Authors: Rachel Cusk
We sat and looked at one another.
âI've thought about it,' he said, âand I believe it would be the right thing for you to do.'
I asked him where he suggested I should live.
âHere,' he said simply. âYou would be very happy. No one would trouble you. People would be very kind to you. You wouldn't even have to learn the language,' he said, âbecause everyone can speak English and they accept that that is the way things are. We would look after you,' he said, âand everything would be easier. You wouldn't need to suffer any more. You could find a cottage on the coast, by the sea. You would be warm and your skin would turn brown. I've thought about it,' he repeated, âand I don't see any disadvantages.'
In the dim distances of the lobby people stood or sat or moved around, visible but at an unbreachable distance, as though they were under water. There was a constant low murmur of voices from which no individual word could be distinguished. Sometimes a group moved away and was replaced by another group, and when people came and went with their suitcases
through the smoked-glass doors the extraordinary reality of the hot, bright, motionless street outside could momentarily be seen.
I said I wasn't sure it mattered where people lived or how, since their individual nature would create its own circumstances: it was a risky kind of presumption, I said, to rewrite your own fate by changing its setting; when it happened to people against their will, the loss of the known world â whatever its features â was catastrophic. My son once admitted to me, I said, that when he was younger he desperately wished he could belong to a different family, such as the family of a friend of his with whom at a certain period he spent a lot of his time. This family was big and noisy and easy-going, and there was always room for him at the table, where huge comforting meals were served and where everything was discussed but nothing examined, so that there was no danger of passing through the mirror, as he had put it, into the state of painful self-awareness where human fictions lose their credibility.
This was the state into which he felt our own family life had been forced, I said, and for a while he had done everything he could to hold on to those fictions, insisting on the old routines and the old traditions, even though what they represented was no longer there. In the end, I said, he gave up and began to absent himself
more and more, spending all his time with this other family, as I had said, and refusing to take any of his meals at home, because even sitting around the table, he later admitted, made him feel overwhelmed by sadness and anger at what had been lost. But later, I said, a time came when he was no longer always at the house of this other family, to the extent that the parents began to ask after him and to invite him to family occasions, so that he worried that he had upset or offended them by coming less often. The truth was that he no longer wanted to go there, because the same things that a year or two earlier he had found warm and consoling he now found oppressive and annoying: those mealtimes were a yoke, he now saw, by which the parents sought to bind their children to them and to perpetuate, as he saw it, the family myth; his friend's every movement was subjected to parental scrutiny and his choices and attitudes to parental judgement, and it was this last element â judgement â that my son found most repellent and that drove him away from their door, lest he be subjected to it too. In their invitations for him to return he began to see that the history of his presence there had not been as one-sided as he had thought: in his need for the consolation they offered he had failed to see that they needed him too, as the witness to â and perhaps even the proof of â their family happiness. He even wondered,
bitterly, whether they had enjoyed the spectacle of his misery, because it affirmed the superiority of their own way of life; but in the end, I said, he drew back from that harsh assessment and began to accept their invitations again, not always but often enough for the sake of courtesy. He recognised that in taking their comfort he had created a responsibility towards them; and this realisation, I said, had caused him to consider the true nature of freedom. He understood that he had given some of his freedom away, through a desire to avoid or alleviate his own suffering, and while it didn't seem exactly an unfair exchange, I believed he wouldn't do it again quite so easily.
The journalist had listened to all of this with the same expression of patient innocence on his face.
âBut why is it so bad to depend on people?' he said. âNot everyone is cruel. Perhaps,' he said, âyou have just been unlucky.'
There was a word in his language, I said, that was hard to translate but that could be summed up as a feeling of homesickness even when you are at home, in other words as a sorrow that has no cause. This feeling was perhaps what had once driven his people to roam the world, seeking the home that would cure them of it. It may be the case that to find that home is to end one's quest, I said, but it is with the feeling of displacement itself that the true intimacy develops
and that constitutes, as it were, the story. Whatever kind of affliction it is, I said, its nature is that of the compass, and the owner of such a compass puts all his faith in it and goes where it tells him to go, despite appearances telling him the opposite. It is impossible for such a person to attain serenity, I said, and he might spend his whole life marvelling at that quality in others or failing to understand it, and perhaps the best he can hope for is to give a good imitation of it, as certain addicts accept that while they will never be free of their impulses they can live alongside them without acting on them. What such a person cannot tolerate, I said, is the suggestion that his experiences have not arisen out of universal conditions but instead can be blamed on particular or exceptional circumstances, and that what he was treating as truth was in fact no more than personal fortune; any more than the addict, I said, ought to believe that he can regain his innocence of things of which he already has a fatal knowledge.
âWhere is he now,' the journalist said, âthe son you talked about?'
I said that he had chosen to go and live with his father for a while, and although I couldn't be said to be happy without him, I hoped he would find what he was looking for.
âBut why did you let him go?' he said.
If I had given my children freedom, I said, I couldn't start dictating its terms.
He nodded his head in mournful acquiescence.
âAll the same,' he said, âat a certain point you also are free to choose whether to live in the rain or to live in the sun. We would take good care of you,' he repeated. âIf you didn't want to see anybody, you wouldn't have to. But the people here would appreciate you. I still believe that you have been unlucky,' he said, âand that if you had lived in this country your experiences would have been different. The character in your book,' he said, ânotices that the dampness that has been inside him his whole life is beginning to dry out and that this might be an opportunity to live for a second time. But he can't, because he has a family back at home and his children are still young. And besides, his national identity is the part of his character from which he believes his success has come. If he didn't have it, he would be the same as everyone else and would have to compete with them on the same terms, and in his heart he knows he doesn't have the talent to win. But you,' he said to me, âdon't belong anywhere, and so you are free to go wherever you choose.'
The assistant approached shyly and said that it was time for the interview to end and for Paola and me to leave for the restaurant. Also, she wondered whether it would bother me too much to sign two of my books for
her children, as she had mentioned earlier. She took the books out of a supermarket carrier bag and placed a pen carefully on top of them and held them out to me. I signed the books, the assistant spelling out each of the children's names for me. The third interviewer rose to leave while Paola, who was still sitting on her stool and talking on her phone, pointed at the phone and then held her finger in the air. Shortly afterwards she flung it in her bag and leapt off the stool and came to join us. The assistant told her about the morning's events and she listened while retrieving her phone from her bag again and tapping something rapidly on the screen. Then she looked at her watch and turned to me. She had booked a restaurant in the old part of town, she said: my translator, a woman called FelÃcia, would be meeting us there. If I preferred, she said, we could take a taxi, or if I didn't mind the heat we could walk, since there was just about enough time.
âIt would be good to walk, no?' she said, her small button-like eyes bright with expectation.
After the sepulchral cool and dimness of the lobby, the heat outside on the pavement was momentarily shocking. A pallor of dust hung in the dry throbbing air beneath the fierce blue of the sky. The street was deserted, apart from a group of office workers who stood across the road in the rectangle of the building's shade, smoking and talking. One or two cats lay stretched out
on their sides in the dark spaces beneath parked cars. The noise of distant traffic and of machinery from a building site somewhere nearby droned steadily in the background. We set off along the pavement, Paola moving with surprising rapidity despite her diminutive stature and the thin gold sandals she wore on her feet. She was somewhere in her fifties, but her neat mischievous face with its shining eyes was almost childlike. Her clothes were made of a light, flowing material in which her small, solid, vigorous body strode out freely and she swung her arms, her fine brown hair flying behind her.
âI am a great walker,' she said. âHere I walk everywhere. It gives me such pleasure,' she said, âto see people trapped in their cars while I am free.' The capital, as I must know, was famous for the steepness of its terrain. âEither I am going up or I am going down,' she said. âNever in the middle.'
She used to have a car, but she drove it so rarely that she was always forgetting where she'd last parked it. Then, one day when she needed it, she found that someone had crashed into it.
âI am perhaps the only person,' she said, âwho could write off their car without even sitting in it. It was completely destroyed,' she said, âso I just left it there and walked away.'
The suburb where I was staying seemed a long way
from here, she said, but actually was no more than half an hour on foot, if you knew which way to go: it was only because of the peculiarities of the road system and the lack of public transport that it seemed much further. Yet it felt so cut off out there that she had heard numerous stories over the years â some of them quite entertaining â of authors absconding or attempting to escape.
âBut in fact,' she said, âyou have been quite close to civilisation all along.'
A lot of people were incapacitated by the city's heat, she added, even those who had lived here all their lives, but she herself had learned the art of conserving her energy and not wasting it battling against forces over which she had no control. When her son was small, for example, she would rise early so that he would always find her fully dressed in the kitchen, making breakfast and ready for the day: she would take him to nursery, talking cheerfully all the way, and when she had dropped him off would promptly return home, remove all her clothes again and get straight back into bed to sleep. Her prodigious walking was offset by periods in which she would often remain entirely stationary for literally hours at a time, like a reptile, she said, who doesn't even use the energy it takes to blink. She had lived here for thirty-five years, she said, in answer to my question, having spent her
childhood in the remote north of the country.
âThere,' she said, âeverything is water. The sky is always heavy and the rivers are full and everywhere there is the sound of dripping and trickling and pouring, so that when you are there you almost become mesmerised.'
Recently, she had gone back and spent a few weeks at home because her mother had been ill.
âIt was so strange to find myself in that watery environment again,' she said, âwith the sound of the rain falling and the rivers rushing downhill towards the sea, and the damp grass everywhere and the heavy, dripping trees. After a while I began to remember things I had completely forgotten,' she said, âto the point where it started to feel like my whole life as an adult had been a dream. I almost felt myself disappearing,' she said, âas though that place could simply take me back into itself. I was sitting by the river one day reading,' she said, âexactly as I used to do when I was a girl of twelve or thirteen, and everything I had done since then suddenly seemed completely questionable, since it had only brought me back here again to exactly the same spot.'
Returning to the city afterwards she had spent several weeks in a state approaching ecstasy, and had walked over every inch of it, unable to get enough of the familiar feeling of the warm stones beneath her feet.
âLike a married couple on their second honeymoon,' she said. âExcept that unlike my actual marriage, this one has lasted. Also, it's been better for my health.'
Fortunately her ex-husband spent little time in the city, she said, since he raced yachts and was frequently at sea.
âI call him the Buccaneer,' she said. âWhen he comes riding into town looking for me, I make sure I am difficult to find.'
She had one child by her husband, a boy of fourteen. They had already separated before the child was born.
âIn fact he didn't even know I was pregnant,' she said, âsince I concealed it from him for as long as I could, because I knew I would never have got away from him otherwise. And when he did find out I effectively had to go into hiding, because I am certain he would have tried to kill me. I admit it was selfish of me,' she said, âto get pregnant in the deliberate way that I did. But I was forty years old and it was really my last chance.'