"...and for those parents, for too many years misguided by pallid relativism of self-appointed child-care experts..."
- The Authorized Child-Care Handbook,
Her Majesty's Stationery Office
Subsidizing 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 when it was quicker, Stephen found, to walk from his flat at Whitehall than to take a taxi. It was late May, barely nine-thirty, and already the temperature was nudging the eighties. He strode to 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 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 disposition, the outline experience had stenciled 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 milk tooth. She would be familiar, taken for granted. It seemed as though the proliferating instances might wear down this conditional, the frail, semiopaque 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 them in 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 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 program. 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 matte 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 he 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, sleepwalker's step along the street. He watched her for a full minute before he lost her in the crowd. She did not glance back.
Copyright © 1999 by Ian McEwan. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.