7 JANUARY 2006, Page 24

A painful, wonderful world

Jane Gardam

CONSTITUTIONAL by Helen Simpson Cape, £14.99, pp. 144, ISBN 02224077945X V £11.99 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655 Here are nine short stories, some of them very short indeed, and such a slight collection must reflect Jonathan Cape’s faith in the writer. They are ruminative scenes of English contemporary life unlikely to command a world market. And not necessarily the worse for that, of course.

Some are about middle-class women with au pairs, professions and charming children. Women with friends they love who share their leisure and secrets and fears of death.

One is an improving fable where a little gnome in trainers emerges into the room from the internet to instruct a lazy woman with crumbs on her clothes on how to make her life green. In the cupboard under the stairs (‘There is nothing in it but the hoover’) is revealed a green bower.

The rest of the stories are mercifully of more basic cast and tales of everyday. The men are often weak, silly and absent, the women thoughtful, fearful, duped and alone. Someone in mourning for her man is healed by the unexpected niceness of a timber merchant who fits her a new front door. Another woman on the intimate morning school-run with her son realises that she knows him better than she does her husband. There is an unhappy woman phlebotomist whose job it is all day to take people’s blood in a jokey hospital department, who is obsessed by the Iraq war. There is an old woman losing her mind to the torment of her kind son, and an educated, experienced mother in a dreary swimming bath at Christmas-time instructing a desperate foreign mother in how to stop her little girl crying.

One story is interestingly about the moment that keeps occurring in life when all around us are suddenly dying (‘Not a grim reaper. The grim reaper’). The narrator who has been bleating on in arch and frightened fashion finishes by being amusingly run over by a bus.

The good story is the last and title story. It is an internal monologue by a teacher of a certain age, a ‘Head of Science’, who takes a constitutional each day in her lunch hour. She has lost her lover who omitted to tell her that he was married, and also her great friend, a wise old actress who has died. The woman is pregnant and soon her class at school will begin to snigger. On she marches, round and round, observing the sometimes ridiculous and painful but wonderful world. This is a first-rate portrait and the only story in the collection to cut as deep as Helen Simpson can.