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“Strong Man”: a short story by Helen Simpson

Exclusive new fiction for the New Statesman from a master of short-story writing.

Illustration by Paul Blow

Get my knee fixed then get the fridge-freezer fixed, that was the plan. I’d set everything up for a couple of days off on the basis that the medics had suggested a week. Might as well make myself useful, I thought; for once be the one to wait in for the repairman. God knows Michael has had more than his fair share of it over the years – waiting in.

Don’t run on it for six weeks, don’t do this, don’t do that; then the nurse was making me practise going up and down stairs with a stick for a good half-hour before the op. Waste of time! I was fine. The bruising was fairly dramatic, mustard-coloured below the knee – English mustard too, not French – and purple-black above. But it really didn’t hurt that much.

The freezer man arrived right on time, which I wasn’t expecting, Michael having warned me there was a less than fifty-fifty chance of this happening in his experience. Plain black T-shirt and jeans, close-cropped hair, he was rather short and very strongly built. Martial arts? I thought to myself.

“Water’s dripping into the top salad drawer from somewhere and freezing hard,” I told him. “Then it melts and freezes again.”

I’d have gone away at this point and put in a few calls to work if it hadn’t been for Michael instructing me to stick with the process throughout. His reasoning was that it helped if you were able to explain to them what had gone wrong next time it happened, and the only way to understand what the problem was, was to go through the whole boring process with them in the first place and ask questions and try to understand it. He himself took notes, dated, before he forgot; he had a special file for them. Michael’s an academic, he likes writing things down. His last published article was “Islamic Historians in Eighth- and Ninth-Century Mesopotamia and their Approach to Historical Truth”. I haven’t read it yet but I know it’ll be brilliant, like all his work. Anyway I resigned myself to doing things his way this time, seeing it was once in a blue moon that I was the one hanging around.

The man refused coffee when I offered but asked for a glass of water instead. All a bit of a novelty for me, this. I couldn’t quite place his accent: east European, but not Polish.

He opened the door to the freezer compartment and our eating habits were laid bare. Sliced bread, because you can toast it from frozen; litre cartons of skimmed milk so we didn’t ever run out; several tubs of ice cream (Cookie Dough for Georgia, Mango and Passion Fruit for Verity, Raspberry Sorbet for weight-conscious Clio). Not much else except frozen peas and a bottle of vodka. Not much actual food. Oh well, everyone seemed healthy enough. The vodka was officially Georgia’s now she was eighteen, for pre-drinking with her friends; better here where we could keep an eye on how fast it goes down, we’d reasoned, than hidden in her bedroom.

“So where are you from?” I asked, setting the glass of water down beside him.

He looked up from the fridge drawer for a moment. He had very dark eyes, like a watchful bird.

“Russia,” he said.

Snow and ice, I thought.

“Where in Russia?”

“Nearest city Moscow,” he said; then, with fleeting mockery, “Three hundred kilometres.”

“So you’re from the country?”

He nodded.

“I’ve been to Moscow,” I said, but he’d turned back to the freezer.

That time I thought we might get into emerging markets, invest in commodities, get a piece of the action, I couldn’t believe how long it took to get there. Not the flight but the actual drive from the airport into Moscow. The roads were atrocious, it took almost three hours in the cab for what should have been a forty-five-minute journey. The crawl through the gridlocked suburbs was teeth-grindingly slow. Then when I visited Mr Petrossian in his office there were a couple of security guys with sub-machine guns in reception. The secretaries and support staff, all female of course, were trussed up in pencil skirts, tottering round on stilettos. It was like a surly version of the Fifties. Embarrassing.

The man was lying spreadeagled on the floor now, shining a little torch into the gap beneath the freezer from which he’d neatly wrenched the grille. Seen from this angle it was obvious he worked out. I found myself wondering what sport he played and at what level.

I was going to go ballistic if I couldn’t play tennis for six weeks. But of course that’s what had done the damage in the first place – cartilage, wear and tear, fragments of cartilage which had broken off and were floating round in the synovial fluid. We’ll just have a root around, clear out the gunge, said the surgeon. He’d already done half a dozen that afternoon by the time he got to me, the nurse told me afterwards; a light general anaesthetic, just enough to put me under the surface for twenty minutes, then in at a nick beside the kneecap with his keyhole gizmo. I was all done by eight; I hadn’t needed to drag Michael out after all but had gone down in the lift and straight to the cab rank outside.

The cabbie asked me whether I had any children as we set off over the bridge and I said, as I always do when I’m asked this question, yes, three lovely daughters. If I say “stepdaughters” I find I get quizzed about whether I want my “own” children – and by complete strangers too. I adore the girls, and that’s been enough for me. Broody? Phases of it, in passing, like lust, and dealt with in the same way. Listen to your brain as well as the other stuff. Now, at fifty, I think I’m probably safe as well as fully occupied with running the business. It was shortlisted for the Dynamo Prize for Entrepreneurial Initiative last year.

Michael was so sad when I met him. It was sad, being left a widower with three small children. Then after a while he wasn’t sad any more! He thinks I’m wonderful. He even loves my wonky nose, he says it’s Roman; cartilage problems there too, that’s next on the list. He thinks I’m beautiful though. He can’t believe his luck, even now, twelve years on, bless him. Neither can I. The recipe for a happy marriage!

My mind was wandering all over the place. This was not like me; I was usually so focused. It must be some floaty post-anaesthetic thing, I thought. Or maybe it was the unaccustomed feeling of having to do something that didn’t interest me. I made an effort.

“What do you think the matter is then?” I asked, as the man sprang back noiselessly from a one-handed press-up. Impressive!

“First I check condenser coils,” he said, selecting one from among his twenty or so screwdrivers.

“OK,” I said, then added, “So do you miss Russia? The Russian countryside? Not much country near London.”

Good country near London,” he said, turning to look at me.

“Really? Where’s that, then?”

“Brentwood.”

“Brentwood?”

“Very good country,” he repeated.

A smile flashed across his face before he could suppress it.

“Very good paintballing in Brentwood,” he added.

That figured. I could just see him dodging from tree to tree with his paintball gun.

The one time I’d been inveigled into paintballing, while I was still at Renfrew’s, it had been as part of some corporate team-bonding exercise. There were unflattering padded overalls to climb into, and a claustrophobic 360-degree helmet; also an uncomfortable neck guard to stop you getting shot in the throat. Paintball guns fire at surprisingly high velocity.

The objective had been to steal the other team’s flag in a raid and bring it back to camp. At one point I’d been in possession of the flag. Returning to base, zigzagging to avoid the bullets as we’d been taught, gave me a weirdly nasty jacked-up feeling. I was running and I could see sudden blooms of colour bursting on the obstacles and trees in my sight line, turquoise and lime green and fluorescent yellow; every colour of the rainbow, except red of course. I got the flag back to our camp, we won the game, but I was still glad when it was over.

“It hurts,” I said. “Paintballing.”

“Some people shoot close range,” he said, fiddling with his phone now. “Not good.”

He showed me the phone screen and there was an anonymous torso sporting several big indigo bruises like starbursts.

“Ouch,” I said, handing the phone back quickly. It felt like looking at porn. I didn’t ask who it was; I didn’t want to know.

Clio had brought back a paintballing invitation from school that term and I hadn’t been sorry when it turned out a clash of dates meant she couldn’t go.

Being a stepmother has been good in all sorts of ways. You’re close, you love them but there isn’t quite the same cauldron of emotion. No, you can afford to get on with your work like anyone else.

I do earn more than Michael of course. Considerably more. My business has gone from strength to strength in the last decade, while the terms of his university employment, his tenure and so on, have become increasingly insecure and ill-paid. He hasn’t got as far up the academic greasy pole as he might have, either, though he doesn’t seem to mind. Maybe he’ll write a surprise bestseller once he’s retired, I tell him.

You’re not supposed to say so but I’m very careful about employing women. This means in practical terms that I won’t take on a woman who earns less than her partner. I need to be a hundred per cent sure it’s true of everyone on my payroll that their job comes first in the pecking order at home. No women with alpha-male husbands! I simply can’t afford them.

Back to the freezer and apparently it was­n’t the condenser coils after all.

“Next thing I test evaporator fan mechanism,” he said, rooting round in his tool-box again.

“OK,” I said, and started to make myself a coffee. “Another glass of water?”

He gave a quick nod.

Yes, funny the way that Russian trip worked out. Mr Petrossian himself had been as clever and persuasive as when I’d met him at the trade fair in London, but there in Moscow he couldn’t show me anything useful on paper about his business. He had to keep all the facts and figures in his head, he explained, as it wasn’t a good idea to write things down. In the end we weren’t able to strike a deal and I’m not particularly sorry, looking back. Russia hasn’t woken up yet. It’s still only good for raw materials; it isn’t actually making anything worth buying. No thanks, I thought, I’ll stick with fibre optics.

Georgia locks horns with me about wicked capitalism now and then; she’s doing politics, history, maths and economics A-levels, clever girl, so it’s good to hear the arguments. Liberal capitalism in the UK and the States has produced shocking inequality, she rages; regulation is toothless and it’s getting worse not better. Correct, I say. Germany is the way to go, she says, corporate capitalism, more equality and a workforce which moves in tandem with management rather than automatically against it. And of course that sounds very attractive.

Yes, Germany is a more equal society, I say to Georgia, but in order to be that way it’s also a more traditional and less diverse society. Swings and roundabouts. Did you know
they have a special word for mothers who work over there? Rabenmutter, or raven-mothers. That’s how conservative they are! And so we go, to and fro. We’re making history as we go along of course and that’s the truth of it; we live in time.

“So what’s that wire for?” I asked the man as he took another piece of kit out of his toolbox.

“I push it through drain tube,” he said, feeding it into a small hole in the wall joining fridge to freezer. “See. Maybe blockage. Small pieces of food.”

“Like my knee!” I said, and told him about the keyhole business.

“Many footballers have this operation,” he said, frowning into the fridge. “Cartilage problem.”

My brothers stayed put in Middlesbrough and they don’t speak to me these days. Earning more than them has done nothing for family relations. All part of the increasingly bitter civil war that’s been pitting families against each other up and down the country for some time now: north against south, brother against sister, London against the rest. I moved to London at the right time, I was lucky. This year I’ve got twenty-eight people on my books.

The man had been here for the best part of an hour now and I started to get a sinking feeling that this was all a waste of time, he’d say he needed to order a spare part or that we’d be better off buying a new fridge-freezer despite the fact this one was only three years old. When I voiced my doubt, though, he assured me he would be able to mend it. Great, I thought.

Even so it was taking a while.

I asked him what he thought of the current Russian president.

“Strong man,” he said, with a nod of approval, adjusting a dial behind the vodka bottle.

Strong man? I thought. What, another one?

Hadn’t they had enough?

A blast from the past: “What did you say? What did you say?” Beat. Then – “You asked for it!”

Which was what happened if you challen­ged anything; and, after a while, if you said
anything at all. I got up. I got out. I got away.
The classic thing is to go for another bully in the future. You don’t have to, though.

“Russia needs strong man,” he said, going over to the sink to wash his hands.

I looked at his broad shoulders and the way his body tapered at the hips, the elegant triangle of his torso, and this brought to mind the contrasting hunched back view of the cab driver who’d driven me home from hospital the night before. He’d wanted to tell me about his children; he’d had a tale of machismo to tell all right.

He had a grown-up daughter who’d become a hedge-fund manager, he said, and she had just come out of a bad relationship.

“Yeah, he was in insurance, the boyfriend. He was all right the first year then he got jealous, obsessive jealous if you know what I mean. He started raising his hand to her.”

“Nasty,” I said.

“My son went round, they had words, then my son he raised his hand to him and gave him a bloody good hiding. Lucky it wasn’t me, I’d have sent him through the window.”

“Yes,” I said.

“My son, he got beaten up in Tottenham fifteen years ago. Yeah, Tottenham, funny that” – this said with deep sarcasm – “Then after that, after getting beaten up he went to the gym, he trained in something with a funny name. Like karate but not karate. Anyway, now he can look after himself. And him and his sister, they’ve always been close.”

Sometimes it’s hard to know what to say. The last time I heard that expression was when the man I was sitting next to at the
Dynamo gala dinner told me, “I have never raised my hand to my wife. To be honest, I’ve never felt the need to.” I think he was expecting me to congratulate him. Well done, sir!

The truth is. The truth is, no one would believe you back then. “A bit heavy-
handed” was how it was described if you had to visit A&E. Nothing happened when you told a teacher. The police had a good laugh. “Making a fuss about nothing,” was what they used to say; or, if it showed, “Making a fuss.”

He was still tinkering with the freezer controls. I started to tidy the kitchen, put some mugs in the dishwasher, straightened the pile of books and papers on the dresser.

“My daughter’s doing Russian coursework now at school,” I told him. “Would you like to see her textbook?”

I held it out to show him. He had turned from the freezer to sip his water. He glanced over his shoulder and shook his head.

“But it’s about Russia,” I said, puzzled.

“Lies,” he said.

I blinked. I gave a little laugh before I realised he wasn’t joking.

“No honestly,” I said. “It’s history.”

“Lies,” he repeated, compressing his lips, shoving his head back inside the fridge.

Wow, I thought. Bloody hell.

Wait till I tell Michael he’s been barking up the wrong tree all these years, I thought; that he’s been wasting his time on Mesopotamia et cetera. Lies! I put the book back in the pile of Georgia’s coursework on the dresser.

I felt quite winded.

On the evening of my overnight business trip to Moscow, Mr Petrossian had booked a table at a giant marble-clad sushi restaurant. I’d arrived early and was shown to a balcony table from where I could take in the sheer girth of the chandeliers shining light on the men at dinner all around me. The table nearest was occupied by two heavies growling stuff at each other when they weren’t growling into their mobiles; opposite them, ignored by them, sat two teenagers in thick make-up, immobile as captive princesses, and completely silent.

I never lied about it but I did stay silent. Secrets aren’t the same as lies. It’s not something I’m proud of. I told the girls someone got me in the face during a doubles match when they asked about my wavy nose. So it’s not true I never lied; I have lied!

Of course, it was another time, the Seventies. An earlier stratum of history altogether.
And he was plausible, my dad.

I’d had enough. My knee had started to throb and I realised I ought to rest it.

“I have fixed it,” said the man triumph­antly, closing the freezer door.

He glanced at his watch and scribbled something on his timesheet. I watched him as he started to pack his tools away.

“Well done,” I said.

I felt weirdly wiped out.

I knew I ought to ask him what it was that had gone wrong in the first place. I hadn’t forgotten about Michael’s file of domestic notes; for some reason though, I’d temporarily lost confidence in it. It can’t be that useful, I thought, otherwise we’d have got everything sorted ages ago. What if it’s not the condenser coils or the evaporator fan next time round? What if it’s a different part of the freezer altogether? And even if, thanks to the notes, we do find out what’s gone wrong, that won’t alter the fact that it’s gone wrong again.

I still did ask him though, and I carefully wrote down what he said and dated it. After all, Michael hadn’t once let me down in all the time I’d known him and I had no reason to doubt his way of going about things now. I certainly wasn’t going to be the one to foul up his scrupulously recorded dossier. l

Helen Simpson is the author of five collections of stories, including “Hey Yeah Right Get a Life” (2000). In 1993 she was named one of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists. Her latest book is “A Bunch of Fives: Selected Stories” (Vintage, £8.99)

This article first appeared in the 23 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double 2014

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If you think Spielberg can't do women, you're missing his point about men

Donning her Freudian hat, Molly Haskell uses her new book to explore Steven Spielberg's attitude to women. But is his real target masculinity?

Few great film directors are as picked on as Steven Spielberg. For a large segment of the cineaste population, a liking for Spielberg over, say, Martin Scorsese is like preferring McCartney to Lennon, or Hockney to Bacon – a sign of an aesthetic sweet tooth, an addiction to flimsy, childlike fantasy over grit, darkness, ambiguity, fibre and all the other things we are taught are good for us in film-crit class. I once suggested to a scowling Sight & Sound reader that while a director such as Stanley Kubrick might be the epitome of the aesthetic will to power – bending the medium to do the master’s bidding – Spielberg’s work was the place you looked to see the medium of cinema left to its own devices: what it gets up to in its free time. The look of disgust on his face was immediate. Conversation over. I might as well have told him I still sucked my thumb.

Partly this is down to his outsized success, which sits ill at ease with our notion of the artist. This is wrong-headed when applied to the movies in general, but particularly when applied to someone such as Spielberg, athletically slam-dunking one box office record after another in the first half of his career, before morphing in the second half, greedily bent on acquiring the credibility that is naturally accorded to the likes of Scorsese, the auteur agonistes, tearing films from his breast like chunks of flesh while wandering in the Hollywood wilderness. Never mind that Scorsese’s reputation for speaking to the human condition rests on his mining of a narrow strip of gangland and the male psyche. Spielberg is a people-pleaser and nothing attracts bullies more.

The film critic Molly Haskell was among the first to kick sand in the director’s face, writing in the Village Voice of Jaws, upon its release in 1975, that she felt “like a rat being given shock treatment”. If you want a quick laugh, the early reviews of Jaws are a good place to start. A “coarse-grained and exploitative work that depends on excess for impact”, wrote one critic. “A mind-numbing repast for sense-sated gluttons”, wrote another. Interviews with Spielberg at the time make him sound as if he is halfway between the Mad magazine mascot, Alfred E Neuman, and a velociraptor: thumbs twitching over his Atari paddle, synapses synced to the rhythms of TV, his head firmly planted in the twilight zone. Who knew that this terrifying creature would one day turn 70 and stand as the reassuring epitome of classical Hollywood storytelling, with his status as a box office titan becoming a little rusty? The BFG did OK but Lincoln came “this close” to going straight to the small screen, the director said recently.

The timing is therefore perfect for an overdue critical reconsideration of his work, and Haskell would seem to be the perfect person for the job. For one thing, she never really liked his work. “I had never been an ardent fan,” she writes in her new book Steven Spielberg: a Life in Films. A card-carrying member of the Sixties cinephile generation – a lover of the brooding ambiguities, unresolved longings and sexual realpolitik found in Robert Altman, John Cassavetes and Paul Mazursky – she instinctively recoiled from the neutered, boys’ own adventure aspect of Spielberg.

“In grappling with Spielberg I would be confronting my own resistance,” she writes. This is a great recipe for a work of criticism, as Carl Wilson proved with his mould-shattering book about learning to love Céline Dion, Let’s Talk About Love: a Journey to the End of Taste. More critics should be locked in a room with things that they hate. Prejudice plus honesty is fertile ground.

But the problem with Haskell’s book is that she hasn’t revised her opinion much. Sure, she grants that nowadays Jaws looks like a “humanist gem” when compared with the blockbusters that it helped spawn, but she still finds it mechanical and shallow – “primal but not particularly complex” – catering to “an escalating hunger for physical thrills and instant gratification”.

But how sweet! Remember instant gratification? It must be up there with Pong and visible bra straps: the great bogeymen of the moral majority in the early Seventies. The dustiness persists. Donning her Freudian hat, Haskell finds “three versions of insecurity” in the three male leads of Jaws. “Lurking behind their Robert-Bly-men-around-the-campfire moment is that deeper and more generalised adolescent dread of the female.”

Haskell is on to something, but only if you turn it 180 degrees. What is critiqued in Jaws is precisely the masculinity that she claims sets the film’s Robert Bly-ish ideological agenda. Refusing to cast Charlton Heston in his film because he seemed too heroic, Spielberg chose as his heroes a physical coward, afraid of the water, fretting over his appendectomy scar, and a Jewish intellectual, crushing his styrofoam cup in a sarcastic riposte to Robert Shaw’s bare-chested Hemingway act. Throughout the film and his career, Spielberg sets up machismo as a lumbering force to be outmanoeuvred by the nimble and quick-witted. His films are badminton, not tennis. Their signature mood is one of buoyancy; his jokes are as light as air. He’s a king of the drop shot.

Not insignificantly, he was raised largely by and with women. His father was always at work and was later “disowned” by Spielberg for his lack of involvement. Together with his three sisters, he was brought up by a mother who doted on her hyperactive son, driving Jeeps in his home movies and writing notes to get him out of school. She “big-sistered us”, he said. A version of this feminised cocoon was later recreated on the set of ET the Extra-Terrestrial, where Spielberg brought together the screenwriter Melissa Mathison and the producer Kathleen Kennedy to help midwife a film that, as Martin Amis once wrote ,“unmans you with the frailty of your own defences”.

On ET, again, Haskell hasn’t changed her opinion much. Its ending is still, in her view, “squirmingly overlong”, while the protagonist Elliott seems suspiciously “cleansed of perverse longings and adult desires, stuck in pre-adolescence”. It might be countered that Elliott is only ten years old and therefore not “stuck” in pre-adolescence at all, but simply in it – but this would run counter to the air of gimlet-eyed sleuthing struck by Haskell as she proceeds through the canon. Indiana Jones is an emblem of “threatened masculinity” whose scholar and adventurer sides “coexist without quite meshing”. (Isn’t that a good thing in a secret alter ego?)

Spielberg is “in flight” from women – he can only do hot mums, tomboys and shrieking sidekicks: “Spielberg was no misogynist. It was just that he liked guy stuff more.” It’s a trick she repeats: seeming to defend him from the charge of misogyny while leaving the charge hanging in the air. “Misogyny may be the wrong word. One rarely feels hatred of women in Spielberg but rather different shades of fear and mistrust.” If it’s the wrong word, there is no reason for Haskell to feature it so prominently in her book.

Having examined her own prejudices with insufficient candour, Haskell leaves his career largely as those first-wave critics found it: the early work facile and “mechanical” until Spielberg “grew up” and made Schindler’s List. Her biggest deviation from this narrative is that she thinks Empire of the Sun, not Schindler’s List, is his greatest film. This is a shame. The narrative could easily be upended. That early quartet of his – Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, ET – stands as one of the great glories of pop classicism, a feat for which Spielberg was unjustly chastised, forcing him to retreat into “prestigious” historical recreation and middlebrow “message” pictures: films with their eyes on not so much an Academy Award as the Nobel Peace Prize. Lincoln plays like the creation of a director who has worked extremely hard to remove his fingerprints from the film and is all the more boring for it.

In the book’s final furlong, covering the 2000s, Haskell finds purpose. She is surely right to defend AI Artificial Intelligence from the wags who claimed that it had “the heart of Kubrick and the intellect of Spielberg”. All the sentimental parts that people assumed were Spielberg’s were in reality Kubrick’s and all the pessimistic stuff was Spielberg’s. As Orson Welles once said, the only difference between a happy ending and an unhappy ending is where you stop the story.

The roller-coaster lurches of Spielberg in the Nineties – when he alternated Oscar-winners such as Schindler’s List with popcorn fodder such as Jurassic Park – have stabilised and synthesised into something much more tonally interesting: the mixture of ebullience and melancholy in Catch Me If You Can, of dread and excitement in Minority Report and Munich. The ending of Bridge of Spies is among the most sublime final scenes in the director’s work: entirely wordless, like all the best Spielberg moments, it shows a Norman Rockwell-esque tableau of the returning hero, Tom Hanks, flopping down on to his bed, exhausted, while his family sits downstairs, too glued to the TV set to notice. When aliens finally land and want to know what it is the movies do – what the medium is for – there could be worse places to start.

Tom Shone is the author of “Blockbuster: How the Jaws and Jedi Generation Turned Hollywood into a Boom-Town” (Scribner)

Steven Spielberg: a Life in Films by Molly Haskell is published by Yale University Pres,( 224pp, £16.99 )

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era