Authors: Rachel Cusk
Two men had sat down opposite us at the table, and one of them now interrupted to ask whether he had heard correctly that my neighbour was going to cover the cup final tomorrow; and if so, what his opinions were on the likely outcome. My neighbour slowly and painstakingly readjusted the napkin in the collar of his shirt, and with an expression of sombre patience began to give a long and apparently regretful reply, whose import seemed to be that it would not be the outcome they wished for. A heated discussion ensued, during which Sophia entered the restaurant and, seeing an empty place beside mine, came and sat down in it. In that same moment LuÃs â who had followed her in â could be seen striding towards the other end of the table and then bypassing it entirely, taking a seat alone at a small table in the very furthest corner of the restaurant. Sophia gave a little gasp of frustration and, standing up again, said that she was just going to find out why LuÃs was insisting on sitting alone. She returned a few minutes later and regretfully picked up her bag, saying that since he wouldn't move she would have to go and keep him company, as she felt it was wrong to let him go off like that. My neighbour broke off from his conversation to tell her
that this was a ridiculous proposition: what are you doing, he said, adjusting again the white napkin in the collar of his shirt and looking at her with his small, round, inquisitive eyes, pursuing him around the restaurant? If LuÃs wanted to be alone, he should be left that way; otherwise he should come and join the rest of us. Sophia considered this with a delicately knitted brow and then trod lightly off in her high-heeled boots, this time returning after some minutes with a truculent-looking LuÃs in tow.
âWe won't allow this depressive behaviour,' she said to him with her trilling laugh. âWe're going to keep you in the land of the living.'
LuÃs sat down with an expression of undisguised irritation on his face and promptly joined the other men in discussing football, whereupon Sophia turned to me and meekly said into my ear that while she realised LuÃs could give the impression of being arrogant, in fact his success was painful for him and caused him to suffer from intense guilt, as well as from feelings of overexposure.
âUnusually for a man of this nation,' she said, âand perhaps for any man, he has been honest about his own life. He has written about his family and his parents and his childhood home in a way that makes them completely recognisable, and because this is a small country he worries he has used them or compromised
them, though of course for readers in other parts of the world it is just the honesty itself that comes through. Though of course if he were a woman,' she said, leaning more confidentially towards my ear, âhe would be scorned for his honesty, or at the very least no one would care.'
She sat back so that the waiters could put the dishes on the table. They contained a brown, strong-smelling puree, and Sophia wrinkled her nose and said that this dish had a name that could more or less be translated as âthe parts no one would eat otherwise'. She took a tiny spoonful and dabbed it on the edge of her plate. The Welsh novelist had by now appeared, his hair stiffened by the wind and his shirt unbuttoned to show his flushed neck. After some hesitation he sat down in the only remaining seat, beside Sophia, smiling warily to show his narrow yellow teeth. When he asked her what was in the dishes, she did not repeat her translation but merely smiled graciously and said that it was a local delicacy made of ground meat. He reached forward and piled some on to his plate, as well as several pieces of bread. We would have to excuse him, he said: he was extremely hungry, having attempted to walk out along the coast and instead become increasingly entangled in a series of industrial complexes and housing developments and shopping precincts, all of which appeared to be in a state of semi-ruin and were
more or less deserted, yet to which all roads unerringly led, so that finally he was forced to clamber over walls and verges in the attempt to get to the water, finding himself at last in a cordoned-off concrete expanse surrounded by barbed wire and what looked like numerous watchtowers, being held at gunpoint by three men in uniform. He had wandered, apparently, into a military zone, and it took all his scant linguistic resources to explain to these men that he was not a terrorist but a writer attending the literary conference, of which â perhaps surprisingly â they had heard. They turned out to be quite genial, and offered him coffee and tarts before sending him on his way, which he regretted not having accepted once he'd realised how far he was from the restaurant. He'd had to run most of the way back, he said, which in his walking boots was no easy feat.
LuÃs's attention had been caught by this narrative and he launched into an account of the country's socio-economic decline, which had been precipitated, he said, by the financial crisis nearly a decade earlier whose reverberations, in places like this one, were still being felt. The Welsh novelist used this diversion as the opportunity to eat, nodding his head frequently while he despatched his first course and then, satisfied, sitting back in his chair. His own region of Wales, he said when LuÃs had finished speaking, was
similarly on a more or less unrelievedly downward trajectory, though it had barely completed its evolution into the modern era in the first place. There were still families, he said, where only a generation earlier the elders had spoken no English, and in his conversations with local people he heard of a world in which humans had once lived deeply and richly in their own habitat, on familiar terms not just with one another but also with animals, birds, mountains and trees, as well as with traditions of song and storytelling and worship, and of emotional histories too, of deep grudges and unbreachable rifts, of clans that married and intermarried, dwelling on the land in a reality all their own. Not forty years ago, he said, whole communities would climb the mountain together on Sundays, old ladies and babes in arms, strapping farmers and village girls and chattering gangs of children, along with their dogs and ponies and baskets of food, of ham sandwiches and great thermoses of tea, and the men would sing as they climbed the hill. The novel he was currently writing was an attempt to revive that vanished world, and he had done considerable research into its manners and mores, as well as its agricultural practices, its culinary and domestic traditions, its patterns of churchgoing and socialising, its folklore, its vernacular poetry and song. He had interviewed countless people, most of them â for obvious reasons
â elderly, and had built up a quite extraordinary picture in terms of his preparatory notes, yet what was surprising was how often these people claimed to be relieved not to live in that way any longer, even as they expressed their nostalgia for it. Sometimes he almost thought he felt the loss of the old world more keenly than they did themselves, because he actually didn't see how they could bear the drabness of their old people's homes with their gutless conveniences of television and central heating, when what they remembered was so beautiful. Nothing remained, one old lady had said to him, of the world she knew: not one blade of grass was the same. He had asked her to explain what she meant, because surely grass was at least still grass, but she had merely repeated that over the course of her lifetime every single thing had changed and become unrecognisable to her. This lady had died peacefully not long after his conversation with her, and he felt lucky, he said, to have had the chance to speak to her and record her memories, which otherwise would have died with her. Yet even as he reconstructed those memories, so painstakingly that they shone like new in the pages of his novel, the meaning of her remarks about change continued to elude him. He could not, in the end, accept that the very essence of things had been lost, and at times he had almost become angry with her while writing, as
though it was she herself who had stolen that essence and taken it away with her for good. Where he lived, for instance â in a farmhouse in the Snowdonia national park â the landscape was more or less unaltered and the local community were very active in combatting the small changes â excessive road signage, new car parks â that by increments would damage its character and beauty, as well as in reviving some of the old cottage industries and traditions of land management. When he walked out into those hills, their reality, he believed, was just as it had always been, though of course, he added, glancing warily around at the others, he realised he was fortunate to live somewhere of which that could be said.
LuÃs had been listening with an impassive expression on his great moody face, his fingers occupied with tearing small sections from a piece of bread and rolling them into hard little balls which he then dropped on the table around his plate.
âMy mother once told me,' he said, âthat at harvest time when she was a child the village held a day of festival, and the farmers would always leave one last field to mow on that day. Everyone would stand to watch the men mowing with their scythes, because this was a tradition, and it was also a tradition that they left a circular patch in the middle of the field unmown, working in from the edges of the field rather
than up and down in straight lines as they usually did. All of the frightened wildlife that normally had the opportunity to run away was therefore trapped in this circle,' he said, âwhich got smaller and smaller as the men mowed around it, so that in the end there were a great number of creatures cowering there. The village children had already been armed with shovels and picks and even knives from the kitchen, and at a certain moment they were permitted to come forward and descend on the unmown circle in a cheering mob to kill the animals, which they did with great pleasure and gusto, spattering themselves and each other with blood. My mother cannot think about these episodes,' he said, âwithout becoming upset, even though at the time she participated in them quite happily, and indeed many of our relations now deny that such barbaric practices ever occurred. But my mother says that they did, and she continues to suffer on account of them, because unlike the others she has remained honest, and she refuses to remember the past without also remembering its cruelty. I sometimes wonder,' he said, âwhether she believes she sealed her own fate with that unthinking conduct, because life has treated her cruelly in return, yet it is only her sensitivity that creates that impression and her relatives, as I have said, don't see things that way at all. When I started to write,' he said, âit was because I felt the pressure of
her sensitivity, as though it was an affliction or unfinished task I had to take from her, or something she had bequeathed to me that I had to fulfil. Yet in my own life I have been as doomed to repetition as anyone else, even when I didn't know what it was I was repeating.'
âBut that is completely untrue,' Sophia exclaimed. âYour life has been completely transformed by your talents and what you have made of them â you can go anywhere and meet anyone, your praises are sung all over the world, you have your nice apartment in the city, you even have a wife,' she said with a pleasant smile, âthat you don't have to live with and who is devoted to bringing up your child. If you were a woman you would certainly find your mother's life hanging over your head like a sword and you would be asking yourself what progress you had made, other than to double for yourself the work she had been expected to do and receive three times the blame for it.'
The waiters had by now removed the dishes of puree and were bringing the next course, a small moulded shape which Sophia portentously described as being made of fish, and of which she again took only the tiniest amount. When the dish was passed to LuÃs he waved it away and sat hunched and unoccupied in his chair, staring at the wall above our heads, where various nautical items â fishing nets, giant brass hooks, the wooden steering wheel of a boat â had been hung
as decorations. It was interesting, Sophia said now to the Welsh novelist, that he had repeated those words of the old lady, because she had recently heard almost exactly the same words herself, although in a very different context. Her son had not long ago gone to stay for a few days with his father, and had come upon a cache of photograph albums he had never seen before. Her ex-husband had taken all the photograph albums when they separated, she explained, perhaps because he believed he owned their history or perhaps because there was something in those albums he feared would contradict his version of what happened, because otherwise, she said, why would he hide them away?
âWhatever the reason,' she said, âhe left me with not one single photograph of our life together, and so when my son found the albums in a cupboard he was in a way seeing that life for the first time, since much of it he was too young to remember. When he came home after the visit,' she said, âI could see straight away that something had happened, and he was very quiet for several hours. He kept looking at me when he thought I wouldn't notice, and in the end I said to him, have I got something on my face? Is that why you keep looking at me in that strange way? So then he told me about finding the albums, which he spent the whole morning going through, because his father had gone
out to play tennis with some friends and had left him alone. You are in the pictures, Mama, he said to me, except it isn't actually you. I mean, he said, I know the person in the pictures was you, but I couldn't recognise you. I told him I hadn't seen those photographs for years,' Sophia said, âbut that I must have aged more than I thought I had. No, he said to me, it isn't that you look older. It's that everything about you has changed. Nothing is the same as in the photographs, he said, not your hair or your clothes or your expression, not even your eyes.'
While she spoke her eyes grew larger and more brilliant and it seemed possible they were filling with tears, yet she continued to smile in a way that made it clear she was practised in keeping her composure. The Welsh novelist looked at her with polite concern, an expression of faint alarm on his face.