Black Dogs - by Ian McEwan

Were all these parents attractive to me simply because they were not mine? Try as I might, I could not answer yes, for they were undeniably likeable. They interested me, I picked things up. At the Langleys I learned of sacrificial practices in the Arabian desert, improved my Latin and French and first heard the ‘Goldberg’ Variations. At the Silversmiths I heard tell of the polymorphous perverse, and was enraptured by tales of Dora, Little Hans and the Wolf Man, and ate lox, bagels and cream cheese, latkes, and borscht. At the Nugents, Janet talked me through the Profumo scandal and persuaded me to learn shorthand; her husband once gave an imitation of a man suffering the bends. These people treated me like a grown-up. They poured me drinks, offered me their cigarettes, asked my opinions. They were all in their forties, tolerant, relaxed, energetic. It was Cy Silversmith who taught me to play tennis. If any pair of them had been my parents (if only) I was certain I would have liked them more.

I realise that much of the above tells against me, that it is Toby pursuing in impossible circumstances a beautiful crazy young woman beyond his reach, or his and Jo’s and the Silversmith kids’ excursions into the neighbourhood which display a proper appetite for life, and that a seventeen-year-old’s infatuation with comfort and the conversation of his elders suggests a dull spirit; and that in describing this period of my life I have unconsciously mimicked not only, here and there, the superior, sneering attitudes of my adolescent self, but also the rather formal, distancing, labyrinthine tone in which I used to speak, clumsily derived from my scant reading of Proust which was supposed to announce me to the world as an intellectual. All I can say for my younger self is that although I was hardly aware of it at the time, I missed my parents terribly. I had to build up my defences. Pomposity was one of them, another was my cultivated disdain for my friends’ activities. They could range freely because they were secure; I needed the hearths they had deserted.

It will not do to argue that rational thought and spiritual insight are separate domains and that opposition between them is falsely conceived. Bernard and June often talked to me about ideas that could never sit side by side. Bernard, for example, was certain that there was no direction, no patterning in human affairs or fates other than that which was imposed by human minds. June could not accept this; life had a purpose and it was in our interests to open ourselves to it. Nor will it do to suggest that both these views are correct. To believe everything, to make no choices, amounts to much the same thing, to my mind, as believing in nothing at all. I am uncertain whether our civilisation at this turn of the millennium is cursed by too much or too little belief, whether people like Bernard and June cause the trouble, or people like me. But I would be false to my own experience if I did not declare my belief in the possibility of love transforming and redeeming a life.

It is photography itself that creates the illusion of innocence. Its ironies of frozen narrative lend to its subjects an apparent unawareness that they will change or die. It is the future they are innocent of. Fifty years on we look at them with the godly knowledge of how they turned out after all – who they married, the date of their death – with no thought for who will one day be holding photographs of us.

’Improving the world? Isn’t diversity what makes a civilisation?’

He had a way of presenting all his opinions as well-established facts, and his certainties did have a sinuous power. What was required of me was to present another view, whether I believed in it or not. Bernard’s habits of private conversation had been formed by years of public debate. A fair bout of adversarial discussion was what would bring us to the truth.

‘But there was an evening when June had fallen asleep early and I was restless. I went for a stroll round the square, had a couple of drinks in a café. You know how it is when you’ve been with someone so intensely for hours on end, and then you’re on your own again. It’s as if you’ve been in a dream. You come to yourself. I sat outside this bar, watched them playing boules. It was an awfully hot evening, and for the first time I had the chance to think over some of the things June had said at the station. I tried hard to imagine what it would be like to believe, really to believe, that nature could take revenge on a foetus for the death of an insect. She’d been deadly serious about it, to the point of tears. And honestly I couldn’t. It was magical thinking, completely alien to me ...’ ‘But Bernard, don’t you ever have that feeling, when you’re tempting fate? Don’t you ever touch wood?’ ‘That’s just a game, a manner of speaking. We know it’s superstition. This belief that life really does have rewards and punishments, that underneath it all there’s a deeper pattern of meaning beyond what we give it ourselves – that’s all so much consoling magic. Only ...’ ‘Biographers?’ ‘I was going to say women. Perhaps all I’m saying is that sitting there with my drink in that hot little square I was beginning to understand something about women and men.’

‘What I miss most is her seriousness. She was one of the few people I know who saw her life as a project, an undertaking, something to take control of and direct towards, well, understanding, wisdom – on her own particular terms. Most of us reserve our forward planning for money, careers, children, that sort of thing. June wanted to understand, God knows, herself, existence, “creation”. She was very impatient with the rest of us, drifting through, taking one thing after another, “sleepwalking”, she called it. I hated the nonsense she filled her head with, but I loved her seriousness.’

There is a simple pleasure in entering and leaving a village on foot. Temporarily, the illusion can be sustained that while others have lives that are fixed round houses, relationships and work, you are self-sufficient and free, unencumbered by possessions and obligations. It is a privileged sensation of lightness that cannot be had by passing through in a car, as part of the traffic.