‘Lentils and Lilies’ by Helen Simpson

Let us skip lightly across the next two decades, when I arrogantly turned my back on ambiguity, and reenter the fray on a Sunday morning in 2010, in the café of Foyles bookshop in London. My son is 18 months old, I’ve been a single mother for 12 of them, and if there’s one thing the last couple of years has taught me, it’s that sometimes there are no answers, and that, while we’re still living, endings of any sort are illusory. I’ve come to Foyles on my own on a Sunday morning because my son is with his dad, and I have some free time, and I want to spend it reading. And I pick up Helen Simpson’s collection, Hey Yeah Right Get a Life, because a close friend of mine – also the mother of young children, and a literary agent, by the by – has recommended it.

I sat in the café for a couple of hours, and read the collection from cover to cover (and then I bought it; I’m not a monster). The experience was something akin to being hit over the head, repeatedly, by a psychotherapist. All of the half-formed thoughts I’d had about motherhood – the reconfiguring of my body, my priorities, my brain, and my work; the loss of freedom; the critical transition from heedless ease to humbled exhaustion – were in there, and their expression as short stories – brief snatches, hurried revelations – wasn’t secondary to their impact, but was in fact integral to it. The stories were linked (which no doubt eased the shock for me somewhat) but their individuality was vital to them.

The central tale, ‘Burns and the Bankers’, I later discovered, is generally held to be the collection’s masterpiece, but for me, the opener, ‘Lentils and Lilies’, is the one. It’s told through the eyes of 18-year-old Jade: young, confident, smart (she’s revising for her A levels); “moving like a panther into the long jewelled narrative which was her future”. That future, as Jade perceives it, is wide-open and suffused with promise; she is never going to be “dead inside”, like the adult women – the mothers – she sees around her, or even like her own apparently successful mother, who juggles a career and a household by means of “rotas and lists and endless arrangements”. She knows who she is, what she wants, and where she’s going.

Simpson, though, has other ideas. Through the story, she juxtaposes Jade’s vision of her future with a down-and-dirty encounter with a woman a few years’ Jade’s senior. Walking through her neighbourhood on her way to a job interview, Jade comes across this woman wrestling with two children, one of whom has a lentil jammed up his nose. She’s inadvertently dragged into this family drama, and ends up helping the woman carry the child back to her house, in search of tweezers.

She’s contemptuous of her, and repulsed by her: by her house, by her children, by the way her “heels stuck out from the backs of her sandals like hunks of Parmesan.” In the end, she walks out of the house back into the sunlight, without resolving the situation; she’s free to do so, where the child’s mother is not. But in the silence at the story’s close we’re invited to project forwards; to imagine Jade into the mother’s role in a few years’ time. It’s a deliciously bittersweet moment that sets the tone for this collection – the rest of which could be read as a series of alternative versions of that future. It was exactly the story I needed to read, in the café that morning. And as far as short stories were concerned, it proved to be the thin end of the wedge; the chink in my armour; my route back.

Originally published in Hey Yeah Right Get A Life, Jonathan Cape, 2000. Collected in A Bunch of Fives, Penguin 2012

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