THE elderly man flicked through the pages of the newspaper. Back and forth. Flick, flick. Stopping occasionally to re-read an item, perhaps check a headline, looking for meaning, for answers. Finding none, only confusion. What first appeared as imperatives could also be seen merely as advice, open to interpretation.
An either/or situation. Toss a coin.
Eventually, he decided. He donned his coat and made for the door and the foyer beyond. Warily he stepped out into a street much less busy than usual but still showing signs of activity, a much-reduced normality.
As he made his way to the town centre he began to notice the lingering looks cast in his direction, the pointed stares. Focussed on him. He grew aware of staccato words from people hurrying past with downcast faces. Not the usual random chatter he at first thought it to be, but direct; comments being aimed his way.
A sharp command, ‘Get back indoors.’
‘Go home old man,’ ordered one.
‘Unclean,’ alleged another and scurried on.
‘Not your place anymore. Too old to be out here.’ A clear explanation. Ironically it came from a far younger person who topped and tailed his words with a hacking cough.
So that was it, realised the man. Not only condemned to isolation but shunned and unwanted. The consensus was that his use-by date had well and truly come and gone.
He thought of the biblical phrase: The days of our years are three score years and ten …
Advances in medical science and community health had long made such a precise limit redundant. Life expectancy had become almost open-ended.
Until now. Until the epidemic.
Everything had drastically changed. He was in overdraft, in debt to the tune of a decade and rising. The community could no longer justify providing him with the services that he had helped pay for. He had to be penalised for exceeding those three score years and ten. A waste of space meriting sustained solitary confinement, like a felon on death row.
The message implied others were more needy, more deserving. It was the future generations who needed protecting and cossetting. Those yet to reach the limit imposed in the Psalms. Said to be in the prime of life even though this included the stubbornly inactive, the wilfully obese, the alcoholics, the smokers, the drug addicts and all who delegated responsibility for their health to the State, something he had never done or thought of doing.
Their demands could only be met by side-lining the generations ahead of them. His generation. Shunting them away down some untended branch line, out of sight and out of mind. Like being herded into those overloaded wagons that snaked their way through the woods beyond Buchenwald.
The man shuddered and pondered all this as he made his way home.
He took a longer route for there was no ban on walking, or even running, alone. Or was there? Strict instructions to self-isolate were in direct contradiction to the advice to exercise and remain active. Another dilemma.
He bypassed the frenzy of the supermarkets, baffled and angry at the incessant selfish panic buying. And the empty shelves.
His needs were met in the local market traders’ displays of fresh fruit, vegies, eggs, cheese, meat from local farms, fish from local waters. Better than any ready meal, although it would mean many would have to learn new skills, such as the basics of peeling, chopping, roasting, steaming, baking.
The stares and verballing from other pedestrians continued. More frequent, more direct. He felt the divide was rapidly widening.
He became aware of a presence at his shoulder. An executive type – dark grey suit, light blue shirt, striped tie – falling into step alongside. A laptop bag slung across chest and shoulder.
‘Don’t ignore them,’ said the newcomer, flicking a hand at the passersby. ‘They speak the truth, your time is up,’ he said, voice level and assured. Authoritative even.
‘Three score years and ten is enough. Anything more causes problems for those to come.’
He lengthened his stride, increased his pace and drew away.
There was a rolling newscast on the TV. But it brought the man no cheer. Merely deepening gloom. More forceful demands for those of his era to make themselves scarce; to lock themselves away, further out of sight than society had already made them.
Long ago he had decided there would be no end-of-life lingering. No desperate hanging on, gasping and wheezing at the end of a tube with lines inserted into arms and legs, monitors attached to chest and gut.
Had even prepared the way, thanks to an understanding medical friend who would remain forever anonymous. Yet he had never imagined that little vial of pills would be needed while still in robust good health. And made so by the demands of a society whose traditional values, that had served it so valiantly for centuries, had in a few decades been diluted out of all recognition.
Sobering thoughts. Mind-focussing. How many others would be feeling the same, if not now but well before the end of their twelve weeks of solitary confinement? They might be tempted to rise up in protest, cause further needless havoc and chaos as seemed to be the preferred means of stating one’s case.
Too disruptive. That was not his style.
In his desk he found a blank piece of A4 white card, string, stapler and sharpie. He wrote in bold caps. Took the vial of pills from his bedside cabinet. Strode resolutely to his front door and out into the street, the door left wide open.
He imagined the snide comments had greatly increased, in volume and in number. Inevitable from all he had seen and read. His head was a whirlpool of slurs and insults. Was this for real? Was this really happening, what the world had come to?
The shouts went on, magnifying, jumbled, swirling around him.
Out of service.
Passed use-by date.
Make way for the young.
Silly old fool.
No use to anyone
He reached the main square, an open windswept space. Found a bench. Hung the card around his neck. Tipped the content of the vial down his throat and murmured the rest of the Proverb, his voice slowly fading:
… and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years … it is soon cut off, and we fly away.
His placard flapped in the breeze:
FREE TO A GOOD HOME.
ALL WORKING PARTS
STILL IN EXCELLENT CONDITION
NO LONGER REQUIRED
He felt a persistent tapping on his shoulder. Blinked his eyes open, puzzled to see his neighbour, Joe, bending over him, frowning, concerned.
‘You okay, mate? Saw your front door was open, not like you; had me worried.’
‘Must have dozed off,’ said the man, shaking his head, baffled.
He looked down at the piece of card and sharpie in his lap. ‘Think I was about to put something on the noticeboard about this virus thing. Some of the residents are getting anxious.’
‘Scary times,’ said Joe. ‘Frightening. The stuff of nightmares. Can’t help wondering where it will all end.’