The Atmospheric Railway, By Shena Mackay

A fine collection stuffed with oddities, gunk and grit, but infused with the mystery of life
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The Independent Culture

Overweight Eloise pours oil into her bath before dressing for a blind date, but it merely lies on the surface of the hot water. "The bottle was labelled Mood for Romance and promised sensuous bliss. Foolish to have thought you could buy romance in Superdrug, two for the price of one..."

Her disappointment at the bath oil seeps through her very being; she remembers many instances of past incompetence and recoils from her too-large body. What point is there in meeting up with this "friend of a friend"? But when she arrives at the place of assignation, the unknown James is engrossed with a squirrel which had got on his Tube train at Green Park. The bewildered animal unites the two immediately.

"Jumbo Takes a Bath" is one of 13 unpublished short stories which open this superb collection of Shena Mackay's distinguished contributions to the genre, from Babies in Rhinestones (1983) onwards. Slaves to brand names, trapped in a world of grot and slapdash, half-baked sophistication, her central characters, of whom the most sympathetic tend to be women, are yet free enough to be surprised into new, if often brief, awareness of the prolix mysteries of existence.

More and more in Mackay's work does this surprise come about through animals and plants, whose habitat is not the wild but the suburbia and motorway hinterland that constitute her particular terrain. Thus the true passion of a professor of mycology (fungi), living in a "forest of concrete", is a white holly tree ("Nay, Ivy, Nay"); the unnamed narrator of "Wasps' Nest" is much moved, after disposing of wasps killed by the pest-control officer, by realising their queen may still be alive, with "a royal destiny to fulfil".

Perhaps the two most successful of these new stories are "Windfalls" and "Swansong". Both deal with individuals in late middle age, whose inner resources don't keep them from being frequently and wretchedly at a loose end. For all his sense of emptiness after his wife's death, Martin Elgin is still keenly alert to the beauties of urban autumn; he therefore loves sharing the delights of windfall apples with his grandchildren. His pleasure is put paid to by his insensitive daughter-in-law, who tells him: "Some of us don't have the time to go grubbing about for rotten apples..." Her loss, we think.

In "Swansong", Louisa Grayling, remembering an early infatuation, explores the neighbourhood of her youth by trying to find swan-shaped objects in the many charity shops that have sprung up in it. She spots the man of her tender recollections, but deliberately passes him by.

In an earlier story, the hilarious "Cloud-Cuckoo-Land", about two compulsive do-gooders, the man of the couple, Roy, unable to find his own glasses, makes use of a pair far too strong for him. Now he near-hallucinatorily sees details in his surroundings that have hitherto, thanks to all his virtuous preoccupations, escaped him: disgusting dirt and gunge. Mackay can operate with such spectacles too, and with their aural equivalent. At times the minutiae she spots fascinate her to the exclusion of the wider view. If someone can say "Enjoy!", "Go for it!" or "worst-case scenario", he or she will – and proceed to deliver more of the same.

Our delight in Mackay's work is inextricable from precisely this fascination. Nonetheless, her best work is that done with the well-focused lens. "Windfalls", "Swansong", "Angelo" and this volume's final story, "Barbarians", are rich in detail but provide marvellous overviews of individual lives. It is not romance one finds in Mackay's Superdrug, but confirmation of life's inexhaustibility; just as exciting and infinitely healthier.

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