Authors: Rachel Cusk
âThe funny thing is,' the man said, âit felt as if I'd been asking myself that question for as long as I could remember.'
I asked him what had happened to the dog.
For a moment he looked confused, as though he couldn't remember which dog I was talking about. Then he furrowed his brow and pouted and blew out a great sigh.
âIt's a bit of a long story,' he said.
The dog â his name was Pilot â was actually quite old, he said, though you wouldn't have thought it to look at him. He and his wife got Pilot shortly after they were married. They had bought their house in the countryside, he said, and it was an ideal place to have a dog. Pilot was a small puppy, but even then he had the most enormous paws: they knew the breed could get very large, but nothing had prepared them for the extraordinary size to which Pilot eventually grew. Every time they thought he couldn't get any bigger, he did: sometimes it was almost funny to see how disproportionately small he made everything around him look, their house and their car and even one another.
âI'm unusually tall,' he said, âand sometimes you get sick of being taller than everyone else. But when I stood next to Pilot, I felt normal.'
His wife was pregnant with their first child and so Pilot became his own project: he didn't travel as much for work in those days, and for several months he spent most of his free time training Pilot, walking in the hills with him and forming his character. He never spoiled him or gave in to him; he exercised him unfailingly and rewarded him sparingly, and when, as a young dog, Pilot chased a herd of sheep, he beat him with a severity and with a confidence that surprised even himself. Most of all, he was careful how he behaved in front of Pilot, for all the world as if the dog were human, and indeed by the time he reached maturity Pilot possessed an unusual intelligence, as well as a ferocious bark and a giant, muscular body. He treated the family with a sensitivity and consideration that other people found frankly uncanny, though over time they themselves had become used to it. For instance, when their son was seriously ill with pneumonia last year, Pilot had sat outside his room day and night and automatically came to get them if the child called for anything. He was attuned to and even mirrored their daughter's periodic episodes of depression, which sometimes they had only become aware of because Pilot had grown morose and withdrawn.
Yet if a stranger came to the house he would transform himself into a guard dog of the utmost vigilance and ruthlessness. People who didn't know him were terrified of him, and rightly, because he would have killed them without hesitation if they had presented any threat to the members of the household.
It was when Pilot was three or four years old, the man went on, that he got his major career break and began to be away from home for extended periods of time, and he felt able to leave, knowing that the family would be safe in his absences. Sometimes, he said, when he was away, he would think of the dog and feel almost closer to him than to any other living thing. So he couldn't have left him in his own hour of need, despite the fact that his daughter was to be the main soloist at the concert and had been practising for weeks. The performance was part of an international festival and there would be a large audience: it was a fantastic opportunity. Yet Betsy didn't want to let Pilot out of her sight. He had the devil's own job getting her to go: it was as if she didn't trust him to look after his own dog.
I asked what piece she was playing and he ruffled his hair again.
âI'm not actually sure,' he said. âHer mother would know, obviously.'
He hadn't really realised his daughter was so good
at playing the oboe, he added. She had started taking lessons when she was six or seven and frankly it had always sounded pretty awful, to the extent that he had had to ask her to do it in her room. The squeaking noise set his teeth on edge, particularly when he'd come off a long flight. Often he could still hear the reedy, insinuating sound behind her closed door and if he was trying to sleep off his jet lag it was actually quite annoying. He had wondered once or twice whether she did it to persecute him, but apparently she practised just as much when he wasn't there. Occasionally he had gone so far as to suggest that it might be healthier for her to practise less and do other things more, but this opinion had been met with much the same scorn as his attempts to impose discipline on the family timetable. And to be honest, when asked what he thought she ought to be doing with her time, all he could think of were the kinds of things he'd done at her age â socialising and watching television â that he somehow considered more normal. As far as he was concerned, hardly anything about Betsy was normal. For example, she suffered from insomnia: what average fourteen-year-old can't sleep? Instead of eating dinner, she would stand by the kitchen cupboards lifting handfuls of dry cereal to her mouth straight from the box. She never went outside and, since her mother drove her everywhere, rarely walked. He had
been told that when he wasn't there she walked Pilot every day, but since he never witnessed it he found it difficult to believe. It had got to the point where he'd started to wonder how she was ever going to leave home, and whether they might have to keep her there forever, like some kind of failed experiment.
Then one evening Betsy was playing in a school concert and he went along with his wife, and with every expectation of being secretly bored sat jammed into a small chair in the auditorium amidst the other parents. The lights came up and in front of the orchestra on the stage stood a girl he took a long time to recognise as Betsy. She seemed much older, for a start; and there was something else, perhaps the fact that she didn't appear to need him or to reproach him with the problem of her existence, that was startlingly relieving. Once he accepted that it was her, what he felt was the most terrible, ominous fear. He was absolutely certain she would embarrass herself and he clutched his wife's hand, believing she felt the same way. The conductor arrived â a man he immediately prepared himself to dislike, dressed in black jeans and a black polo-neck sweater â and the orchestra began to play, and at a certain point Betsy started playing too. What he noticed was how closely Betsy watched this conductor and responded to his slightest sign, nodding her head and lifting the instrument to her lips, her
large eyes unblinking. Of such a silent feat of intimacy and obedience he had not thought his daughter capable, he who couldn't persuade her to eat her cereal from a bowl. Only after some minutes did he connect the eerie, snaking sound with her more literally: he had sat in enough audiences to know that this one was charmed, spellbound, and only then was he able to really listen. What he heard drew water from his eyes in such quantities that people began to glance round at him in their seats. Afterwards Betsy claimed she could see him weeping from the stage because of his height. She said it had been embarrassing.
I asked him why he thought he had cried, and his mouth tugged unexpectedly downwards in the corners so that he tried to hide it with his large hand.
âTo be honest,' he said, âI suppose I'd always worried there was something wrong with her.'
I said it seemed to me people often found it easier to entertain that idea about their children than about themselves, and he looked at me as though he were momentarily considering that theory before firmly shaking his head.
From earliest childhood, he said, Betsy had been unlike other children â and not in a good way. She was unbelievably neurotic: when they went to the beach, for example, she couldn't bear the feeling of sand under her feet and so they would have to carry
her everywhere. She couldn't stand the sounds of certain words and would scream and put her hands over her ears if anyone said them. The list of things she wouldn't eat, and the reasons why, was so long it was impossible to keep up with. She was allergic to everything and constantly ill and was also, as he'd said, an insomniac. Often he and his wife would wake in the middle of the night to find Betsy standing beside their bed like a ghost in her nightdress, staring down at them. As she grew older the most serious problem of all became her extraordinary sensitivity to what she called lying, but what was actually as far as he could see the normal conventions and speech patterns of adult conversation. She claimed that most of what people said was fake and insincere, and when he'd asked her how she could possibly know that, she replied that she could tell by the sound. As he'd said, even as a very small child the sound of certain words had been unbearable to her, but as she got older and started school this problem became more rather than less pronounced. They had moved her to a different school that dealt with her problems more expertly, but even so it made family and social relationships somewhat difficult when their child would run shrieking from the room with her hands clamped to her ears just because one of their guests had claimed to be so full she couldn't possibly eat dessert, or that business
was booming despite the economic downturn. He and his wife had tried hard to understand their daughter, to the extent that when they talked to each other after the children had gone to bed they would try to inculcate her sensitivity in themselves, straining their ears to hear the insincerity in one another's phrases, and they had discovered that it was indeed true that much of what you said was pretty scripted and that if you really thought about it you could admit it didn't often represent how you actually felt. But they still fell foul of Betsy with great regularity, and he had noticed that his wife was growing increasingly silent, which he believed to be Betsy's doing, by creating such a minefield around communication that it was easier to say nothing at all.
Perhaps for this reason â because he couldn't speak, and therefore lie â Betsy adored Pilot with a sometimes unnerving ferocity. Yet not long ago there had been an episode that had caused him to question, for the first time, Betsy's definition of truth and her tyranny in the matter of storytelling. He had taken her out with him to walk Pilot and the dog had suddenly bolted. They were in the park of a stately home and somehow he had failed to realise that they kept deer there and had let Pilot off his lead. Usually Pilot was scrupulously obedient around livestock, but on this occasion he had behaved in a way that was completely out of character.
One minute he was there beside them, and the next he was gone.
âYou wouldn't believe that animal's speed,' he said. âHe was an enormous dog and when he chose to move there was no way anyone could catch him. He'd lengthen his stride and just change into another gear altogether. He was fifty yards away before we knew it,' he said, âand we just stood there and watched him flying across the park. When the deer saw him they started to run, although it was already far too late for them to escape. There must have been hundreds of them. I don't know whether you've ever seen anything like that,' he said, âbut in an awful way it's a beautiful sight. They run in a body, like water. We watched them streaming over the park with Pilot on their heels and despite everything I was almost mesmerised by it. They kept turning and doubling back in a big figure of eight and he followed them but it was almost as if he was steering them, making them describe some pattern he already had in his head. For about five minutes they carried on like that, round and round in these big flowing lines, and then suddenly it was as if he got bored or decided it needed to end. Completely effortlessly he just doubled his speed and he penetrated the body of the herd and he picked off one of the young ones and he brought it down. There was this woman standing near us,' he said, âand she started
screaming at us and saying she was going to report us and get someone to come and shoot him, and I was trying to calm her down and we suddenly heard this noise behind us and we look round and Betsy has fainted. She's lying there out cold on the grass and there's blood coming from her head where she hit a stone as she fell. Honestly,' he said, âshe looked like she was dead. Pilot had taken off into the woods by this point and the woman was so worried about Betsy that she forgot about shooting the dog and helped me carry her to the car and came with us all the way to the hospital. Betsy was fine, of course.'
He laughed grimly and shook his head.
I asked him what happened to the dog.
âOh, he came back that night,' he said. âI heard him at the door and when I opened it he didn't come in but just stood there outside looking at me. He was absolutely filthy and covered in blood and he knew what was coming to him. He expected it. I hated beating him though,' he said sadly. âI only had to do it two or three times in his life. We both knew he couldn't have been what he was without it. But Betsy refused to accept what he had done. She wouldn't touch him or speak to him for weeks. She wouldn't speak to me either. She just didn't get it at all. I said to her, you know, you don't train a dog by sulking and being in a mood with him. You'll just make him
sly and dishonest. You know, I said to her, the reason you feel safe when I'm not here is because you know that if anyone tried to hurt any of you, Pilot would do to them what he did to that deer. He might sit on the sofa with you and bring you things and lie next to you on the bed when you're ill, but when someone he doesn't know knocks at the door he's ready to kill them if need be. He's an animal, I said, and he needs to be disciplined, but when you impose your sensitivities on him you interfere with his nature.'
He was silent for a while, his chin lifted, staring down the grey aisle where the air hostess was pushing her trolley through the sea of people. She turned to left and right, bending from the waist across the rows, the lifted corners of her eyes and mouth so sharply delineated that they almost seemed to have been intricately carved out of the smooth oval of her head. Her automatic movements were hypnotising and the man appeared to go into a kind of daze watching her. After a while his head began to nod forward until it fell with such a jolt that he sat up again.