken it all. There isn't much left. You process more numbers in your head.
At the doctor's, you ease yourself into the heather-grey chair, leaning on the armrests. One leg has to be pushed out to ease the aching; you jarred it climbing into the bus. Drivers don't lower the ramp when they see you; they tsk when you don't move fast enough, and jerk away from the kerb just as you're lowering yourself to sit. At least today there were plenty of priority seats and nobody had a go at you for sitting in one.
The doc pushes the familiar questionnaire towards you. Suicidal ideation, anxiety: yes, yes. Obviously. She grades it silently and taps things into the computer. It's a new calendar year soon which will mean ten psychologist sessions reduced from one hundred and twenty dollars down to seventy out of pocket per session. With the Medicare rebate, you can just afford to see the psych once a month. (Every second fortnight you need that money for the physio.) For other times, you have Lifeline's number saved.
The receptionist tells you to reinsert your bank card to get half the cost of your appointment back. You love that this place can do your Medicare rebate instantly. You still have to have the full fee in your bank account in order to pay before you get the rebate, but it's one less form to submit. This GP doesn't bulk bill but you go to her because she's the only doctor on your bus route who understands your condition and doesn't make you feel rushed. Ideally you'd go to a specialist but there's only one in town and you were on a wait list for three months to see him. When you got there he was weird and insulted you and made you cry. That visit cost you two hundred dollars and two hours on the bus. A nurse later suggested that you report him but your mother warned you that he'd retaliate and jeopardise your pension. You have no idea what he could do but it's enough to put you off. Anyway, the paperwork. You're too tired to pour milk on cereal, let alone fight a medical specialist. The receptionist is reminding you to remove your card. You have your phone in your hand and notice an alert. A tweet links to an article about housing affordability in Australia; you find out the national poverty line has been adjusted, and your pension puts you below it.
On the ride home your Uber driver keeps trying to initiate conversation and you try to keep up but you feel nauseated from hunger. You vaguely wonder if your drawn face is affecting your rating. Friends say they can't see your disability.
Finally, you're at the house, and you try not to put too much pressure on your hip as you climb out of the car. The pain is sharp but you've learned not to wince. Wincing leads to questions, which require explanations, which wear you out more than the initial pain.
Now you're in bed – your sanctuary. The mid-afternoon sun slants across it. You built this frame yourself from a kit you bought off Gumtree, and saved for the memory foam mattress for a year. It was a labour of love – and denial. Like your perennially empty savings account labelled Housing deposit. This bed is your home, and twenty hours a day you're in it, gently supported. As you lower yourself into the blankets, piling them up on your legs to warm the aches, you remember picking out the mattress with him. You were upgrading to a queen so he could stay over more comfortably. Was he lying to you even then?
Your phone must be wrong because it says an hour has passed. But of course it's correct, and you quell the jab of panic at how easily you didn't notice. Another hour killed. Life has become marking time: from pay to pay, from appointment to appointment. Ticking off the hours you have to spend staring at the ceiling or Netflix. Doing a chunk of work here and there. Getting through. Since you've rested an appropriate amount, you might treat yourself to a step outside, just to the letterbox.
The metal flap creaks as you crane your neck to it. You always take a long time to check for mail, savouring each rush of breeze against your cheeks. Your hair and clothes lift and you feel weightless. The neighbour's cherry tree is blooming. Fragrance ribbons past, intoxicating. Despite your self-consciousness that passersby can see, you're now standing next to your letterbox with your eyes closed. Imagining feeling this way more often. Imagining spending a whole day outside.
There's nothing for you, but you feel brighter as you shuffle back into the house and sit on the edge of your bed. For something to do, you check your email. There's a message from MyGov. They want you to check your inbox because you have an online letter from Centrelink. A door that had opened briefly inside of you blows shut. With less than two hundred dollars in your savings account, if your pension disappeared you wouldn't last a week. Maybe friends would help you out for a month, maybe two. But it would be merely a delay. The stress, poor eating and lack of sufficient medicine would take their toll. An organ would begin to falter. This isn't speculative: it would be the third or fourth time for you. Each time a longer recovery.
Numbers keep flipping themselves on the screen. Words jumble. Centrelink says you owe them two and a half grand. They say you were not diligent enough, and now you have three weeks to pay. This seems impossible. You were so conscientious, so afraid of getting in trouble, Check your phone date and time. Look around the room. Remind yourself of the name of this town and your birthdate. Look in a mirror. Your name. Your name. Three weeks.
Two thousand and five hundred dollars, six years ago. Remember six years ago? Fresh out of hospital – pancreas failure – and counting fat content percentages on food packaging. Tapering off painkillers. Working two – or was it three? – casual jobs, and sometimes there was Newstart. Your then-boyfriend introduced you to his family. He and his brother poisoned you for a laugh, smiled at each other across the dinner table when you couldn't understand your stomach pains. A grammar school boy with a good job in finance – he didn't want much from you and that was a relief, because you had little to give. But this letter is talking about the next June, as well. Five years ago. The mist is denser over this year. A new boyfriend; handsome and gentlemanly; a med student. He assaulted you in your own bed. Grey settled over everything for months. You had flickers of crying in stairwells and at doctor's offices and to housemates who are strangers. Hours on the phone to Centrelink. Authority figures asked what you were doing to improve your health. Finally, a letter arrived attached to a card that said disability support pension. It was five years ago, now, that you sobbed with relief because you thought your fortnightly reporting days were over.
A heaviness is filling you. Cotton-wool brain. You don't remember lying down. This can't be right. Something stressful has happened, but it's slipping away from you. Have you taken your medication? You'll just have a little sleep. You wish you could sleep. You count the reasons to want to stay awake, but the numbers are imaginary. All that awaits is paperwork.