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Ian McEwan


I cannot quite remember how it came about, but at some point after my return to the Hôtel des Tilleuls, either when I sat at the bar and drank a Pernod, or half an hour later when I came back down from my room in search of a bar of soap, I learned that the patronne was Mme Monique Auriac, a name I remembered from my notes. She was surely the daughter of the Mme Auriac who had looked after June, and perhaps she was the young girl who had served lunch while the Maire told his story. I thought I would ask her some questions and find out how much she remembered. But the bar was suddenly deserted, and so too was the dining room. I could hear voices in the kitchen. Feeling that the smallness of the establishment somehow excused my transgression, I pushed open the scarred swing doors and stepped through.

In front of me, on a table in a wicker basket was a heap of bloodied fur. At the far end of the kitchen a row was in progress. Mme Auriac and her brother who was the cook, and the girl who doubled as chambermaid and waitress glanced round at me and then continued to talk over each other. I stood waiting by the stove where a pan of soup was simmering. After a half minute I would have tiptoed out and tried later had I not begun to realise that the argument concerned me. The hotel was meant to be closed. Because the girl had let the gentleman from England stay-Mme Auriac gestured towards me with the back of her wrist-she, Mme Auriac, had been obliged for the sake of consistency to let a family take two rooms, and now a lady from Paris had arrived. How was everyone going to eat? And they were understaffed.

Her brother said that there was no difficulty so long as all the guests ate the seventy-five franc menu-soup, salad, rabbit, cheese-and did not expect choices. The girl backed him up. Mme Auriac said that was not the kind of restaurant she wanted to run. At this point I cleared my throat and excused myself and said that I was certain that all the guests were only too happy to find the hotel open so late in the year and that in the circumstances the set menu would be perfectly agreeable. Mme Auriac left the kitchen with an impatient hissing sound and a toss of the head which was a form of acceptance, and her brother spread his palms in triumph. One further concession was required; to simplify the work, all the guests should eat early and all together at half past seven. I said that speaking for myself that was quite acceptable, and the cook sent the girl to inform the others.

Half an hour later, I was the first to take my seat in the dining room. I now felt myself something more than a guest. I was an insider, party to the hotel's internal affairs. Mme Auriac herself brought me my bread and wine. She was in good humour now and we established that she had indeed been working here in 1946, and though of course she did not remember Bernard and June's visit, she certainly knew the Maire's story about the dogs and she promised to talk to me when she was less busy. Next to appear was the lady from Paris. She was in her early thirties and was beautiful in a drawn, emaciated way, with that brittle, over-manicured appearance some French women have, too arranged, too severe for my taste. She had concave cheeks and the huge eyes of the famished. I guessed she would not be eating much. She clicked across the tiled floor to a far corner, to the table furthest from mine. By ignoring so completely the presence of the sole occupant of the room, she created the paradoxical impression that her every movement was made with me in mind. I had put down the book I was reading, and was wondering whether this was in fact the case, or whether it was one of those masculine projections that women sometimes complain about, when the family came in.

There were three of them, husband, wife, and a seven- or eight-year-old boy, and they arrived wrapped in their own silence, a luminous envelope of familial intensity which moved across the larger quietness of the dining room to occupy the next table but one from mine. They sat with a loud scrape of chairs. The man, cock of his tiny roost, rested his tattooed forearms on the table and looked about him. He stared first in the direction of the Parisian lady who did not-or would not-look up from the menu, and then his eyes met mine. Though I nodded, there was no trace of acknowledgement. He simply registered me, then murmured to his wife, who took from her handbag a packet of Gauloises and a lighter. While the parents lit up, I looked at the boy who sat alone on his side of the table. My impression was that there had been a scene outside the dining room a few minutes before, some misbehaviour for which the child had been reprimanded. He sat listlessly, sulking perhaps, his left hand hanging at his side, his right toying with the cutlery.

Mme Auriac arrived with the bread, water and the barely drinkable refrigerated litre of red wine. After she had left, the boy slumped further, placing his elbow on the table and propping his head with his hand. Immediately, his mother's hand flashed across the tablecloth and delivered a sharp slap to the boy's forearm, knocking it away. The father, squinting up through his smoke, did not seem to notice. No one spoke. The Parisian woman, whom I could see beyond the family, stared with resolution into an empty corner of the room. The boy slumped against the backrest of his chair, gazing at his lap and rubbing his arm. His mother delicately tapped her cigarette on the ash tray. She hardly looked the hitting sort. She was plump and pink with a pleasant round face and red patches on her cheeks like a doll's, and this disjunction between her behaviour and her maternal appearance was sinister. I felt oppressed by the presence of this family and its miserable situation about which I could do nothing. If there had been somewhere else in the village to eat I would have gone there.

I had finished my lapin au chef and the family was still eating salad. For some minutes the only sound had been that of cutlery against plates. It was not possible to read, so I watched quietly over the top of my book. The father was screwing pieces of bread into his plate, mopping up the last of the vinaigrette. He lowered his head to take each morsel, as though the hand that fed him was not his. The boy finished by pushing his plate to one side and dabbing his mouth with the back of his hand. It looked like an absent-minded gesture, for the boy was a fastidious eater and, as far as I could see, his lips were not smeared with food. But I was an outsider, and perhaps this was a provocation, a continuation of a long-running conflict. His father immediately murmured a phrase that included the word 'serviette.' The mother had stopped eating and was watching closely. The boy took his napkin from his lap and pressed it carefully, not to his mouth, but first to one cheek and then the other. In a child so young it could only have been an artless attempt to do the right thing. But his father did not think so. He leaned across the empty salad bowl and pushed the boy hard below the collar bone. The blow jolted the child out of his chair on to the floor. The mother half rose out of her chair and seized his arm. She wanted to get to him before he started howling, and thereby preserve the proprieties of the restaurant. The child hardly knew where he was as she cautioned him in a hiss, 'Tais-toi! Tais-toi!' Without leaving her seat, she managed to haul him back into the chair which her husband had righted skilfully with his foot. The couple worked in evident harmony. They seemed to believe that by not standing up they had succeeded in avoiding an unpleasant scene. The boy was back in his place, whimpering. His mother held before him a rigid, cautionary forefinger, and kept it there until he was completely silent. With her eyes still on him, she lowered her hand.

My own hand shook as I poured Mme Auriac's thin sharp wine. I emptied my glass in gulps. I felt a constriction about my throat. That the boy was not even permitted to cry seemed to me even more terrible than the blow that had knocked him to the floor. It was his loneliness that gripped me. I remembered my own after my parents died, how incommunicable the despair was, how I expected nothing. For this boy misery was simply the condition of the world. Who could possibly help him? I looked around. The woman sitting alone had her head turned away, but the way she fumbled with the lighting of her cigarette made it clear she had seen everything. At the far end of the dining room, by the buffet, stood the young girl waiting to take our plates. The French are notably kind and tolerant towards children. Surely something was going to be said. Someone, not me, had to intervene.

I downed another glass of wine. A family occupies an inviolable, private space. Behind walls both visible and notional it makes its own rules for its members. The girl came forward and cleared my table. Then she came back to take the salad bowl from the family and bring clean plates. I think I understand what happened to the boy just then. As the table was readied for the next course, as the stewed rabbit was set down, he began to cry; with the coming and going of the waitress came confirmation that after his humiliation, life was to proceed as normal. His sense of isolation was complete and he could not hold back his despair.

First he shook with the attempt to do just that, and then it broke, a nauseous keening sound that grew louder, despite the finger his mother had raised again, then it broadened to a wail, then a sob on a desperate lunging intake of breath. The father put down the fresh cigarette he had been about to light. He paused a moment to discover what would follow the inhalation, and as the child's cry rose, the man's arm made an extravagant sweep across the table and struck the boy's face with the back of his hand.

It was impossible, I thought I had not seen it, a strong man could not hit a child this way, with the unrestrained force of adult hatred. The child's head snapped back as the blow carried both him and the chair he was sitting on almost to my table. It was the chair's back which cracked against the floor and saved the boy's head from damage. The waitress was running towards us, calling for Mme Auriac as she came. I had made no decision to stand, but I was on my feet. For an instant, I met the gaze of the woman from Paris. She was immobile. Then she nodded gravely. The young waitress had gathered up the child and was sitting on the floor making breathy, flute-like notes of concern over him, a lovely sound I remembered thinking as I arrived at the father's table.

His wife had risen from her seat and was whining to the girl, 'You don't understand, Mademoiselle. You'll only make things worse. He'll scream, that one, but he knows what he's up to. He always gets his way.'

There was no sign of Mme Auriac. Again, I had made no decision, no calculation as to what I was getting myself into. The man had lit his cigarette. It relieved me a little to see that his hands were shaky. He did not look at me. I spoke out in a clear, trembling voice with tolerable accuracy but virtually no idiom. I had none of Jenny's sinuous mastery. Speaking in French elevated both my sentiments and my words into a theatrical, self-conscious solemnity, and standing there, I had a brief ennobling sense of myself as one of those obscure French citizens who blossom from nowhere at a transforming moment in their nation's history to improvise the words that history will engrave in stone. Was this the Tennis Court Oath? Was I Desmoulins at the Café Foy? In fact all I said was, literally, 'Monsieur, to hit a child in this way is disgusting. You are an animal, an animal, Monsieur. Are you frightened of fighting someone your own size, because I would love to smash my gob.'

This ridiculous slip of the tongue caused the man to relax. He smiled up at me as he pushed his chair back from the table. He saw a pale Englishman of medium height who still held his napkin in his hand. What did a man have to fear who had a caduceus tattooed on each of his fat forearms.

'Ta gueule? It would make me happy to help you smash it.' He jerked his head towards the door.

I followed him past the empty tables. I could hardly believe it. We were stepping outside. A reckless exhilaration lightened my tread and I seemed to hover above the restaurant floor. As we went out, the man I had challenged let the swing door fall against me. He led the way across the deserted road to where a petrol pump stood under a street lamp. He turned to face me and square up, but I had already made up my mind and even as he raised his arms my fist was travelling towards his face with all my weight behind it. I caught him hard and full on the nose with such force that even as his bone crunched, I felt something snap in my knuckle. There was a satisfying moment when he was stunned but could not fall. His arms dropped to his side and he stood there and watched me as I hit him with the left, one two three, face, throat and gut, before he went down. I drew back my foot and I think I might have kicked and stomped him to death had I not heard a voice and turned to see a thin figure in the lighted doorway across the road.

The voice was calm. 'Monsieur. Je vous prie. Ça suffit.'

Immediately I knew that the elation driving me had nothing to do with revenge and justice. Horrified with myself, I stepped back.

I crossed the road and followed the woman from Paris inside. While we waited for the police and an ambulance, Mme Auriac bound my hand with a crêpe bandage and went behind the bar to pour me a cognac. And at the bottom of the fridge she found the last of the summer's ice-creams for the boy who still sat on the floor recovering, wrapped in the maternal arms of the pretty young waitress who, it must be said, appeared flushed and in the embrace of a great happiness.

Excerpted from Black Dogs. Reprinted by permission of the author.
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