‘The Lumber Room’ by Saki

Several of Saki’s stories feature mischievous children rebelling against disagreeable, strait-laced guardians. ‘The Lumber Room’ is a prime example of this, as young Nicholas must remain at home while the rest of the children in the family are treated to a day out. It is his punishment for an earlier misdemeanour at the breakfast table, one involving a frog and a basin of ‘wholesome bread-and-milk’. At an early stage in the story, Saki paints a revealing portrait of Nicholas’s rather draconian aunt, the woman in charge of the household – in reality, however, she is only the boy’s ‘aunt-by-assertion’. Convinced that young Nicholas will try to sneak off to the prized gooseberry patch while his cousins and brother are away, the aunt maintains a close watch on the garden in an attempt to spoil the boy’s fun. However, unbeknownst to the aunt, Nicholas has other plans for the day – he wishes to gain entry to the mysterious lumber room, a place generally kept under strict lock and key, only to be accessed by the most privileged members of the household. This is a very effective story in which the knowing child enjoys a moment of triumph over his loathsome guardian.

First published in the Morning Post. Collected in Beasts and Super-Beasts, John Lane 1914, and Complete Short Stories, Penguin Modern Classics, 2000. Available variously online, including here

‘Sleep It Off Lady’ by Jean Rhys

A superb story from one of my favourite writers, a woman who understood the loneliness and alienation of life as an outsider. The story – one of Rhys’ last – focuses on Miss Verney, an elderly lady who lives on her own in a cottage in the country. Her garden is dominated by the presence of a large iron shed, a looming presence that seems likely to outlast her. Add to this the problem of rats, and life for Miss Verney is beginning to seem hopeless. It’s a sobering piece, dealing as it does with the challenges of ageing, isolation and a feeling of helplessness. There is a sense that the Miss Verneys of this world have been abandoned by society, left to fester away without care or support. By the time it was first published in 1976, Rhys was in her mid-eighties and only a few years away from death herself, a fact that adds an extra note of poignancy to the story.

First published in Sleep It Off Lady, André Deutsch, 1976. Collected in The Collected Short Stories, Penguin Classics 2017

‘Last Night’ by James Salter

I love this author’s talent for conveying a mood, his ability to capture the emotional intensity of a moment in such graceful prose, irrespective of the context. Walter’s wife, Marit, is terminally ill with cancer. Unable to tolerate the pain any longer, Marit has asked Walter to hasten her death, a wish we assume he has agreed to carry out even though we are not privy to any of their earlier discussions. The story hinges on Marit and Walter’s last night together. Their final supper has ended, the lethal injection lies ready and waiting in the fridge, and the appointed time is approaching. We think we know how this story will unfold, how both of these individuals deserve our sympathies as they confront the nature of Marit’s mortality; but just when we least expect it, Salter wrongfoots us in the most surprising of ways, a move that prompts us to question our assumptions about values, morals, intentions and motives. This is a highly memorable story, one with the potential to haunt the reader for some considerable time.

First published in The New Yorker. Collected in Last Night, Alfred A. Knopf 2005/Picador, 2007. It is available to read online here

‘Rasputin’ by Teffi/Nadezhda Alexandrovna Lokhvitskaya, translated by Anne Marie Jackson

Like Silvina Ocampo, the Russian writer, Teffi, is another relatively recent discovery for me. During her literary career Teffi wrote satirical articles and plays, but by the age of forty she was publishing mostly short stories. In 1919, in the midst of the Russian Civil War, Teffi left Russia for Europe, eventually settling in Paris where she became a prominent figure in the émigré literary circles. Rasputinis one of Teffi’s most memorable pieces, a piercing account of her personal encounters with this legendary figure. While Rasputin is immediately drawn to Teffi, the feeling is far for mutual. As a consequence, the great mystic simply cannot understand why Teffi fails to respond to his charms – he is not accustomed to meeting such resistance from anyone, let alone a woman. For her part, Teffi detects something profoundly unpleasant and chilling about the atmosphere surrounding Rasputin: ‘the grovelling, the collective hysteria – and at the same time the machinations of something dark, something very dark beyond our knowledge.’ There is the sense that one could quite easily fall under his hypnotic spell and never be able to break free from it.

Collected in Subtly Worded, Pushkin Press 2014

‘Christmas at Thompson Hall’ by Anthony Trollope

A classic story of mix-ups and confusions shot through with gentle humour. Having grown accustomed to spending their winters in the South of France, Mr and Mrs Brown are travelling back to England for a family gathering at Thompson Hall. Mrs Brown’s younger sister is to be married, and this will be the couple’s first opportunity to meet the girl’s fiancé in person. With her fondness for the traditions of the season, Mrs Brown is eager to get to the Hall in time for Christmas Eve. Her husband, however, seems reluctant to make the trip for fear of aggravating his weak chest and throat, a condition which causes the couple to break their journey to spend the night in Paris. When his wife asks him if there is anything she can do to relieve his suffering, Mr Brown identifies just the thing – the application of a mustard compress to the throat is sure to be of great help. (As it turns out, Mr B is something of a hypochondriac.) What follows is a hilarious sequence of white lies, misunderstandings and coincidences, culminating in a most embarrassing predicament for Mrs Brown. To say any more might spoil the fun.

First published in The Graphic. Collected in Why Frau Frohmann Raised Her Prices and Other Stories, 1882. Also collected in Christmas at Thompson Hall and Other Christmas Stories, Penguin Books 2014

‘The Springs of Affection’ by Maeve Brennan

I’m breaking the rules a little here by highlighting a collection of linked stories united by virtue of their setting, a modest terraced house in the Ranelagh suburb of Dublin – a house featuring the same walled garden with a laburnum tree, the same three steps down to the kitchen, and the same linoleum on the bedroom floor. The autobiographical pieces on Brennan’s childhood which open the collection are followed by a series of stories on the Derdons, a middle-aged couple whose marriage is characterised by an intense emotional distance, something that seems to have developed over several years. Brennan is particularly insightful on the small cruelties of human nature, the tricks we play on one another to score minor victories for the pettiest of reasons. If I had to single out one story, it would be the titular piece featuring Min, the embittered twin sister of the third occupant of the house, Martin Derdon. Min has spent most of her adult life resenting her sister-in-law, Delia, for taking Martin away from his family after their wedding. Now that both Martin and Delia are dead, the elderly Min is ensconced her flat in Wexford where she can wallow in a perverse kind of satisfaction fuelled by jealousy and bitterness, surrounded as she is by the couple’s furniture and former possessions. It’s a brilliant story, shot through with layers of insight and meaning.

First published in The New Yorker. Collected in The Springs of Affection: Stories of Dublin, Mariner Books 1998. It is available to read online here.