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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.