A new collection of stories—dazzling, poignant, wickedly funny, and highly addictive—by the internationally acclaimed writer whose work The Times (London) calls “dangerously close to perfection.” These thirteen stories brilliantly focus on aspects of contemporary living and unerringly capture a generation, a type, a social class, a pattern of behavior. They give us the small detail that reveals large secrets and summons up the inner stresses of our lives (“It is a blissful relief to turn to the coolness and clarity of Helen Simpson . . . She is, to my mind, the best short story writer now working in English” —Ed Crooks, Financial Times). Whether her subject is single women or wives in stages of midlife-ery, marriage or motherhood, youth, young love, homework, or history, Simpson writes near to the bone and close to the heart.
In one story, a squirrel trapped under a dustbin lid in the back garden vanishes, and a woman’s marriage is revealed in the process . . . In another, a young woman on her way for an MRI reflects on new love, electromagnetism, and Sherlock Holmes, and afterward goes to a museum and finds herself wanting to escape into one of the paintings.
And in the title story, two men on a flight from London to Chicago—one an elderly scientist, the other a businessman upgraded to first class—discuss climate change and what flying is doing to “our shrunken planet,” this while the “in-flight entertainment” shows the crop-duster scene from Hitchcock’s North by Northwest. When a passenger in the seat across the aisle suddenly becomes ill and dies, the plane is forced to land in Goose Bay, Labrador, to the utter frustration of the two men. In the story’s moment of reckoning, one of the men, furious at the delay, says to the other, “I don’t care about you. You don’t care about me. We don’t care about him [the deceased passenger]. We all know how to put ourselves first, and that’s what makes the world go round.”
These darkly comic, brave, and, says The Guardian, “deeply unsentimental” stories brilliantly evoke life’s truest sensations—love, pain, joy, and grief—and give us, with precision and complex economy, a shrewd and painfully true glimpse into our dizzying 3-D age.
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Helen Simpson is the author of four previous collections of short stories—Getting a Life, Four Bare Legs in a Bed (winner of the Somerset Maugham Award), Dear George, and In the Driver’s Seat—as well as one novel, Flesh and Grass. She is the recipient of the E. M. Forster Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Diary of an Interesting Year
12TH FEBRUARY 2040
My thirtieth birthday. G gave me this little spiralbacked notebook and a Biro. It’s a good present, hardly any rust on the spiral and no water damage to the paper. I’m going to start a diary. I’ll keep my handwriting tiny to make the paper go further.
15TH FEBRUARY 2040
G is really getting me down. He’s in his element. They should carve it on his tombstone—“I Was Right.”
23RD FEBRUARY 2040
Glad we don’t live in London. The Hatchwells have got cousins staying with them, they trekked up from Peckham (three days). Went round this afternoon and they were saying the thing that fi nally drove them out was the sewage system— when the drains backed up it overflowed everywhere. They said the smell was unbelievable, the streets were swimming in it, and of course the hospitals are down so there’s nothing to be done about the cholera. Didn’t get too close to them in case they were carrying it. They lost their two sons like that last year.
“You see,” G said to me on the way home, “capitalism cared more about its children as accessories and demonstrations of earning power than for their future.”
“Oh shut up,” I said.
2ND MARCH 2040
Can’t sleep. I’m writing this instead of staring at the ceiling. There’s a mosquito in the room, I can hear it whining close to my ear. Very humid, air like fi lthy soup, plus we’re supposed to wear our face masks in bed too but I was running with sweat so I ripped mine off just now. Got up and looked at myself in the mirror on the landing— ribs like a fence, hair in greasy rats’ tails. Yesterday the rats in the kitchen were busy gnawing away at the bread bin—they didn’t even look up when I came in.
6TH MARCH 2040
Another quarrel with G. OK, yes, he was right, but why crow about it? That’s what you get when you marry your professor from Uni— wall-to-wall pontificating from an older man. “I saw it coming—any fool could see it coming especially after the Big Melt,” he brags. “Thresholds crossed, cascade effect, hopelessly optimistic to assume we had till 2060, blahdy blahdy blah, the plutonomy as lemming, democracy’s massive own goal.” No wonder we haven’t got any friends.
He cheered when rationing came in. He’s the one who volunteered fi rst as car- share warden for our road: one piddling little Peugeot for the entire road. He gets a real kick out of the camaraderie round the standpipe.
—I’ll swap my big tin of chickpeas for your little tin of sardines.
—No, no, my sardines are protein.
—Chickpeas are protein too, plus they fill you up more. Anyway, I thought you still had some tuna.
—No, I swapped that with Astrid Huggins for a tin of tomato soup.
Really sick of bartering, but hard to know how to earn money since the Internet went down. “Also, money’s no use unless you’ve got shedloads of it,” as I said to him in bed last night, “The top layer hanging on inside their plastic bubbles of fi ltered air while the rest of us shuffl e round with goiters and tumors and bits of old sheet tied over our mouths. Plus, we’re soaking wet the whole time. We’ve given up on umbrellas, we just go round permanently drenched.” I only stopped ranting when I heard a snore and clocked he was asleep.
8TH APRIL 2040
Boring morning washing out rags. No wood for hot water, so had to use ashes and lye again. Hands very sore even though I put plastic bags over them. Did the face masks fi rst, then the rags from my period. Took forever. At least I haven’t got to do diapers like Lexi and Esme, that would send me right over the edge.
27TH APRIL 2040
Just back from Maia’s. Seven months. She’s very frightened. I don’t blame her. She tried to make me promise I’d take care of the baby if anything happens to her. I havered (mostly at the thought of coming between her and that throwback Martin— she’d got a new black eye, I didn’t ask). I suppose there’s no harm in promising if it makes her feel better. After all it wouldn’t exactly be taking on a responsibility— I give a new
baby three months max in these conditions. Diarrhea, basically.
14TH MAY 2040
Can’t sleep. Bites itching, trying not to scratch. Heavy thumps and squeaks just above, in the ceiling. Think of something nice. Soap and hot water. Fresh air. Condoms! Sick of being permanently on knife edge re pregnancy.
Start again. Wandering round a supermarket—warm, gorgeously lit— corridors of open fridges full of tiger prawns and fi let mignon. Gliding off down the fast lane in a sports car, stopping to fi ll up with ten gallons of gas. Online, booking tickets for The Mousetrap, click, ordering a case of wine, click, a holiday home, click, a pair of patent leather boots, click, a gap year, click. I go to iTunes and download The Marriage of Figaro, then I chat face-to-face in real time with G’s parents in Sydney. No, don’t think about what happened to them. Horrible. Go to sleep.
21ST MAY 2040
Another row with G. He blew my second candle out, he said one was enough. It wasn’t though, I couldn’t see to read anymore. He drives me mad—it’s like living with a policeman. It always was, even before the Collapse. “The earth has enough for everyone’s need, but not for everyone’s greed” was his favorite. Nobody likes being labeled greedy. I called him Killjoy and he didn’t like that. “Every one of us takes about twenty-five thousand breaths a day,” he told me. “Each breath removes oxygen from the atmosphere and replaces it with carbon dioxide.” Well, pardon me for breathing! What was I supposed to do— turn into a tree?
6TH JUNE 2040
Went round to the Lumleys for the news last night. Whole road there squashed into front room, straining to listen to radio— batteries very low (no new ones in the last govt delivery). Big news though— compulsory billeting next week. The Shorthouses were up in arms, Kai shouting and red in the face, Lexi in tears. “You work all your life” etc., etc. What planet is he on. None of us too keen, but nothing to be done about it. When we got back, G checked our stash of tins under the bedroom floorboards. A big rat shot out and I screamed my head off. G held me till I stopped crying then we had sex. Woke in the night and prayed not to be pregnant, though God knows who I was praying to.
12TH JUNE 2040
Visited Maia this afternoon. She was in bed, her legs have swollen up like balloons. On at me again to promise about the baby and this time I said yes. She said Astrid Huggins was going to help her when it started—Astrid was a nurse once, apparently, not really the hands-on sort but better than nothing. Nobody else on the road will have a clue what to do now we can’t Google it. “All I remember from old fi lms is that you’re supposed to boil a kettle,” I said. We started to laugh, we got a bit hysterical. Knuckledragger Martin put his head round the door and growled at us to shut it.
1ST JULY 2040
First billet arrived today by army truck. We’ve got a Spanish group of eight including one old lady, her daughter and twin toddler grandsons (all pretty feral), plus four unsmiling men of fighting age. A bit much since we only have two bedrooms. G and I tried to show them round but they ignored us, the grandmother bagged our bedroom straight off. We’re under the kitchen table tonight. I might try to sleep on top of it because of the rats. We couldn’t think of anything to say— the only Spanish we could remember was muchas gracias, and as G said, we’re certainly not saying that.
2ND JULY 2040
Fell off the table in my sleep. Bashed my elbow. Covered in bruises.
3RD JULY 2040
G depressed. The four Spaniards are bigger than him, and he’s worried that the biggest one, Miguel, has his eye on me (with reason, I have to say).
4TH JULY 2040
G depressed. The grandmother found our tins under the fl oorboards and all but danced a flamenco. Miguel punched G when he tried to reclaim a tin of sardines and since then his nose won’t stop bleeding.
6TH JULY 2040
Last night under the table G came up with a plan. He thinks we should head north. Now that this lot is in the flat and a new group from Tehran promised next week, we might as well cut and run. Scotland’s heaving, everyone else has already had the same idea, so he thinks we should get on one of the ferries to Stavanger then aim for Russia.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Where would we stay?”
“I’ve got the pop- up tent packed in a rucksack behind the shed,” he said, “plus our sleeping bags and my windup radio.”
“Camping in the mud,” I said.
“Look on the bright side,” he said. “We have a huge mortgage and we’re just going to walk away from it.”
“Oh, shut up,” I said.
17TH JULY 2040
Maia died yesterday. It was horrible. The baby got stuck two weeks ago, it died inside her. Astrid Huggins was useless, she didn’t have a clue. Martin started waving his Swiss penknife round on the second day and yelling about a cesarean, he had to be dragged off her. He’s at our place now drinking the last of our precious brandy with the Spaniards. That’s it. We’ve got to go. Now, says G. Yes.
1ST AUGUST 2040
Somewhere in Shropshire, or possibly Cheshire. We’re staying off the beaten track. Heavy rain. This notebook’s pages have gone all wavy. At least ...
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