The small drab room in Walter Sickert's painting "Ennui" is inhabited by a couple with their backs to one another. In the foreground, a man sits at an empty table, smoking and staring into the middle distance; further back, a woman stands resting her elbows on a chest of drawers, and staring at the wall.
Not the most dynamic inspiration for narrative fiction; but it's perfect source material for Shena Mackay, a writer more preoccupied with character and mood than dramatic plot twists. "Ennui" is one of 36 short stories in The Atmospheric Railway, a collection of new work and pieces written over the past 25 years. She reinterprets Sickert's scene for the page ("motes of inertia settle on the furniture like dust"), but adds another layer of emotion in the characters' interior monologues, permeating the boredom with a low hum of desperation. Milly mulls over the job she lost when her husband Hubert "turned up drunk once too often and got her the sack". Meanwhile, Hubert frantically tries to find the money for his next drink: "He's done all the pockets in the house, furtively, and Milly's purse, and looked under the mattress in hope of a miracle." It's a sickeningly accurate portrayal of a couple defeated by life and disappointed by each other.
Mackay's deft ability to pinpoint emotions - particularly the more poignant ones - is one of the defining features of this collection. It is key to her extensive backlist, too, particularly the Booker-shortlisted coming-of-age novel, The Orchard on Fire. But while her themes tend to be domestic, the scenarios in which they unfold fall on a spectrum from kitchen-sink quotidian - extramarital affairs gone wrong, blind dates gone right - to the utterly surreal. In "Nanny", for example, a pompous academic encounters a lover he once spurned, and discovers not only that she has never forgiven him, but in the intervening years she has also turned into a goat. ("But Nancy," he bleated, "it was so long ago. We were so young - just a couple of crazy kids!")
Even in less eccentric moments, Mackay's characters inhabit a world removed from reality, often tinged with nostalgia. In "Trouser Ladies", middle-aged Catriona escapes the anguish of modern life ("Her lover, Rachel, has volunteered to take part in a late-night television show where unattractive people talk frankly about their sexual practices") by recalling her first encounter with her mother's friend Bee and her "risky glamour". In "Other People's Bathrobes", Adam only falls for his girlfriend Barbara after finding her childhood photos ("All the sad south coast resorts were represented in shades of black and white and gray . . . under that designer exterior there was a common little fat girl").
Even in more contemporary stories, there is a sense of a world slipping away. Old ladies eke out their days in decaying seaside hotels and unsuccessful, ageing artists resign themselves to the knowledge that they were never quite good enough. In "Cardboard City", two young sisters take a shopping trip to London, hoping to run into their estranged father; they spy a man in a balaclava, and "for the rest of their lives Vanessa would be convinced that she had seen her father, and Stella would never be sure".
Mackay turns her observational talents to humour, too: her eye for toe-curling do-gooders is second to none. Everyone has met some incarnation of Mavis Blizzard, the senior receptionist and patronising small-town busybody of "Evening Surgery". (One elderly patient begs her doctor for a sick-note so she can get out of Mavis' Christmas party: "She's threatening to collect me in her car. I'll have to wear a paper hat and sing carols to the accompaniment of her husband's appalling boys' band.")
Mackay does not shun plot altogether; there's a murder in here, too. But even that is an expression of drawn-out inner turmoil, as the hapless victim - an innocent passer-by - receives "the full weight . . . of the years of failure and despair on the back of his head". It's one of the volume's stand-out scenes, but elsewhere Mackay expresses just as much energy in the most static moments. In the volume's title story, a gentle retiree sifts through his decades of memories, editing as he goes along: "He could remember the kids at his primary school with holes in the seats of their trousers . . . the ones in the Free Dinners queue. Nobody wanted to sit next to them on the Sunday School Treat, the annual trip to the seaside . . . plump, well-dressed children stared and sniggered. No, it hadn't been like that, he decided. All the passengers must have shared the excitement, united in a democracy of novelty."
There are many writers who can elicit much feeling from a rollicking plot, but very few can manipulate the dreaminess of memory and fantasy with such exacting precision, or make the minutiae of other people's lives so sympathetic.