“a group of invigorating and inspiring short stories.”
Each of the nine short stories collected in Helen Simpson’s slim volume, Cockfosters, is named after a real place. But the titles of the witty, incandescent fictions are more often geographical metaphors for places of the heart and mind.
Simpson is a miniaturist. These stories are brief (ranging from 4 to 23 pages) except for the last and longest one, “Berlin,” (61 pages). All, however, are slice-of-life interludes exploring the arc of the lives of aging characters. The perfectly pitched, dialogue-driven stories provide brilliant, often humorous reminiscences of men and women sorting through haunting memories that define times and places of key events in their lives.
The title story begins with two old school friends, Julie and Philippa, now in their late forties. Though they “had not seen each other for years,” when they decide to meet in London for an afternoon of viewing art and catching up, “they had instantly been returned to an unstrained intimacy.” When they were in “school together in south London, they had found it easy to stay in touch in their twenties, and still possible in a shell-shocked way round babies in their early thirties; then Julie and her husband had moved north, and it was the roaring forties that had forced friendship to take a back seat in interests of survival. Now, though, they had started to crawl up out of their burrows.”
Their plans are interrupted when Julie loses her new varifocal glasses. They stay on the London underground from Green Park to Cockfosters, each station along the way jogging their memories of shared experiences. By the end of the line their ruminations reveal the blocked lives women have had to live, “’trained to serve others’” as secretaries, teachers, or nurses being their only options.
“Torremolinos” is a light, breezy, amusing exchange between a heart surgery patient and a prisoner faking a heart attack in the bed next to her. As she thinks about her life and “all the nice things [she’d] done,” they imagine they are sunbathing on the Costa Brava.
Samuel Butler’s satire on Victorian society is updated and dragged into the 21st century with a narrative of comic role reversal in “Erewhon.” The tale of gender flip-flop doesn’t completely work. Though the story does display familiar elements of discrimination against women, it does little to enlighten the subject, merely touching on the “old triple conundrum” of having to choose between children, household chores, and work. The male character goes through a “forest of worries” as he plays on the “mental gridiron” of a world that is “woman-shaped,” the “acid reflux of injustice rising in him” as he realizes that “nothing was going to change.”
The four women in “Kentish Town” meet in a book group near the end of the year, ending up discussing politics, history, economics, and banking though they were supposed to be analyzing a Dickens novel.
The recipe for a lemon drizzle cake provides the structure for “Kythera” as the first person narrator bakes it for her daughter’s birthday. In the interim she demands the need for women to have “[f]reedom and security,” to have “closeness without intrusiveness.”
In “Moscow,” an unhappily married 50-year-old woman recovering from knee surgery finds her psychological freedom in unburdening herself to a Russian repairman as he fixes her freezer.
“Cheapside,” one of the longer stories, deals with two conundrums: one legal, one personal. As a favor to a friend who saved his life, a 56-year-old lawyer attempts to convince the friend’s 17-year-old son that the legal profession would be a good choice for his future. While debating the legal conundrum (“’[I]s it negligence to place a live body in a coffin?’”), the narrator reveals details of the personal conundrum that led to the collapse of his first marriage because of a lawyer’s lifestyle and the demands of a work assignment in Dubai. The obsequious narrator is oblivious to the young man’s response as he watches the teen “tearing his tie off and stuffing it into his pocket . . . heading in completely the wrong direction for where he’d come from . . . flying down Cheapside.”
The title that carries the most metaphorical baggage is “Arizona.” Liz, a middle-aged history professor, visits Mae, an acupuncturist, to relieve the pain of a migraine. During the session, delineated by a sequence of deft dialogue, Liz ruminates on the condition of being post-menopausal. She believes she is “coalescing a step deeper into middle age” as part of the ‘’’sandwich generation.’”
Mae, in the same age group as Liz, says they have moved into the August of their lives. Liz thinks August is the “quick chill in the middle of brightness and warmth; confident wasteful growth starting to go to seed.” Mae is more encouraging. She envisions a new state for both women, one that is “’like Arizona . . . [b]rilliantly lit and filled with dependable sunshine.’”
“Berlin,” the final and lengthiest story in the collection, probes an unhappy marriage at the edge of dissolution. Adam, an architect, and his wife, Tracey, are forced to take a four-day package tour to Berlin to hear Wagner’s Ring cycle. Adam’s mother had booked the trip in memory of her husband who loved the operas. Then, not long after reserving the box seats, she died, so Adam and Tracey are bound to the reservations.
Adam hates opera, especially Wagner. It doesn’t help that the surtitles are in German. Adam dozes; Tracey daydreams. Her daydreams during the course of each opera are the core of the story. In each she recalls the dreams and desires and the realities of the marriage, of Adam’s “ill-suppressed bad temper,” of a possible future of “hair-trigger breakfasts with an angry old man[.]”
The operas occasion thoughts of how they “seem to stay the same, or reasonably like ourselves, for years and years and years. But time is marching on, or up and down, or round and round; whatever. How to meet death, that was what you had to think about once you were no longer a child—first the deaths of others, then your own.” As they near the end of the “operatic marathon,” it is clear that Tracey is a woman who seeks “’[r]ecognition,’” who is tired of seeing women “‘fobbed off.’” Adam remarks about the Ring that he is “’glad I stuck it out . . . But I’d never want to sit through it again.’” Tracey’s ringing response is, “’Rather how I feel about marriage.’”
Readers are not likely to doze or daydream as they take these nine excursions with Simpson from Cockfosters to Berlin. They will not be disappointed in the people they meet or the places they explore. Cockfosters is a group of invigorating and inspiring short stories.