Resolutions: How I learnt to move on by going backwards

Rachel Cusk felt trapped by the interminable misery of boarding school, even after she left. But then she learned how to play a trick on time ...

I wonder whether it is true, as I sometimes feel, that the early part of life assumes more significance the further away from it you are; that rather as the roots of a tree extend to support its growing weight, the vessel of childhood and adolescence is not, as we might think, discarded, but enlarged to contain the volume of years.

It is not that I resent the way time orders experiences, or that the period when someone is most powerless should retrospectively hold the most interest.

My sense of an injustice, or at least a deception, lies rather in the youthful belief that the future is superabundant and universal, and will absolve us of the parochialness of childhood. To find that life is ultimately parochial, that it comes back again and again to the place where it began, fills me with unease. I have no sense of a story yet, no faith in an ending that will justify its beginning. Increasingly I believe that you can spend only what you have, and that if you spend unwisely at first it is simply because no one has taught you about prudence and pain.

I misspent my youth, although not in the traditional way. When I was 12 I was sent to boarding school, for an internment so lengthy in proportion to my age that the prospect of release lay philosophically beyond my reach. I had always disliked school, mainly because it encouraged counting. From an early age I became aware that imposing enforceable limits on time interfered with one's natural relationship to it. Since birth I had suffered from asthma, itself an illness of time, an aversion to the military march of breath and hours. Boarding school presented a challenge even to my understanding of the arithmetic of routine. Instead of days there were terms, periods of submersion too long humanly to be withstood. Some other method of survival would have to be evolved, some air pocket found where the weeks could safely be waited out.

This evolution might, of course, have occurred naturally. Initially unhappy, I might have changed and become someone who liked boarding school; but it seemed to me even then that those sorts of changes were dangerous, that they represented some form of surrender. Instead I stuck by my unhappiness. It was a private resource, indeed my only privacy. It became the place where time could pass by without its shadow falling on me, where life could be felt despite every attempt to make it unfeeling.

For a long time afterwards I thought that the way to remember those six years was to honour their detail, their nights and days, their violence, their loneliness, the faces and words and feelings that populated them. I thought the time they represented, like a paper bond, could be reclaimed; that by living every new hour with the awareness of liberty, the site of pain would yield some strange pleasure, like a tender scar over which longing fingers can finally run. But the futility of this pleasure, like the fact that there was a scar at all, became enraging. The detail, rather than justifying the expense of years, evinced their waste. Life, I realised, had gone on, had been spent. The fact that I hadn't wanted it did not mean it could be refunded. I had been waiting for a better time, but when it came I found that I did not step from a cocoon of repressed desire to receive it. What had shielded me could not be cast away. The impermeability of my skin repelled good and bad alike. I waited out happiness, and anticipated its end, just as I had done misery.

These equations seem, and are, simple, but the purpose of reciting them here is to question the greater science to which they belong. We all feel ourselves to be the servants, if not the victims, of chronology and time, and don't know when or where along this merciless trajectory we will find the core of our being, the spool of significance around which the thread of years will wrap itself. My sense that this significance had come too early for me, had snagged me and disordered the whole weave of my future, left me in a kind of moral opposition to the notions of order that seemed to underpin experience. I still wonder whether the only function of personality is to bear witness to the brutality of its formation, to tell the story of how you came to be by enacting the process of your creation; and how by implication one part of time could be so much more important than another. I wonder why the development of self-will is accompanied by an inability to change, and whether the injustice of unhappiness is real or illusory. I rail at the idea that having endured the bad, I could find myself unfit for the good. Most of all I wonder whether people are no more than the sum of the things that have happened to them, like a "before and after" advertisement, except in reverse.

When I left school, the intimate relationship with time I had formed permitted it a troubling, guilty tenancy in my mind, although in fact I had earned my freedom from it. I took to smoking, the original pause for thought, as a form of privacy, a way of obscuring time's presence. The limited languor, the empty parentheses of a cigarette still hold a great attraction for me. Writing fiction later became a similar way of living outside time, a featof inversion: the creation over time of a place in which time has no power. Given that this was precisely the reverse of what had happened during my years at school, I could have been eternally satisfied by the neatness of my own existence, and the good order I could these days show myself to be in. In fact I derived something better from it, something which, if not actually an answer, at least holds some hope of becoming one.

The question, in any case, was this: why does the order in which things happen act as an index on their importance? I mean this in the sense of the capacity to feel. It seemed to me an unanswerable injustice, a victory of matter over mind, that the store of human spirit should diminish; that having cared about one thing, I could now only care about another in a way that surrendered its definition to the first. It's the thing people always say about first loves, and I never believed that either.

What struck me, finally, was that the decision to see time as going only one way is a personal decision, made through weariness, or fear, or perhaps even contentment. It struck me that by seeing life as going backwards I had a far greater chance of making some sense of myself. This is what fiction tries to do, to tell a story in the knowledge of its ending, and thus accord to all the parts of life their proper value.

I still occasionally visit myself in the dungeon of a dark, friendless school night, and I breathe and I wait, and I can feel in that waiting some unknown purpose, some secret sense of a better place; and I am not ruined, or elsewhere, but the same, furnishing that anticipation to the beat of an inaudible pulse.

News
Netherlands' goalkeeper Tim Krul fails to make a save from Costa Rica's midfielder Celso Borges during a penalty shoot-out in the quarter-final between Netherlands and Costa Rica during the 2014 FIFA World Cup
newsGoalkeepers suffer from 'gambler’s fallacy' during shoot-outs
News
people
Travel
travel
Arts and Entertainment
Sydney and Melbourne are locked in a row over giant milk crates
artCultural relations between Sydney and Melbourne soured by row over milk crate art instillation
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
Arts and Entertainment
Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux play teeneage lovers in the French erotic drama 'Blue Is The Warmest Colour' - The survey found four times as many women admitting to same-sex experiences than 20 years ago
arts + entsBlue Is The Warmest Colour, Bojack Horseman and Hobbit on the way
News
Two giraffes pictured on Garsfontein Road, Centurion, South Africa.
i100
Environment
View from the Llanberis Track to the mountain lake Llyn
Du’r Arddu
environmentA large chunk of Mount Snowdon, in north Wales, is up for sale
News
Kenny Ireland, pictured in 2010.
peopleBenidorm, actor was just 68
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
News
people
News
Morrissey pictured in 2013
people
News
A scene from the video shows students mock rioting
newsEnd-of-year leaver's YouTube film features playground gun massacre
News
i100
Life and Style
The director of Wall-E Andrew Stanton with Angus MacLane's Lego model
gadgetsDesign made in Pixar animator’s spare time could get retail release
News
peopleGuitarist, who played with Aerosmith, Lou Reed and Alice Cooper among others, was 71
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Financial Control Manager - Regulatory Reporting

    £400 - £550 per day: Orgtel: Financial Control Manager - Regulatory Reporting ...

    Lead Application Developer

    £80000 - £90000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: I am current...

    Senior Networks Architect

    £65000 per annum + 15% Pension, Health, Travel & Bonus: Progressive Recruitmen...

    SAP BW/BO Consultant

    £55000 - £65000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: SAP BW/BO CONSU...

    Day In a Page

    Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

    Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

    Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
    Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

    Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

    When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
    5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

    In grandfather's footsteps

    5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
    Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

    Martha Stewart has flying robot

    The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
    Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

    Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

    Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
    A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

    A tale of two presidents

    George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

    The dining car makes a comeback

    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
    Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

    Gallery rage

    How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

    Eye on the prize

    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
    Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

    Women's rugby

    Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices