“You’ll all become rich,” the man says, “and you’ll love the company. This town has – what – ten people staying here? Twenty? Think what’ll happen if we move ahead with our plan. Shops. A petrol station. Movies. Maybe even a fast-food outlet. Banks. This place is set for a complete revamp, people! You’ll even have a signpost at the turn-off at Grootdrink.”
The group at the bar stares, open-mouthed, at the man with the pencil moustache. His hair is combed back, giving him a Jack Nicholson look, complete with the wide mouth and wild eyes. Servaas admires the black suit, which fits the bulky frame perfectly; while Precilla can’t help being impressed by his smooth-talking style. Almost like a politician, she thinks, only more believable.
“A retirement village?” Vetfaan has never heard of such a thing.
“It’s just the first phase, sir. Of course, it’ll be quite modern, with a fully equipped frail-care facility and all the staff required by aging people. Physiotherapist, nurses, librarian, cooks, cleaners, the works. These people will move here, with their families, and they’ll need places to stay. We anticipate at least one worker for every three patients. Given two hundred patients, that means at least another sixty caretakers. Your town will increase more than tenfold; it’s the biggest thing to hit Rolbos, ever! A chance of a lifetime.”
“So we’ll have streets filled with people who laugh a lot, beam happy smiles and tell each other how wonderful the Kalahari is?” Gertruida can see the picture in her mind. Street cafés and newspaper vendors. Maybe a taxi rank. And, hidden behind a colourful façade, the friendly local undertaker.
“Indeed, madam. Bingo every afternoon and little talent concerts every Friday. People love it.”
“But why here? There’s nothing here to attract such an investment.”
“Oh yes, madam, that’s the point! Once we’ve levelled the area, we can start a complete new layout of the town. Maybe we’ll keep the church, but everything else will have to go. We want the village to have a theme, see? Everything will fit in with everything else. It creates an atmosphere of peace and calm. Nothing to disturb the mind – complete harmony. The patients will love it. It’ll be so quaint…”
Vetfaan walks over to lay a heavy hand on the man’s shoulder.
“You’re planning on having a quaint little village with quaint little houses for quaint old people living in quaint harmony?” He waits for the nod before going on. “Nice and orderly. Everything neatly disguised as the final stop on life’s journey. And you expect us to think it’s just sooo great, stand aside, and watch as you tear down our buildings. Then you’ll come in with clever builders who can make things look terribly expensive, so you can sell it to elderly people who need some fool kid to read out the Bingo numbers for them? Now look, sonny, let me tell you…”
“He certainly left in a hurry,” Kleinpiet says as he draws a speeding car on the counter with the foam from his beer.
“I think he didn’t want to overstay his welcome,” Gertruida giggles. “And he did look funny; draped over Vetfaan’s shoulder like that.”
“It’s strange that young people want to make money out of old people. In the process they decide what older people like, and what they should have. And the frail and the decrepit have no choice but to play Bingo and listen to somebody’s rendition of O Sole Mio every Friday evening. “ Servaas shakes his head. “On the other hand, I suppose one must plan ahead. I mean, we’re not getting any younger, are we? At some stage all of us might need a bit of help to tie the napkin behind the neck.”
“That may be true, Servaas. But there’s another way of looking at it as well. Many older people simply stop trying. I’m not talking about the sick and the infirm, not at all. I’m talking about healthy individuals who reach a certain age, and then decide they’ve done their bit. The shift is over – time for the fresh new chaps to take over. I’ve seen them in Upington: people with a lifetime of experience and the know-how about stuff they worked with every day. And some of them reach retirement age, get that empty look in the eyes, and wait for the sun to set in the west. These are men and women who can offer such a lot to society, yet they sit on the bench in the park, feeding pigeons.”
“Gee, Gertruida, that’s harsh. Surely a well-deserved rest is in order? Retirement is the reward for toil. It’s a step on the journey, not the end of it.” Kleinpiet signals for another round. “I know some older people who do a lot of good in their later years.”
“Look, I’m not saying retirement is bad, or that getting older is easy. What I’m trying to say is: society labels people as old; and too many of those individuals end up living the label. If you hear something often enough, you end up accepting it as a fact. That’s sad. It robs people of their enthusiasm. It makes them want to give up, and that’s not necessary. Subconsciously, they find themselves on a slippery slope to nowhere.” Gertruida holds up an acknowledging finger. “This is not the frail, the sick or the incapacitated people I’m talking about. People of twenty get sick, too. Disability doesn’t respect age – and if somebody becomes frail at any age, they do need help. But: a healthy man of seventy can still do a lot of good. The only prerequisite is that he mustn’t look at his age and then start thinking it’s all over.”
“And that’s why we chased that poor man off?”
“No,” Vetfaan shrugs. “He doesn’t understand us. What he wants to do with the town, is exactly what he wants to do to people: fit it into a little disposable box for recycling. He’d tear down our village the same way he’d rearrange the mindset of people. His interest isn’t the welfare of older people – he’s prime goal is to make money. Buy the cheapest piece of ground in the country, dolly it up nicely, and sell it to people at the highest profit margin. He doesn’t care about people.”
“And how, Vetfaan, did you come to that conclusion?”
“I watched his eyes. Just too eager. Too shifty. And he thought we’d give up Boggel’s Place. Tear it down, he said. And he didn’t even ask what we want. And…he kept on referring to older people as patients. That says a lot about the way he approaches the issue”
“Yes, getting older is a tricky business, Vetfaan. But I have a favourite quote, by Hunter Thompson.” Gertruida waits until she’s got their full attention. “Life should NOT be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in an attractive and well preserved body, but rather to skid in sideways, chocolate in one hand, wine in the other, body thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and screaming ‘WOO HOO, what a ride!'”