Not the End of the Worldby Kate Atkinson
Arthur is a precocious eight-year-old boy whose mother is a B-list celebrity more concerned with the state of her bank account than with her son's development. Then an enigmatic young nanny named Missy introduces him to a world he never knew existed.
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Not the End of the World
By Kate Atkinson
Copyright © 2002
All right reserved.
Charlene and Trudi Go Shopping
I WANT," CHARLENE SAID to Trudi, "to buy my mother a birthday
"OK," Trudi said.
"Something I can put in the post. Something that won't break."
Trudi thought about some of the things you could put in the post
that might break.
A crystal decanter.
A Crown Derby teapot.
A mirrored-glass globe in which nothing but the sky is reflected.
"How about a scarf?" she suggested. "In velvet devore. I love that
Charlene and Trudi were in a food hall as vast as a small city. It
smelled of chocolate and ripe cheese and raw meaty bacon but most of
the food was too expensive to buy and some of it didn't look real.
They wandered along an avenue of honey.
"I could buy a jar of honey," Trudi said.
"You could," Charlene agreed.
There was plenty of honey to choose from. There was lavender honey
and rosemary honey, acacia and orange blossom and mysterious manuka.
Butter-yellow honey from Tuscan sunflowers and thick, anemic honey
from English clover. There were huge jars like ancient amphorae and
neat spinster-size pots. There were jars of cut-combhoney that
looked like seeded amber. There was organic honey from lush South
American rain forests and there was honey squeezed from parsimonious
Scottish heather on windswept moorlands. Bees the world over had
been bamboozled out of their bounty so that Trudi could have a
choice, but she had already lost interest.
"You could buy her soap," Trudi said. "Soap wouldn't break.
Expensive soap. Made from oatmeal and buttermilk or goat's milk and
vanilla pods from ... wherever vanilla pods come from."
"Mauritius. Mainly," Charlene said.
"If you say so. Soap for which ten thousand violet petals have been
crushed and distilled to provide one drop of oil. Or soap scented
with the zest of a hundred bittersweet oranges."
"I'm hungry. I could buy an orange," Charlene said.
"You could. Seville or Moroccan?"
"Moorish," Charlene said dreamily. "I would like to visit a Moorish
palace. The Alhambra. That's an exotic word. That's the most exotic
word I can think of, offhand. Alhambra."
"Xanadu," Trudi said. "That's exotic. A pleasure dome. Imagine
having your own pleasure dome. You could call it Pleasureland. Isn't
there a Pleasureland in Scarborough?"
"Arbroath," Charlene said gloomily.
"With shady walks through cool gardens," Trudi said, "where the air
is perfumed with attar of roses."
"And fountains and courtyards," Charlene said. "Fountains that run
with nectar. And courtyards full of peacocks and nightingales and
larks. And swans. And gold and silver fish swimming in the
fountains. And huge blue and white marbled carp."
They were walking down a street of teas. They were lost.
"Who would think there were so many different teas in the world?"
Trudi mused. "Chrysanthemum tea, White Peony, Jade Peak, Oriental
Beauty Oolong, Green Gunpowder, Golden Needle, Hubei Silver Tip,
Drum Mountain White Cloud, Dragon's Breath tea-do you think it
tastes of dragon's breath? What do you think dragon's breath tastes
"Foul, I expect," Charlene said. "And all day long," she continued,
"in the pleasure dome -"
"Pleasureland," Trudi corrected.
"Pleasureland. We would eat melon and figs and scented white peaches
and Turkish Delight and candied rose petals."
"And drink raspberry sherbet and tequila and Canadian ice wine,"
"I should go," Charlene said. She had failed to recover her spirits
since the mention of Arbroath. "I've got an article to write."
Charlene was a journalist with a bridal magazine. "'Ten Things to
Consider Before You Say "I Do."'"
"Saying 'I don't'?" Trudi suggested.
"Abracadabra," Charlene murmured to herself as she crossed against
the traffic in the rain, "that's an exotic word." Somewhere in the
distance a bomb exploded softly.
IT HAD BEEN raining for weeks. There were no taxis outside the radio
station. Charlene was worried that she was developing a crush on the
man who searched her handbag in the reception at the radio station.
"I know he's quite short," she said to Trudi, "but he's sort of
"I once went out with a short man," Trudi said. "I never realized
just how short he was until after I'd left him." There were no taxis
at the rank. There were no taxis dropping anyone off at the radio
Trudi frowned. "When did you last see a taxi?"
Charlene and Trudi ran from the radio station, ran from the rain,
past the sandbags lining the streets, into the warm, dispassionate
space of the nearest hotel and sat in the smoky lounge and ordered
"I think he's ex-military or something."
"The man who searches the bags at the radio station."
A waitress brought them weak green tea. They sipped their tea
daintily-an adverb dictated by the awkward handles of the cups.
"I've always wanted to go out with a man in a uniform," Trudi said.
"A fireman," Charlene suggested.
"Mm," Trudi said thoughtfully.
"Or a policeman," Charlene said.
"But not a constable."
"No, not a constable," Charlene agreed. "An inspector."
"An army captain," Trudi said, "or maybe a naval helicopter pilot."
The weak green tea was bitter.
"This could be Dragon's Breath tea, for all we know," Trudi said.
"Do you think it is? Dragon's breath?"
There was no air in the hotel. Two large, middle-aged women were
eating scones with quiet determination. A well-known journalist was
seducing a girl who was too young. Two very old men were speaking in
low pleasant tones to each other about music and ancient wars.
"Thermopylae," the men murmured. "Aegospotami, Cumae. The
"I really want a cat," Trudi said.
"You can't keep a cat in town," Charlene said.
"You can't keep a cat down?"
"You can't keep a cat in town."
"You need something small like a rodent," Charlene said.
"A capybara's a rodent, it's not small."
"A hamster," Charlene said, "a gerbil, a small white mouse."
"I don't want a rodent. Of any size. I want a cat. Kitty, kitty,
kitty, kitty, kitty. If you say something five times you always get
"You made that up," Charlene said.
"True," Trudi admitted.
"I'd like something more unusual," Charlene said. "A kangaroo. A
reindeer or an otter. A talking bird or a singing fish."
"A singing fish?"
"A singing fish. A fish that sings and has a magic ring in its
stomach. A huge carp that is caught in a fishpond-usually at a royal
court somewhere-and cooked and served at the table and when you bite
into the fish you find a magic ring. And the magic ring will lead
you to the man who will love you. Or the small white mouse which is
the disguise of the man who will love you."
"That would be a rodent then."
"Failing that," Charlene continued, ignoring Trudi, "I would like a
cat as big as a man."
"A cat as big as a man?" Trudi frowned, trying to picture a man-size
"Yes. Imagine if men had fur."
"I think I'd rather not."
The waitress asked them if they wanted more of the weak green tea.
"For myself," the waitress said, uninvited, "I prefer dogs."
Charlene and Trudi swooned with delight at the idea of dogs.
"Oh God," Trudi said, overcome by all the breeds of dog in the
world, "a German shepherd, a golden retriever, a Great Dane, a
borzoi-what a great word-a Saint Bernard, a Scottie, a Westie, a
Yorkie. An Austrian pinscher, a Belgian griffon, a Kromfohrlander.
The Glen of Imaal terrier, the Manchester, Norwich, English toy,
Staffordshire, Bedlington-all terriers also. The Kai, the Podengo
Portugueso Medio, the Porcelaine and the Spanish greyhound. The
bloodhound, the lurcher, the Dunker, the Catahoula Leopard Dog, the
Hungarian vizsla, the Lancashire heeler and the giant German spitz!"
"Or a mongrel called Buster or Spike," Charlene said.
The waitress cleared away their tea things. "Money, money, money,
money, money," she whispered to herself as she bumped open the door
to the kitchen with her hip. The electricity failed and everyone was
suddenly very quiet. No one had realized how dark the rain had made
IN THE RECEPTION at the television station there was a tank of fish
so big that it covered a whole wall. Trudi noted that they were
mostly African freshwater fish. She wondered if they had flown here
in a plane and if that had felt strange for them. No one else was
taking any notice of the wall of fish. The receptionist had
strawberry-blond hair, coiffed extravagantly. She appeared to have a
Heckler and Koch MP5A3 9mm submachine gun under her desk. Trudi felt
a wave of jealousy.
Trudi was a publicist for a small imprint in a large publishing
house. She had a twin sister called Heidi and neither Trudi nor
Heidi liked her name. They were the names (in the opinion of Heidi
and Trudi) of goatherding girls and American hookers, of girls who
wore their hair in plaits and drank milk or had sex dressed as
French maids and nurses. Of girls who never grew up. Trudi and Heidi
had no idea why they were so called. Their parents had died in a
bizarre accident not long after they were born and the kind
strangers who stood in for them, Mr. and Mrs. Marshall, had no
insight into their dead parents' thoughts.
CHARLENE AND TRUDI ordered gin slings and picked at a small dish of
black olives that tasted more bitter than weak green tea.
There were boisterous men in suits perched at the bar. They were
wondering how drunk they could get in the precurfew swill.
"I need a new haircut," Charlene said.
"I need new hair," Trudi said.
"And thinner ankles," Charlene said.
"And bigger breasts," Trudi said. "Or maybe I want smaller breasts."
"Your breasts are perfect."
They could smell the perfume of the women sitting at the adjacent
table, peppery and spicy with a top note of deodorant. The women
were dressed in very fashionable, very ugly clothes. People stared
at them because their clothes were so fashionable and so ugly. They
smoked incessantly and drank martinis. There was an oily film on top
of their drinks. They looked like high-class whores but they were
rock stars' ex-wives.
A waiter dropped a tray of glasses. The boisterous men in suits
dangled their cigarettes from their mouths while they applauded.
"And," Trudi said, "I would like to ride on a horse-drawn sleigh
through forests in the snow with dogs-borzois-running alongside and
I want to be wearing silks and velvets and a cloak lined with the
fur of Arctic foxes and bears and wolfkins -"
"You mean wolf skins?"
"No, wolfkins-they're very rare-but only ones that have died of
natural causes, not ones that have been killed for their fur."
"Of course not."
"And diamonds, old rose-cut diamonds like dark, melting ice, at my
throat and ears, and on my fingers, rubies and opals like larks'
eggs, and on my feet red leather seven-league boots -"
"Flat or with a heel?"
"A modest heel. And I want to drink a liqueur made from ripe purple
plums from a silver hip flask and -" One of the boisterous men in
suits fell off his bar stool. The barman pronounced his time of
death as 9:42 P.M.
"Time to go home, ladies and gentlemen," he said, "time to go home."
Later, Charlene wished she had asked Trudi what a wolfkin was.
CHARLENE WORRIED THAT she would never have a baby. A baby would love
her. A baby would exactly fit the round hollow space inside her.
That might be a problem when it grew, of course. "Baby, baby, baby,
baby, baby," she said to the mirror before she went to bed.
First, of course, she had to get someone to father the baby and
after the humiliating ordeal with the dead solicitor last year she
couldn't imagine ever having sex again. This worried her less than
she would have imagined. Before. And Charlene would call the baby
Smiler. A boy. As fat as a porker, as big as a bomb.
In the hours between curfew and dawn Charlene listened to the sirens
wailing through the night and planned an article on "Great Tips for
Spring Weddings." She fell asleep with her hand on the Sig Sauer
semiautomatic she kept under her pillow and didn't wake until
Eosphorus, the morning star, rose and heralded the coming of his
mother, Eos, the dawn.
TRUDI WAS LOOKING for black trousers. Something simple by Joseph or
perhaps Nicole Farhi. Charlene took trousers from the racks in the
department store and displayed them with a sales assistant's
flourish for Trudi to view. All the genuine sales assistants seemed
to have disappeared. Trudi didn't like any of the trousers Charlene
"Perhaps you could take the trousers from an Armani suit and leave
the jacket?" Charlene suggested. "Or MaxMara-they have a lot of
black suits this season. Well cut. I think I'm quite good at this,
don't you? Perhaps I could do this for a living."
All the black clothes were sprinkled with plaster dust like
"From the earthquake, probably," Charlene said. "They really should
be on sale, not full price."
Trudi tried on a Moschino dress and a Prada jacket and a Kenzo
cardigan and a Gucci skirt but all the clothes were made for tiny,
whippet-thin Japanese girls.
"I'll never go to the ball," Trudi said sadly.
"The balls were all canceled long ago, as you well know," Charlene
said briskly. "Try this Betty Jackson wrap."
In the end, Trudi decided to buy a rhinestone belt but there were no
sales assistants to buy it from and unlike nearly everyone else in
the city she wasn't a thief.
"We should make clothes," Charlene said as they passed through the
haberdashery floor of the department store.
"What a wonderful word," Trudi said.
"What a wonderful world?" Charlene said doubtfully.
"No. Word. Haberdashery."
"We could buy a sewing machine and share it," Charlene said. "We
could buy cloth and spools of thread and paper patterns and spend
pleasant winter evenings dressmaking together. Perhaps by the soft
light from beautiful glass oil lamps. We could sit in a pool of
golden light from the beautiful glass oil lamps and our silver
needles would glimmer and flash as we bowed our heads to the simple
yet honest work."
But Trudi was looking at the bolts of cloth, shelf after shelf of
every different kind of fabric. "Goodness," she said, "this is very
impressive. Broadcloth and butter muslin, brocade, brocatelle,
buckram, bunting, and Botany wool. Bombazine and boucle, burlap and
Bedford cord, barege, bobbinet, balbriggan, and barathea! And that's
just the Bs. Then, there's cambric and calico and cavalry twill -"
The tannoy started up with a sudden howl of feedback and a
disembodied voice announced that it was looking for Mr. Scarlet.
"Would Mr. Scarlet please come to Haberdashery, Mr. Scarlet to
Charlene started to panic. "You know what that means, don't you?"
she said to Trudi.
"No. What does it mean?"
"It's the code for a fire. It means there's a fire in Haberdashery."
"I don't see any fire," Trudi said.
Excerpted from Not the End of the World
by Kate Atkinson
Copyright © 2002 by Kate Atkinson.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Meet the Author
Kate Atkinson has won several prizes for her short fiction. Her first novel Behind the Scenes at the Museum was chosen as the 1995 Whitbread Book of the Year. Her other novels are Human Croquet and Emotionally Weird. She lives in Edinburgh.
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This collection of short stories is unlike any set of stories I have read. With the exception of the first and last stories, every story starts out 'normal' enough, with contemporary characters in London and Edinburgh struggling with real life issues. But then comes the mythic turn in each story, which for me always came as a delight. I found I could not put down the book after I read the first story. I knew I had stumbled onto something special. I realized as I read through the stories that they are more connected than one would think at first, so I recommend reading them in the order they are in the book. I also realized that I needed to review my familiarity with Greek myths. So I pulled out my old childhood collection of Greek myths and reread the myths of the Greek gods and goddesses and various humans who interact with the gods. After my mythology review I reread the stories and enjoyed even more the wonder of the author's writing. She seamlessly melds the ordinary with the extraordinary (the myths). While I became intrigued with the 'game' of figuring which mythic characters were being represented, the fact is, the stories stand as remarkable and enjoyable without a detailed analysis. My favorite television series of all time is 'Northern Exposure.' One of the things I loved about NE was that the stories could take unexpected magical twists. And, as in the case of Atkinson's stories, the twists are not gratuitous-- they enrich the meaning of the character's struggles and relationships. I have read the collection four times now. After having gotten over the novelty of Atkinson's marvelous style and the mythical connections, I now appreciate her depth of insight into human relationships. I moved from being amazed by these stories, to being enamored, intrigued, and, finally, to being truly moved.
Not The End Of The World is a book of twelve short stories by British author, Kate Atkinson. The stories capture (mostly) ordinary people in their everyday lives, with occasional snapshots of extraordinary moments. Each of the stories can be read as a stand-alone, but they have connections: characters appear in each other’s tales, with some characters making multiple appearances; places (Edinburgh, Crete), events (a fatal vehicle accident on the M9), TV programs (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Green Acres, Star Trek: Voyager), animals (a man-sized cat), magazine articles (Ten Things To Consider Before You Say I Do) and items (wedding favours) all recur. Two stories feature Charlene and Trudi in a world where there has been some sort of societal breakdown, and these bookend the rest of the stories. The first story is a little strange, but readers who persist will be rewarded with some tales of the outstanding calibre to which fans of Atkinson’s work are accustomed; the last story has a clever twist that reflects back onto the preceding ten stories. Atkinson has an exceptional talent for portraying people, and her descriptive prose is a joy to read: “She swung open the wrought-iron gate and walked briskly up the path, her heels striking like flints off the slabs of York stone”. The observations of young boys are particularly well voiced: “Addison had once heard a neighbour refer to his mother as ‘highly strung’ and although he had no idea what that meant he knew it sounded like an uncomfortable thing to be” and “’Georgie was … flighty,’ Mrs Anderson said, searching for an enigmatic word, so that Vincent imagined his mother as a ball of feathers wafted on a kindly wind” illustrate this. Another brilliant Atkinson offering. 4.5 stars