‘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

‘Erewhon’ by Helen Simpson

I first came across Helen Simpson’s work in 1994, the year I sat my GCSEs. Her debut collection Four Bare Legs in a Bed was given away with Cosmopolitan magazine, back in the days when books were regularly given away with monthly glossies. In some ways, it feels like the first grown-up book I ever read. Here was a glimpse into a world of adult women which I was yet to enter or fully understand.

In 2016, when I had experienced more than enough of what it means to be a woman in the world, I saw Simpson at an event in London. During the evening, she read a story from her latest collection Cockfosters. ‘Erewhon’ is narrated by a man, a teacher, awake at 4am, worrying about the kids and money and media representations while his wife snores beside him. As Simpson read the story, we laughed. It was funny hearing our own fears through the voice of a male protagonist. All this shit we worry about, it’s hilarious, right? Right?

From Cockfosters. Available to read here

‘Burns and the Bankers’ by Helen Simpson

From Simpson’s collection Hey Yeah Right Get A Life (my favourite, along with Constitutional), Burns and the Bankers will induce a groan of fellow feeling in anyone who’s ever thought they might expire with boredom and discomfort at a corporate do. But although we are firmly in the territory of the affluent professional classes, Simpson’s portrait of a woman trapped in a swaggeringly masculine environment which she both intuits and boggles at could be transplanted to numerous other settings in which a pantomime of sociability is enacted despite being, apparently, to everyone’s detriment.

(Hey Yeah Right Get A Life is published by Vintage. The story is also in Simpson’s 2012 Selected Stories, A Bunch of Fives

‘Heavy Weather’, by Helen Simpson

In a way this was the story that launched me into adulthood, that gave me, aged 21, an idea of what being a grown-up might be like. It’s as bald a piece of domestic fiction as you could imagine: a couple (Jonathan – ha! – and Frances) are on holiday in Dorset with their two young children. They, Frances especially, are battered by tiredness: tired through lack of sleep, tired with each other, and tired with the limitations placed on selfhood by the mere fact of having children. This all comes to a head when Frances discovers that Jonathan, sent out on a food shopping trip in the car, has pulled over in a layby to read a few pages of their beloved Hardy. “’You’ve been reading!’ said Frances accusingly. ‘When did you read?’” The story is funny and brutal about the trials of parenthood, but ends on a moment of affirmation that manages not to seem cheap. I now have three children, and have lived out pretty much everything that happens in this story. It’s just possible that Simpson, sublime proselytizer of the everyday, is to blame.

(first read in the second Granta Best of Young British Novelists. Also available in the collection Dear George and in Simpson’s selected stories, A Bunch of Fives. Available to Granta subscribers here)