Chapter 1 (Pages 3-18)

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Mrs. Curren is a widow and former Classics professor living in Cape Town, South Africa, and the book opens with her revealing that she has just received a terminal diagnosis. The words of the book are a long letter she is writing to her estranged daughter, who has lived in the United States since 1976. It is now 1986, and Mrs. Curren is obviously trying to impart something about her last days to her daughter, but does not know for certain what it is. Mrs. Curren’s house backs up to an alley, and upon returning from her diagnosis, she finds a homeless man and his dog sleeping in the alley by her house. The man is disheveled, underweight, and always to some degree under the influence. He has a potent smell of body odor, urine, and a life lived out of doors. Mrs. Curren is curt with the homeless man and threatens to alert the police but later offers him some food and tries to find out more about him; unfortunately, the man speaks very little.

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One morning, Mrs. Curren is overcome with pain while she is in the garage. The homeless man happens to be nearby, so he helps her into the house to lie down. She explains that she has bone cancer that is situated in her hip. When she attempts to learn more about the man, he withdraws from the house. Later that night, she can feel his presence outside the window when she watches television; she turns up the sound so he can hear. During one of her bad spells, she takes her pain medication and slips in and out of consciousness. At one point, she becomes aware of the distinctive smell of the homeless man and discerns that he must be in the room with her.

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When she is feeling better, Mrs. Curren decides to head into town; however, the car has a hard time starting. She enlists the help of the homeless man, who successfully pushes the car to help start it and then joins Mrs. Curren (along with his dog) for the ride into town. As they drive in, Mrs. Curren reflects on a story her mother used tell of her own childhood, long before Mrs. Curren was born. When her mother was a little girl, she took a trip to the mountains in a covered wagon. As they slept at night, her mother became convinced that the wagon was moving when she saw the movement of the stars overhead; she remained paralyzed, convinced the wagon would roll off the side of the mountain. Mrs. Curren’s mother was frightened by what seemed the impending arrival of her own mortality, and her worries only subsided in the morning when she realized the wagon had not moved at all.

Chapter 1 (Pages 19-33)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 409

When Mrs. Curren and the homeless man prepare to return to her house, Mrs. Curren’s eyes fill with tears. Before long, she is weeping uncontrollably, much to her embarrassment. The homeless man says nothing, and she apologizes for losing control of her emotions. Eventually, the man helps her move the car down a hill to get it in gear and begin the drive home. When they arrive, Mrs. Curren tries to insist on some structure to the man’s comings and goings. She tells him that she will pay him if he does work around her house. She tries to engage him in mowing the lawn and pruning the hedges, but the man appears to be apathetic to these and any tasks. When she asks him why, he expresses his disinterest. She lectures him about her dislike of charity and her belief that he should work for whatever he gets. He challenges her by suggesting that she could turn her home into a kind of shelter, but Mrs. Curren balks at the idea. She throws money at him, and the man leaves. When he returns later, he has bought liquor, and Mrs. Curren demands the rest of her money returned to her.

Nighttime is one of the hardest times for Mrs. Curren, as she so often finds her thoughts drawn to her impending death. She wonders about the possibilities of the afterlife, including one scenario in which she envisions the afterlife as one large hotel lobby. Music is often a comfort to her during these times, so she frequently listens to a short-wave radio. One day, she decides to soothe herself by playing the piano. She sits at the piano and plays a combination of spiritual and classical music, sometimes singing along. At some point, she becomes peripherally aware that the homeless man is outside listening. She continues her concert for him without acknowledging his presence.

One day, Mrs. Curren asks the homeless man in to talk about her family. She talks about her daughter, for whom she is writing her final thoughts. She eventually gets around to asking a favor of the man. She wants to ensure that all of her writing gets delivered to her daughter after she dies. Mrs. Curren acknowledges her frustration with her inability to control whether her wishes will actually be carried out after she dies. The man at first seems uncomfortable with the responsibility, but ultimately agrees to mail the papers.

Chapter 2 (Pages 34-50)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 417

Mrs. Curren’s household changes again with the return of her housekeeper, Florence. With her, Florence brings her two daughters and a teenage son named Bheki. When he was younger, Mrs. Curren used to know Bheki by the name Digby and is puzzled by the change. Florence takes an immediate dislike to the homeless man, whom Mrs. Curren introduces as Mr. Vercueil. Florence explains that there is a lot of unrest in her hometown of Guguletu, and the schools have been closed because of the ongoing strife. Mrs. Curren is unhappy having so many people in her house while she is feeling so sick. She also questions Florence about Bheki's not being in school, wondering if he will become involved in the violence in Guguletu and the neighboring areas. Florence firmly believes that her son’s generation is part of a different breed who cannot be told what to do and resist all attempts.

One afternoon, Mrs. Curren observes Mr. Vercueil trying to fix the lawn mower while Florence’s children amuse themselves in the yard. Beauty, the toddler, keeps trying to run to the lawn mower, with all of its sharp parts. Mrs. Curren is surprised by Vercueil’s gentleness in repeatedly rerouting the child to a safer path. Things take a negative turn later in the week when Vercueil increases his drinking (funded in a large part by the money Mrs. Curren gave him). Bheki also brings another teenage boy to stay with them. When a drunken Vercueil demands water, they instead dump out his liquor bottle. Bheki’s friend likens Vercueil’s drunkenness to a compliance with the powers that seek to subordinate him. Vercueil becomes enraged and a fight breaks out that subsides only with Florence’s assistance. Florence criticizes Vercueil as a “rubbish person,” but Mrs. Curren demands that he be treated with respect.

After the fight, Vercueil leaves, and Mrs. Curren ponders whether or not he will ever come back. In response to the attack on Vercueil, Mrs. Curren criticizes the children for their behavior and Florence for encouraging their defiance. She points out that it is up to the parents to teach the fundamentals of kindness and responsibility. Florence remains intractable and insists that Mrs. Curren does not understand their lives. Mrs. Curren thinks of the hardened youths as a generation of people made of iron. Furthermore, she wonders if the period in which they live, which breeds so many hardened young people, is a kind of age of iron.

Chapter 2 (Pages 51-64)

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Bheki’s friend returns, riding in on a bicycle. Mrs. Curren notices him hanging around with Bheki, but they disappear at nighttime. Mrs. Curren deduces that they are sleeping in the garage, most likely in her car. When she confronts Florence about it the next day, the housekeeper says very little. She tells Florence that Bheki’s friend is not allowed to stay here. When Florence protests, Mrs. Curren insists that her home is not a refuge. Florence pointedly asks her why not, and the conversation is not unlike one she had with Mr. Vercueil. Later, Mrs. Curren notices a police car parked in front of her house and goes out to ask the officers what their purpose is. Mrs. Curren assumes the officers are tailing Bheki and his friend, but they claim to know nothing about it and brush her off. Mrs. Curren again warns Florence not to let Bheki hang around with this friend.

When Mrs. Curren retires to a hot bath, she finds herself reflecting on the ravages the cancer has done to her body (and continues to do). In pain, she calls out to Florence for assistance but gets no response. As she lies, cold and shivering, she thinks of her mother as an old woman, how she last remembered her. Mrs. Curren even calls out to her in a faint whisper, longing for the maternal comfort she can no longer have. In the middle of the night, Mrs. Curren awakens to pouring rain. Concerned about Mr. Vercueil, she calls out into the night for him to come in to sleep and is surprised to find him accompanied by an equally foul-smelling female companion. Against her better judgment, Mrs. Curren lets them sleep in her living room.

In the morning, Mrs. Curren must dodge the judgmental looks of Florence as she tries to get Mr. Vercueil to remove the increasingly difficult and unpleasant homeless woman. Mrs. Curren also lectures Bheki about sleeping in her car without asking her permission first. The distasteful homeless woman is finally removed, and Bheki and his friend set off on their bike. A short while later, Mrs. Curren sees Bheki and his friend riding down a hill followed quickly by the police car that had been parked in front of her house. As the boys pass by a parked plumbing van, the police car speeds past them. One of the officers opens his car door, slamming the boys and their bicycle into the parked van. The police car speeds away and the boys crash. The plumber who owns the van arrives at the same time as Florence and Mrs. Curren. The quickly determine that Bheki’s friend is the worse off and roll his body of off the pinned Bheki. The boy is bleeding profusely from the head, and after a few moments of uncertainty, Mrs. Curren steps in to pinch the boy's scalp together and stem the bleeding. Mrs. Curren insists on calling an ambulance to take Bheki’s friend to the hospital.

Chapter 2 (Pages 65-86)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 472

Inside the house, Florence tends to Bheki’s wounds, which are less severe than those of his friend. Mrs. Curren tells them that she saw what the policemen did, but neither Bheki nor Florence wants Mrs. Curren to put in a complaint. They decide to go to the hospital to check on the boy, and Mrs. Curren insists that Mr. Vercueil accompany them to help deal with the unreliable car. The go to the hospital where the paramedics said they were taking the boy only to find that the hospital has no record of him. Florence and Bheki are less surprised than Mrs. Curren, believing that the ambulances are like the police cars in dealing with the black population.

Eventually, they get a tip that Bheki’s friend might be at a different hospital—one of poorer quality. When they arrive, Mrs. Curren’s pain level has gotten worse. She has missed her medication and is feeling the effects, so she sends Florence and Bheki on to look for the boy. As she sits with Mr. Vercueil, she tells him more about her daughter. Mrs. Curren finds comfort in thinking about her daughter even though she lives far away. When pain keeps her up at night, Mrs. Curren thinks about what the time is in North America, where her daughter lives. She admits to Mr. Vercueil that she has not told her daughter that her illness is terminal. Her daughter knows she had surgery, but thinks it was successful. Mrs. Curren tries to explain how she simultaneously craves her daughter’s comfort and feels she must deny herself that comfort. Mr. Vercueil asks if Mrs. Curren’s daughter had to leave the country for political reasons, but she left simply because she was tired of the way of life in South Africa. Mr. Vercueil points out to her that she should tell her daughter all of the thoughts and fears she has just been sharing with him, but Mrs. Curren says her daughter, too, is made of iron. Mr. Vercueil points out that the same might be said of Mrs. Curren herself.

When Florence and Bheki return, they tell Mrs. Curren that Bheki’s friend has been placed in a scary, asylum-like ward with a number of highly unstable patients. Mrs. Curren and Mr. Vercueil venture down to visit the boy and are equally appalled by the surroundings. The boy is conscious but does not respond to any of Mrs. Curren’s questions. She places a hand on the boy’s hand (as a mother would), but still feels no relenting of the essential distrust in the boy’s eyes. When they arrive home, an exhausted Mrs. Curren invites Mr. Vercueil to stay inside again, but he worries about how his dog will fare without his company, and leaves to sleep outdoors.

Chapter 3 (Pages 87-101)

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Mrs. Curren is awoken in the middle of the night by the phone ringing. A woman asks for Florence, insisting it is an urgent matter. After her phone call, Florence comes to see Mrs. Curren and explains that she needs to go to Guguletu and then to a place called Site C, which Mrs. Curren has never heard of. Mrs. Curren agrees, and Florence insists that they bring her daughters with her as she cannot leave them alone. Mrs. Curren attempts to rouse Mr. Vercueil to help with the car, but he remains in a drunken stupor. Florence pushes the car after Mrs. Curren and the children pile in. They drive to Guguletu and stop outside a house into which Florence takes the children. She later returns in the company of a man and a young boy of no more than ten. The man is introduced as Mr. Thabane, Florence’s cousin, and the boy is to serve as their guide to Site C.

The path they take grows more and more difficult, until they reach a point where they can take the car no farther. Mr. Thabane asks Mrs. Curren to wait in the locked car, but she refuses. She follows Florence, Mr. Thabane, and the boy, but must make repeated stops because of the pain in her hip. Eventually, the come to a shantytown—a slum of self-made dwellings made of anything from wood and metal to plastic tarp. As they approach the center of the shantytown, they come upon a large, noisy crowd gathered around a bonfire. The commotion is considerable, and Mrs. Curren is eventually able to make out some men moving back and forth from the fire to the other houses. At first, she mistakes them for rescuers, thinking that they are trying to pull things from the fire to salvage. Upon closer examination, she realizes the men are the creators of the fire. She witnesses them storm various shanties, and chop them apart with axes. The dwellers flee the shanties, often trying to grab whatever they can before the men hurl it into the fire.

Mr. Thabane advises them to get out of there, even though Florence is now nowhere to be seen. Mrs. Curren struggles to move quickly and is even knocked down by passersby. Irritated and frightened, she demands that Mr. Thabane get her out of here so that she can go home. She is surprised when he confronts her about her own selfishness, asking her where the people whose homes were destroyed will go. A crowd begins to form around them, listening to their exchange. Mrs. Curren admits that there are no easy answers, but feels the disgust of both the crowd and Mr. Thabane. She realizes from the way he interrogates her with Socratic questions that he must be a teacher. As they make their way out of the shantytown, Mrs. Curren berates herself for the lameness of her responses.

Chapter 3 (Pages 102-114)

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Outside of the shantytown, Mrs. Curren, the boy, and Mr. Thabane come across a series of permanent buildings—run-down stores, but not shanties. In the distance, Mr. Thabane spots Florence, who wearily informs them that she has found Bheki. Mr. Thabane goes into one of the buildings and returns quickly. He tells Mrs. Curren that she should go in and see too. She steps into the building and finds several people milling about. As she moves closer, she sees five bodies lying on the floor; the middle one is Bheki, Florence’s son. He has been shot, most likely at some other location, and his sand-covered body has been laid here with the others. Mrs. Curren is haunted by the open-mouth expression on Bheki’s face. A little girl approaches Mrs. Curren and calls her “sister.” An adult nearby explains to the confused old woman that the child thinks she is a Catholic nun.

A rattled Mrs. Curren returns outside, where Mr. Thabane comforts Florence. She asks him who is responsible for Bheki’s murder, and Mr. Thabane insists it must be the South African police. Mr. Thabane sends Mrs. Curren away, and she slowly makes her way back to her car. While she is waiting to leave, she is hassled by some police officers. Some of the officers are Afrikaners, whites of Dutch ancestry, and they alternately speak to her in English and to each other in Afrikaans. Not caring about the consequences, Mrs. Curren asks them if they were responsible for shooting Bheki and the others, but the smug officer insists they were not.

Mrs. Curren makes the long drive home alone, getting lost at several points, until she comes to familiar streets and landmarks. When she gets home, she finds Mr. Vercueil asleep on the toilet. She goes to the kitchen and finally allows herself to cry. In describing her feelings through these writings, she asks her daughter not to direct her attention or pity to her mother. Mrs. Curren cries for Bheki, knowing he is far more deserving of her daughter’s sympathy and concern whenever she reads these memoirs. She recalls standing out in the shantytown feeling how insignificant her own life was and how she would have readily stepped into her grave right then. After collecting herself, Mrs. Curren yells into the bathroom to awaken Mr. Vercueil. As she gets back into bed, she hears the homeless man let himself out.

Chapter 3 (Pages 115-130)

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In the days that follow, Mrs. Curren asks Mr. Vercueil to drive her back up to the shanties to survey the damage. She does not linger there long, but merely confirms that the fires have ended. Florence’s sister comes to the house to collect Florence’s things. Mrs. Curren asks Florence’s sister to share her condolences. The sister finds Mrs. Curren’s attempts at sympathy almost quaint, and accepts a check that Mrs. Curren sends with her for Florence. After they leave, Mrs. Curren tells Mr. Vercueil that she plans to commit suicide rather than face the long, slow end of her disease. She is surprised by how excited Mr. Vercueil seems to be by the idea—his response to this revelation is almost akin to sexual excitement. First, Mrs. Curren decides to overdose on pills. She puts on a nice dress, does her hair and makeup, but finds herself unable to go through with it.

She later drives to a park with Mr. Vercueil, who still seems committed to convincing her to kill herself. He suggests several options, both of which involve her car. First, he explains that she could douse her car with gasoline and burn herself up in it. He also suggests that she could drive her car off of a hill and crash it. She tries to explain to him why she can’t go through with it and why she even had the impulse to begin with. It was not her own growing cancer that was the motivation, but the death mask of Bheki that still haunts her. She notes that he, like many his age, started thinking of themselves as adults at a premature age. In death, Bheki’s face was a child‘s face, and she wonders if his last moment of realization was that what he had been doing was not a game.

Mr. Vercueil buys some liquor and encourages Mrs. Curren to have some. When he tries to get her drunk, she balks and demands that he get out of the car. He does so, and tosses the keys into some bushes where Mrs. Curren is unable to find them. As she waits for the drunkard to return, she thinks about the last conversation she had with her daughter. Mrs. Curren has declined her daughter’s requests to come live in North America with her, but Mrs. Curren feels that she is inseparable from the land and history of South Africa, no matter how troubled.

Chapter 3 (Pages 131-146)

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Mrs. Curren develops a cold, which quickly settles into her lungs and does not subside. Simple tasks are quickly becoming more difficult as the cancer and the accompanying respiratory difficulties are rendering her increasingly weak and out of breath. When she walks to get some groceries, she struggles with the bags on the way home. When she drops her groceries all over the sidewalk, she is annoyed by the indifference of people who walk or drive by. She eventually makes it home and settles into a drug-induced sleep; she is slowly starting to rely more and more on her pain pills.

She is awoken from her sleep by Mr. Vercueil’s dog. Mr. Vercueil himself has been absent for a number of days, so there is no one to quiet the dog. Grumbling, Mrs. Curren slowly makes her way downstairs; she moves much more slowly now and it takes her awhile. As she heads into the kitchen to let the dog in (or admonish it), she is shocked to find someone in her house. At first, she thinks it is Bheki, impossible though his death has made this. When she flips on the light, she realizes it is Bheki’s friend, whom she last saw in the asylum wing of a run-down hospital. She explains that Florence is no longer there and the boy seems unsure where to go. When Mrs. Curren asks him whether or not he was released from the hospital and what his intentions are, the boy either evades her questions or lies. Against her good judgment, she offers Florence’s old room to the boy, who gives his name as John (another lie).

Directly addressing her daughter again, Mrs. Curren confesses her lack of feeling for the boy she has just allowed to become her tenant. She still has some feeling for Bheki, in part because she saw a potential in him that she does not see in John. She wonders if that means that her love is worthless since she feels so unable to give it to this closed-off young man. She knows if she is to make any kind of atonement at the end of her life, it must be in the embracement of things that force her to confront her own limitations. The next day, Mrs. Curren tries to lecture John about the misguidedness of his efforts. She tries to remind him that he is a boy trying to pretend to be a man by following the wrong path. She knows how he must see her, but implores him to benefit from the perspective she has at the end of her life. She is troubled when he asks her about Bheki’s whereabouts since she had told him the previous day that Bheki was dead. She wonders if his head injury has affected his memory.

Chapter 3 (Pages 147-161)

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Later, Mrs. Curren peeks into Florence’s room and sees John examining something in his hands. She also notices that part of the floorboards have been pried up. When she enters the room, demanding to know what he has, John hides the object under the bed sheets. Mrs. Curren knows it is a weapon of some sort, but John refuses to give her any information. Mrs. Curren finds the number for Florence’s home and calls. When she is informed that Florence is no longer there, Mrs. Curren asks for Mr. Thabane. After a moment, Mr. Thabane answers the phone and Mrs. Curren reminds him of their acquaintance. She tells him of John and his weapon, and demands that he come and get the boy before he brings more trouble to her house. Mr. Thabane is again critical of Mrs. Curren’s lack of sympathy for the resistance of John and youths like him; he makes no promises for when someone can come and take the boy home.

Early the next morning, Mrs. Curren awakens to someone trying to open the gate. She makes her way downstairs, again impeded by her medication and the physical limitations that have become increasingly painful. She is horrified to realize that the police are outside trying to get into the entrance to Florence’s room. Fearing the inevitable violence, Mrs. Curren screams and carries on in an attempt to prevent them from attacking John, who is holed up in the room with a gun. When a female officer tries to get Mrs. Curren to leave while they deal with John, the old woman refuses. Undaunted, the officer picks her up and carries her out to the front of her house. Mrs. Curren screams in pain and the officer wraps her up in a quilt. Suddenly a series of gunshots rings out, and before long, a covered body is wheeled out on a gurney. A distraught Mrs. Curren wants to ride with John’s body to the hospital, but the police refuse. No longer feeling at home in her own house, she staggers down the street still wrapped in a quilt.

Eventually, her pain and exhaustion get the better of her, and she collapses into a heap on the street, urinates herself, and falls unconscious. She wakes up to find a trio of young boys (no older than ten) searching her person for money or valuables. She groggily whispers that she has nothing, but the boys pay no heed. The put a stick in her mouth and move her lips around, much to Mrs. Curren’s disgust. After the boys leave, she goes back to sleep only to be awoken by a very familiar dog.

Chapter 3 (Pages 162-176)

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The dog is Mr. Vercueil’s mutt, and Mrs. Curren is relieved to find that the owner is with his dog. Mr. Vercueil is surprised to find Mrs. Curren lying in the street and even more shocked that she does not want to go home. With surprising ease, Mr. Vercueil picks up Mrs. Curren and carries her to an overpass. He sets up camp for them on some boxes and they huddle together with the dog. She explains the odd incident of the boys putting a stick in her mouth, and Vercueil explains that they were searching her mouth to see if any of her teeth had gold in them. They sleep some, and when they wake, Mrs. Curren finds herself in a confessional mood. She admits that she has been blind to the troubles of the many people who are oppressed in her country. She is no longer sure what freedom is, and admits she had no right to judge Bheki, John, Mr. Thabane, and especially Florence about their views on resisting oppression.

Eventually, Mr. Vercueil and Mrs. Curren begin to slowly walk back to her house. She admits to Mr. Vercueil that when she first met him (on the day that she was diagnosed with the terminal cancer), she wondered if he might be a kind of angel. She knows the idea is absurd, but still the question haunts her. She also admits to having had a breast removed, presumably from an earlier illness, and this revelation (like most of the one she shares with Mr. Vercueil) makes him uncomfortable.

When they arrive at her house, Mrs. Curren can see all kinds of debris (broken glass, etc.) outside the entrance to Florence’s room. Give her weak and tired condition, Mrs. Curren decides not to face the horrible task of examining the interior of that room. Instead, she and Mr. Vercueil are surprised to find a police officer inside her house. The officer explains he was assigned to watch over the house and then proceeds to ask her numerous questions about Bheki, John, and their friends. Mrs. Curren reveals little and becomes less and less coherent because of the pain pill she took upon her arrival home. Later, after the police officers have left, she telephones Florence’s old number and gets an unfamiliar ten-year-old child. She asks the young girl to get a message to Mr. Thabane to be on alert. As Mrs. Curren completes the next section of her long story-letter to her daughter, she notes it is now John, and not Bheki, who the old woman feels is very closely with her.

Chapter 4

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 401

Mrs. Curren’s condition is rapidly deteriorating, and she acknowledges that her writing will soon be done. She tells her daughter of Mr. Vercueil staying in her room with his dog to help care for her and keep her company. Mrs. Curren is taking her pain pills more frequently now, and some of them give her disturbing hallucinations. She calls her doctor to ask if she can switch prescriptions, but he will do it only if she comes into the doctor’s office with an appointment. Mrs. Curren recognizes that she is too weak for this, but is surprised when a package of new pills arrives from the doctor’s office.

Vercueil again brings up suicide, but Mrs. Curren feels that she cannot do it for the same reason that she refuses to go to a hospital for medical attention: she does not want to be put to sleep. Her awareness of the injustices of apartheid and her desire to reach across time and space to connect with her daughter are part of the same renewed sense of both the power and the difficulty of being alive. She continues to connect her death with her mother, and motherhood in general. She reminds her daughter that her two sons have been born into a fate that includes death. Mrs. Curren even thinks of the growing cancer insider her as a kind of death-child, waiting to be born.

Mrs. Curren is even more intrigued by her attachment to and reliance upon Mr. Vercueil. Vercueil and the dog now sleep in her room and in her bed. He brings her food he has prepared after grocery shopping, but she has no appetite left. One night, Mrs. Curren awakens to find Vercueil standing on the balcony in the moonlight. She knows he will not change or better himself, but somehow that does not matter. When she carefully makes her way out to the balcony, she tries to press Vercueil to reveal his thoughts. She had previously had some luck getting him to open up about his life as a sailor and the injury that left his hand partially numb and unable to function. Eventually, the two of them make their way inside again. Mr. Vercueil draws Mrs. Curren into an embrace, and the breath finally leaves her body. A postscript on the letter reveals that Mrs. Curren had written between 1986 and 1989 (when she presumably died).

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