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Authors: Rachel Cusk

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And life wasn't all roses by any means – it never is. His younger child was diagnosed with autism last year, which was actually a relief, to be able to put a name on it. The wife had the brilliant idea of setting up a charity to help other families with autistic kids, and she'd even got a question asked in the Irish parliament about special needs provision in schools. He'd put together a little anthology to raise money for her, asking writers to contribute stories for free. It was amazing, the response he'd had – there were some very big names in that anthology and all of it was original work, so there'd been a mind-blowing auction for the serial rights.

‘Unfortunately,' he said, ‘the economics of it meant we couldn't ask people like yourself for contributions, since the whole point of it was to make money and as I say, we needed the big names for that.'

He looked at me with a clown-like expression of
regret, almost of pity. He was glad I was keeping well, he said. It was good to see me here on the circuit – at least I was keeping in the game. He ought to go and circulate, since he was sort of the guest of honour this evening: there were various people expecting to meet him.

He scanned the room with his narrow eyes and then turned back to me, raising his walking stick in farewell. I asked him what he had done to his leg and he stopped and looked down at it and then looked up at me again in incredulity.

‘Would you believe it,' he said. ‘I must have run hundreds of miles over the past year, and then I sprain my ankle getting out of a taxi.'

The conference was being held in a suburb by the sea, whose dockyards were so extensive that the brightblue water remained hidden behind mile after mile of warehouses and silos and giant stacks of shipping containers. Enormous cranes loaded or unloaded the colourful rectangles one by one from the deserted decks of vast tankers that waited amid the concrete expanses of the dockside.

The hotel was a grey block surrounded by other, taller blocks of apartments, all of whose windows remained covered day and night by metal shutters. Directly in front of the hotel was a car park. Several flagpoles stood erect in a line in the tarmac and their wires made a singing sound in the wind like that of a ship's rigging. On the right-hand side a bank of dry grass rose up to meet a wall with some overgrown trees – cedars and eucalyptus – behind it. They formed a neglected avenue along what appeared to be an old driveway made of dusty white earth that curved around to meet a pair of rusty gates ornately fashioned out of iron, and then continued beyond them,
disappearing into the trees around the hillside where a wedge of glittering sea could just be seen below. The gates were locked and the earth around them was so undisturbed it suggested they had not been opened in a long time.

The conference was held at this hotel year after year, one of the delegates told me, despite the fact that it was ugly and also inconvenient, being a long way from the centre and with little in the way of transport links. He supposed the organisers had a deal with the manager. At mealtimes all the delegates had to be loaded into a bus and driven for twenty minutes through the featureless, broken-down suburbs to a restaurant, where he supposed they had another deal. The restaurant, he added, was actually very good, since eating in this country was a national sport, but the problem was that the deal – whatever it was – involved a set menu, so you were surrounded by people feasting on a whole variety of delicacies while being given no choice in what to eat yourself. More than once he had seen the organisers proudly lead a group of delegates outside – where chefs were cooking fresh fish and great skewers of squid and prawns on enormous braziers – in order to take photographs of the scene, before being returned inside to face the same meagre panoply of soup and cold cuts they'd been offered the day before. The hotel itself provided only tea and
coffee, but somewhere hidden in that concrete shoebox or its environs, he said, was a pastry chef of rare talent, and he urged me to try one of the small tarts that were usually circulated with the hot drinks in the breaks between sessions. These tarts were a common element of the national fare, he said, and could be bought in mass-produced form from supermarkets, but not since childhood had he tasted an example to match those on offer here. He had almost forgotten, so ubiquitous were the copies, that the original had ever existed, and it almost gave him pain to re-enter the colour and texture and savour of that lost authenticity, which was not, he felt almost certain, the work of a professional team but of someone working, as it were, alone. He had never, however, in his years of coming here, glimpsed that person, nor even made an effort to enquire about him or her; he merely knew, when he bit into one of the fresh, delicious tarts, that they were unmistakably the work of the same individual. There had been an English delegate here once who had claimed to have had the same epiphany with a national sweet – it was called, he believed, the Eccles cake – and this man's remarks had caused him to wonder whether something of the lost mother wasn't being sought in that case, because for himself it was merely a question of art. The original recipe for the tart, it was said, had been devised by nuns who
used such quantities of egg whites to starch their habits that they had to think of something to do with all the yolks. A convent would not be one's first port of call in search of the maternal, that much was true; and he had even wondered whether this tart of the nuns, to which the citizens of their nation – especially the men – were virtually addicted, symbolised something about the country's attitude to women. When he thought of those habits, so stiff and white and pure, it occurred to him that they were the vestments of sexlessness and of a life without men. The sweet little tart, by which the man's hungry mouth was fobbed off and occupied, was perhaps nothing less than these women's divested femininity, separated and handed over, as it were, on a plate; a method of keeping the world at bay as well as a sign, he liked to think, of the happiness of that state, for he didn't believe that anything created in suffering and self-abnegation could taste quite so delicious.

The hotel had a long central corridor on each floor with a row of rooms to either side. The floors were all identical, with brown carpets and beige walls and rooms standing in a row along the corridors in exactly the same sequence. There were two big stainless steel lifts that rose and fell slowly, the doors continuously opening and closing in the reception lobby, where people sat on plain red sofas apparently
mesmerised by the endlessly repeating spectacle of one set of doors closing on a human group while the other set of doors released a new group. Sometimes, in the corridors on the upper floors, the doors to the rooms stood open while they were being cleaned and it could be seen that they were all the same, with the same brown carpet and shiny laminated-wood furniture and the same view of the surrounding apartment blocks with their shuttered windows. Yet on those occasions when a guest was to be seen letting themselves into their room with the hotel's plastic key card, something in their demeanour suggested they unconsciously believed their own room to be recognisable and distinct. The cleaners wore white aprons and worked all hours of the day, moving steadily along the corridors and up and down the floors and back again. They had big plastic-wrapped bundles of starched white bed linen that they left piled outside in the corridors while they worked inside the rooms, so that the corridor sometimes looked like a deserted landscape where snow has just fallen.

Downstairs in the reception area there was a large television screen surrounded by sofas where groups of men often sat or stood to watch a few minutes of football or Formula One racing. When the news came on the men usually wandered away, so that the newsreader would be left earnestly addressing an empty
space. Directly on the other side of the big plate-glass windows was the smoking area, where more groups of men and the occasional woman stood, mirroring the group around the television inside. These two spaces were also where the delegates tended to gather before an event or to take the bus to the restaurant, and on those occasions the presence of the large panes of glass between one group of delegates and another – each able to see but not hear the other – seemed to signify something about the artificiality of our situation. A little further along there was a bench which faced away from the hotel, looking out over the parked cars, and which seemed to have been elected as a place for solitude, despite the fact that it stood just on the other side of the windows and could be clearly seen from inside. The people on the sofas were no more than a foot or two away from the person on the bench, the back of whose head they could see in great detail. Nevertheless, when someone sat on that bench it was understood they wished to be alone or to be approached singly and with caution, whereupon a much quieter and lengthier conversation than those in which the group was generally engaged could ensue. It was here also that people often made telephone calls, speaking in other languages than the English that was generally the currency of conversation.

The organisers of the conference wore t-shirts printed
with the conference logo and were mostly very young. They gave an appearance of constant watchfulness and anxiety, since it was their responsibility to make sure that everyone attended their events or caught the bus, and were often to be seen locked in sombre consultation, their eyes glancing frequently around the hotel lobby as they talked. If a delegate was absent there were frantic searches and lengthy narratives concerning when he or she had last been seen. Often one of the organisers would go up in the lift to search upstairs, whereupon the doors of the other lift would not infrequently open to reveal the missing delegate. One of the other writers present, a Welsh novelist, was the cause of constant anxiety for his habit of setting off on foot into the undistinguished labyrinth of the surrounding suburbs and returning with stories of churches or other distant landmarks he had visited. He wore walking boots and always carried a small knapsack, as though to remind the organisers of the tenuousness of their hold on him, and indeed he had several times failed to present himself at mealtimes for the bus, only to appear at the restaurant slightly flushed and breathless but nonetheless punctual, having walked there from somewhere else. This same man went to great lengths to befriend other participants – organisers and delegates alike – writing down the particulars of things they said or places they
talked about in a small creased leather notebook and frequently returning to them to check that he'd noted the name of a town or book or restaurant correctly. He told me that he always made such notes on his travels, typing them up and filing them according to name and date when he got home, so that he only had to open the file on, say, his visit to the Frankfurt book fair three years earlier for every one of its details to be available to him. He had got into this habit, which more or less dispensed with the necessity for remembering anything, not because he tended to be forgetful but because his capacity for holding on to information, however useless or trivial, would otherwise have kept him in a state of constant distraction. It was apparent that his conversational tactic of asking people questions – which he appeared to adopt, though he didn't say so, out of shyness – made him the recipient of an unusual amount of such information, and yet when asked a question about himself he would become evasive and vague and unwilling to go into more than the sketchiest detail about his circumstances. He had, he said, attended every single event at the conference, even those conducted in languages he didn't understand: he felt the organisers would have been disappointed in him otherwise.

I noticed that while the Welsh novelist talked lengthily to everyone with a minor or tangential connection
to himself – including the driver of the bus and the hotel staff – he tended to avoid those he might have considered his equals, well-known writers from his own and other countries. There were several of these in attendance, some of whom I had met before, including one who approached me on the second day and reminded me that we had once participated in an all-female panel discussion together in Amsterdam, in which the panellists – distinguished female thinkers and intellectuals – had been asked to talk about their dreams. I remembered her on that occasion as timid and strained-looking with a somewhat indignant air, but standing in the hotel lobby she emanated poise and vigour, as though in the years since we'd last met she'd been acquiring energy rather than expending it, and she reminded me of her name – which was Sophia – with the pragmatic directness of someone who accepts rather than fears the likelihood of such things being forgotten. I can't imagine, she said now with a gracious smile, a panel of male intellectuals being asked to discuss their dreams, and I suppose the moderator was hoping to elicit our so-called honesty; as though, she said, a woman's relationship to truth were at best unconscious, when in fact it might simply be the case that female truth – if such a thing can even be said to exist – is so interior and involuted that a common version of it can never be agreed on. It's
a saddening thought, she said, that when a group of women get together, far from advancing the cause of femininity, they end up pathologising it.

Since our evening in Amsterdam she had published several novels, she told me, as well as a book about the Western literary canon, from which she had argued numerous men should be removed and numerous women added. That book had been well received elsewhere, she said, but here in her native country it had virtually been ignored. She was attending this conference not on account of her credentials as a feminist writer but for her work as a translator, by which she had enabled several of this country's writers – nearly all of them men – to become more internationally recognised than she was herself. Or maybe, she said, with a high bell-like laugh, I'm only here because this is my hometown. They have to fly everyone else in from all over the place, she said, but it's cheap to invite me because I only have to walk up the road.

I wondered whether the fact that she was at home was the explanation for her altered appearance, as though she shone more brightly in her natural setting. She wore a tight, low-cut dress in a vivid turquoise colour, with a broad belt cinched to emphasise the slenderness of her waist, and a matching pair of high-heeled boots. She was very small and slight, with
sallow skin and thin, soft, light-brown hair and a large expressive mouth, and she held her head up very high, like a child standing on tiptoe and straining to see over the adults. Around her throat and wrist she wore several pieces of jewellery and her face was carefully made up, especially around the eyes, which she had outlined dramatically so that they appeared continually startled, as though they were observing things whose intensity and extremity only she could see. After a while I could recognise behind this disguise the timid woman I remembered, and I understood her outfit to be something designed to prevent her from being forgotten or ignored, yet it also had the effect of making her femininity seem a kind of question other people were required to answer or a problem they were expected to solve.

This was not, she said, gesturing through the plate-glass doors, in all honesty the most exciting place to live, but after her divorce she had recognised that it would be better for her and her son to be near her parents, and so they had left the capital, though she hoped to return there one day, she said, once the dust had settled.

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