“Beckham you really are stupid” said Michael. Beckham is a rat in a cage that, apart from sleeping and eating, spends almost every available minute racing frantically on a treadmill. This rat is not a pet, but the focus of a high school science experiment – a compulsory assessment task that counts towards a university entrance score.
Michael is trying his best to get the highest mark he can to gain entry to medicine at university. Apart from school marks, Michael will also have to be successful in an interview selection process to determine whether he is a suitable candidate for a career in the medical profession. To that end Jim, Michael’s father, has employed a tutor to help polish his son’s presentation skills so that he can convince the interview panel that he has chosen to study medicine from a genuine desire to make the world a better place. The fact is that Michael chose medicine as his career goal after he had researched the internet to find the highest paying jobs. The very first Google hit was an article from a mainstream newspaper site that listed anaesthetist at #1, internal medical specialist at #2 and other medical practitioners at #3. Though a degree in ancient history may have appealed more to his innate intellectual interests, Michael was sensible enough to put income ahead of passion. He was also not silly, and knew not to put all his eggs in one basket, so he is training very hard on his fitness and ball skills because professional sport these days cannot be ruled out as a profitable earner – thus the David Beckham poster on the wall behind the rat cage and the model of the Acropolis .
Michael’s mother, Janine, is cooking dinner in the kitchen. She is preparing a meal that won the grand final – by a controversial yet entertaining gay couple – on television’s latest reality cooking show. Janine has succumbed to pressure from family and peers to “get with the program”, so to speak, and begrudgingly accepted that her standard repertoire of meals, passed down by her mother and grandmother, is boring. The cost of the ingredients for these fancy new meals, and the tools such as the mini blowtorch needed for the perfect brulee, are a bit expensive, but her casual employment as an aged-care worker, even at minimal hourly rate, does allow for some small luxuries. The cost of Michael’s tutoring, though, is not considered a luxury; it is justified by Jim, who wants the very best for his youngest son. Experience has taught Jim that a university qualification is the very minimum needed to secure an income sufficient for a comfortable and secure future. In a world that has become so much more complex and competitive than when he was at school, cruising along is simply not an option these days if one wants to get ahead.
Jim is a middle manager at the local council and, despite being very good at what he does, is putting in extra unpaid hours – just to be sure. His job is under threat, again, due to yet another productivity assessment being conducted by a specially-convened review panel. The panel is largely composed of councillors who, with hands on hearts and declarations of loyal service to the community, are local real estate agents and business owners that seem hell-bent on rolling back the “unrealistic” pay and working conditions that are stifling the economic growth of the council and the region as a whole. Jim cannot afford to lose his job as he and Janine just sold their first home and moved to a bigger house up the hill. The family story is that they moved up the hill to catch a breeze and get away from the stifling heat down in the valley. Really though, everyone knows but dares not say that the valley has, in recent years, become plagued by crime, vandalism and drug activity. The valley’s relatively cheap rental properties are the old fibro boxes vacated by the original owners who have moved on up in the world to bigger homes on smaller blocks in those fancy new housing estates. These asbestos-riddled shacks have been taken up by the welfare-dependent low-life that seems to have appeared from nowhere. Jim is focussing on Michael getting into university at all costs.
Jim and Janine’s, daughter Kylie, only 2 years older than Michael, left school early and went to TAFE to become a beautician. She finished the certificate but never worked because she fell pregnant to a musician, who though is standing by Kylie, has failed to provide any real income because he refuses, as Jim puts it, to get a real job. His long hair and tattoos infuriate Jim, and though Janine defends him to some extent, Kylie’s situation is a source of shame for the parents.
The eldest child in the family is James Junior, 32 years of age and still at home. JJ, as his family call him, like Kylie, did not do too well at school and consequently he works in retail at the local shopping centre. He sells the latest electronic equipment and gets a staff discount on computer games and consoles. JJ is a big gamer and is usually up till the wee hours of the morning as he battles warlocks and werewolves in the latest virtual world of computer games. His lack of any real world social activity is not helped by his major indoor hobby, but a stutter and slight twitch which he developed after a humiliating incident at a school dance in Year 3 is the main reason that JJ keeps mostly to himself. Needless to say he does not have a girlfriend, but he is a hard worker and is saving conscientiously for a deposit for a home. Rents are so high that living at home for as long as possible is a reality that Jim and Janine cannot argue with. Janine would love to have JJ’s bedroom as a sewing room and Jim would love to be able to park in his own driveway, but at the moment keeping the family on track and helping them to get ahead in life is the priority. Jim consoles himself that one day he will retire and surely by then the kids will have left home, though recent news of an increase in retirement age has, of late, had Jim popping a few extra anti-anxiety pills.
As the family of five sit themselves around the dinner table, Jim performs a ritual that, despite the occasional raised eyebrow, is tolerated by his non-religious children. They all bow their heads and Jim thanks God for the meal and the fact that they live in Australia and not some war-torn hell hole overseas somewhere. Jim would not admit it but he also does not believe in God, nor does he, for that matter, believe that Australia is the lucky country that our politicians like to keep telling us it is. However, without an alternative vision or philosophy for a good life, Jim resorts to old habits and does finds some solace in an imaginary god, and he lies to himself about the egalitarian and relaxed Australian lifestyle even if it disappearing in front of his eyes. The meal is scoffed down in one tenth of the time it took Janine to prepare it and there is little opportunity for her to try and discuss when the family can all visit the grandparents, who are now in aged-care facility two hours’ drive away. Jim and Janine moved to the outer suburbs when they first married so that they could afford to buy a home. The price of real estate had skyrocketed in their childhood inner-city stomping ground, and houses, even tiny apartments, were now only affordable to cashed-up trendy professionals or the new breed of mum and dad investors who were getting in on wealth creation schemes promoted at seminars by dodgy entrepreneurs. The opportunity to acquire a property portfolio – sounds pretty sexy doesn’t it – was even facilitated by the government, with tax incentives legislated by political parties trying to win or keep the middle class vote. Meanwhile, back out in the suburban wasteland, also known as the sticks, Janine tries unsuccessfully to work out the logistics of getting a busy family to visit her aging parents. JJ works most weekends due to the consumer-driven (or is it profit-driven?) extended retail hours; Kylie has committed to a brutal prenatal regime, including in utero language lessons and numerous gym classes, to give her unborn child the very best start in life that it deserves; Michael plays soccer for his local club and regional rep team in hope of signing a lucrative professional sports contract – which will save him from bullshitting about his passion for healing the sick; and Jim, after mowing the lawns, poisoning the weeds and washing the car, only wants to relax with the newspaper, a few cold beers and flick around the sport channels with the remote. Jim, to be honest, is also a bit resentful that Janine’s parents have reverse-mortgaged their inner-city home to fund their exorbitantly expensive retirement community lifestyle. The once-comforting prospect of a very handy and timely inheritance is evaporating as medical advances keep the in-laws alive and racking up bills for longer and longer. The irony, which oddly was brought to the family attention by the usually mute JJ one forty-five degree stinking bloody Sunday, is that Janine works for minimum wage in the outer suburbs wiping other peoples’ parents’ bums while her parents’ bums are being wiped by complete strangers, all funded by the virtual repossession of the family inheritance by a bank that consistently posts record profits in the billions. The injustice of it all was lost on Jim and Janine, as it just seems that this is how the world operates and there’s not much anyone can do about it and certainly no point in having a whinge.
As the family begin to leave the dinner table, congratulating mum on another great meal and consoling her that they will one day visit the oldies, just not this weekend, Michael, insists that they all come into his bedroom to check out Beckham the rat. The family gather around the rodent cage and watch Beckham racing at full speed on the treadmill. Michael states that he has observed Beckham now for six weeks and has calculated that the small mammal spends 92.6% of his waking hours running non-stop on that little wheel that goes absolutely nowhere. Kylie, with a contrived tone of empathy, says, “the poor thing, I wonder if he’s happy?” Jim, summing up as dads often do, declares, “he doesn’t know any better, he is, as Michael says, stupid” The family stare blankly at the running rat for five long seconds – it is as though they are in a trance, then without notice and in unison they snap back into the present moment, they look around at each other and each of them seem to wake up to some pressing notion that they need to be somewhere doing something, not here, but somewhere else, not staring at the rat, but doing something else. So without comment they all turn, and walk out of the room.