Ma Fru Plunket, 73, hearty and hale in mind and limb, beamed down on the geraniums in her window box with great tenderness. In their subtle shades of pinks and whites, they reminded her of the soft, smooth complexion of youth, so different from the brown and wrinkled tapestry that hung loosely from her own frame. That someone so old could still take pleasure from, and feel close to, something so young and beautiful gave her considerable satisfaction.
Yet mixed with such simple delights, there was a mild anxiety. It was her birthday and so far nothing had been printed out on her standard-issue telepost. Not that she expected many greetings. After all, in the last three years she had outlived almost all her friends. But there was one message that she expected, that she still expected, that she was sure must come. Most things in life could be doubted, but not the reliability of Nephew Fasting.
When they had set up the Ministry of Thanasia some 30 years ago, it had been accepted by most people as a rational and humane solution to a hitherto intractable problem. Limiting families to two children had proved inadequate; the life span itself had to be controlled.
After all, 70 years was a fair average life and it had been determined that, if the average could be brought back to 70 from the 84 that had been recorded in that decade, then the quality of life in those 70 years could be considerably enhanced. No one could argue with that.
Indeed some purists had proposed that the limit should be set at 70 for everyone and that a painless termination of life should be administered by the Ministry of Thanasia on the day the 70 years had been completed without any exceptions. The government of the day, however, had taken advice from psychologists, sociologists and a number of other experts and had decided to sweeten the pill with the credit principle.
It was the credit principle that had finally persuaded Ma Fru Plunket and millions like her that the Thanasian Ministry was a good idea. The promise of improved quality of life had its attractions: more natural food to supplement the appetite-destroying diet of flavoured synnut; an increased allocation of travel on the Pubtran system; even the possibility, however slight, of enjoying a holiday away from the dreadful monotony of the monocube dwellings. All these things made the proposed Thanasian Ministry an idea that could not be dismissed without careful consideration. On the other hand, many felt, for all the forecast benefits, an unavoidable and peremptory termination on their 70th birthday was too high a price to pay. It took the credit principle to tip the balance. Credit gave everyone a chance. Termination was not inevitable. Extension was possible. Credit was the answer.
And a satisfactory answer it had been for Ma Fru Plunket for the last three years. On her birthday each year one of her several relatives had sent a credit. On her 70th birthday, the telepost in the living area of her monocube had quietly printed out a message: “From the Ministry of Thanasia. We are pleased to inform you that the credit lodged in your favour by citizen 107309206503479 has been verified and confirmed. An extension of one year has been allocated to your life centre. The Minister”.
What a wonderful present that was. An extra year. Another 365 days in which to tend her flowers, to recall memories, to enjoy life. And what a present! There could be no clearer evidence of love than the giving of a credit. For every year given away was subtracted from the donor’s norm of 70. And, when the donor reached his total allocation, however depleted by credits, he must acquire credits from his own nearest and dearest or face termination.
Ma Fru Plunket smiled. They had been a good family. She had never had to ask. Indeed, in the first year she had not expected it. When the telepost had activated she had guessed it was her last family birthday greeting. But no, it was a life extension. “From the Ministry of Thanasia, we are pleased to inform you …” Her eyes had filled with tears. The citizen number had told her the identity of the donor – her son, Par Simon. She had not seen Par Simon for several years. Travel coupons for the Pubtran system were still exceedingly scarce despite the work of the Thanasian Ministry, and most people saved them for dire emergencies. Even so, Par had not forgotten her.
The following year her pleasure had been heightened still further. Eke Plunket was Fru’s youngest child and the most wayward. He had left home some 20 years before and, although he had kept in touch with his brother and sister, he had not directed one word through the telepost to her. Yet now he had redeemed himself. She checked the text – “we are pleased to inform you” - and citizen number again and again. There were two things in life that could not be doubted, the reliability of Nephew Fasting and the accuracy of the Thanasian computer. When the message from the Ministry said the credit had been verified, it meant it. No errors had been reported in 30 years. After all, it was a matter of life and death. “Thank you, Eke,” Ma Plunket had said, over and over again.
When they had shared the same residential monocube, Ma Fru Plunket and her daughter had been, rather than seen, eye to eye for most of the time. In such cramped conditions it was hardly surprising if cohabs spent most of their waking hours together in argument. Eventually Pennywise had been awarded her own monocube and she had moved out. From that time, the relationship between Ma Fru Plunket and daughter Pennywise had improved, until on Ma Fru’s 72nd birthday it had come, in the donating of a credit, to its apotheosis. If the Ministry of Thanasia was pleased, it was fair to say Ma Fru Plunket was overwhelmed with delight.
Ma Fru was proud of her two sons and her daughter. Now the years of sacrifice were being repaid. She was one of the lucky ones. Her three children had been born before FATCO (Family Act Two Children Only) had been passed. As a result, when the Thanasian Ministry had been established and the life quota had been set at 70 years, she had three children (rather than two) from whom she could draw credits. And, of course, there was also a nephew who meant as much to her as any son.
Some 20 years ago, Ma Fru had effectively adopted Nephew Fasting or, as she liked to put it, inherited him. He had been four years of age when his parents had disappeared. No one knew for sure what had happened to them but it was assumed they had become deadlanders, joining those who took their chances outside the security of the Monodome. Life expectancy in the deadland was said to be no more than 18 months. Why they had opted for so short a life and almost certainly a painful, lingering death was unclear. The note they left gave no reason. It simply entreated Ma Fru to care for the boy, and she had. She had comforted him through the grief of losing his parents; and he had consoled her as she faced the departure of her children and the approach of age and death. She had taught him everything she knew; and he had been an apt pupil. Nephew Fasting had been the light that had brightened her later years.
The geraniums were truly beautiful. They were her children now - Par Simon, Eke and Pennywise in the fresh pink colours of youth. And there, in luminous white, the bravest of them all, perhaps strangely the dearest of them all, Nephew Fasting. However old she was, she could still love her flower children. That was one thing the Ministry of Thanasia had forgotten. Love. The love the aged could still feel was just as precious as the love that came from younger hearts. And the love of the young for the old was powerful too. Kind children would not let their loved ones die. They would not take away the life that had brought them into this world. Love flourished in the fertile soil of credits. Or should it be the other way round?
The telepost began to activate. Ma Fru Plunket walked almost gaily the two or three steps to the viewing panel. Life was good. With the love her children gave her, and now with dear Nephew Fasting’s gift, she felt renewed. With such tokens of affection every year, she could live out in peace a long quiet golden autumn of her life. Of course it could not go on forever, and she might die naturally anyway. But, if her health held up, she was sure of at least one more year, courtesy of Nephew Fasting - and perhaps it was not too much to hope, another round of four years from the family and, maybe, even a third.
The message began to appear: ‘ From the Ministry of Thanasia….’ She had kept print-outs of her three credits in an old photograph album. They were as clean and uncreased today as they had been on the day they arrived. Now there would be four. Such simple scraps of paper, yet they meant more to her than her own life. Ma Fru Plunket’s eyes were bright as she confidently read on; ‘From the Ministry of Thanasia. We regret …’