Thursday, August 28, 2008

I Think I may Need some Help

Rules for Old Men Waiting is a novel by Peter Pouncey, an English classicist who moved to the USA in the 1960’s and eventually became President of Amherst College. He is now retired and lives in New York. Here is an overview of the plot and the final story:

After the death of his wife, Robert MacIver, military historian, becomes something of a recluse in his holiday home in the woods. He makes rules to keep himself going as he and his house start crumbling away – when he must eat, what he must burn, how to maintain the habit of writing something every day. As he becomes involved in his story about soldiers in the trenches of the Great War he begins to reflect on his own experiences in WW2 and the loss of his son in Vietnam. What results is an attempt to make sense of his life and the turbulent era through which he has lived.

As a young man MacIver had played international rugby…he played at centre for Scotland. His story contains some beautiful descriptions of great moments in his rugby career, the most dramatic of which was the game in which he scored the winning try against England in a nail-biting finish at Twickenham. Also, while engaged in research in Paris, he had played for a brief time with the Paris University Club.

The P.U.C. public address system would introduce him as “L’Ecossais Sensationel”, which as people kept pointing out to him, sounded a whole lot better than “the sensational Scot.”

And it is a rugby allusion in the final sentence which gives the novel its brilliant ending.

McIver, ill and weak, is holed up in his secluded house, virtually imprisoned by heavy drifts of snow. One of his former star pupils, Katherine Corton, happens to be in Wellfleet and asks Bonnie, a girl from the supermarket check-out, if she knew a Mr. Robert MacIver. Bonnie says that she does know him, but that she hasn’t seen him for some months. Suddenly feeling concerned, Bonnie calls her boyfriend Matt, a fireman, who shortly arrives in his big Dodge truck, and the three of them drive out to the house. With difficulty they get through the heavily banked snow to the house, and when there is no response from within they open the door:

MacIver meanwhile was still there, but barely. He had fallen out of his rocking chair, and was now lying, slightly dazed, on his side, with one hand under his head – reclining, really. Suddenly, he thought, the door opened.

There were people there, and it seemed light and cold had come in with them. They were still by the door, uncertain what they had found. He summoned the last ounce of graciousness he had left to greet them: “Hello,” he said. “I think I may need some help.”

His words released them and they rushed towards him. But he had been quite quick in his day, and slipped away before they reached him.

Source: Peter Pouncey, Rules for Old Men Waiting (New York: Random House, 2005)

Thanks to Barrie Hibbert for this summary of the book and for sending this story.

Dr Geoff Pound

Image: Front Cover of Rules for Old Men Waiting.