Authors: Rachel Cusk
It was true that a hamster meant nothing to her, she said, since they had a no-pets policy in their building, and what she felt straight away was the leverage this
rodent gave her in describing the human triangle at home. She'd tried to write about the family dynamic before but somehow, no matter how cold it had come out of the freezer of her heart, it always ended up turning to mush in her hands. The problem, she now saw, was that she had been trying to describe her husband and daughter using materials â her feelings â that no one else could see. The solid fact of the hamster made all the difference. She could describe them petting it and fawning over it while its imprisonment got increasingly on Linda's nerves, and the way it solidified their bond so that Linda felt left out. What kind of love was this, that needed the love object domesticated and locked up? And if there was love being handed out, why wasn't she getting any? It occurred to Linda that since their daughter had found a satisfactory companion in the hamster, her husband might have taken the opportunity to round that situation out by returning his attention to his wife, yet the opposite was the case: he could leave the child alone less than ever. Every time she went near the cage he would leap to his feet to join her, until Linda wondered whether he was actually jealous of the hamster and was only pretending to love it as a way of keeping hold of her. She wondered whether secretly he wanted to kill it, and since she'd realised in the meantime that she felt at best ambivalent about the possibility of him
resuming an interest in herself, it became important to her to keep the hamster alive. Sometimes she felt sorry for the hamster as the unwitting victim of the mutual narcissism of human relationships: she had heard that if you put two hamsters in a cage together they would end up killing each other, so they were compelled to live alone. At night she was kept awake by the whirring sound of it running frenziedly on its wheel. In one version, her daughter comes to love the hamster so much that she sets it free. But in the final version it is Linda herself who frees it, opening the cage and shooing it out of the apartment while her daughter is at school. Worse still, she allows her daughter to think that she herself left the cage open by mistake that morning and that she is therefore to blame.
âIt's a good story,' Linda said flatly. âMy agent just sold it to the
Still, she wasn't sure quite what she'd gained from her tour, unless it was weight from all the pasta she'd eaten. It had occurred to her that by calling her husband and putting an end to the feeling of being unmoored and adrift she may have missed the opportunity to understand something. She'd been reading a novel by Hermann Hesse, she said, where he describes something similar.
âThe character is sitting by this river,' she said, âjust looking at the shapes the dark and light make on the
water, and at the weird shapes of what might be fish beneath the surface, there for a second and then gone again, and he realises that he's looking at something he can't describe and that no one could describe using language. And he sort of gets the feeling that what he can't describe might be the true reality.'
âHesse is completely unfashionable now,' my publisher said with a dismissive flick of his hand. âIt is almost an embarrassment to be seen reading him.'
âI guess that explains why everyone was giving me weird looks on the plane,' Linda said. âI thought it was because I'd only put make-up on one half of my face. I got to the hotel and looked in the mirror and realised I'd only done one side. Probably the only person who didn't realise was the woman sitting next to me,' she said, âsince she was looking at me sideways and never saw the other half to compare. In any case, she looked pretty strange herself. She told me she just came out of hospital after breaking nearly every bone in her body. She was a skier and she skied over a precipice in a snowstorm. She spent six months being reassembled. They built her out of these metal rods and pinned her together.'
During the flight this woman had recounted the story of her accident, Linda went on, which happened in the Austrian Alps, where the woman was working as a ski guide. She had taken out a group, despite the fact
that the forecast was bad, for this group were fanatical skiers and were determined to cover a famously dangerous stretch of off-piste terrain in what were unusually good powder conditions for the time of year. They had urged her to take them, against her better judgement, and she had had ample opportunity during her six months in hospital to consider the extent of their responsibility for what then happened, but in the end she had accepted that no amount of pressure could obscure the fact that the decision had been her own. In fact it was a miracle that none of them had gone over the edge with her, because they were all skiing too fast in their desire to get down before the storm trapped them there. Moments before the accident, the woman said she remembered feeling an extraordinary sense of her own power, and also of her freedom, despite the fact that she knew the mountain could rescind her freedom in an instant. Yet in those moments it suddenly seemed like a childlike game, an opportunity to take leave of reality, and when she went over the precipice and the mountain fell away beneath her, for an instant she almost believed that she could fly. What happened next had to be pieced together from other people's accounts, since she didn't remember it herself, but it seemed the group had not hesitated in continuing down the mountain without her, since they absolutely assumed she couldn't have
survived the fall and was dead. Two days later, she had walked into a mountain refuge and collapsed. No one understood how she had been able to walk with so many broken bones; it was an impossibility, yet she had undeniably done it.
âI asked her how she thought it had happened,' Linda said, âand she said that she simply hadn't known her bones were broken. She didn't even feel any pain. When she said that,' Linda said, âit suddenly felt like she was talking about me.'
I asked her what she meant and she was silent for so long, slumped back in the booth with an impassive expression on her face, that it seemed she might not answer.
âI guess it reminded me of having a kid,' she said finally. âYou survive your own death,' she added, âand then there's nothing left to do except talk about it.'
It was hard to explain, she went on, but her feelings of affinity with the metal woman did seem to stem from an experience that for her had likewise been a process of being broken and then reassembled into an indestructible, unnatural and possibly suicidal version of herself. Like she'd said, you survived your own death and there was nothing left to do but talk about it, to strangers on a plane or whoever would listen. Unless you set your heart on finding a new way to die, she said. Skiing over a precipice sounded okay, and she'd thought of paying
someone to take her up in an aeroplane just to see if she could resist opening her parachute, but in the end writing was what generally kept her from going down that road. When she wrote she was neither in nor out of her body: she was just ignoring it.
âLike the family dog,' she said. âYou can treat that dog how you like. It's never going to be free, if it even remembers what freedom is.'
We sat looking at the wedding party on the other side of the room, where someone was making a speech while the bride and groom stood side by side smiling. Occasionally the bride would look down to smooth the front of her dress and whenever she looked up again there was an instant before her smile would reappear. We sat watching until a harried-looking girl wearing a festival t-shirt and carrying a clipboard came to the table to tell us the audience was waiting. The publisher slid out of the booth and smoothed the front of his blazer in a gesture that oddly mirrored the bride's. Standing up, Linda towered over him. We followed him out in single file. I noticed how carefully she had to walk in her high-heeled shoes.
I had been told that the interviewer was waiting for me outside in the hotel garden. The muffled oceanic roar of traffic rose steadily from the nearby road. She
was sitting alone on a bench amid the raw planted beds and network of gravel paths, gazing down the hill towards the city where the snaking dark shape of the river wound through the old town, trapped by the intricate architecture clamped to its sides. The blackened spikes of the cathedral could be seen jutting above the rooftops.
She had come directly from the train station on foot, she said, since in this city to go anywhere by car was effectively a diversion from one's aims. The post-war road system had been built apparently without thought for the notion of travelling between two points. The giant freeways circled the city without penetrating it, she said: to get anywhere, you had to go everywhere; the roads were permanently jammed while lacking the logic of a common destination. But it was a perfectly pleasant short walk through the centre. She stood up to shake my hand.
âActually,' she said, âwe've met before.'
I know, I said, and her huge eyes lit up for a second in her gaunt face.
âI wasn't sure you'd remember,' she said.
It had been more than ten years ago yet the encounter had stayed with me, I said. She had described her home and her life in a way that had often returned to me during those years and that I could still clearly recall. Her description of the town where she lived â
a place I had never been to, though I knew it wasn't far from here â and of its beauty had been particularly tenacious: it had often, as I had said, returned to my mind, to the extent that I had wondered why it did. The reason, I thought, was that this description had a finality to it that I couldn't imagine ever attaining in my own circumstances. She had talked about the placid neighbourhood where she had her home with her husband and children, with its cobbled streets too narrow for cars to pass down, so that nearly everyone travelled by bicycle, and where the tall, slender gabled houses were set back behind railings from the silent waterways on whose banks great trees stood, holding out their heavy arms so that they made plunging green reflections in the stillness below, like mirrored mountains. Through the windows you could hear the sounds of footsteps on the cobbles below and the hiss and whirr of bicycles passing in their shoals and drifts; and most of all you could hear the bells that rang unendingly from the town's many churches, striking not just the hours but the quarter and half hours, so that each segment of time became a seed of silence that then blossomed, filling the air with what almost seemed a kind of self-description. The conversation of these bells, held back and forth across the rooftops, was continued night and day: its cadences of observation and agreement, its passages
of debate, its longer narratives â at matins and evensong, for instance, and most of all on Sundays, the repeating summons building and building until it was followed at last by the joyous, deafening exposition â comforted her, she had said, as the sound of her parents' lifelong conversation had comforted her in her childhood, the rise and fall of their voices always there in the next room, discussing and observing and noting each thing that happened, as though they were making an inventory of the whole world. The quality of the town's silence, she had said, was something she only really noticed when she went elsewhere, to places where the air was filled with the drone of traffic and of music blaring out of restaurants and shops and the cacophony from the endless construction sites where buildings were forever being torn down and then put up again. She would come home to a silence that at those times felt so refreshing it was like swimming in cool water, and she would for a period be aware of how the bells, far from disturbing the silence, were in fact defending it.
Her description of her life had struck me, I said to her now, as that of a life lived inside the mechanism of time, and whether or not it was a life everyone would have found desirable it had seemed at the very least to lack a quality that drove other people's lives into extremity, whether of pleasure or of pain.
She lifted her elegant eyebrows, her head tilted to one side.
That quality, I said, could almost be called suspense, and it seemed to me to be generated by the belief that our lives were governed by mystery, when in fact that mystery was merely the extent of our self-deception over the fact of our own mortality. I had often thought of her, I said, in the years since we had last met, and those thoughts had tended to occur when I myself had been driven into extremity by the suspicion that some knowledge was being withheld from me whose revelation would make everything clear. She had talked, I said, about her husband and two sons and about the simple, regulated life they lived, a life that involved little change and hence little waste, and the fact that in certain details her life had mirrored my own while in no way resembling it had often led me to see my situation in the most unflattering light. I had broken that mirror, I said, without knowing whether I had done so as an act of violence or simply by mistake. Suffering had always appeared to me as an opportunity, I said, and I wasn't sure I would ever discover whether this was true and if so why it was, because so far I had failed to understand what it might be an opportunity for. All I knew was that it carried a kind of honour, if you survived it, and left you in a relationship to the truth that seemed closer, but that in
fact might have been identical to the truthfulness of staying in one place.
The interviewer sat with her light, bony limbs gracefully crossed and an expression of increasing severity on her face, which was deeply lined and shadowed, particularly beneath the eyes, where the skin almost looked bruised. Her head was bent and drooped on her long thin neck like the head of a dark flower while she listened.
âI admit,' she said finally, âthat I took pleasure in telling you about my life and in making you feel envious of me. I was proud of it. I remember thinking, yes, I've avoided making a mess of things, and it seemed to me that it was through hard work and self-control that I had, rather than luck. But it was important not to look as if I was boasting. It always felt then as if I had a secret,' she said, âand it would have ruined things if I had let it out. When I used to look at my husband I knew that he had the same secret and I knew that he would never tell it either because it was something we shared, like actors secretly share the knowledge that they're acting, which if they openly admitted it would ruin the scene. Actors need an audience,' she said, âand so did we, because part of the pleasure was showing our secret without telling it.'