Age of Iron
by J.M. Coetzee
Age of Iron Chapter 1 Summary
- The narrator asks "you" if you remember the alley next to her house. She begins telling a story. Here it goes.
- The narrator finds a makeshift house made of boxes of plastic sheets in the alley next to her house. There's a man sleeping there. He looks like a mess.
- She can't believe this guy is here, and especially today of all days – she has just found out from Dr. Syfret that her cancer is terminal – that is to say, she's going to die from it, and soon.
- The narrator tells the homeless man that he can't stay there.
- The narrator addresses her daughter, who we find out is far away.
- As she writes this letter, the narrator thinks about why she's writing it. She's not necessarily writing it for her daughter's sake – perhaps more for her own.
- She starts cleaning the papers out of her desk. She realizes the man is back in his makeshift shelter by her house.
- Instead of kicking him out, the narrator tells him not to make any fires or any messes. She invites him in and makes him a sandwich.
- We find out that the narrator's cancer started off as breast cancer.
- The narrator asks the homeless man if he needs a job. She tells him that he's wasting his life. So he spits at her and leaves.
- The next day, the narrator is watching TV when she realizes that the homeless man is staring over her shoulder through the window. Creepy.
- The narrator decides to go shopping, but when she tries to open her garage she has a huge attack of pain. Seemingly out of nowhere, the homeless man appears and helps her into her house.
- She tells the homeless man that her cancer has spread to her bones, which explains why it has become so painful.
- He tells her that her house is huge and that she should turn it into a boarding house. She replies that her housekeeper usually lives with her, but that woman's out of town at the moment.
- She also tells him that she has a daughter (the "you" in this novel) who left South Africa for America in 1976. She's married with two kids.
- The narrator gives the homeless man the task of cutting the grass. He gives up after an hour.
- The narrator gets mad at her cats for being sassy. Then she takes some pain medication and passes out. She wakes up later and realizes that the man is in her house and is going through the stuff in her study. He takes some money out of a box in her desk drawer.
- The narrator spends the whole next day in bed.
- The day after, she tries to get the car started but has to ask the homeless man for help. Then she asks if he wants to go with her on her drive. He joins her. She talks about her childhood.
- The narrator asks the homeless man some questions about himself but he doesn't volunteer too much information in return.
- All of a sudden she starts sobbing, but then realizes that he isn't even really paying attention to her.
- They almost get in an accident. He shouts at her to get her to drive.
- When they get back to her house, the narrator tells the homeless man that she can pay him to do things around the house and yard. She says she won't give him more money unless he earns it, though.
- When he asks her why, she says that he doesn't deserve it. He gets all philosophical and wonders, who really deserves anything? She gets mad and shoves her purse at him.
- The narrator goes to her piano and starts playing a bunch of selections of classical music.
- At some point in her playing, the narrator realizes that the homeless man is listening to her, so she "played Bach for him, as well as I could" (1.131).
- One of the narrator's neighbors from across the street gives her a call to tell her that she's seen a vagrant – a wandering homeless person – on her property. The narrator tells her neighbor that she's wrong – the man works for her. She decides to stop answering the phone because she doesn't want to speak to anyone except for you (her daughter) and the "fat man in heaven" (1.133).
- The narrator thinks about heaven. She pictures it as a big hotel lobby.
- She worries about leaving her house after she dies in the state that it's in – she feels like she needs to know that someone will take over everything for her.
- She starts yearning for the good old days.
- Now, she thinks, South Africa is a big mess. We learn that she got robbed three years ago and that she had bars installed on her windows as a precaution against future burglaries. It makes her feel like an endangered animal in the zoo.
- The narrator puts on some music and listens. She looks out the window and sees a cigarette glowing in the dark. She realizes that the homeless man is listening to the music, too.
- She feels a kind of intimacy in the fact that they're doing the same thing in the dark. She imagines what it would be like if the two of them had sex. She feels like their souls are somehow intertwined.
- The next time she sees him, the narrator shows the homeless man photos of her daughter and her grandsons.
- She asks him a favor: she wants him to send some particular papers to her daughter after she dies. She'll prepare everything for him – he'll just have to take it to the post office. Simple enough, eh?
- The homeless man is reluctant to accept her request and asks if she can get someone else to do it.
- The narrator tells him that she can get someone else to do it but that she wants him to do it.
- He says he'll do it.
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