The words echoed louder to become a numb ringing; I couldn’t focus on them, or their meaning, but I couldn’t think about anything else. Trapped between an all consuming thought and a vacant brainlessness, the words “Indeterminate death day” crashed over me again and again, my mental strength eroding with every wave.
I threw up; I saw myself deliver the white bread chicken and cheese sandwich into a bag lined bin the doctor preemptively put before me. My watery eyes blinked to focus on the doctor, covered in white, who spoke slowly so I could lip read. “It’s not common, but there are known cases”.
My mind tumbled over itself like a washing machine sloshing heavy towels. In a brief respite, it settled to produce the thought: ‘But, how could this be true’. My mouth pushed forth a translation of this thought, directed towards the doctor, in the form of a single syllable “How?”. The doctor, knowing better than to reply, looked down with a neutral sadness.
With a final sniff, I managed a smile, a small cough, and a chuckle. I sniffed back the tears and laughed once more, saying, “No, this can’t be right. How can you not know? This doesn’t happen, it’s never happened to anyone I know and I feel fine.”
“I understand it’s a shock, but I assure you there are well documented cases of this sort of thing in the past”, the doctor said mumbling.
“This sort of thing, so not this thing exactly? No offense doctor but I am going to get a second opinion”, I stood up quickly and a bit too firmly, but left the consultation room in two long confident strides, thinking as I left, ‘what a hack, this is completely ridiculous’. How can somebody not know their death day, everybody knows when they’ll die. It’s as sure as water is wet. The world simply couldn’t function if people died randomly, the thought is absurd.
Confident in my self-reassurance, I exited the clinic and breathed in the energy of the city. My mind continued: no, of course it’s nonsense, everybody around me knows when they’ll die, it’s how society functions; complex jobs for the lifers, luxury for the speeders, and everything in between, it would be chaos otherwise.
“But...you have an indeterminate death day” The thought crept back in.
‘NO!’ My brain so strongly rejected the memory I nearly shouted it out on the street. ‘No’, this time softer, ‘it’s not true, and thinking about it more is a waste of time. Sure, they can’t, no won’t, give me my death day but why did I bother with that condescending doctor anyway? I can just take the average age of 81.
And so, upon arrival at the metro, I joined the 75 and over queue. My pass, however, hadn’t been updated to reflect my self-imposed date of expiry, leaving the barriers closed, and a frustrated queue behind me. In a numbness I scanned it again. And again for a third time, unable to process the reprimanding buzz and flashing error text. I gritted my teeth.
“Please step back from the barriers and allow others to pass”, an inspector said in a bored monotone. I stepped away and looked blankly at the two young 75+’ers who glided through the barriers after me. “This is the 75 plus line, please try your pass at the other lines, and if issues persist, return to the ticket desk” the inspector continued to read off his script.
I began shouting before I’d approached the ticket desk “Look, I’m not trying every line in this place just because your machines don’t work, I’m an 81 year-er now open the barrier”
“Sure, please can you provide me with your pass please?” taking my pass before the sentence had finished, then with a scan and a beep, began the next line of the script “This pass is without a doctor's confirmation of death day, you’ll have to join the provisional queue”.
“Absolutely not, this is beyond ridiculous now. I’m an 81 year-er, that means it’s my right to be in the 75+ line, I’m not rushing through like the 15’s, hurrying to make the most of a diminishing life, nor am I willing to wait around all afternoon like the over 100’s...”
“This is a small station we only have 35s, 50s and 75s queues”. The response was triggered by the mention of age groups that didn’t have their own queues at this particular station, rather than any conscious awareness of what I had said.
“Yes, I know that. Don’t interrupt me!” The looks from the commuters only encouraged me to double down on my rage. “Let me through, let me through right now or I'll be speaking to your manager, you cretin, you don’t have the right to tell people if they’re in the right life line or not, to tell people where they need to go!”
The barriers opened, and the ticket desk shutters closed. The inspector decided it was easier to appease than to suffer the abuse by challenging me.
My heart-rate settled during the long wait for the train in the 75+ queue. With a longer life there was less urgency to complete a journey, freeing up more resources for the 35s and under, giving them more time in their shorter lives. This was seen as a reasonable trade off and a fundamental component to the Social Contract itself. The wind blew through the dusty black tunnels, pushed by the flat faces of electric metro trains. It gently pushed on my face for a few minutes, as I struggled to read the advertisements on the other side of the tracks. The words, recognised by my vision but illegible to my pre-occupied brain, were insufficient distraction from my nagging and gnawing thoughts.
What if, I asked myself, what if i’d gone to the doctors earlier? If I'd have booked my death day confirmation appointment earlier, would the answer have been clearer? No, I steeled my mind again, I’m fine and I just need to get a second opinion. With a quick reference to my phone, I found another clinic not too far and made a mental amendment to my route.
The ride was slow and cramped, hot and shaky, but I re-surfaced an unfamiliar part of the city, pausing to savor air after many lungs worth of train air. Walking fast, to outpace both the idle commuters and my persistent doubt, I headed towards the clinic.
The map’s directions took me past quite a few restaurants and bars for those that will live for less than 30yrs. Their drunken, drug fueled indulgence billowed out onto the street in a haze of smoke and shouts. Living their short lives to their maximum in their own way, of course, not everybody decided to spend it in bars, but a lot did. Perhaps I should be in there with them? On the other side of the same long street of pubs and clubs, were towering office blocks of glass and steel, occupied by long lifers with 60yrs or more on their clock. Working away a proportion of their lives to support society and facilitate the indulgence of those with less.
Having never thought about the social structure, a profound sadness settled over me. I’d always taken it for granted, but there is a melancholic beauty in the acceptance each person has towards their social role. Without refute, each person knows their lot, dealt without malice or kindness, and lives their lives accordingly; dedicating their bountiful time to the economy and progression of society, or enjoying a few years free of hardship and toil.
I was outside of this. Left without and unable to participate in a fun life, or a fruitful one, or any blend in between. A tired dread settled in my chest and the midday sun cooled. What can I expect from my life? What should I value most and prioritise? Should I take the short study route and drop out for a casual 3 days on 4 days off work life like those with 50 years? If I die at 20 I'll have wasted time studying, when I could have been eating, drinking and having sex. But if I live to 80 I'll be unable to support myself and give back to the world after an early life of frivolity. Who should I associate with, the 20yr hedonists, the 80 yr ascetics, or the 40yr moderates? I’m forced to walk through the path of my life mapless.
Frozen by these thoughts, stood looking between the raucous bars and the stoic skyscrapers, a gloomy malcontent shuffled my feet back towards the metro station. Not wishing to engage in conversation with anyone this time, I trudged through the provisional queue and rode the statistically average length journey to my home station, unable to remember much. I reached the top of the middle speed escalator before I noticed my tears. The blur gave my eyes an excuse not to focus on anything and instead autopilot through the station and walk home. I can’t live like this, it’s unfair, and unreasonable to expect anybody to adjust to a life of such uncertainty. I was scared.
I stepped through my front door and ignored the habitual call of ‘hey’ from my mother; instead collapsing on my bed, exhausted, tired and miserable.
The next morning was a little easier. Though still feeling a crushing weight of solitude on my chest, I was able to face getting out of bed by the promise of small pleasures: a bowl of cereal and a coffee. These, however, tasted grey and I felt my efforts to get out of bed betrayed. What if I'm a 20year-er? That would mean I’d die this year.
Aggressively, I gave an audible tut and a self-deprecating eye roll, trying to snap out of it. ‘What nonsense, you know this is ridiculous, you feel fine’, I told myself. To seek reassurance I called after my mum, to share ‘the joke’ that was the doctor's diagnosis. “Hey mum, listen to this right, so the doctor yesterday…”
“Oh yes”, my mother replied half listening, “the death day confirmation appointment, so what are you looking at?”
“Well get this, they said it was ‘indeterminate’” I said, somewhat shakily but covering it with a single ‘ha!’.
“My god” mother replied, unable to keep panic and worry from taking over.