Authors: Ian McEwan
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Epub ISBN 9781409090212
Published by Vintage 1992
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Copyright © Ian McEwan 1987
Ian McEwan has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work
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First published in Great Britain in 1987 by
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Ian McEwan has written two collections of short stories,
First Love, Last Rites
In Between the Sheets
, and ten novels,
The Cement Garden, The Comfort of Strangers, The Child in Time, The Innocent, Black Dogs, The Daydreamer, Enduring Love, Amsterdam, Atonement, Saturday
On Chesil Beach
. He won the Booker Prize for
I am indebted to the following authors and books: Christina Hardyment,
(Jonathan Cape Ltd, 1983); David Bohm,
Wholeness and the Implicate Order
(Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1980); Joseph Chilton Pearce,
(E.P. Dutton and Co., 1977).
… and for those parents, for too many years misguided by the pallid relativism of self-appointed childcare experts …
The Authorised Childcare Handbook
Subsidising public transport had long been associated in the minds of both Government and the majority of its public with the denial of individual liberty. The various services collapsed twice a day at rush hour and it was quicker, Stephen found, to walk from his flat to Whitehall than to take a taxi. It was late May, barely nine-thirty, and already the temperature was nudging the eighties. He strode towards Vauxhall Bridge past double and treble files of trapped, throbbing cars, each with its solitary driver. In tone the pursuit of liberty was more resigned than passionate. Ringed fingers drummed patiently on the sill of a hot tin roof, white-shirted elbows poked through rolled-down windows. There were newspapers spread over steering wheels. Stephen stepped quickly through the crowds, through layers of in-car radio blather – jingles, high-energy breakfast DJs, news-flashes, traffic ‘alerts’. Those drivers not reading listened stolidly. The steady forward press of the pavement crowds must have conveyed to them a sense of relative motion, of drifting slowly backwards.
Jigging and weaving to overtake, Stephen remained as always, though barely consciously, on the watch for children, for a five-year-old girl. It was more than a habit, for a habit could be broken. This was a deep disposition, the
outline experience had stencilled on character. It was not principally a search, though it had once been an obsessive hunt, and for a long time too. Two years on, only vestiges of that remained; now it was a longing, a dry hunger. There was a biological clock, dispassionate in its unstoppability, which let his daughter go on growing, extended and complicated her simple vocabulary, made her stronger, her movements surer. The clock, sinewy like a heart, kept faith with an unceasing conditional; she would be drawing, she would be starting to read, she would be losing a milktooth. She would be familiar, taken for granted. It seemed as though the proliferating instances might wear down this conditional, the frail, semi-opaque screen, whose fine tissues of time and chance separated her from him; she is home from school and tired, her tooth is under the pillow, she is looking for her daddy.
Any five-year-old girl – though boys would do – gave substance to her continued existence. In shops, past playgrounds, at the houses of friends, he could not fail to watch out for Kate in other children, or ignore in them the slow changes, the accruing competences, or fail to feel the untapped potency of weeks and months, the time that should have been hers. Kate’s growing up had become the essence of time itself. Her phantom growth, the product of an obsessive sorrow, was not only inevitable – nothing could stop the sinewy clock – but necessary. Without the fantasy of her continued existence he was lost, time would stop. He was the father of an invisible child.
But here on Millbank there were only ex-children shuffling to work. Further up, just before Parliament Square, was a group of licensed beggars. They were not permitted anywhere near Parliament or Whitehall or within sight of the square. But a few were taking advantage of the confluence of commuter routes. He saw their bright badges from a couple of hundred yards away. This was their weather and they looked cocky with their freedom. The
wage earners had to give way. A dozen beggars were working both sides of the street, moving towards him steadily against the surge. It was a child Stephen was watching now. Not a five-year-old but a skinny prepubescent. She had registered him at some distance. She walked slowly, somnambulantly, the regulation black bowl extended. The office workers parted and converged about her. Her eyes were fixed on Stephen as she came. He felt the usual ambivalence. To give money ensured the success of the Government programme. Not to give involved some determined facing away from private distress. There was no way out. The art of bad government was to sever the line between public policy and intimate feeling, the instinct for what was right. These days he left the matter to chance. If he had small change in his pocket he gave it. If not, he gave nothing. He never handed out banknotes.
The girl was brown-skinned from sunny days on the street. She wore a grubby yellow cotton frock and her hair was severely cropped. Perhaps she had been deloused. As the distance closed he saw she was pretty, impish and freckled, with a pointed chin. She was no more than twenty feet away when she ran forward and took from the pavement a lump of still glistening chewing gum. She popped it in her mouth and began to chew. The little head tilted back defiantly as she looked again in his direction.
Then she was before him, the standard-issue bowl held out before her. She had chosen him minutes ago, it was a trick they had. Appalled, he had reached into his back pocket for a five pound note. She looked on with neutral expression as he set it down on top of the coins.
As soon as his hand was clear, the girl picked the note out, rolled it tight into her fist and said, ‘Fuck you, mister.’ She was edging round him.
Stephen put his hand on the hard, narrow shoulder and gripped. ‘What was that you said?’
The girl turned and pulled away. The eyes had shrunk,
the voice was reedy. ‘I said fank you mister.’ She was out of reach when she added, ‘Rich creep!’
Stephen showed empty palms in mild rebuke. He smiled without parting his lips to convey his immunity to the insult. But the kid had resumed her steady, sleep-walker’s step along the street. He watched her for a full minute before he lost her in the crowd. She did not glance back.
The Official Commission on Childcare, known to be a pet concern of the Prime Minister’s, had spawned fourteen subcommittees whose task was to make recommendations to the parent body. Their real function, it was said cynically, was to satisfy the disparate ideals of myriad interest groups – the sugar and fast-food lobbies, the garment, toy, formula-milk and firework manufacturers, the charities, the women’s organisations, the Pelican Crossing pressure-group people – who pressed in on all sides. Few among the opinion-forming classes declined their services. It was generally agreed that the country was full of the wrong sort of people. There were strong opinions about what constituted a desirable citizenry and what should be done to children to procure one for the future. Everyone was on a sub-committee. Even Stephen Lewis, an author of children’s books, was on one, entirely through the influence of his friend, Charles Darke, who resigned just after the committees began their work. Stephen’s was the Sub-committee on Reading and Writing under the reptilian Lord Parmenter. Weekly, through the parched months of what was to turn out to be the last decent summer of the twentieth century, Stephen attended meetings in a gloomy room in Whitehall where, he was told, night bombing raids on Germany had been planned in 1944. He would have had much to say on the subjects of reading and writing at other times of his life, but at these sessions he tended to rest his arms on the big polished table, incline his head in an attitude of respectful
attention and say nothing. He was spending a great deal of time alone these days. A roomful of people did not lessen his introspection, as he had hoped, so much as intensify it and give it structure.
He thought mostly about his wife and daughter, and what he was going to do with himself. Or he puzzled over Darke’s sudden departure from political life. Opposite was a tall window through which, even in mid-summer, no sunlight ever passed. Beyond, a rectangle of tightly clipped grass framed a courtyard, room enough for half a dozen ministerial limousines. Off-duty chauffeurs lounged and smoked and glanced in at the committee without interest. Stephen ran memories and daydreams, what was and what might have been. Or were they running him? Sometimes he delivered his compulsive imaginary speeches, bitter or sad indictments whose every draft was meticulously revised. Meanwhile, he kept half an ear on the proceedings. The committee divided between the theorists, who had done all their thinking long ago, or had had it done for them, and the pragmatists, who hoped to discover what it was they thought in the process of saying it. Politeness was strained, but never broke.