The Pool continues short-story week with Helen Simpson's Erewhon from Cockfosters

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By Helen Simpson on


Foolishly he had opened his eyes, and that was the time. Under four hours. He’d never get back. The straight-sided digits floated, gloated, lime green in the dark. That was tomorrow shot. Meanwhile Ella snored on beside him, oblivious. 

Within ten seconds he was as wide awake as she was deep asleep. No, they hadn’t started out like this but this was life now. What she couldn’t seem to understand was that it was hard, he found it very hard to run the house and look after her and the children as well as hold down a full-time job. It surprised him – embarrassed him, even – that she couldn’t seem to see this for herself. Didn’t she care? If he said anything though she got angry and walked out of the room. 



Think about something else. The Performance Management Review coming up at school next week. Another teaching hoop to jump through. His line manager would be observing him formally and every single one of his students would need to be seen as having made exceptional progress during the observed lesson for him to get an Outstanding. He was breaking into a light sweat just thinking about it. 

He wanted to go part-time. That was what he was nerving himself up for. Dave Sweetland had agreed to a job-share if they could get it past the Head. Part-time would mean he’d be able to cook something other than pasta and help Colin more with his homework and generally keep an eye on him – he was worried about him – as well as do boring but necessary things like sort out the boiler and take Daisy to the dentist and get his marking done before midnight. It would make all the difference. But he would have to be careful how he approached Ella. 

It was so hard. If he got the wrong tone of voice she shouted and refused to listen. It was like treading on eggshells. Feminine pride. He’d have to present it to her as her own idea, that’s what he’d have to do. If he could somehow show her that her life too would be improved by it, then it might work. 

He cringed now, turning onto his right side, and curled into a foetal position. Whenever he said anything, she started talking about certain men at the hospital where she was Director of Facilities, working fathers who managed to do it all effortlessly and without fuss. 

She’d say, Money. But he was going to get ill otherwise. 



Stop worrying. Count backwards from a thousand. Nine hundred and ninety-nine. That was another good worry, whether he’d done the right thing not to report what he’d been told at the last parents’ evening. Timothy Tisdall’s father had sat opposite him for the obligatory four minutes and with tear-filled eyes had whispered to him what he suffered at the hands of his wife; how his wife was a policewoman so knew not to hit him anywhere it would show; how he couldn’t report it and was begging him not to report it but how he had to tell someone and thank you for listening, it made him feel less alone. 

There was bit of pushing and shoving sometimes from Ella, but she didn’t hit him. Nine hundred and ninety-eight. Not nice to think how the overwhelming majority of men who were murdered were murdered by their own wives. 



He’d better stock up on whisky. Ella’s mother was the next blot on the horizon. A bombastic, hard-drinking woman in her mid-sixties, she had recently divorced her long-suffering second husband and replaced him with a trainee barista a third her age. They were coming to lunch at the weekend and he was thinking of pasta; he was simply too busy and tired for anything else but Ella wouldn’t be pleased. 

It was hard, the way older women got better with age while men lost their sexual allure. It was an unfair fact of nature. Our skin is so much coarser, he reflected, prone to early furrows and open pores and sag; and then of course – unfairest of all – we go bald. Nobody really respects a man any more once he turns forty, particularly if he’s losing it on top. 



And the media is so disparaging of men over forty, he thought; the way it zooms in on our paunches and spindle shanks, our pendulous earlobes. Another real worry was, he was developing turkey wattles. Ella had noticed it too – she’d called him jowly the other day, she’d pinched an incipient fold of flab while ostensibly chucking him under the chin. 

Why can’t there be some positive older role models for a change, he fretted. Wherever you went, images of young men in next to nothing were in your face, making you feel bad about your body. His route to work was tyrannised by giant posters of ripped abs, honed six-packs, buff biceps. 

In a pathetic attempt to fight back, he’d recently been engaging in a spot of newsagent guerrilla warfare. Now when he bought his paper he made sure to stick some of his pre-prepared Post-it notes to the naked boys on the covers of the women’s magazines – notes he had felt-tipped in advance with the words WHAT IF HE WAS YOUR SON? 



Moving deeper into the forest of worries, his mind now fixed on Colin’s silence and pallor. He’d shown signs of shaky self-esteem from early on, his boy Colin, and now, at the age of thirteen, it seemed he might be flirting with anorexia. There was the other thing too, which was even more worrying, the cutting thing; but he wasn’t going to mention that to Ella yet. 

Whereas Daisy, at nine, knew exactly what she wanted and it definitely didn’t involve self-excoriation. She was obsessed, already, with the most brainless computer games, all about domination and detonation. She needed ferrying round for miles at weekends for her competitive yoga, which she was taking to County level – there was talk of trials in Birmingham, Ella was very thrilled. Not that he resented this for a moment; he was proud of her too, of course he was, and he was able to get on with his marking while he waited outside various sports venues for the necessary hours. But it would have been nice to get a thank you once in a while. 

He really must stop bleating. 

What a loser! No wonder Colin’s self-esteem was low with him as a role model. 

Was he managing to be a good father to him? That was what really worried him – him and the other dads. They all agonised endlessly about whether or not they were good fathers. 



His heart was very slow, wasn’t it? It felt like it was labouring up a hill. Thump. Thump. Thump. 

Now it was racing! Something must be wrong. He wasn’t overjoyed about still being on the Pill. 

All four of his grandparents had died of strokes or heart attacks, but Ella couldn’t tolerate condoms. They muffled things, she said. 



While he was getting undressed last night she’d had the cheek to say, ‘Those pants are getting tired.’ 

‘They’re not the only ones!’ he’d flashed back, the worm turning, keenly aware that it wasn’t just his pants that were being criticised. 

Afterwards she had rolled off him and fallen asleep with a snore. 



He knew he really should think about his own satisfaction as well but somehow it was so much easier at the time to concentrate on gauging her levels of interest and to adapt himself to what worked for her. The trouble was, he himself needed some patience and encouragement, he found it really didn’t work for him without at least five minutes’ foreplay. 

‘Oh for God’s sake, get it up and get on with it,’ she’d snapped at him the other night – though, to give her her due, she had apologised soon afterwards. Still, he couldn’t help resenting her impersonal demands for sex; her obdurate refusal to talk, ever. Then there were her smothered belches, the semi-stifled farts she seemed to find so hilarious, not to mention the mulch of underwear she left in her wake or the state she left the bathroom in on a nightly basis. It was like the stables at the end of the world once she’d finished with it. 



A bird had started up outside, and light was looming round the edges of the curtains. He closed his eyes without much hope and began to count apples on an imaginary tree. 



No, that was no good. Try the one which made him tired just to think about, the one where he was climbing the steps of a spiral staircase which he saw was endless. 

He knew Ella watched porn online. That was why she was so late coming to bed – ‘Just checking my emails.’ She didn’t know he knew and he wasn’t going to tell her, but there was the evidence on her laptop when he tapped into it – Loaded Lunchbox, Bollocks ’n’ Bunfights, all those fit and perfect men. 

He understood the arguments: it’s completely mainstream; everybody looks at porn; it’s just another way of relaxing. But something in him protested against it. 

‘Don’t be such a MascuNazi,’ Ella said if he ever said anything. He hated it when she called him that. But it’s important that we get more men out of prostitution, he’d been saying; that we get more men into Parliament. ‘Of course it is, darling,’ she’d replied indulgently. 

To be fair, she did sometimes listen to him rant on about the injustice of the system. She even agreed with what he said, which was after all based on facts, incontrovertible. But she had no interest in changing it. Why would she when it worked so well for her? 



He could see how he had to come last in the family pecking order. Something had to give and it wasn’t going to be Ella. And he couldn’t bear it to be the children. 

He minded that she rode over him roughshod, that she made all the big decisions, the ones about money and hours, without consulting him. The last thing he wanted was to be accused of being shrill, though, and anything he said to contradict her did not go down well at all. 



It all made him feel rather depressed. Which accounted for the chocolate he squirrelled away round the house. A good woman is hard to find, he was in the habit of reminding himself as he broke off another row of Fruit & Nut. This didn’t help shrink his paunch one bit, but he had to have something. 



’Is it just that women aren’t as nice as men?’ he’d blurted out at the last book club meeting. 

‘They’re certainly more ruthless than us,’ Mike had said, looking pensively at his fingernails. ‘The real difference seems to be that they’re able to compartmentalise. They can cut off. And of course they’re more ambitious.’ 

‘I’d be ambitious too if it was allowed!’ Dave had laughed. They had all laughed at that.

‘It’s the famous old triple conundrum,’ Dave had continued. ‘You can have two out of three but not three. You can have the woman and the job, or the woman and the children. But you can’t have the woman and the job and the children.’ 

‘Why not?’ he’d persisted. ‘Women don’t have to choose! Why can they have it all and not us?’ 

‘That’s life,’ Dave had shrugged. 



It was about power, really, in the end – but he’d never thought of himself as a political person. Ella wouldn’t talk about it. She wouldn’t put herself out to talk to him, or to listen to him either. ‘Childcare?’ she’d yawn if he asked her for a couple of hours off. ‘That’s your job. Just do it!’ She’d say it in an ironical way – obviously! – but even so he’d find it difficult to laugh. She was big on irony; she frequently got irony to do her dirty work for her. Then she’d accuse him of being humourless. 

He could feel rage bubbling up in spite of himself. 

‘You’re so angry,’ she’d chided last time he’d complained. ‘It’s very unattractive.’ 



He was holding the lime-green digits in view, and gave a little moan as they flicked to 05:21. He had been stretched over this mental gridiron for what felt like hours, tossing and turning until he was scorched on all sides. No chance of sleep now. Ella was snoring away beside him on her unassailable barge of slumber. Rage swept through him. YES he was angry! Here he was, lying in bed worrying, scrolling back through the week wondering what steps he could take to improve things between them; and there she was, impervious, complacent, sleeping like Queen Log. 

Surely she should make an effort too? If she loved him? Didn’t she see how unfair it all was? Surely she’d noticed how his vitality had had to be progressively tamped down, year on year, since the arrival of their first child? This unilateral decision to preserve her life in its pristine state within their marriage – untrammelled by domestic duties or family admin – when had it been taken? How had he been persuaded into colluding? 

Well, it was either that or leave. She wasn’t going to give an inch. 

He loved her, he wanted her respect. He knew she loved him too, really; what puzzled him was how she could be happy to exploit him in such a blatantly unequal set-up. 

‘I know you’ll do things if I nag for long enough,’ he’d said to her on their last holiday. ‘What I really want, though, is for you take on some of the worrying. Some of the actual work, the thinking and feeling.’ 

‘But I know you’ll do that for me.’ She’d smiled. And she’d been right. 

So it was generally agreed that men were nicer than women, less selfish, more caring; men had been awarded the moral high ground. Big deal! And was that supposed to make everything all right? He twisted in the dark, the acid reflux of injustice rising in him. The world wasn’t going to change just because he wanted it to, though, was it. The world was woman-shaped – get over it! 



When he woke up, everything was exactly the same as it had been the night before. Of course it was; unimaginable that it wouldn’t have been. And there would be absolutely no point in dragging any of these night thoughts up into the daylight, he decided as he drew the curtains; nothing was going to change. This was the way things were. This was the natural order. 

Cockfosters by Helen Simpson is available in hardback (£11.19, Jonathan Cape)


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