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Old babes in the wood : stories
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Chapter 1 i TIG & NELL first aid Nell came home one day just before dinnertime and found the front door open. The car was gone. There was a trail of blood splotches on the steps, and once she was inside the house, she followed it along the hall carpet and into the kitchen. There was a knife on the cutting board, one of Tig's favourites, Japanese steel, very sharp--and beside it, a bloodstained carrot, one end severed. Their daughter, nine at the time, was nowhere to be found. What were the possible scenarios? Desperadoes had broken in. Tig had tried to defend himself against them, using the knife (though how to explain the carrot?), and had been wounded. The desperadoes had made off with him, their daughter, and their car. Nell should call the police. Or else Tig had been cooking, had sliced himself with the knife, had judged that he needed stitches, and had driven himself to the hospital, taking their daughter with him to avoid leaving her by herself. This was more likely. He must have been in too much of a hurry to leave a note. Nell got out the bottle of carpet cleaner and sprayed the blood spots: they would be much harder to get out once they'd dried. Then she wiped the blood off the kitchen floor and, after a pause, off the carrot. It was a perfectly good carrot; no need for it to go to waste. Time passed. Suspense built. She was at the point of phoning all the hospitals in the vicinity to see if Tig was there when he came back, hand bandaged. He was in a jovial mood, as was their daughter. What an adventure they'd had! The blood was just pouring out, they reported. The tea towel Tig had used for wrapping the cut had been soaked! Yes, driving had been a challenge, said Tig--he didn't say dangerous--but who could wait for a taxi, and he'd managed all right with basically just one hand since he'd needed to keep the other one raised, and the blood was trickling off his elbow, and they'd sewn him up quickly at the hospital because he was dripping all over everything, and anyway, here they were! Luckily not an artery, or it would be a different story. (It was indeed a different story when Tig told it a little later, to Nell: his bravado had been an act--he hadn't wanted to frighten their daughter--and he'd been worried that he would pass out if the blood loss got out of control, and then what?) "I need a drink," said Tig. "So do I," said Nell. "We can have scrambled eggs." Whatever Tig had been planning to do with the carrot was no longer on the agenda. The tea towel had been brought back in a plastic bag. It was bright red but beginning to brown at the edges. Nell put it to soak in cold water, which was the best way to deal with bloodstained fabrics. But what would I have done if I'd been here? she wondered. Not a Band-Aid: insufficient. A tourniquet? She'd had perfunctory instruction in those at Girl Guides. They'd done wrist sprains too. Minor emergencies were her domain, but not major ones. Major ones were Tig's. That was some time ago. Early autumn, as she recalls, a year in the later 1980s. There were personal computers then, of a lumbering kind. And printers: the paper for them came with the pages joined together at top and bottom, and had holes along the sides, in perforated strips that you had to tear off. No cellphones though, which was why Nell hadn't been able to text or call Tig and ask him where he was, and also what had caused the blood? How much waiting we used to do, she thinks. Waiting without knowing. So many blanks we couldn't fill in, so many mysteries. So little information. Now it's the first decade of the twenty-first century, space-time is denser, it's crowded, you can barely move because the air is so packed with this and that. You can't get away from people: they're in touch, they're touching, they're only a touch away. Is that better, or worse? She switches her attention to the room the two of them are in right at this moment. It's in a nondescript high-rise on Bloor Street, near the viaduct. She and Tig are sitting in chairs that are something like schoolroom chairs--there is in fact a whiteboard at the front--and a man called Mr. Foote is talking. The people in the other chairs, who are also listening to Mr. Foote, are at least thirty years younger than Tig and Nell; some of them perhaps forty years younger. Just kids. "If it's a motorcycle crash," says Mr. Foote, "you don't want to take off the helmet, do ya. Because you don't know what's gonna be in there, eh?" He moves his hand in front of him, circularly, as if cleaning a window. Good point, thinks Nell. She imagines the glass of a helmet, smeared. Inside, a face that is no longer a face. A face of mush. Mr. Foote has a talent for conjuring up such images. He has a graphic way of speaking, being from Newfoundland. He doesn't tiptoe around. He's built on a square plan: wide torso, thick legs, a short distance between ear and shoulder. It's a balanced shape, with a low centre of gravity. Mr. Foote would not be easy to upend. Nell expects that's been tried, in bars--he looks as if he'd know his way around a bar fight, but also as if he wouldn't get into any of those he couldn't win. If pushed too hard he'd throw the challenger through a window, calmly--"You needs to keep calm," he has already said twice--then check to make sure there were no bones broken. If there were, he'd splint them, and treat the victim for cuts and abrasions. Mr. Foote is an all-in-one package. In fact, he's a paramedic, but that does not come out until later in the day. He's carrying a black leather binder and wearing a long-sleeved zip-fronted sweatshirt with the St. John Ambulance logo on it, as if he's a team coach, which in a way he is: he's teaching them first aid. At the end of the day there will be a test and they will each get a certificate. All of them are in this room because they need this certificate: their companies have sent them. Nell and Tig are the same. Thanks to a family connection of Tig's, they're giving talks on a nature-tour cruise ship, birds for him, butterflies for her: their hobbies. So they are technically staff, and all staff on this ship have to get the certificate. It's mandatory, their ship contact has told them. What hasn't been said is that the majority of the passengers--the guests--the clientele--will not be young, to put it mildly. Some of them will be older than Nell and Tig. Truly ancient. Such people can be expected to topple over at any minute, and then it will be certificates to the rescue. Nell and Tig are unlikely to be doing any actual rescuing: younger people will leap in, Nell's counting on that. In a pinch, Nell will dither and claim she's forgotten what to do, which will be true. What will Tig do? He will say, Stand back, give them room. Something like that. It's known--it's been rumoured--that these ships have extra freezers on them, just in case. Nell pictures the distress of a server who opens the wrong freezer by mistake, to be confronted by the appalled, congealed stare of some unlucky passenger for whom the certificate has not proved sufficient. Mr. Foote stands at the front of the room, running his gaze over today's crop of students. His expression is possibly neutral, or faintly amused. Bunch of know-nothing softies, he's most likely thinking. City people. "There's what to do, and there's what not to do," he says. "I'll be telling you both. First, ya don't go screaming around like a headless chicken. Even if buddy's minus his own head." But headless chickens can't scream, Nell thinks. Or she assumes they can't. But she takes the meaning. Keep your head in an emergency, they say. Mr. Foote would add, "If ya can." He would definitely want them to keep their heads. "You can fix a lot of things," Mr. Foote is saying. "But not if there's no head. That's one thing I can't teach ya." It's a joke, Nell guesses, but Mr. Foote does not signal jokes. He's deadpan. "Say you're in a restaurant." Mr. Foote, having dealt with motorcycle crashes, has moved on to asphyxiation. "And buddy starts choking. The question you needs to ask is: Can they talk? Ask them if you can hit them on the back. If they say yes in words, it's not too bad because they can still breathe, eh? But what's likely--a lot of people are embarrassed, they stand up, and what do they do? They go to the washroom, because they don't want to be making a fuss. Calling attention. But you got to go in there with them, you got to follow them, because they can die. Right on the floor, before you even notice they're gone." He gives a meaningful nod. He has known instances, the nod says. He's been there. He's seen it happen. But he got there too late. Mr. Foote knows his stuff, Nell thinks. The exact same thing has almost happened to her. The choking, the going to the washroom, the not wanting to make a fuss. Embarrassment can be lethal, she sees now. Mr. Foote has nailed it. "Then you got to bend them forward," Mr. Foote continues. "Five whacks on the back--the glob of meat or the dumpling or the fish bone or whatever can shoot out of them right then and there. But if not, you got to do the Heimlich manoeuvre. Thing is, if they can't talk, they can't exactly give you permission, plus they might be turning blue and passing out. You just got to do it. Maybe you'll break a rib, but at least they'll be alive, eh?" He grins a little, or Nell assumes it's a grin. A sort of mouth twitch. "That's the endgame, eh? Alive!" They run through the Heimlich manoeuvre and the right way of hitting someone on the back. According to Mr. Foote, the combination of these two things would almost always work, but you had to get in there soon enough: in first aid, timing is everything. "That's why it's called first, eh? It's not the effing tax department, excuse my French, they can take all day, but you got maybe four minutes." Now, he says, they will have a coffee break, and after that, they will do drowning and mouth-to-mouth, followed by hypothermia; and, after lunch, heart attacks and defibrillators. It's a lot for one day. Drowning is fairly simple. "First, you need to get the water out. It'll pour out if you let gravity be your friend, eh? Turn 'em on the side, empty 'em out, but fast." Mr. Foote has dealt with numerous drownings: he's lived near water all his life. "Turn 'em on their back to clear the airways, check for breathing, check for pulse, make sure someone calls 911. If there's no breathing, you needs to do the mouth-to-mouth. Now this gadget I'm showing you, it's a CPR barrier guard, it's for the mouth-to-mouth, 'cause sometimes they'll throw up, like, and you don't need to have that in your own mouth. Anyways, there's the germs, eh? You should carry one a these on you at all times." Mr. Foote has a supply of them. They can be purchased at the end of the day. Nell makes a mental note to get one. How has she managed to live without a mouth barrier guard until now? How feckless. In order to practise the mouth-to-mouth, the room is divided into pairs. Each pair is given a red plastic torso with a bald white tip-back head and a yoga mat for kneeling on while they bring their shared torso back to life. Pinch the nose shut, cover the mouth with yours, give five rescue breaths, letting the chest rise each time, then perform five chest compressions. Repeat. Meanwhile, the other person calls 911, after which they take over with the chest compressions. These can get tiring, it's hard on the wrists. Mr. Foote stalks the room, checking everyone's technique. "You're gettin' there," he says. Tig says now that he's down on the mat, Nell will have to call 911 to get someone to lift him back up again, considering the state of his knees. Nell giggles into the plastic mouth, sabotaging her rescue breath. "I just hope nobody drowns on our watch," she says. "Because they'll probably stay drowned." Tig says he understands it's a relatively painless way to go. You are said to hear bells. When they've all brought their plastic torsos back to life, they move on to hypothermia and shock. Both involve blankets. Mr. Foote tells an amazing story about a man on a ski trip who went out the door of a cabin to take a leak, without a flashlight, through deep snow, and fell into a melt well around the base of a tree, and couldn't get out, and wasn't found until morning. He was stiff as a board and cold as a mackerel, said Mr. Foote, not a breath in him, and as for his heart, it was silent as the tomb. But someone else in that cabin had taken the CPR course, and they worked on the possibly dead person for six hours--six hours!--and brought him back. "You keep going. You don't give up," says Mr. Foote. "Because you never know." They break for lunch. Nell and Tig find a little Italian restaurant tucked into one of the soulless high-rise buildings, and order a glass of red wine each, and eat quite good pizza. Nell says she's going to have a wallet card made that says "In Case of Accident Call Mr. Foote," and Tig says they should run Mr. Foote for prime minister, he could give the whole country mouth-to-mouth. He thinks Mr. Foote has been in the navy. Nell says no, he's a spy. Tig says maybe he's been a pirate, and Nell says no, he's definitely an alien from outer space, and being a first-aid instructor called Mr. Foote is a perfect front. They're both feeling silly, and also incompetent. Nell is sure that if confronted with any of these emergencies--the drowning person, the one in shock, the frozen one--she will panic, and everything Mr. Foote has taught them will go right out of her head. Excerpted from Old Babes in the Wood: Stories by Margaret Atwood All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.
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Library Journal Review
Atwood (The Handmaid's Tale; Burning Questions: Essays and Occasional Pieces, 2004 to 2021) delights with her first collection of short stories since 2014's Stone Mattress. Some of the 15 stories were previously in the New Yorker and the New York Times Magazine, while others are original to this collection. The audio is performed by a full ensemble of stellar narrators, including Linda Lavin, Dan Stevens, Kimberly Farr, Rebecca Lowman, Bahni Turpin, Dawn Harvey, and Allan Corduner. Half of the tales center on the lives of married couple Tig and Nell, as remembered by Nell, who is voiced somewhat awkwardly by Atwood herself. Other stories depart dramatically from the Tig and Nell stories and feature a mix of dystopian science fiction, speculative fiction, grim humor, and fantasy. Despite the considerable talents of the narrators, the collection is not an easy listen, as it requires its audience to shift gears from lyrical reflections on loss and mortality to worlds populated by witches, aliens, and Greek philosophers. Some stories are long enough to be novellas, while others seem almost unfinished. VERDICT Expect many holds; this multifaceted collection should appeal to listeners looking to explore grief, aging, and the intimate bonds between loved ones.--Heather Davidson Maneiro
Publishers Weekly Review
Atwood (The Handmaid's Tale) explores love and loss in this brilliant collection that mixes fantastical stories about the afterlife with realism. "Metempsychosis: Or, The Journey of the Soul," an amusing story of reincarnation, follows a narrator whose soul has jumped "directly from snail to human, with no guppies, basking sharks, whales, beetles, turtles, alligators, skunks, naked mole rats, aardvarks, elephants, or orangutans in between." "The Dead Interview" features an imaginary interview between Atwood and George Orwell, while in "Wooden Box," the narrator copes with the death of a longtime partner. Among the entries with a more realist bent are the linked stories that explore the strong bond between Nell and Tig after decades of marriage of. In "First Aid," Nell and Tig take a course from an emergency responder, which leads them to realize they'd prefer "the illusion of safety" rather than face the facts of mortality. "Better to march along through the golden autumn woods, not very well prepared, poking icy ponds with your hiking pole, snacking on chocolate, sitting on frozen logs, peeling hard-boiled eggs with cold fingers as the early snow sifts down and the day darkens," Atwood writes, evoking the magic of everyday life. She's writing at the top of her considerable powers here. (Mar.)
Booklist Review
As Atwood's wry title suggests, women, aging, and nature are at play in this bountiful short-story collection. Half of the 15 tales, most appearing for the first time, star Nell and Tig, two independent spirits enamored of books, remote places, adventurous hikes, good food, and each other. Long married, they're now deploying humor and strategic evasions to contend with the diabolical diminishments of age. These are love stories spiked with shrewd observations and vivid memories as Nell watches Tig gradually lose his robustness, ultimately leaving her to navigate confounding new terrain. Houses and objects are redolent with the couple's different temperaments and mutual adoration; incidents are at once profound and absurd. "Grieving takes strange forms," Atwood writes, and, indeed, she examines the surprises of grief with acuity, wit, and intimacy in stories pithy and sustained. A particularly complex and haunting tale, "A Dusty Lunch," spotlights Tig's father, Canada's youngest brigadier during WWII. Astute, flinty, and deft, Atwood portrays longtime women friends in bantering camaraderie and an "evil mother" who may or may not be a witch, tells a dystopian tale of a virus-ruled future, and, in the title story, brings Nell and her sister, Lizzie, to their family's old, very rustic cabin. Atwood is, once again, exacting, mischievous, funny, insightful, virtuoso, and spellbinding.HIGH-DEMAND BACKSTORY: Atwood's legions of avid readers will pounce on her first short-story collection since Stone Mattress (2014).
Kirkus Review
The celebrated author's first collection of short fiction since Stone Mattress (2014). Atwood is, of course, one of the most celebrated Anglophone writers working today. She has been nominated for the Booker Prize six times and has won it twice--for The Blind Assassin (2000) and The Testaments (2019). The Handmaid's Tale (1985) is a groundbreaking work of science fiction that should be on anybody's list of the best--or, at least, most important--books of the 20th century. Her new collection of short stories is a mixed bag. The first section is a series of interconnected narratives centered around married couple Tig and Nell. "First Aid" begins with Nell coming home to find a trail of blood leading from an open front door into the kitchen. It ends up being a sweetly melancholy meditation on living in a world designed to kill us. "Two Scorched Men"--Nell's account of getting to know two World War II veterans who are friends while she's in France--is a fine story but an odd fit with the preceding work. In "Morte de Smudgie," Nell rewrites Tennyson's elegy for King Arthur for her dead cat, and the less said about this, the better. The middle section of this book is a hodgepodge of pieces that feel like experiments, exercises, and false starts. It's hard to escape the feeling that they are gathered here simply to fill enough pages to make a book of reasonable length while the Hulu series based on Atwood's greatest work is still in production--or while the author is still semi--internet famous for creating a Twitter flap about gender. This is too bad because, when Atwood returns to Nell and Tig, she offers a powerfully affecting quartet of stories in which Nell navigates widowhood--the best of these is the eponymous story that first appeared in the New Yorker. Honest and artful depictions of aging and loss--plus some other stuff. Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
NATIONAL BESTSELLER * From the bestselling, award-winning author of The Handmaid's Tale and The Testaments , a dazzling collection of short stories that look deeply into the heart of family relationships, marriage, loss and memory, and what it means to spend a life together

"If you consider yourself an Atwood fan and have only read her novels: Get your act together. You've been missing out." -- The New York Times Book Review, Rebecca Makkai, best-selling author of The Great Believers

Margaret Atwood has established herself as one of the most visionary and canonical authors in the world. This collection of fifteen extraordinary stories--some of which have appeared in The New Yorker and The New York Times Magazine --explore the full warp and weft of experience, speaking to our unique times with Atwood's characteristic insight, wit and intellect.

The two intrepid sisters of the title story grapple with loss and memory on a perfect summer evening; "Impatient Griselda" explores alienation and miscommunication with a fresh twist on a folkloric classic; and "My Evil Mother" touches on the fantastical, examining a mother-daughter relationship in which the mother purports to be a witch. At the heart of the collection are seven extraordinary stories that follow a married couple across the decades, the moments big and small that make up a long life of uncommon love--and what comes after.

Returning to short fiction for the first time since her 2014 collection Stone Mattress, Atwood showcases both her creativity and her humanity in these remarkable tales which by turns delight, illuminate, and quietly devastate.
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