Cockfosters

Stories

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Paperback
$16.00 US
On sale Sep 04, 2018 | 192 Pages | 978-0-525-56362-4
Boston Globe Best Book of the Year

In these nine virtuoso stories, Helen Simpson turns her wickedly wry wit to the stations of life, the vulnerabilities of age, and the lives of ordinary people in complicated times. The title story follows two old friends as they ride the London Underground to Cockfosters—the end of the line—to retrieve a pair of newly prescribed bifocals. “Erewhon” depicts a reversal of gender roles as a man lies awake in bed fretting about his body shape, his dissatisfaction with sex, his children, and his role in his marriage. And in “Berlin,” a fiftysomething couple embarks on a “Ring Cycle package” trip to Germany, recalling the ups and downs of their life together as they make their way through Wagner’s epic. Funny, warmhearted, and deeply insightful, these tales brilliantly balance devastation and optimism as only Helen Simpson can.
 
“Memorable characters, comic timing, originality, economy and poignancy. . . . The reader thanks Simpson’s eye and ear for such generosity.” —The New York Times Book Review

“England’s best living short-story writer.” —The Boston Globe

“Powerful. . . . The warmth and humour of Simpson’s writing is coupled with a sharp-eyed clarity and a steady gift for the descriptive detail.” —Financial Times 
 
“Tenderly measured, and entirely human. It’s this tightrope balance between our outer lives and inner expanses that continues to make her writing sing.” —The Guardian 

“Wonderful. . . . A vital (and pleasurable) voice. . . . Her understated yet insightful conjuring of characters’ pains and fears strikes to the icy core of universal truths.” —The Independent on Sunday 

“Elegant fable-like pieces. . . . Truthful, funny and sharp. . . . Gently ground-breaking.” —The Sunday Times (London)

“Reading Simpson’s stories makes you feel less alone in the world.” —Literary Review 

“Remarkable. . . . Joy and its flipside, pain, are frequently glimpsed together . . . Simpson has a fine ear for the cadence of everyday speech and for the truths that may lie behind the most mundane of expressions.” —The Times Literary Supplement (London)

“Witty, hilarious and deeply discomfiting.” —The Spectator

“Uplifting and sensitive tales. . . . Examines the preoccupations of middle-age—jobs, ageing, friendship—with warmth, wit and breathtaking artistry.” —Daily Mail 

“Witty, incandescent. . . . Invigorating and inspiring.” —New York Journal of Books 

“Far-reaching and timeless, addressing matters of loyalty and mortality that are universal and deeply human. Simpson’s stories pack a quiet emotional power that extends beyond their pages.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“Universal insights arise out of the ordinary. . . . With wit and keen perception, [Simpson] tackles the cultural assumptions, versus true experience, of middle age in everyday situations.” —Booklist
 
 
MOSCOW
 
 
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.
© Derek Thompson

Helen Simpson is the author of five previous collections of short stories. She spent five years writing for Vogue. Simpson is the recipient of the E. M. Forster Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and lives in London with her husband.

www.helensimpsonwriter.com

View titles by Helen Simpson

About

Boston Globe Best Book of the Year

In these nine virtuoso stories, Helen Simpson turns her wickedly wry wit to the stations of life, the vulnerabilities of age, and the lives of ordinary people in complicated times. The title story follows two old friends as they ride the London Underground to Cockfosters—the end of the line—to retrieve a pair of newly prescribed bifocals. “Erewhon” depicts a reversal of gender roles as a man lies awake in bed fretting about his body shape, his dissatisfaction with sex, his children, and his role in his marriage. And in “Berlin,” a fiftysomething couple embarks on a “Ring Cycle package” trip to Germany, recalling the ups and downs of their life together as they make their way through Wagner’s epic. Funny, warmhearted, and deeply insightful, these tales brilliantly balance devastation and optimism as only Helen Simpson can.
 
“Memorable characters, comic timing, originality, economy and poignancy. . . . The reader thanks Simpson’s eye and ear for such generosity.” —The New York Times Book Review

“England’s best living short-story writer.” —The Boston Globe

“Powerful. . . . The warmth and humour of Simpson’s writing is coupled with a sharp-eyed clarity and a steady gift for the descriptive detail.” —Financial Times 
 
“Tenderly measured, and entirely human. It’s this tightrope balance between our outer lives and inner expanses that continues to make her writing sing.” —The Guardian 

“Wonderful. . . . A vital (and pleasurable) voice. . . . Her understated yet insightful conjuring of characters’ pains and fears strikes to the icy core of universal truths.” —The Independent on Sunday 

“Elegant fable-like pieces. . . . Truthful, funny and sharp. . . . Gently ground-breaking.” —The Sunday Times (London)

“Reading Simpson’s stories makes you feel less alone in the world.” —Literary Review 

“Remarkable. . . . Joy and its flipside, pain, are frequently glimpsed together . . . Simpson has a fine ear for the cadence of everyday speech and for the truths that may lie behind the most mundane of expressions.” —The Times Literary Supplement (London)

“Witty, hilarious and deeply discomfiting.” —The Spectator

“Uplifting and sensitive tales. . . . Examines the preoccupations of middle-age—jobs, ageing, friendship—with warmth, wit and breathtaking artistry.” —Daily Mail 

“Witty, incandescent. . . . Invigorating and inspiring.” —New York Journal of Books 

“Far-reaching and timeless, addressing matters of loyalty and mortality that are universal and deeply human. Simpson’s stories pack a quiet emotional power that extends beyond their pages.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“Universal insights arise out of the ordinary. . . . With wit and keen perception, [Simpson] tackles the cultural assumptions, versus true experience, of middle age in everyday situations.” —Booklist

Excerpt

 
 
MOSCOW
 
 
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.

Author

© Derek Thompson

Helen Simpson is the author of five previous collections of short stories. She spent five years writing for Vogue. Simpson is the recipient of the E. M. Forster Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and lives in London with her husband.

www.helensimpsonwriter.com

View titles by Helen Simpson

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