It was early afternoon and the first guests were arriving. Mary was dressed in a long, bluish gown, emphasizing her still tall figure. Her silvery hair, set for the occasion, was topped by a diadem. She looked almost regal. Despite her age her body was trim and her eyes sparkled in anticipation of a great day.
‘All ready to go, Sis?’ asked her younger sister Emma on arrival.
‘As ready as can be!’ was her reply. “I have been waiting for this day for eighty years. And now, it has arrived.’
On the 3D monitor on the living room wall a parade of well wishers appeared and wished her luck. Some expressed their admiration for her decision and said that they would like to be as brave as she was.
‘It has nothing to do with bravery,’ Mary told her best friend Eve.
‘This is something one does, when one turns eighty. The papers have been signed and when my death certificate has been issued the government transfers the agreed sum of credits to my daughter’s account. What is brave about that?’
‘Zero population growth is more important than the departure bonus,’ Eve said.
‘The decision really was easy after Max died five years ago,’ Mary could be heard saying. ‘I miss a man in my life…,’ she said and bent over closer to Eve’s ear and whispered with a smile on her face, ‘…and the lovemaking that goes with it.’
‘You naughty girl.’ Eve said and gave Mary a kick with her elbow. They both smiled knowingly as they always had done since their school days and they had shared a joke.
‘Mum, have you got your Departure Pill ready?’ her daughter Alice came up and asked.
‘Don’t worry, Darling, there won’t be any hitch and tomorrow you are richer by a few thousand credits.’
‘Ah, Mum, that is not what I meant. You know you forget things and if you are still here tomorrow things might get complicated.’
‘By twelve I will have disappeared like Cinderella. I promise.’ She put her right hand on her heart and lifted her left hand up.
More and more people arrived and the room filled with flowers of all kinds as this was the custom on one’s last birthday party. The family had hired a catering service and there was plenty to eat and drink. People were sipping sparkling wines and laughter could be heard. It was not a sombre affair at all.
Sometimes all were quiet as some important well wisher appeared on the 3D monitor. There was a festive mood as the ‘Voluntary Departure Party’ took its course and it was supposed to end just before midnight. The birthday person would take the pill and enter nirvana. The guest would then sing,
‘For she is a jolly good fellow…’ There was nothing morbid about it at all and all had attended such gatherings before. Mary too had seen other people doing their civic duty and they died in a dignified way surrounded by their friends and relatives and were saving the country lots of credits.
Mary was outside in the garden talking to some friends she knew from her uni days when she heard someone calling her inside.
‘It’s Bill from the former government,’ someone informed her. The laser projection of the 3D entertainment system made Bill seem to be standing in the room.
‘Hi Bill,’ Mary greeted him, after she entered the room. ‘I was wondering when you would show up to send me on my merry way.’
‘Sorry about that, Mary. I only found your name on the “Exit Roll” today. Your PC is not on-line so I could not talk to you personally. I want to make a last-minute effort to persuade you to postpone your departure for a while.’
‘One has to fulfil one’s duty. Zero population growth is not a joke and has become an act of faith. You should know that, Bill. I do it voluntarily as I have no personal incentive to live on. And I save the country a bucket of money. Look around me, people are happy for me to depart,’ Mary said with a smirk as she turned around and her hand motioned into the room.
‘It was ever meant to be voluntarily. I designed it that way or we would not have got the bill through the hung parliament forty years ago. That was the deal.’
‘And now you want me to make use of the escape clause?’ Mary asked him. ‘What about Max? He might be waiting for me at the Pearly Gates.’
‘Max wanted you to be happy,’ Bill said.
‘We all want to be happy, Bill, but the Voluntary Exit Law has a strong social element. We can’t just opt out if it doesn’t suit us as individuals.’
More and more people gathered in the living room and followed the conversation. Bill, as a former Under-secretary was well known in the community. He was an interesting man who looked healthy and strong. He had made use of the escape clause himself. In the middle of the twenty-first century people looked younger and healthier than in previous generations.
‘People make their own decisions in full view of what is on offer,’ Bill said. Mary smiled and said,
‘And you are on offer for me? Is that what you are saying, Bill?’
‘Well, today’s eighties are yesterday’s sixties and we could have a few more years together: perhaps with some travel to Europe thrown in for good measures.’
A murmur went through the room and Mary’s friend Eve said to someone, ‘My God, he is proposing!’
‘What you offer, Bill, is very tempting and my selfish nature leaves me no choice. I will instruct my lawyer to make a claim on the escape clause and we go from there.’
‘I hoped you would say that,’ Bill said, ‘and in anticipation I booked a seat on the VFT tomorrow morning. I will phone you on arrival in Sydney. Have a great time with your friends.’
His image faded and left silence in the room The sun was setting behind some clouds turning the sky red.
‘We will have beautiful weather tomorrow,’ someone said and Mary sunk into an easy chair and said to her friend Eve and sister Emma,
‘I was convinced this morning it would be the last day of my life and now, there will be a beautiful tomorrow. What a turn around. I dare say, heaven can be had right here on Earth.’
‘Now I understand the full meaning of an offer one can’t refuse,’ Eve said and took another sip from her glass.