‘Chest’ is a substantial story, 37 pages long, set in an England of the near future where the feudal past has not-so-subtly reasserted itself. There are plenty of familiar details: schoolboys hanging about at bus stops, cell phones, motorways, Citroen cars and The Guardian. But the pleasures of this bleakly funny story lie in the way Self pushes certain elements to make this world both familiar and strange. A permanent fog has rolled in over the country and air quality has deteriorated to such an extent that everyone is ill. Masks and oxygen tents have become highly desirable items, obtained by pulling strings. In this atmosphere of chronic unwellness, nerves are frayed and an English version of the Russian Orthodox faith seems to have taken hold. Everyone has two names, a patronymic for men, a matronymic for women. There is a rigid social hierarchy topped by Peter-Donald, lord of the manor and member of a Lloyds syndicate. The central character Simon-Arthur is an icon painter and thinks it very broad-minded of him to invite the local newsagent, Dave-Dave Hutchinson, to his house for a glass of cough linctus and ‘a go’ on the family’s new nebuliser. Everyone coughs. There’s not much in the way of sex here, apart from Simon-Arthur’s brief glance at his sister-in-law’s “woolly bosoms”. Some of the finest passages are those where Self describes the coughing: operatic, richly productive, baroque. The story is more than twenty years old now, but its themes are bang up to date. The spectre of death is woven into every line.
First published in Grey Area and other Stories, Penguin, 1994