In Doris Lessing’s 1992 collection of short stories and sketches, The Real Thing, the unhappiness of the characters doesn’t make for easy reading. Not surprising, some will say. Lessing often writes about depressed, if insightful, characters. In her most famous novel, The Golden Notebook, the heroine, Anna, is a blocked writer whose relationships with men have been painful. But The Real Thing is somehow different from Lessing’s other work. Most of these stories are brief and austere, the characters less developed than in her earlier novels and short stories.
The first story, “Debbie and Julie,” is grisly and macabre. Julie, a pregnant teenager, has been staying with Debbie, a prostitute who found her in a railway station. Debbie is sympathetic to Julie’s plight, so pays for everything, including doctor’s visits. Sometimes when Debbie does not have a man, she asks Julie to sleep with her, because she can’t sleep alone: they cuddle, but “nothing happens,” as Julie observes.
When Julie’s water breaks, Debbie is away. Some frightening people are staying in the apartment, among them a Lebanese drug dealer, so she prepares to leave. She has scouted a derelict shed in a builders’ scrap yard three bus stops away where she plans to give birth. She is wearing a huge coat of Debbie’s so no one will notice she is pregnant.
She was so wet she was afraid she would start squelching. What if the wet came through the coat? Back she went to the bathroom and took off the coat. The dress–Debbie’s, like the once smart coat–was now orange instead of yellow, because it was soaked. Julie knew there would be a lot of water at some point, because the paperback Debbie had bought her said so, but she didn’t know if she was simply sweating. In the book everything was so tidy and regular, and she had checked the stages she must expect a dozen times. But now she stood surrounded by jars of bath salts and lotions on the shelf that went all around the bathroom, her feet wide apart on a fluffy rug like a terrier’s coat, and felt cold water springing from her forehead, hot water running down her legs. She seemed to have pains everywhere, but could not match what she felt with the book.
A large dog stands in the doorway of the shed, but Julie and the dog share the space. The dog eats the afterbirth. This is a poignant, vivid, terrifying story, of a panicked girl who is also a good planner, and who does what she sets out to do.
Another story also deals with gynecological problems. In “Womb Ward,” the nickname for a gynecology ward in a London hospital, Mildred Grant, a 45-year-old woman, won’t stop crying: she has never before been separated from her husband. The crying exacerbates others’ emotions: a woman who has had a miscarriage begins to cry; and a dancer curls up in fetal position. It is, ironically, an old woman who has never married and who only has a cat to touch, who finally comforts her. “Look, dear, if you’ve had someone to say goodnight to every night of your life, then it’s more than most people have. Can’t you see it like that?” But the words are not enough: Miss Cook has to act maternal to soothe Mildred.
In the title story, Jody telephones her ex-husband, Sebastian, to chat about the coincidence of their having become engaged to two exes. Jody is engaged to Henry, who is the ex-husband of Angela, Sebastian’s fiancée. When she learns that Angela has only just told Sebastian about her two-year relationship with Henry, she is shocked. As the story builds, we learn many odd details. When the two couples spend a weekend together, we see that Henry and Angela are still very much a couple.
In the brief sketches of London, which are much lighter than the stories, the observer/narrator (Lessing?) is fascinated by the scenes around her. In “The New Cafe,” she observes a meeting between two German girls and a charming, very funny young Englishman. The three meet daily at the cafe, but their relationship is unclear; later he shows up with another girl. But, in a poignant scene outside the cafe, the narrator sees him meet by chance an old friend, a young mother with whom he has obviously been in love with. She has a baby in the pram.
They stood there a long time, long at least for an observer, perhaps a minute or more, looking at each other, entranced. These two were a match, a fit, the same kind: you had to say about them as you do, rarely, say about a couple: they are two halves of a whole, they belong together.
And we feel a brief moment of sadness and envy. How many/few have found their other half? And then squandered it like this…
Lessing is always intelligent and perceptive, but this is not her best work. If you like short stories, try Doris Lessing’s Stories, a magnificent collection of three of her earlier books of short stories. That said, I did enjoy this book. Even when the stories are extremely pared-down, she can (as a friend once said of U2) “do no wrong.”