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Authors: Rachel Cusk

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‘My sister's daughters now went from strength to strength, and in the public exams they far outshone my own children, who nonetheless did well enough. My sons were pleasant and stable; they had identified career paths for themselves – one in engineering, the other in computer software – and as they prepared to leave school and go out into the world I felt confident they would make responsible citizens. My husband and I, in other words, had done our duty, and it was now that I considered taking some of those feminist principles I had distributed far and wide and using them for myself. The truth was that I had long wondered what might lie outside the circumscribed world of my marriage, and what freedoms and pleasures
might be waiting for me there: it seemed to me that I had behaved honourably towards my family and my community, and that this was a moment in which I could, as it were, resign without causing anger or hurt and get away under cover of darkness. And a part of me believed that I was owed this reward for those years of self-control and self-sacrifice, but another part merely wanted to win the game once and for all; to show a woman like my sister that it was possible to gain freedom and self-knowledge without having to smash up the whole world in public in the process.

‘I imagined travelling,' she said, ‘to India and Thailand, alone with a simple knapsack, moving lightly and swiftly after all the years of being weighed down; I imagined sunsets and rivers, and mountaintops visible on calm evenings. I imagined my husband at home in our house beside the canal, with our sons and his hobbies and his friends, and it seemed to me he might also be relieved,' she said, ‘because over the two decades of our marriage our male and female qualities had become blunted on one another. We lived together like sheep, grazing side by side, huddled next to one another in sleep, habituated and unthinking. I considered that there might be other men,' she said, ‘and indeed for a long time other men had been appearing in my dreams, which otherwise were full of familiar people and familiar situations and anxieties. But these
men who appeared were always strangers, based on no one I had ever known or met, and yet they recognised me with a special tenderness and desire, and I would recognise them too, recognise in their faces something I felt I had once known but had forgotten or never found, and which I only remembered now, in the dream-state. Of course I could never tell anyone about these dreams, from which I woke feeling the most unbearable, exquisite happiness that quickly grew cold in the dawn light of our room and became disappointment. I have always been impatient with people who talk about their dreams,' she said, ‘but I had a powerful desire to tell someone about these dreams of mine. Yet the only person I could think of to tell,' she said, ‘was the man in the dream himself.

‘At around this time,' she went on, ‘my husband began to change, in ways that were so small they were impossible to identify and at the same time impossible to ignore. It was almost as if he had become a copy or forgery of himself, someone otherwise identical who nonetheless lacked the authentic quality of the original. And indeed whenever I asked him what was wrong, he would always say the same thing, which was that he wasn't feeling quite himself. I asked our sons if they had noticed anything and for a long time they denied it, but one evening, after the three of them had gone together to a football match – something
they did regularly – they admitted that I was right and that he was somehow different. Again, it was impossible to say what the difference was, since he looked and behaved as normal. But he wasn't really there, they said, and it occurred to me that this quality of absence might signify that he was having an affair. And indeed one evening in the kitchen shortly afterwards he suddenly said, very sombrely, that he had some news for me. In that moment,' she said, ‘I felt our whole life cleave apart, as though someone had cut it open with a great bright blade; I almost felt I could see the sky and the open air through the ceiling of our kitchen and feel the wind and rain coming through the walls. I had watched other couples separate,' she said, ‘and it was usually like the separation of Siamese twins, a long-drawn-out agony that in the end makes two incomplete and sorrowing people out of what was one. But this was so swift and sudden,' she said, ‘a mere slicing of the rope that tethered us, that it felt almost painless. My husband was not having an affair, however,' she said, tilting her head back towards the dull grey sky and blinking her eyes several times. ‘What he had to tell me was not that our life together was over and that I was free, but that he was ill,' she said, ‘an illness, moreover, that would not hasten his death but would instead blight every aspect of the life that remained to him. We had been married
for twenty years,' she said, ‘and he could easily live twenty more, the doctors had told him, each day losing some facet of his autonomy and potency, a reverse kind of evolution that would require him to pay back every single thing he had taken from life. And I too would have to pay,' she said, ‘because the one thing that was forbidden to me was to desert him in his time of need, despite the fact that I no longer loved him and perhaps had never really loved him, and that equally he might not have ever loved me either. This would be the last secret we had to keep,' she said, ‘and the most important one, because if this secret got out all the others would too, and the whole picture of life and of our children's lives we had made would be destroyed.

‘My sister's new partner,' she went on after a while, ‘has a house on one of the islands, the most beautiful island of them all. My husband and I had often fantasised about owning a property there, despite the fact that we could not have afforded even the smallest cowshed in that place. But it would have made our family complete, we felt, and it was something we always wanted that nonetheless remained outside our grasp. I have seen photographs of her partner's house,' she said, ‘which is a spectacular place right by the water, and her children are sometimes in the photographs, and even though I know them well they look like happy strangers. But I have never been to that
house,' she said, ‘and I will never go, despite the fact that my sister increasingly spends all her time there and even manages to complain about certain aspects of it, so that I have wondered whether one day she will reject it, as she has rejected nearly everything else she's been given. I no longer know what goes on inside my sister's head,' she said, ‘because she no longer tells me, and it is this fact – that her life now has a secret of its own – that proves to me she will, after all, hold on to what she has. I sense that she would like never to see me again, and perhaps even never to see anyone. She has come to the end of her journey, a journey I have spent my whole life watching her make, and she has found what she wanted, despite my watching her with the greatest ambivalence. The effect has been to make her disappear from my view, as though I have forfeited my right to be able to see her. And I can't get over the feeling,' she said, ‘that all of it was stolen from me.'

She was silent for a while, her chin lifted and her eyes half-closed. A bird landed enquiringly at her feet on the gravel path and sprang away again unnoticed.

‘Now and again,' she continued presently, ‘I have met people who have freed themselves from their family relationships. Yet there often seems to be a kind of emptiness in that freedom, as though in order to dispense with their relatives they have had to dispense
with a part of themselves. Like the man trapped in the glacier who cut off his own arm,' she said, with a faint smile. ‘I don't intend to do that. My arm occasionally hurts me but I see it as my duty to keep it. The other day,' she said, ‘I met her first husband in the street. He was walking along holding a briefcase and wearing a suit, and I was surprised because this businessman's attire was something I had never associated with him: he had always been a bohemian, artistic kind of person, and the fact that he would never stoop to working in an office – even if it meant his family were hard up – and condescended to the people who did, was one of the things that I guessed had riled my husband about him. My sister had earned the money in their household, and had even claimed – as a matter of feminist principle – to be glad that she did, but after their divorce I suppose he had eventually had to fend for himself. In fact I had privately admired his contempt for conventional men, and indeed I secretly shared it, so it was a surprise to me, as I say, to see him apparently dressed as one. We approached each other in the street and our eyes met, and I felt my old fondness for him spring up, in spite of everything that had happened. When we drew close enough I opened my mouth to speak, and only then did I see the expression of utter hatred on his face, so that for a moment I thought he might actually be about
to spit at me. Instead, as he passed me, he hissed. It was a sound,' she said, ‘such as an animal would make, and I was so shocked that I simply stood there in the street for a long time after he had walked away. The bells began to ring,' she said, ‘and at the same time it started to rain, and I stood with my eyes fixed on the pavement, where the water was beginning to gather and to show the buildings and the trees and the people upside down in reflection. The bells rang and rang,' she said, ‘and it must have been some special occasion, because I didn't think I had ever heard them ring for so long, to the point where I believed they would never stop. The melody they played got wilder and wilder and more and more nonsensical. But for as long as they rang,' she said, ‘I was unable to move, and so I stood there with the water running down my hair and over my face and my clothes, watching the whole world gradually transfer itself into the mirror at my feet.'

She fell silent, her mouth stretched in a strange grimace, her huge eyes unblinking and the declivity of her nose a well of shadow in the changing light of the garden.

‘You asked me earlier,' she said to me, ‘whether I believed that justice was merely a personal illusion. I don't have the answer to that,' she said, ‘but I know that it is to be feared, feared in every part of you, even
as it fells your enemies and crowns you the winner.'

Then, without saying anything more, she began to put her things in her bag with light, quick movements and turned to me with her hand outstretched. I took it, and felt the surprising smoothness and warmth of her skin.

‘I think I have everything I need,' she said. ‘In fact I looked up all the details before I came. It's what we journalists do nowadays,' she said. ‘One day they'll probably replace us with a computer program. I read that you got married again,' she added. ‘I admit that it surprised me. But don't worry,' she said, ‘I won't be focusing on the personal elements. What matters is that it's a long, important piece. If I can get it done by the morning,' she said, looking at her watch, ‘they may even put it in the afternoon edition.'

*

‘The party was being held at a venue in the city centre…'

The party was being held at a venue in the city centre and a guide had been appointed to accompany those who wished to walk there from the hotel. He was a tall, thin boy with thick, lustrous black hair that grew in waves nearly down to his shoulders and a fixed brilliant smile that he displayed continuously while his eyes moved rapidly from side to side, as though he had learned to remain alert to the possibility of ambush.

He often guided participants around the city, he told me, since his mother was the festival's director and had decided in this way to make use of his navigational abilities, which he had been told were unusual. His recollection of pretty much every place he'd been in his life was entirely clear, as well as that of many places he hadn't been, since he liked to study maps in his spare time and to set himself topographical challenges that were often very satisfying to resolve. He had never visited Berlin, for instance, but he was fairly sure that if he were dropped in the middle of it he'd be able to find his way around and might even outwit some of the natives in getting, say, from the swimming pool in Plötzensee to the Berlin public library in the shortest possible time. He had worked out that by emerging from the U-Bahn at Hauptbahnhof and cutting across the Tiergarten on foot, you could save yourself a complicated set of interchanges by train as well as ten or fifteen minutes of time. It had worried him that this shortcut would be less feasible in winter, when he understood the weather in Berlin could be extraordinarily severe, but then the happy thought had occurred to him that since the swimming pool was open-air, you would be unlikely to need to visit it outside the summer months.

We had left the grounds of the hotel by now and were walking down a tunnel-like road with high
concrete walls to either side where the steady roar of traffic from the overpass was so loud that Hermann, as he had introduced himself, put his fingers in his ears before darting suddenly down a narrow alleyway to the left. The problem with taking a group for a walk, he went on while we waited for the others to follow, lay in working out how to reach the end all at the same time while accommodating different styles and rates of progress. The faster walkers had to stop frequently to let the slower ones catch up: this meant that the fittest members of the group were given the most opportunity to rest, while those who struggled to keep up were never allowed a chance to catch their breath. Yet if the slowest were given as many stops as the fastest, the walk would have taken approximately double the time: in addition, the fastest would now be waiting twice as long as before, which created new problems such as boredom and frustration, or becoming hungry or cold. His mother had reassured him that these were problems to which he was capable of finding logical solutions, but he was aware that many of what appeared to him as rational challenges appeared to other people as metaphors, and he was always anxious lest a misunderstanding should arise. All his life his mother had encouraged him to read books, not because she was one of those people who believed reading books improved people but because she had
pointed out that studying imaginative works would at least enable him to follow certain conversations and not mistake them for reality. As a child he had found stories very upsetting, and he still disliked being lied to, but he had come to understand that other people enjoyed exaggeration and make-believe to the extent that they regularly confused them with the truth. He had learned to absent himself mentally in such situations, he added, by going over passages he had memorised from philosophical texts and revisiting certain maths problems, or sometimes by just reciting some of the more obscure bus timetables in his repertory, until the moment passed.

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