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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

Nicola Snothum / Millenium Images
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The end of solitude: in a hyperconnected world, are we losing the art of being alone?

In the end, Solitude feels a bit like an amiable cop-out. 

Michael Harris is a Canadian writer who lives in a big city and whose life is defined and circumscribed, as so many Western lives are now, by digital technologies. He finds it hard to leave his phone at home in case he misses anything. He worries about his social media reputation. He uses apps and plays games, and relies on the internet hive mind to tell him which films to watch or where to eat. Here is what happens when he goes on holiday to Paris:

Disembarking from the train from London, I invited a friendly app to guide me to a hotel near the Pompidou . . . The next morning, Yelp guided me towards a charming café in the Marais. There, wizard-like, I held my phone over the menu and waited for Google Translate to melt the words into English. When the waiter arrived, I spoke into my phone and had it repeat my words to the grinning garçon in a soft, robotic French. Later, at the Louvre, I allowed a Nintendo-sponsored guidance system to track my steps up the centuries-old Daru staircase as I squinted confusedly at its glowing blue you-are-here dot . . .

Terrifying, isn’t it? Well, I thought so as I read it, and Harris thought so afterwards. It was situations like this, during which he realised that his life was controlled, confined and monitored by distancing technologies, that led him to wonder whether solitude – the act and the art of being alone – was in danger of disappearing.

Harris has an intuition that being alone with ourselves, paying attention to inner silence and being able to experience outer silence, is an essential part of being human. He can remember how it felt to do this, before the internet brought its social anxiety and addiction into his life. “I began to remember,” he writes, “a calm separateness, a sureness I once could live inside for an easy hour at a time.”

What happens when that calm separateness is destroyed by the internet of everything, by big-city living, by the relentless compulsion to be with others, in touch, all the time? Plenty of people know the answer already, or would do if they were paying attention to the question. Nearly half of all Americans, Harris tells us, now sleep with their smartphones on their bedside table, and 80 per cent are on their phone within 15 minutes of waking up. Three-quarters of adults use social networking sites regularly. But this is peanuts compared to the galloping development of the so-called Internet of Things. Within the next few years, anything from 30 to 50 billion objects, from cars to shirts to bottles of shampoo, will be connected to the net. The internet will be all around you, whether you want it or not, and you will be caught in its mesh like a fly. It’s not called the web for nothing.

I may not be the ideal reader for this book. By page 20, after a few more facts of this sort, I had already found myself scrawling “Kill everyone!” in the margins. This is not really the author’s fault. I often start behaving like this whenever I’m forced to read a list of ways in which digital technology is wrecking human existence. There are lots of lists like this around at the moment, because the galloping, thoughtless, ongoing rush to connect everything to the web has overcome our society like a disease. Did you know that cows are now connected to the internet? On page 20, Harris tells us that some Swiss dairy cows, sim cards implanted in their necks, send text messages to their farmers when they are on heat and ready to be inseminated. If this doesn’t bring out your inner Unabomber, you’re probably beyond help. Or maybe I am.

What is the problem here? Why does this bother me, and why does it bother Harris? The answer is that all of these things intrude upon, and threaten to destroy, something ancient and hard to define, which is also the source of much of our creativity and the essence of our humanity. “Solitude,” Harris writes, “is a resource.” He likens it to an ecological niche, within which grow new ideas, an understanding of the self and therefore an understanding of others.

The book is full of examples of the genius that springs from silent and solitary moments. Beethoven, Dostoevsky, Kafka, Einstein, Newton – all developed their ideas and approach by withdrawing from the crowd. Peter Higgs, the Nobel ­Prizewinner who discovered the Higgs boson particle, did his best work in peace and solitude in the 1960s. He suggests that what he did then would be impossible today, because it is now virtually impossible to find such solitude in the field of science.

Collaboration, not individuality, is fetishised today, in business as in science and the arts, but Harris warns that collaboration often results in conformism. In the company of others, most of us succumb to pressure to go with the crowd. Alone, we have more chance to be thoughtful, to see differently, to enter a place where we feel free from the mob to moderate our unique experience of the world. Without solitude, he writes, genius – which ultimately springs from different ways of thinking and seeing – becomes impossible. If Thoreau’s cabin in the woods had had wifi, we would never have got Walden.

Yet it is not only geniuses who have a problem: ordinary minds like yours and mine are threatened by the hypersocial nature of always-on urbanity. A ­civilisation can be judged by the quality of its daydreams, Harris suggests. Who daydreams now? Instead of staring out of the window on a train, heads are buried in smartphones, or wired to the audio of a streaming film. Instead of idling at the bus stop, people are loading up entertainment: mobile games from King, the maker of Candy Crush, were played by 1.6 billion times every day in the first quarter of 2015 alone.

If you’ve ever wondered at the behaviour of those lines of people at the train station or in the street or in the café, heads buried in their phones like zombies, unable or unwilling to look up, Harris confirms your worst fears. The developers of apps and games and social media sites are dedicated to trapping us in what are called ludic loops. These are short cycles of repeated actions which feed our brain’s desire for reward. Every point you score, every candy you crush, every retweet you get gives your brain a dopamine hit that keeps you coming back for more. You’re not having a bit of harmless fun: you are an addict. A tech corporation has taken your solitude and monetised it. It’s not the game that is being played – it’s you.

So, what is to be done about all this? That’s the multibillion-dollar question, but it is one the book cannot answer. Harris spends many pages putting together a case for the importance of solitude and examining the forces that splinter it today. Yet he also seems torn in determining how much of it he wants and can cope with. He can see the damage being done by the always-on world but he lives in the heart of it, all his friends are part of it, and he doesn’t want to stray too far away. He understands the value of being alone but doesn’t like it much, or want to experience it too often. He’ll stop checking his Twitter analytics but he won’t close down his account.

At the end of the book, Harris retreats, Thoreau-like, to a cabin in the woods for a week. As I read this brief last chapter, I found myself wishing it was the first, that he had spent more time in the cabin, that he had been starker and more exploratory, that he had gone further. Who will write a Walden for the Internet Age? This book is thick with fact and argument and some fine writing, but there is a depth that the author seems afraid to plumb. Perhaps he is afraid of what he might find down there.

In the end, Solitude feels a bit like an amiable cop-out. After 200 pages of increasingly disturbing facts about the impact of technology and crowded city living on everything from our reading habits to our ability to form friendships, and after warning us on the very last page that we risk making “an Easter Island of the mind”, the author goes back home to Vancouver, tells his boyfriend that he missed him, and then . . . well, then what? We don’t know. The book just ends. We are left with the impression that the pile-up of evidence leads to a conclusion too vast for the author, and perhaps his readers, to take in, because to do that would be to challenge everything.

In this, Solitude mirrors the structure of many other books of its type: the Non-Fiction Warning Book (NFWB), we might call it. It takes a subject – disappearing childhood; disappearing solitude; disappearing wilderness; disappearing anything, there’s so much to choose from – trots us through several hundred pages of anecdotes, science,
interviews and stories, all of which build up to the inescapable conclusion that everything is screwed . . . and then pulls back. It’s like being teased by an expert hustler. Yes, technology is undermining our sense of self and creating havoc for our relationships with others, but the solution is not to stop using it, just to moderate it. Yes, overcrowded cities are destroying our minds and Planet Earth, but the solution is not to get out of the cities: it’s to moderate them in some way, somehow.

Moderation is always the demand of the NFWB, aimed as it is at mainstream readers who would like things to get better but who don’t really want to change much – or don’t know how to. This is not to condemn Harris, or his argument: most of us don’t want to change much or know how to. What books of this kind are dealing with is the problem of modernity, which is intractable and not open to moderation. Have a week away from your screen if you like, but the theft of human freedom by the machine will continue without you. The poet Robinson Jeffers once wrote about sitting on a mountain and looking down on the lights of a city, and being put in mind of a purse seine net, in which sardines swim unwittingly into a giant bag, which is then drawn tightly around them. “I thought, We have geared the machines and locked all together into interdependence; we have built the great cities; now/There is no escape,” he wrote. “The circle is closed, and the net/Is being hauled in.”

Under the circumstances – and these are our circumstances – the only honest conclusion to draw is that the problem, which is caused primarily by the technological direction of our society, is going to get worse. There is no credible scenario in which we can continue in the same direction and not see the problem of solitude, or lack of it, continue to deepen.

Knowing this, how can Harris just go home after a week away, drop off his bag and settle back into his hyperconnected city life? Does he not have a duty to rebel, and to tell us to rebel? Perhaps. The problem for this author is our shared problem, however, at a time in history when the dystopian predictions of Brave New World are already looking antiquated. Even if Harris wanted to rebel, he wouldn’t know how, because none of us would. Short of a collapse so severe that the electricity goes off permanently, there is no escape from what the tech corporations and their tame hive mind have planned for us. The circle is closed, and the net is being hauled in. May as well play another round of Candy Crush while we wait to be dragged up on to the deck. 

Paul Kingsnorth's latest book, “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist” (Faber & Faber)

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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