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Age of Iron
Age of Iron
by J.M. Coetzee
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Age of Iron Chapter 3 Summary

  • One night, a woman calls E.C.'s house in the middle of the night and asks to speak with Florence.
  • It turns out that something's wrong, and whatever it is, Bheki's involved.
  • E.C. tells Florence that she'll take her and the kids to find Bheki. She tries to get Vercueil, who's still fast asleep, to join, but he uses some choice language and, well, let's just say that E.C. gets the vibe that he's not interested in joining.
  • E.C. is terrified. Florence tells her that there's been more shooting.
  • Some policemen approach E.C.'s car. She tells them she's taking her housekeeper home. They let her go.
  • Florence goes into one of the houses with Hope and Beauty. E.C. notices how it's like she's living in an allegory. This is one of those moments when the narrator really spells her metaphors out for us.
  • Florence introduces E.C. to her cousin, Mr. Thabane, who will show them the way. He said he left Hope behind with his family. (He left Hope behind. He is Hope-less. We get it. There must be some more allegory right there, huh, E.C.?)
  • Mr. Thabane also says that he doesn't have any idea where Bheki is. Looks like he's still Hope-less. (Thank you, folks, we'll be here all night.)
  • Mr. Thabane gets in the car with E.C. and Florence. He tells them that the place they're going to will be really dangerous.
  • They get out of the car and trudge through mud in an area full of broken glass and buildings that are falling apart.
  • As they come up a dune, they see a crowd of hundreds of people looking over a scene of total chaos: buildings are burning, there's junk everywhere, and everyone looks totally helpless.
  • One particular shack has smoke pouring out of it. A man breaks the windows with an axe, and a woman and her children come out. The woman tries to go back into the house to save her things but the crowd keeps her from doing so.
  • Someone throws a rock at the house. Then the man with the axe is almost hit, and he screams. He and a group of his men turn on the crowd swinging sticks and bars. Everyone else turns to run away. E.C. has a hard time running away because she's in so much pain.
  • Some girl knocks E.C. off her feet as she tries to run away.
  • Just as quickly as they started running away, the crowd starts running back. People scream.
  • E.C. hears the sound of gunfire in the distance. Mr. Thabane finds E.C. and tells her to come along with him.
  • A young man comes up and tells Mr. Thabane that he wants to use E.C.'s car. She's like, uh, no way. Mr. Thabane tells her that the young man is a friend of Bheki's, but E.C. makes it clear that she wants to get out of there.
  • Mr. Thabane is like, OK, so you want to go home? Well, just think about all these people who want to go home but have nowhere to go because this is home. (OK, good point.)
  • A crowd starts to gather around E.C. and Mr. Thabane. It's pretty clear that they're all waiting for her to say something for herself.
  • She says that everything happening is terrible, but she needs to find a way to condemn it in her own words. People look at her like she's crazy and tell her that everything that she says is total B.S.
  • Mr. Thabane leaves. E.C. follows him. She's surprised when he starts making regular old conversation after what just happened.
  • A young boy joins them in the car and tells them where to go.
  • After a bit, Mr. Thabane points Florence out to them. E.C. asks her if she's found Bheki. She nods and moves away.
  • Mr. Thabane pushes through the crowd that has assembled. Then he comes back and tells E.C. that she should probably take a look. Florence bursts into tears.
  • E.C. sees five bodies laid against the wall. Bheki's body is in the middle. It looks like the rain has been beating on him for hours by now. His eyes and mouth are open, and they're filling with sand.
  • E.C. goes back to her car. Someone has thrown a rock through the windshield. She thinks about the five dead bodies she just saw and thinks about how gladly she would die, too, right about now.
  • She encounters an officer and asks him if he has seen what has going on. He tells her that she shouldn't jump to conclusions about who's responsible.
  • E.C. drives home. She thinks that she'll never be warm again.
  • E.C. wakes up to find the next day has already come and gone. She walks into the bathroom to find Vercueil sitting on the toilet sound asleep. We don't have a good explanation for that, either. E.C. is like, man oh man what is my life becoming?
  • E.C. breaks down and cries. Then she thinks about her family and starts describing a photograph of herself as a child.
  • She goes back to the bathroom and tells Vercueil to come and lie down (presumably with her, though we're not totally sure). He doesn't respond, but later on she hears him leave through the back door.
  • The next day is a nice day. Vercueil takes E.C. for a spin in her car.
  • When they get home, two women are there, one who happens to be Florence's sister. They have come to get all of her things. E.C. writes a check for them to give to Florence.
  • The next day is beautiful, too. Vercueil asks E.C. if "today is the day," and he seems kind of excited in a weird way. E.C. says yes. Then in her letter she writes that she didn't go through with the thing she was going to do today since she's here writing. That is to say, she was planning to commit suicide but didn't go through with it.
  • E.C. says that she got all dressed up for her suicide day but then told Vercueil that she can't really figure out whether or not she wants to go through with it after all. He suggests that they go for a ride.
  • They go out. E.C. waxes philosophic about how hard it is to decide whether or not to put an end to her life.
  • Then she starts talking about her mother, her thoughts on the country, and how everything she loved has passed.
  • Vercueil hands her a box of matches and says "do it now" (3.294). He lets her know that driving off a nearby cliff is also a great option. E.C. likens it to being trapped in a car with a man trying to seduce her who's mad that she won't give in. (Um, we'd say that encouraging death sounds like way less fun than seduction but, sure, we see her point.)
  • They bicker about it a little bit. She asks if they can go home, and Vercueil is all like, wait, I thought you wanted me to give you a push.
  • They drive again. Vercueil asks her for money and then stops into a store and comes out with a bottle in a brown paper bag (the universal sign for alcoholic beverages, just FYI).
  • Vercueil gives her the bottle. She's like, no thanks, I don't like brandy. He tells her it's medicine and that she should take a sip and hold it in her mouth. Meanwhile, E.C. is like, how the heck did I get stuck with this guy for a guide?
  • They drive again, drinking all the way. E.C. tells Vercueil about how Bheki was shot.
  • E.C. feels herself getting chatty from all the booze. She tells Vercueil that she's never seen so many black people suffering and dying. Before all of this went down, she had only seen old white people dying in hospitals.
  • Vercueil tells E.C. to just drink more.
  • E.C. worries that kids these days are growing up too fast because of the terrible things they witness every day.
  • She says that she doesn't want to think she's the kind of person who can get over the kind of thing she just witnessed.
  • Vercueil offers her more booze. She pushes him away. He tells her to "get drunk for a change" (3.332). She gets really mad and tells him to get out of her car. He takes her car keys and throws them in the bushes.
  • E.C. tries to find the keys but can't.
  • E.C. wonders if she should have gone to visit her daughter in America when she was invited. She thinks of all of the South African people who have left for other countries.
  • She remembers her last telephone call with her daughter. She promises her now not to haunt her after her death.
  • She thinks about how she has to trust Vercueil. If he doesn't send this letter on to her daughter, her daughter will never read it. She can't be sure that he'll do it, but she has no choice but to assume that he will.
  • She feels like nothing has been the same since she met him – and things haven't made all that much sense, either.
  • A few days pass. E.C. catches a cold. She's in huge pain.
  • E.C. realizes that she has to go shopping because she has no food. On her way home she has a "bad spell." She leans against a lamppost with food spilled around her feet. People stop and stare, but nobody helps.
  • That night, E.C. wakes up to the sound of dogs barking. She goes downstairs and sees Bheki's friend in her kitchen.
  • He asks where Bheki is. E.C. calls for Vercueil but he doesn't come.
  • So the friend asks for Bheki again. E.C. tells him that Bheki is dead. He asks her for money so he can go home on the bus. She tells him that it's too dangerous. He replies by telling her that things will never get any better.
  • E.C. thinks about how she's kind of afraid of this boy.
  • She gives him something to eat only to realize that he's fallen asleep at the table. So she sends him to Florence's room to sleep for a bit.
  • E.C. thinks about the letter she's writing to her daughter. It's becoming more abstract. She had expected it to be more geared towards pulling her daughter towards her, and now it feels as if she's writing it from the stars. Just chew on that for a bit.
  • E.C. talks about how disturbing her dreams have been. She's pretty sure that those dreams are a weird side effect from her pain medications.
  • E.C. feels like the end is near. She calls some place called Lifeline to see if she can start getting her groceries delivered. They try to refer her to a social worker.
  • The next day the boy asks for some antiseptic for his wound (his head is still bandaged from that bad bike accident).
  • E.C. makes a bandage out of a strip she cuts from her red tablecloth and cleans and dresses his wound.
  • The boy asks her where Bheki is. She's like, OK, sit down. I've told you he's dead. He's still dead. He will always be dead.
  • She goes on and on about her views on what's happening all around them in South Africa. This includes a digression about how you can't always tell whether a baby is a boy or a girl because their genitals look pretty much the same. No, really – she said that.
  • She asks him what his name is. He says his name is John. She's pretty sure that it's not his real name, though. He tells her that he needs to go home, but when she asks him where home is, he's too exhausted to make up another lie, and so he just stays with her.
  • Later on, E.C. is walking by Florence's room when she notices that "John" is up to something.
  • She walks in. He hides something under the bed. She notices that he's pulled out one of the baseboards – it's just lying on the floor. She asks him what he's trying to hide under the floorboards, but he says nothing.
  • E.C. calls the number that Florence left her. We find out (finally) that E.C.'s name is Mrs. Curren. (From here on out, we'll call her Mrs. Curren.)
  • Florence isn't there, but Mr. Thabane comes to the phone for a bit. Mrs. Curren tells Mr. Thabane that she has reason to believe that John and Bheki had stashed a weapon in her house and that John has come back to her to most likely retrieve his weapon.
  • Mr. Thabane is just like, "uh huh."
  • Mrs. Curren tells Mr. Thabane that John is badly injured and probably emotionally disturbed, to boot. She tells him that someone should come and talk to him and take him away before something bad happens to him.
  • Mr. Thabane is like, "we'll see." Mrs. Curren is like, what does that mean? Mr. Thabane tells her that he doesn't know when, but that someone will come get John.
  • Mrs. Curren starts mouthing off at him about how these kids are killing in the name of comradeship and that she thinks it's barbaric and stupid.
  • Mr. Thabane is like "Whoops! I think I'm losing you! Mrs. Curren? We have a bad connection!" It's sort of like when you call your crush only to realize that he or she doesn't want to talk to you and is crinkling paper or something into the receiver pretending it's static. OK, maybe that hasn't happened to you. It hasn't happened to us, either. Seriously.
  • Mr. Thabane tells Mrs. Curren that she doesn't seem to know a whole lot about comradeship. He says that there's a bond that forms when you're struggling for the same cause as others.
  • We find out that Mrs. Curren and Mr. Thabane share some choice words and ultimately "beg to differ." We don't know what exactly they say in their exchange, but we can bet that they probably used some words that would get you in detention.
  • Later, Mrs. Curren thinks about John, with the "bomb or whatever it is in his hand" (3.531). She starts feeling sorry for him (and all of the other kids in South Africa) and cries.
  • The next morning, Mrs. Curren hears someone trying to come in through the gate. She figures it's Vercueil. Then the doorbell rings and she realizes that it's not him.
  • She makes her way downstairs and hears people speaking Afrikaans (one of the languages of South Africa, originated by Dutch settlers).
  • She hears a gunshot.
  • Mrs. Curren starts slapping the windowpane and telling them to stop. She sees a man in a blue overcoat with his back to her. She flings the door open and says, "Don't do anything yet, he is just a child!" (3.537).
  • She tells the officers that she'll just help talk to the boy. She tells John to open the door and promises that she won't let them hurt him. This, she tells us, is a lie – she knows that he's beyond saving at this point.
  • One of the policemen demands that he come out. He tells Mrs. Curren to tell John to pass out his weapons. She's like, "what weapons?" The officer tells her that he has at least a pistol. She tells him that he has to promise not to hurt John. But of course, he doesn't promise anything.
  • A woman approaches and tells Mrs. Curren that she's going to escort her out of the house. Mrs. Curren is like, oh, hell to the no – this is my house.
  • One of the men, without warning, picks up Mrs. Curren. She feels a surge of pain. She screams to them to put her down – she has cancer, for goodness' sakes! Mrs. Curren really enjoys hurling that phrase at them.
  • They ask her where the pain is, and she tells them that it's in her heart. This is one of those moments when she gets all deep and metaphorical.
  • She tells them that it hurts her all the time, and that they'll catch this pain in their hearts one day, too.
  • They hear a crash of breaking glass. Mrs. Curren sees that the officers have their guns at the ready. She hears an explosion and a bunch of gunshots. An eerie silence follows.
  • An ambulance is already waiting. The woman tells Mrs. Curren that she can go home now. Mrs. Curren tells her that it's not her home anymore, and the woman looks at her like she's lost her mind.
  • Mrs. Curren sits under a bridge to rest with a pink quilt wrapped around her shoulders.
  • She realizes that she's left all of her pills at home. She doesn't think she can survive without them, but she's also not sure she even wants to survive.
  • Mrs. Curren falls asleep under the bridge. She wakes up to find a ten-year-old kid feeling her up, looking for money. She tells him and his companions that she's sick and that they'll get sick from her.
  • She pees right there, lying down.
  • The boys come again. They start prodding inside her mouth with a stick, looking for gold teeth. One of the boys kicks a spray of dirt over her face.
  • She passes out.
  • She wakes up to find a dog licking her face. It's Vercueil's dog. And what do you know – Vercueil is there, too. She starts crying.
  • Vercueil picks her up (which is really nice of him, considered she's covered in her own pee) and starts carrying her home. She's surprised that he's so strong. She suddenly finds that her pain is bearable.
  • She tells him that she doesn't want to go home.
  • Vercueil takes her to a dark, wooded space and sets her down. He finds some cardboard and spreads it on the ground. They lie down with the dog between them.
  • She tells him that she's thirsty. He gives her some wine. She gets a little tipsy and falls asleep.
  • When she wakes up, she realizes that Vercueil has his arm flung across her neck and that they're lying face-to-face. She realizes that she knows him better than she knows anyone else – even her own daughter ("you").
  • When they wake up, she finds out that Vercueil already knows everything, but he tells her she can talk about it.
  • She tells him about the opinions she has on everything that's been going on and her views on the situation in South Africa. She says that she thinks that she's been a good person, but sometimes being a good person just isn't enough.
  • She realizes that while she's been speaking, Vercueil has passed out.
  • She tells Vercueil that they can go home now. Then she's like, "hey, did you know I had a breast removed?" and he looks uncomfortable.
  • Then she tells Vercueil she'd love to buy him a new hat. He smiles. They set off down the street, arm-in-arm.
  • Mrs. Curren tells Vercueil that she had a dream about him. In her dream, he looked totally different but she knew it was Vercueil. He was teaching her how to swim, but all of the water was turning into oil.
  • She tells him that the first time they met was the same day she found out that she was going to die. She has been wondering maybe if he's the angel who was sent to "show [her] the way" (3.672).
  • When they get back to her place, the house is a disaster. There's still broken glass everywhere and everything has been moved around. Mrs. Curren notices that someone has gone through all of her filing cabinets and personal papers.
  • She realizes that someone else is in the house now. It's an officer who says that he's just checking things out. He tells her that some detectives are on their way.
  • Mrs. Curren lies down. Then Vercueil and a policeman walk into her room. She tells Vercueil to stay with her.
  • The policeman asks him how he came by this boy, "Johannes." Seems like names are not all that fixed in this book, huh?
  • The officer asks her about the weapons that John had. She says that the pistol was hers and that she lent it to John (a lie, obvi).
  • She tells the detective that all of the people involved are dead now, so he might as well close the case.
  • The officer grills her about Vercueil. Mrs. Curren says that Vercueil is her right-hand man.
  • The officer leaves. Mrs. Curren calls Mr. Thabane and leaves a message with a little girl at his house that Mr. Thabane needs to be careful.
  • Mrs. Curren lies in bed trying to write but thinks about what happened to John instead.
Next Page: Chapter 4
Previous Page: Chapter 2

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