By Rachel Cusk
Farrar, Straus and Giroux Copyright © 2016 Rachel Cusk
All rights reserved.
An astrologer emailed me to say she had important news for me concerning events in my immediate future. She could see things that I could not: my personal details had come into her possession and had allowed her to study the planets for their information. She wished me to know that a major transit was due to occur shortly in my sky. This information was causing her great excitement when she considered the changes it might represent. For a small fee she would share it with me and enable me to turn it to my advantage.
She could sense – the email continued – that I had lost my way in life, that I sometimes struggled to find meaning in my present circumstances and to feel hope for what was to come; she felt a strong personal connection between us, and while she couldn't explain the feeling, she knew too that some things ought to defy explanation. She understood that many people closed their minds to the meaning of the sky above their heads, but she firmly believed I was not one of those people. I did not have the blind belief in reality that made others ask for concrete explanations. She knew that I had suffered sufficiently to begin asking certain questions, to which as yet I had received no reply. But the movements of the planets represented a zone of infinite reverberation to human destiny: perhaps it was simply that some people could not believe they were important enough to figure there. The sad fact, she said, is that in this era of science and unbelief we have lost the sense of our own significance. We have become cruel, to ourselves and others, because we believe that ultimately we have no value. What the planets offer, she said, is nothing less than the chance to regain faith in the grandeur of the human: how much more dignity and honour, how much kindness and responsibility and respect, would we bring to our dealings with one another if we believed that each and every one of us had a cosmic importance? She felt that I of all people could see the implications here for improvements in world peace and prosperity, not to mention the revolution an enhanced concept of fate could bring about in the personal side of things. She hoped I would forgive her for contacting me in this way and for speaking so openly. As she had already said, she felt a strong personal connection between us that had encouraged her to say what was in her heart.
It seemed possible that the same computer algorithms that had generated this email had also generated the astrologer herself: her phrases were too characterful, and the note of character was repeated too often; she was too obviously based on a human type to be, herself, human. As a result her sympathy and concern were slightly sinister; yet for those same reasons they also seemed impartial. A friend of mine, depressed in the wake of his divorce, had recently admitted that he often felt moved to tears by the concern for his health and well-being expressed in the phraseology of adverts and food packaging, and by the automated voices on trains and buses, apparently anxious that he might miss his stop; he actually felt something akin to love, he said, for the female voice that guided him while he was driving his car, so much more devotedly than his wife ever had. There has been a great harvest, he said, of language and information from life, and it may have become the case that the faux-human was growing more substantial and more relational than the original, that there was more tenderness to be had from a machine than from one's fellow man. After all, the mechanised interface was the distillation not of one human but of many. Many astrologers had had to live, in other words, for this one example to have been created. What was soothing, he believed, was the very fact that this oceanic chorus was affixed in no one person, that it seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere: he recognised that a lot of people found this idea maddening, but for him the erosion of individuality was also the erosion of the power to hurt.
It was this same friend – a writer – who had advised me, back in the spring, that if I was moving to London with limited funds, it was better to buy a bad house in a good street than a good house somewhere bad. Only the very lucky and the very unlucky, he said, get an unmixed fate: the rest of us have to choose. The estate agent had been surprised that I adhered to this piece of wisdom, if wisdom it was. In his experience, he said, creative people valued the advantages of light and space over those of location. They tended to look for the potential in things, where most people sought the safety of conformity, of what had already been realised to the maximum, properties whose allure was merely the sum of exhausted possibilities, to which nothing further could be added. The irony, he said, was that such people, while afraid of being original, were also obsessed with originality. His clients went into ecstasies over the merest hint of a period feature: well, move out of the centre a little and you could have those in abundance for a fraction of the cost. It was a mystery to him, he said, why people continued to buy in over-inflated parts of the city when there were bargains to be had in up-and-coming areas. He supposed at the heart of it was their lack of imagination. Currently we were at the top of the market, he said: this situation, far from discouraging buyers, seemed actually to inflame them. He was witnessing scenes of outright pandemonium on a daily basis, his office stampeded with people elbowing one another aside to pay too much for too little as though their lives depended on it. He had conducted viewings where fights had broken out, presided over bidding wars of unprecedented aggression, had even been offered bribes for preferential treatment; all, he said, for properties that, looked at in the cold light of day, were unexceptional. What was striking was the genuine desperation of these people, once they were in the throes of desire: they would phone him hourly for updates, or call in at the office for no reason; they begged, and sometimes even wept; they were angry one minute and penitent the next, often regaling him with long confessions concerning their personal circumstances. He would have pitied them, were it not for the fact that they invariably erased the drama from their minds the instant it was over and the purchase completed, shedding not only the memory of their own conduct but also of the people who had had to put up with it. He had had clients who had shared the most gruesome intimacies with him one week and then walked past him in the street the next without the slightest sign of recognition; he had seen couples who had sunk to the depths before his eyes, now going obliviously about their business in the neighbourhood. Only in the very completeness of their oblivion did he sometimes detect a hint of shame. In the early days of his career he had found such incidents upsetting, but luckily experience had taught him not to take it to heart. He understood that for them he was a figure conjured out of the red mist of their desire, an object, so to speak, of transference. Yet the desire itself continued to bewilder him. Sometimes he concluded that people only want what it is not certain they can have; at other times it seemed to him more complex. Frequently, his clients would admit to feeling relief that their desire had been thwarted: the same people who had stormed and wept like frustrated children because a property was being denied them, would be found days later sitting calmly in his office, expressing gratitude for the fact that they hadn't got it. They could see now that it would have been completely wrong for them; they wanted to know what else he had on his books. For most people, he said, finding and procuring a home was an intensely active state; and activity entails a certain blindness, the blindness of fixation. Only when their will has been exhausted do the majority of people recognise the decree of fate.
We were sitting in his office while this conversation occurred. Outside, the traffic moved sluggishly along the grey, dirty London street. I said that the frenzy he had described, rather than arousing me to compete, extinguished any enthusiasm I might have had for house-hunting and made me want to walk immediately away. Besides, I didn't have the money to engage in bidding wars. I understood that in the market conditions he had described, I was therefore unlikely to find anywhere to live. But at the same time, I rebelled against the idea that creative people, as he had called them, should allow themselves to be marginalised by what he had politely described as their superior values. He had used, I believed, the word 'imagination': the worst possible thing for such a person was to quit the centre as an act of self-protection and take shelter in an aesthetic reality by which the outside world remained untransfigured. If I didn't want to compete, I wanted even less to make new rules about what constituted victory. I would want what everyone else wanted, even if I couldn't attain it.
The estate agent seemed somewhat taken aback by these remarks. He had not meant to imply, he said, that I ought to be marginalised. He simply thought I would get more for my money, and get it more easily, in a less overheated neighbourhood. He could see I was in a vulnerable position. And such fatalism as mine was rare in the world he worked in. But if I was determined to run with the pack, well, he did have something he could show me. He had the details right in front of him: it had just come back on the market that morning, the previous sale having fallen through. It was a council-owned property: they were keen to find another buyer straight away, and the price reflected that fact. As I could see, he said, it was in pretty poor condition – in fact, it was virtually uninhabitable. Most of his clients, hungry as they were, wouldn't have touched it in a million years. If I would permit him to use the word 'imagination', it was beyond the scope of most people's; though admittedly it was in a very desirable location. But given my situation, he couldn't in all conscience offer me encouragement. It was a job for a developer or a builder, someone who could look at it impersonally; the problem was the margins were too small for that kind of person to be interested. He looked me in the eye for the first time. Obviously it's not a place, he said, where you could expect children to live.
Several weeks later, when the transaction was concluded, I happened to pass the estate agent in the street. He was walking along on his own, a sheaf of papers clutched to his chest and a set of keys jingling in his fingers. I was careful to acknowledge him, remembering what he had said, but he merely glanced at me blankly and looked away again. That was in early summer; it was now the beginning of autumn. It was the astrologer's remarks about cruelty that had reminded me of that incident, which at the time had seemed to prove that whatever we might wish to believe about ourselves, we are only the result of how others have treated us. There was a link in the astrologer's email to the planetary reading she had made for me. I paid the money and read what it said.
Gerard was instantly recognisable: he was riding through the traffic on his bicycle in the sun and passed by without seeing me, his face lifted. He wore an exalted expression which reminded me of the element of drama in his persona and of the evening fifteen years earlier when he had sat naked on the windowsill of our top-floor flat with his legs dangling down into the darkness saying that he didn't believe I loved him. The only noticeable difference was his hair, which he'd allowed to grow into an arresting mane of wild black curls.
I saw him again a few days later: it was early in the morning and this time he was standing beside his bicycle in the street, holding the hand of a small girl in school uniform. I had once lived with Gerard for several months in the flat he had owned where, as far as I knew, he still remained. At the end of that period I had left him, without much ceremony or explanation, for someone else and had moved away from London. For a few years afterwards, he would sometimes call our house in the countryside, his voice sounding so faint and far away that it was as if he was calling from some place of actual exile. Then one day he sent me a long handwritten letter covering several pages, in which he appeared to be explaining to me why he had found my behaviour both incomprehensible and morally incorrect. It had arrived in the exhausting time just after my older son was born; I was unable to read it to the end, and had added to the list of my sins by not answering it.
After we had greeted one another, and expressed an astonishment that on my side was feigned since I had already seen him once without him seeing me, Gerard introduced the small girl as his daughter.
'Clara,' she said in a firm, high, quavering voice, when I asked her name.
Gerard asked how old mine were now, as though the bald fact of parenthood might be softened if I were implicated in it too. He said he had seen me interviewed somewhere – it was probably years ago now, to be honest – and the description of my house on the Sussex coast had made him quite envious. The South Downs were one of his favourite parts of the country. He was surprised, he said, to find me back here in the city.
'Clara and I walked the South Downs Way once,' he said. 'Didn't we, Clara?'
'Yes,' she said.
'I've often thought that's where we'd go if we ever left London,' Gerard said. 'Diane lets me read the estate-agent porn, so long as it stops there.'
'Diane's my mum,' Clara explained, with dignity.
The street where we were standing was one of the broad tree-lined avenues of handsome Victorian houses that seemed to act as the guarantors of the neighbourhood's respectability. Their well-pruned hedges and large, polished front windows, when I passed them, had always caused me groundless feelings of both security and absolute exclusion. The flat I had shared with Gerard had been nearby, on a street where the first faint downward cadences of tone could be heard as the neighbourhood began its transition towards the run-down, traffic-choked boroughs further east: the houses, though still handsome, bore the occasional imperfection; the hedges were a little more unruly. The flat had been a big, rambling network of rooms on the upper storeys of an Edwardian villa, whose striking views were expressive of the descent from the salubrious to the squalid, a dichotomy Gerard had seemed at the time either to be presiding over or imprisoned in. From the back was the Palladian vista westward, of well-kept lawns and lofty trees and discreet half-glimpses of other handsome houses. From the front was a bleak panorama of urban desolation of which, since the building stood on a rise, the flat had had a particularly unshielded view. Gerard had once pointed out a long, low structure in the distance and told me it was a women's prison: our view of it was so clear that at night the tiny orange dots that were the tips of the prisoners' cigarettes could be seen as they smoked on the walkway along their cells.
The playground noises coming from behind the high wall beside us were getting louder. Gerard put his hand on Clara's shoulder, and bent down to speak in a low voice into her ear. He was evidently delivering some kind of reprimand, and I found myself remembering his letter again and its cataloguing of my shortcomings. She was a tiny, fragile, pretty creature but her elfin face assumed an expression of superb martyrdom while he spoke that suggested she had inherited some of her father's melodramatic demeanour. She listened interestedly while he corrected her, her sagacious brown eyes staring unblinking into the distances of the road. Nodding very slightly in response to his final question, she turned and walked aloofly among the other children through the gates.
I asked Gerard how old she was.
'Eight,' he said. 'Going on eighteen.'
I was surprised by the discovery that Gerard had a child. In the time when I knew him he had been so far from resolving the difficulties of his own childhood that it was hard to believe he was now a father. The strangeness was accentuated by the fact that in every other respect he seemed unchanged: his sallow-skinned face with its soft, long-lashed, slightly childlike eyes was unaged; his left-hand trouser leg was still held back by a bicycle clip, as it always had been; the violin case strapped across his back had always been such a permanent feature of his appearance that I didn't think to ask what it was still doing there. When Clara had disappeared from view Gerard said:
'Someone told me you were moving back here. I didn't know whether to believe it or not.'
He asked if I'd bought somewhere and which street I was living in and I told him while he stood vigorously nodding his head. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Transit by Rachel Cusk. Copyright © 2016 Rachel Cusk. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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