Authors: Rachel Cusk
âSorry,' he said.
He rubbed his face energetically, and after staring past me out of the window for a while and breathing deeply through his nose, he asked me whether I had ever been to this part of Europe before.
I told him I had gone there only once, years ago,
with my son. He was finding life difficult at the time, I said, and I had thought a trip away would be good for him. But then at the last minute I had decided to take another boy along too, the son of a friend of mine. My friend was ill and needed to go to hospital and so I thought it would help her. The two boys didn't get on very well, I said, and my friend's son needed a lot of attention, so while my own son might have expected to be my focus for a few days, in the end it didn't work out like that. There was an exhibition I very much wanted to see and so one morning I persuaded the two of them to come with me to the gallery. I had thought we could walk there but I had judged the distances wrongly and we ended up walking for miles along a sort of motorway in the pouring rain. It turned out my friend's son never went to galleries and wasn't interested in art, and he began to misbehave, so that the attendants had to reprimand him and eventually asked him to leave. In the end I had to sit with him in the cafÃ© in our wet clothes while my son went to the exhibition on his own. He was gone for about an hour, I said, and when he came back he described everything he'd seen for me. I didn't know, I said, whether it was ever possible to ascribe a final value to the experience of parenthood, to ever see it in its totality, but that time we spent in the cafÃ© while he talked was one of its moments of grace. One of the things
he'd seen was a giant wooden crate in which the artist had reconstructed his own room in its life-sized entirety. Everything was there â furniture, clothes, typewriter, piles of paper and books lying open on the desk, dirty coffee cups â but it had been inverted so that the floor was the ceiling and the whole room was upside down. My son had been particularly struck by this upside-down room, which you entered through a small doorway in the crate, and had spent a long time inside it. Often, I said, in the years afterwards, I would remember his description of it and imagine him sitting there, in a world that contains all the same elements but is the other way round from how you expect it to be.
The man was listening with an expression of mild puzzlement on his face.
âAnd did he go on to become an artist?' he said, as though that could be the only explanation for my telling him these things.
He would be going to university in the autumn, I said, to study art history.
âOh, okay,' he said, nodding his head.
His own son, he said, was the academic type, far more so than Betsy. He wanted to be a vet. He kept all sorts of weird animals in his room: a chinchilla, a snake, a pair of rats. They had a friend who was a vet and his son spent most of his weekends there, at the
surgery. It was his son, in fact, who had noticed there was something wrong with Pilot. The dog had been very quiet and subdued for the past couple of weeks. They had put it down to his age, but then one evening his son was fondling Pilot and noticed a swelling in his side. A couple of days later, when his wife was out and the children were at school, he took Pilot to his vet friend, not really thinking anything of it. The vet examined him and said that Pilot had cancer.
He paused and looked past me out of the window again.
âI didn't really know dogs could have cancer,' he said. âI'd never thought about how Pilot would die. I asked whether he could operate and he said there was no point â it was too far gone. So he gave him some drugs for the pain and I drove him home again. All the way home,' he said, âI kept seeing Pilot as he was when he was young and strong and powerful. I thought about all the years he had been here while I was away for weeks at a time, and the fact that he was fading now that I had retired seemed significant somehow. Most of all I dreaded telling the others, because to be honest I'm not sure they wouldn't rather have had Pilot than me. I started to feel I had upset everything by coming home. They had all seemed so happy when I wasn't there, and now my wife and I were arguing all the time and the kids were shouting
and slamming doors and to top it all,' he said, âI'd caused the dog to get ill, when he'd never shown a second of weakness his whole life. Anyway,' he said, âI did tell them, though admittedly I made it sound less serious than it was. We had arranged for him to go to kennels while we were abroad but I knew he wouldn't make it, so I told them to go on without me. They were pretty suspicious. They made me promise to phone them if he got worse so that they could come back. They even called that evening from the hotel and made me swear I wouldn't let Pilot die while they were away. I said he was okay and that it was just a cold or something and that he'd probably be fine in the morning.' He paused and looked at me sideways. âI didn't even tell my wife.'
I asked him why not and he paused again.
âWhen she was giving birth to the kids she didn't want me to be there,' he said. âI remember her saying she wouldn't be able to handle the pain if I was in the room. She had to do it on her own. They loved Pilot,' he said, âbut it was me who had trained him and disciplined him and made him what he was. In a sense I created him,' he said, âto stand in for me when I wasn't there. I don't think anyone could have understood what I felt about him, not even them. And the idea of them being there and of their feelings having to take priority over mine was pretty unbearable,
which I think,' he said, âwas more or less what she meant.
âAnyway,' he went on, âPilot had this big bed in the kitchen where he used to sleep and he was lying there stretched out on his side and so I went and got some cushions and I made him as comfortable as I could and I sat down next to him on the floor. He was panting very fast and he was looking at me with these huge, sad eyes and for a long time we just stayed there, looking at each other. I stroked his head and talked to him and he lay there panting and at around midnight I started to wonder how long this was going to go on for. I didn't really know anything about the dying process â I've never been with someone when they died â and I realised I was beginning to feel impatient. It wasn't even that I wanted him to get it over with for his own sake. I just wanted something to happen. For pretty much my whole adult life,' he said, âI've been on my way somewhere or on my way back. I've never been in any situation without the prospect of it ending or of having to leave at a set time and even though that way of living was sometimes unpleasant, in a sense I'd become addicted to it. At the same time I was thinking about how people say you should put animals out of their misery, and I wondered whether what I ought to be doing was knocking him out or putting a pillow over his face and whether I was just
too weak or scared. And it felt weirdly like Pilot would have known the answer to that question. In the end at about two in the morning I cracked and called the vet and he said that if I wanted him to, he would come straight over and give him an injection. So I asked him what would happen if we just left it as it was and he said he didn't know â it could be hours or it could be days or even weeks. It's up to you, he said. So I said to him, look, is the dog dying or not? And he said yes, of course he's dying, but it's a mysterious process and you can either wait it out or you can choose to bring it to an end. And then I started to think about Betsy playing in her concert the next day and about how tired I'd be and all the things I had to do and so I told him to come over. And he was there fifteen minutes later.'
I asked him what happened in those fifteen minutes.
âNothing,' he said. âNothing at all. I was still sitting there and Pilot was still panting and gazing at me with these big eyes and I didn't feel anything particularly, just that I was waiting for someone to come and get me out of this situation. It felt like it had become false, yet now,' he said, âI would give literally anything to be back in it, to be back in that room in that precise moment of time.
âEventually the vet came and it was very quick and he closed Pilot's eyes and gave me a number to call in the morning for someone to come and take the body
away, and then he left. So there I was in the same room with the same dog, only now the dog was dead. I started to think about what my wife and kids would say if they knew, if they could see me sitting there, and I realised then that I had done something awful, something they would never have done, something so cowardly and unnatural and now so completely irreversible that it felt like I would never, ever get over it and that things would never be the same again. And in a way it was just to hide the evidence of what I'd done that I decided to bury him then and there. I went out to the shed in the dark and got a spade and then I chose a place in the garden and I started to dig. And all the time I was digging I couldn't tell whether what I was doing was manly and honourable or just fake as well, because at the same time as I was digging I was imagining telling people about it. I was imagining them thinking about my physical strength and my decisiveness, but in fact it was much harder work than I had expected. At the beginning I thought I wasn't going to be able to do it. Yet I knew there was absolutely no way I could give up. I could see how it would look in daylight, me sitting there with a dead dog and a half-dug mess in the garden. The ground was incredibly hard and the spade kept hitting rocks and the hole had to be pretty big to fit Pilot in it. Once or twice I thought I was going to have to admit defeat. Yet after a
while,' he said, âI started to feel that this actually was what it was like to be a man. I realised that I felt anger, and that it was anger that was giving me the strength to do it and so I let myself get angrier and angrier until in the end I wasn't even afraid of what the family would say because they hadn't had to kill the dog and then dig this hole to bury him in. One of the phrases my wife had started to use when we argued about the way she ran things was: “You weren't here”. I always hated it, but now I could imagine saying it back to her. I realised how angry she must have been to say it and suddenly I was glad that Pilot was dead. I was actually glad, because it felt like without him we were going to have to admit what we truly felt.'
He paused, an expression of bewilderment on his face.
âI finished digging the hole,' he went on after a while, âand I went back into the house and I wrapped Pilot in a blanket. I picked him up from his bed and he was so unbelievably heavy I almost dropped him. It would have been easier to drag him,' he said, âbut I knew I couldn't let myself do that because I was already starting to become frightened of the body. When I went back into the house and saw him lying there dead,' he said, âI had the most unbelievable urge to run away. I had to believe it was still Pilot,' he said, âor I couldn't have gone through with it. In
the end I had to hold him right against my chest,' he said, âand even then I managed to bang his head on the door frame on my way out, and I was talking to him and apologising to him out loud and somehow I staggered outside with him and got him across the garden and put him in the hole. It was starting to get light. I arranged him all nicely, then I went back inside and got some of his things from his bed and put them down there with him. Then I filled the hole with earth and tided it and marked the edges with stones. Then I went and packed my bag and had a shower. I was absolutely filthy,' he said. âI had to throw away my shirt. Then I got in the car and drove to the airport.'
He spread out his large hands in front of him and examined them back and front. They were clean, except for the dark, compacted half-moons of dirt under the nails. He looked at me.
âThe only thing I couldn't get out was the mud under my fingernails,' he said.
The hotel was completely round: it had at one time been a water tower, the receptionist said, and the repurposing of the building had won the architect many prizes. She gave me a map of the city, smoothing it out across the reception desk with slender, highly varnished fingernails.
âWe are here,' she said, circling the spot with a pen.
In the lobby a number of thick pillars ascended through the core of the building, from which walkways extended overhead like the spokes of a wheel. Behind one of these pillars a girl in a T-shirt printed with the festival logo sat at a desk piled with information leaflets. She went through her sheaf of papers, trying to find my details. I was scheduled to participate in an event this afternoon, she said, and after that she believed an interview had been arranged for me with one of the national daily newspapers. The event would take place here in the hotel. In the evening there was a party at a venue in the city centre where food would be provided. The festival was operating a coupon system for food: I could use these coupons both here at the hotel and later at the party. She produced a wad of printed slips, several of which she carefully tore away along a perforated line and handed to me, after making a note of their serial numbers on the list in front of her. She also handed me an information leaflet and a message from my publisher, saying he would meet me before the afternoon event in the hotel bar.
Part of the hotel bar had been cordoned off for a wedding reception. People stood in the dark, low-ceilinged space holding glasses of champagne. The windows along the rounded wall let in a strong, cold light from one side and the contrast of light and dark
gave the guests' clothes and faces a slightly garish appearance. A photographer was leading people in pairs or small groups out on to the terrace where they stood in the cool, breezy day, holding their expressions for the camera. The bride and groom were talking and laughing in a circle of guests, side by side but turned away from one another. Their faces wore an expression of self-consciousness, almost of culpability. I noticed that everyone there was around the same age as the married couple, and the absence of anyone older or younger made it seem as though these events were bound neither to the future nor the past, and that no one was entirely certain whether it was freedom or irresponsibility that had untethered them.