Each of the nine stories in Helen Simpson’s slim collection “Cockfosters” happens to be about so very much.
They are about middle age, gender, getting on, going on. The ordinary (a birthday cake, getting up in the morning, lunch, getting an appliance repaired) seamlessly extends into the extraordinary.
The title story, also the first in the collection, eases us into Simpson’s world. Two women renew a school friendship while chasing a pair of bifocals one of them has left on a train in the London Underground. As they ride the next train to Cockfosters, the literal end of the line, they contemplate mortality and — delightfully — elect to bumble ahead with their lives.
In “Erewhon” (channeling the title of Samuel Butler’s novel), a schoolteacher examines in short bursts his uneventful life as a father, husband and teacher before getting out of bed to get on with it anyway.
“Cheapside” centers on a lunch during which an ambitious lawyer tries to argue the case for a law career for the schoolboy son of friends. The meal is clumsy, start to finish.
Members of a book club in “Kentish Town” come together at year’s end to ostensibly discuss Charles Dickens: “Indeed, they knew rather too much about each other now to be able to bring their respective families together for any length of time.”
A woman and her acupuncturist each humorously contemplate the changes wrought by menopause in “Arizona”: “‘I see it as arriving in another state,’ said Mae, slowly. ‘Brilliantly lit and level and filled with dependable sunshine.’”
“Moscow” concerns the reaction of an international businesswoman to her professional and private lives as she waits at home while her home freezer is serviced by a swarthy Russian repairman.
Then there is the exquisite “Kythera,” in which following a recipe for a lemon drizzle cake for her daughter’s birthday alternates with a mother’s memories of previous birthdays and her hope for her daughter’s future: “If I could wave a magic wand over the future I’d wish you luck, which everyone needs; and satisfying work that pays enough and allows you to look after your children too (if you have them) without half-killing yourself; and the love of a good man (or woman).”
The remaining two stories are the shortest and the longest of the collection and are filled with the poignant and wry inventiveness of Helen Simpson.
In “Torremolinos,” a triple-bypass patient advises a fellow patient — and jailbird! — about which symptoms to fake in order to take a short break from prison. About both their situations, the actual heart patient exclaims, “We’re on our holidays!” as they giggle their time away.
“Berlin” follows a middle-aged couple as they binge on Wagner’s “Ring” cycle. Days spent watching the operas merge with years spent in each other’s company. The husband is especially disinterested and that, along with his recent unfaithfulness, becomes the real test for their long marriage.
Each of the stories in “Cockfosters” has a place name that more often than not unobtrusively morphs into metaphor.
Characters stumble through the prime of their lives and learn new ways to navigate the new waters that circumstance has plunged them into.
That’s what Helen Simpson’s impeccable stories encourage us to do — just follow the lead of the two friends in the Underground at the end of her title story: “Then, once they had paused to check the departures board, they hurried over to the far platform where the next train stood in readiness, ticking over, waiting to take them back into town.”
Steven Whitton is a professor of English at Jacksonville State University.