Authors: Rachel Cusk
âPoor kid,' LuÃs said gloomily. âWhy does this bastard arrange a tennis match in the first place?'
âBecause that way,' Sophia said, smiling more graciously than ever, âhe knows he deprives me of my freedom and peace of mind even when I have some time to myself. If he took care of our son during their weekends together,' she said, âhe would in a sense be giving something to me, and he has devoted his life to making sure that is something he will never do, even through the medium of our child. I have no doubt,' she
said, âthat if our son was wholly in his care he would do a first-rate job of bringing him up, making sure he beat all the other boys at sport and won at every competition and punished his mother regularly with his lack of concern for her. In court,' she said, âhe fought me for custody, and I know that many of my friends were shocked that I opposed it, because they thought that as a feminist I ought to promote equality for both sides, and also because there is the belief that a son needs his father in some special way, to learn how to be a man. But I don't want my son to learn to be a man,' she said. âI want him to become one through experience. I want him to find out how to act, how to treat a woman, how to think for himself. I don't want him learning to drop his underwear on the floor,' she said, âor using his male nature as an excuse.'
The Welsh novelist raised a finger hesitantly and said that he hated to disagree, but that he felt it was important to point out that not all men would behave as her ex-husband had done, and that male values were not merely the product of enshrined selfishness but could include such things as honour, duty and chivalry. He himself had two sons, as well as a daughter, and he liked to think they were well-balanced individuals. He couldn't deny, he said, that there were differences between the girl and the boys, and that likewise to deny the differences between men and women was perhaps
to obviate the best qualities of both. He recognised he was very lucky in that he and his wife had a good marriage, and he found that their differences were generally complementary, rather than the source of conflict.
âIs your wife also a writer?' LuÃs said, toying indifferently with his napkin.
His wife was a full-time mother, the Welsh novelist said, and both of them were satisfied with that arrangement, since his literary revenue very fortunately meant that she didn't have to earn money and could instead help him find the time he needed to work. In fact, he said, she did do a bit of writing in her spare time and had recently written a book for children that had been quite a surprise hit. When their children were smaller she used to tell them stories involving a Welsh pony called Gwendolyn, and in the end there were so many of these stories, all following one from the other so as to keep the children's attention night after night, that the book, she had said, literally wrote itself. Obviously he himself was too subjective to be able to offer an opinion on the adventures of Gwendolyn, but he had shown it to his agent, who had luckily been able to find his wife a pretty impressive three-book deal.
âMy ex-wife and I used to tell my son stories,' LuÃs said gloomily, âand of course we read to him in bed every night, but it hasn't made the slightest difference. He doesn't pick up a book from one day to the
next. Sometimes he has to read something for school and it is as if he is being tortured, yet when I was his age I read everything I could get my hands on, including the instructions for the washing machine and my mother's gossip magazines, because there were no books in the house. But my son is repelled, to the extent that he is always losing the book he's meant to be reading. I'll find it lying outside in the rain, or forgotten in the pocket of his coat or beside the bath, and each time I'll retrieve it and clean it up and replace it where he can find it, because I see in the rejection of these books a rejection of myself and of my authority as a father. My son loves me,' he said, âand he doesn't consciously blame me for the things that have happened to him, but I suspect he feels that if he gave his attention to a book and lost himself in it, he might never be found again, and the world he is trying to hold on to might spin out of his control. My ex-wife and I treat him with the utmost kindness,' he said, âand we have done everything in our power to get along with one another since our separation and to reassure him that he was not the cause of it, but his response has been to show absolutely no curiosity about life and to anchor himself by means of his own reliable comforts and pleasures. He sits in his room day after day, motivated to do nothing but watch television and eat pastries and other sweets,
and it is impossible not to feel,' he said, âthat we have broken him, not out of malice but out of our own carelessness and selfishness.'
Sophia, who had been becoming increasingly agitated while LuÃs spoke, now interrupted him.
âBut you aren't helping him,' she said, âby treating him as a fragile thing and shielding him and covering up your conflict, when the consequences of that conflict are right in front of him every day. I couldn't protect my son,' she said, âand so instead he has had to make up his own mind and to realise that his destiny is in his own hands. When he doesn't want to read a book I say to him, fine, if your choice is to work in the gas station out on the highway when you grow up, then don't read it. Children have to survive hardship,' she said, while LuÃs sombrely shook his head, âand you have to let them, because otherwise they will never be strong.'
By now the waiters had brought the final course, an oily fish stew of which no one except the Welsh novelist had eaten very much. LuÃs looked with a harrowed expression at Sophia, and sadly pushed his plate away from him as if it were the offer of her optimism and determination.
âThey are wounded,' he said slowly. âWounded, and I don't know why this particular wound has been so deadly in the case of my son, but since I gave him
the wound it is my job to tend him. All I know,' he said, âis that I'm not telling the story any more, either to him or to myself.'
There was a silence while the waiters cleared the dishes, and even the men opposite, who had sustained a conversation about the leadership qualities of JosÃ© Mourinho for all this time, stopped talking and gazed ahead of them with blank, satiated expressions.
âI have known many men,' Sophia said, resting her slender arms on the table, whose white cloth was littered with crumpled napkins and wine stains and half-eaten pieces of bread, âfrom many different parts of the world, and the men of this nation,' she said, blinking her painted eyes and smiling, âare the sweetest but also the most childlike. Behind every man is his mother,' she said, âwho made so much fuss of him he will never recover from it, and will never understand why the rest of the world doesn't make the same fuss of him, particularly the woman who has replaced his mother and who he can neither trust nor forgive for replacing her. These men like nothing better than to have a child,' she said, âbecause then the whole cycle is repeated and they feel comfortable. Men from other places are different,' she said, âbut in the end neither better nor worse: they are better lovers but less courteous, or they are more confident but less considerate. The English man,' she said, looking at me, âis
in my experience the worst, because he is neither a skilled lover nor a sweet child, and because his idea of a woman is something made of plastic not flesh. The English man is sent away from his mother, and so he wants to marry his mother and perhaps even to be his mother, and while he is usually polite and reasonable to women, as a stranger would be, he doesn't understand what they are.
âAfter my son found the photographs in his father's house,' she went on, âand made the observation that I was not the same person I had been, not even in the molecules of my skin, I became for a while very confused and depressed. It suddenly felt as if all my efforts since the divorce to keep things the same, to keep my own life recognisable to me and to my son, were in fact false, because underneath the surface not one thing remained as it was. Yet his words also made me feel that for the first time someone had understood what had happened, because while I had always told the story to myself and others as a story of war, in fact it was simply a story of change. And it was this change that had been left unexamined and unremarked on, until my son saw it in the photographs and noticed it. While he was away for those few days visiting his father,' she said, âI had arranged to spend time with a man and had invited him for the weekend to our apartment. I have had to be careful
about allowing my son to see me with other men, for the reason that he might innocently mention something to his father, who would undoubtedly respond with the most vitriolic aggression. This necessity for caution and secrecy,' she said, âhas also made these interludes of passion more exciting: they are a kind of reward I offer myself, and I often spend time thinking about them and planning them, even sometimes when I am with my son and for whatever reason am feeling bored. But on this occasion,' she said, âonce my son had gone to his father's and I was waiting in my apartment, I heard the footsteps on the stairs and the key turning in the lock and I suddenly became confused as to which of the men I've known in my life was about to walk through the door. It seemed to me in that moment,' she said, âthat I had made too much of the distinctions between these men, when at the time the whole world had appeared to depend on whether I was with one rather than another. I realised that I had believed in them,' she said, âand in the ecstasy or agony they caused me, but now I could barely recall why and could barely separate them from one another in my mind.'
Sophia's audience at the table were becoming visibly uncomfortable, twitching in their chairs and allowing their eyes to rove, embarrassed, around the room, except for LuÃs, who sat very still and watched
her steadily with an impassive expression.
âDeep down,' she said, âI felt that these relationships lacked the authenticity of my relationship with my ex-husband, and I was always finding fault with the men themselves as a way of explaining this feeling: one man didn't speak languages as well as my husband did; another couldn't cook; another wasn't as good at sport. It almost felt,' she said, âas if it were a contest, and that if these men were inferior to my husband in any way he would win that contest, and I would explain this uncharitable attitude to myself as merely the product of my own fear of him. My husband came very close to killing me,' she said, âwithout ever laying a finger on me, and I saw now that it was my willingness to be killed that allowed him to get that far, just as it was my belief in one man or another that allowed him to cause me pleasure or pain. But in my apartment, listening to the key turning in the door, it suddenly seemed to me that my husband himself could be the man about to enter and that finally it would make no difference, because the woman he knew â the woman who had believed in his persona â was no longer there.
âYou say,' she said to LuÃs, âthat you are refusing to tell the story any more, perhaps for some of the same reasons, because you don't believe in the characters or in yourself as a character, or perhaps because stories
need cruelty in order for them to work and you have washed your hands of that drama too. But when my son made those comments to me about the photographs, I realised that he had somehow, without my quite noticing, taken the burden of perception from me, which to my mind was inseparable from the burden of living and of telling the story. He showed me in that moment that it was, in fact, separate, and the effect on me was to make me feel an incredible sense of freedom, at the same time as suspecting that by shedding that burden I would have nothing else to live for. You have to live,' she said to LuÃs, reaching her hand imploringly to him across the table, and he reluctantly reached out his own hand and gave hers a squeeze before withdrawing it. âNo one can take that obligation from you.'
One of the organisers came to the table and said that the bus was now ready to take us back to the hotel. Outside the restaurant, passing through the graffitied concrete lot where the boy was no longer to be seen playing his flute, the Welsh novelist remarked that things had got pretty intense back there.
âI wondered whether Sophia was making a bit of a play for LuÃs,' he said in a low voice, glancing to either side of him, where the ruined walls of the buildings showed dark voids behind their crumbling edges and the wind sent the weeds growing along the roadside rocking back and forth. âActually,' he
said, âI think they'd make quite a good couple.'
I asked him whether he would be attending Sophia's reading, which was scheduled for the afternoon, and he said that unfortunately he wouldn't be able to make it. He was writing a piece about attitudes to the Brexit vote in Wales that had to be delivered by the end of the day. It had been widely observed that the people who lived in the most hopeless poverty and ugliness were those who had voted most overwhelmingly to leave, and nowhere was that truer than his own small country.
âIt was a bit of a case of turkeys voting for Christmas,' he said. âThough obviously I can't say that in print.'
There were housing estates down south, he said, in the post-industrial wastelands, where the men still rode ponies and shot at one another with guns and the women brewed up cauldrons of magic mushrooms in their kitchens: he didn't imagine they spent a lot of time discussing their membership of the EU, if they even knew what it was. In all seriousness it was sad, he added, that the country had come together in what was essentially an act of self-harm, though he himself would luckily be unaffected, since most of his sales revenue came from abroad: ironically, in fact, the more the pound fell against the euro, the better off he was. But it had spoiled the atmosphere even in his own community, where friendly neighbourliness had
been replaced by mutual suspicion. He was all for people speaking their minds, but it did make him miss the time when what was beneath the surface had been permitted to stay there. The day after the referendum, he said, he had been visiting his parents in Leicestershire and had stopped for petrol and a cup of coffee in a service station. It was a dismal place, and the man sitting next to him â a great pockmarked tattooed creature â was tucking into a huge plate of fried food and announcing to the whole room that at long last he could be an Englishman eating a full English breakfast in his own country.