Sunday, January 16, 2011

Short-a-Day: James Lasdun's "The Old Man"

Originally published in A Public Space, No. 5, 2008. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 69.

A very spare and simple story in which Conrad, a loan manager, bonds with two former Czechoslovakians, an older woman ("rouged cheeks wrinkled like walnut shells") and her daughter ("a flat, handsome face and a full figure that she carried with confidence"), after he decides to lend them money for their proposed greenhouse. These sociable, hard-working people impress him, and he begins to play weekly bridge games with them, along with an older man, their tenant, who also happens to be from Czechoslovakia. Conrad ends up falling for/being seduced by the daughter, and he at last finds the ability to move past his wife's death: "It came to him that if he was to make a go of this new life, he needed to make a clean break from all the old trappings of his life with Margot." Even his collegiate daughter seems to agree with his choice of a wife.

The twist to the story, and the significance of the title, is that two nights before the wedding, he learns that the women have evicted the old man -- for three months, he has not paid rent, and he did not pay rent because he had stopped working his job, and he had stopped working his job because he had injured his knee. Conrad is not depicted as an old man -- he is probably ten years older than his soon-to-be-wife -- and the women are never depicted as manipulative; he does not sense evil, or some scheme against him. But he becomes aware, perhaps, of mortality, of the price of one's "usefulness" and wonders if he will one day be put out to pasture as well, if, for instance, he is no longer able to pay his rent. This interpretation isn't a perfect fit -- he's a hard-working man himself, and I don't think the daughter would throw the mother on her rear when she grows unable to care for the flowers -- but even without resolution, the story reads smoothly.

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