A wickedly wry, tender new collection from one of our finest internationally acclaimed short story writers.
Nine virtuoso stories that take up the preoccupations and fixations of time's passing and of middle age and that take us from today's London and Berlin to the wild west of the USA and the wilder shores of Mother Russia; stories finely balanced between devastation and optimism.
In the title story, long-ago school pals take the London Underground to the end of the Piccadilly lineCockfosters Stationto retrieve a lost pair of newly prescribed bifocals ("The worst thing about needing glasses is the bumbling," says Julie. "I've turned into a bumbler overnight. Me! I run marathons!"); each station stop prompting reflections on their shared past, present, and possible futures . . . In "Erewhon," a gender-role flip: after having sex with his wife, who has turned over and instantly fallen asleep, a man lies awake fretting about his body shape, his dissatisfaction with sex, his children, his role in the marriage . . . In "Kythera," lemon drizzle cake is a mother's ritual preparation for her (now grown) daughter's birthday as she conjures up memories of all the birthday cakes she has made for her, each one more poignant than the last; this new cake becoming a memento mori, an act of love, and a symbol of transformation ... And in "Berlin," a fiftysomething couple on a "Ring package" to Germany spend four evenings watching Wagner's epic, recalling their life together, reckoning with the husband's infidelity, the wife noting the similarity between their marriage and the Ring Cycle itself: "I'm glad I stuck it out but I'd never want to sit through it again."
|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.20(w) x 7.70(h) x 0.90(d)|
About the Author
HELEN SIMPSON was born in Bristol in 1959. She spent five years writing for Vogue. She is the recipient of the E. M. Forster Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She lives in London with her husband and two children.
Read an Excerpt
Get my knee fixed then get the fridge-freezer fixed, that was the plan. I’d set everything up for a couple of days off on the basis that the medics had suggested a week. Might as well make myself useful, I thought; for once be the one to wait in for the repair man. God knows Nigel has had more than his fair share of it over the years—waiting in.
Don’t run on it for six weeks, don’t do this, don’t do that; then the nurse was making me practise going up and down stairs with a stick for a good half-hour before the op. Waste of time! I was fine. The bruising was fairly dramatic, mustard-coloured below the knee—English mustard too, not French—and purple-black above. But it really didn’t hurt that much.
The freezer man arrived right on time which I wasn’t expecting, Nigel having warned me there was a less than fifty-fifty chance of this happening in his experience. Plain black T-shirt and jeans, close-cropped hair, he was rather short and very strongly built. Martial arts? I thought to myself.
“Water’s dripping into the top salad drawer from somewhere and freezing hard,” I told him. “Then it melts and freezes again.”
I’d have gone away at this point and put in a few calls to work if it hadn’t been for Nigel instructing me to stick with the process throughout. His reasoning was that it helped if you were able to explain to them what had gone wrong next time it happened, and the only way to under- stand what the problem was was to go through the whole boring process with them in the first place and ask ques- tions and try to understand it. He himself took notes, dated, before he forgot; he had a special file for them. Nigel’s an academic, he likes writing things down. His last published article was “Islamic Historians in Eighth- and Ninth-Century Mesopotamia and Their Approach to Historical Truth.” I haven’t read it yet but I know it’ll be brilliant, like all his work. Anyway, I resigned myself to doing things his way this time, seeing as it was once in a blue moon that I was the one hanging around.
The man refused coffee when I offered but asked for a glass of water instead. All a bit of a novelty for me, this. I couldn’t quite place his accent: East European, but not Polish.
He opened the door to the freezer compartment and our eating habits were laid bare. Sliced bread, because you can toast it from frozen; litre cartons of skimmed milk so we didn’t ever run out; several tubs of ice cream (cookie dough for Georgia, mango and passion fruit for Verity, raspberry sorbet for weight-conscious Clio). Not much else except frozen peas and a bottle of vodka. Not much actual food. Oh well, everyone seemed healthy enough. The vodka was officially Georgia’s now she was eighteen, for pre-drinking with her friends; better here where we could keep an eye on how fast it goes down, we’d reasoned, than hidden in her bedroom.
“So where are you from?” I asked, setting the glass of water down beside him.
He looked up from the fridge drawer for a moment.
He had very dark eyes, like a watchful bird. “Russia,” he said.
Snow and ice, I thought; appropriate. “Where in Russia?”
“Nearest city Moscow,” he said; then, with fleeting mockery, “three hundred kilometres.”
“So you’re from the countryside?” He nodded.
“I’ve been to Moscow,” I said, but he’d turned back to the freezer.
That time I thought we might get into emerging mar- kets, invest in commodities, get a piece of the action, I couldn’t believe how long it took to get there. Not the flight but the actual drive from the airport into Moscow. The roads were atrocious; it took almost three hours in the cab for what should have been a forty-five-minute journey. The crawl through the gridlocked suburbs was teeth-grindingly slow. Then when I visited Mr. Petrossian in his office there were a couple of security guys with sub- machine guns in reception. The secretaries and support staff, all female of course, were trussed up in pencil skirts, tottering around on stilettos. It was like a surly version of the fifties. Embarrassing.
The man was lying spreadeagled on the floor now, shining a little torch into the gap beneath the freezer from which he’d neatly wrenched the grille. Seen from this angle it was obvious he worked out. I found myself wondering what sport he played and at what level.