The Comfort of Strangers


The Comfort
of Strangers





About the Author


Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Also by Ian McEwan

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Version 1.0

Epub ISBN 9781409089865

Published by Vintage 2006

21 23 24 22

Copyright © Ian McEwan 1981

Ian McEwan has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988 to be identified as the author of this work

This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, resold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser

First published in Great Britain in 1981 by

Jonathan Cape

First published by Vintage in 1997


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ISBN 9780099754916

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Printed and bound in Great Britain by Cox & Wyman Ltd, Reading, Berkshire

Ian McEwan has written two collections of 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
in 1998

how we dwelt in two worlds the daughters and the mothers in the kingdom of the sons

Adrienne Rich

Travelling is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things – air, sleep, dreams, the sea, the sky – all things tending towards the eternal or what we imagine of it.

Cesare Pavese


, when the whole city beyond the dark green shutters of their hotel windows began to stir, Colin and Mary were woken by the methodical chipping of steel tools against the iron barges which moored by the hotel café pontoon. In the morning these rusting, pitted hulks, with no visible cargo or means of propulsion, would be gone; towards the end of each day they reappeared, and their crews set to inexplicably with their mallets and chisels. It was at this time, in the clouded, late afternoon heat, that customers began to gather on the pontoon to eat ice cream at the tin tables, and their voices too filled the darkened hotel room, rising and falling in waves of laughter and dissent, flooding the brief silences between each piercing blow of the hammers.

They woke, so it seemed to them, simultaneously, and lay still on their separate beds. For reasons they could no longer define clearly, Colin and Mary were not on speaking terms. Two flies gyrated lazily round the ceiling light, along the corridor a key turned in a lock and footsteps advanced and receded. At last, Colin rose, pushed the shutters ajar and went to the bathroom to shower. Still absorbed in the aftermath of her dreams, Mary turned on her side as he passed and stared at the wall. The steady trickle of water next door made a soothing sound, and she closed her eyes once more.

Each evening, in the ritual hour they spent on their balcony before setting out to find a restaurant, they had been listening patiently to the other’s dreams in exchange for the luxury of recounting their own. Colin’s dreams were those that psycho-analysts recommend, of flying, he said, of crumbling teeth, of appearing naked before a seated stranger. For Mary the hard
mattress, the unaccustomed heat, the barely explored city were combining to set loose in her sleep a turmoil of noisy, argumentative dreams which, she complained, numbed her waking hours; and the fine old churches, the altar-pieces, the stone bridges over canals, fell dully on her retina, as on a distant screen. She dreamed most frequently of her children, that they were in danger, and that she was too incompetent or muddled to help them. Her own childhood became confused with theirs. Her son and daughter were her contemporaries, frightening her with their insistent questions. Why did you go away without us? When are you coming back? Will you meet us off the train? No, no, she tried to tell them, you are meant to be meeting
. She told Colin that she dreamed her children had climbed into bed with her, one on either side, and there they lay, bickering all night over her sleeping body. Yes I did. No you didn’t. I told you. No you didn’t … until she woke exhausted, her hands pressed tight against her ears. Or, she said, her ex-husband steered her into a corner and began to explain patiently, as he once had, how to operate his expensive Japanese camera, testing her on its intricacies at every stage. After many hours she started to sigh and moan, begging him to stop, but nothing could interrupt the relentless drone of explanation.

The bathroom window gave on to a courtyard and at this hour it too came alive with sounds from adjacent rooms and the hotel kitchens. The moment Colin turned his shower off, the man across the way under his shower began, as on the previous evenings, to sing his duet from
The Magic Flute
. His voice rising above the torrential thunder of water and the smack and squelch of well-soaped skin, the man sang with the total abandon of one who believes himself to be without an audience, cracking and yodelling the higher notes, tra-laing the forgotten words, bellowing out the orchestral parts. ‘
Mann und Weib, und Weib und Mann
, Together make a godly span.’ When the shower was turned off, the singing subsided to a whistle.

Colin stood in front of the mirror, listening, and for no particular reason began to shave for the second time that day. Since their arrival, they had established a well-ordered ritual
of sleep, preceded on only one occasion by sex, and now the calm, self-obsessed interlude during which they carefully groomed themselves before their dinner-time stroll through the city. In this time of preparation, they moved slowly and rarely spoke. They used expensive, duty-free colognes and powders on their bodies, they chose their clothes meticulously and without consulting the other, as though somewhere among the thousands they were soon to join, there waited someone who cared deeply how they appeared. While Mary did her yoga on the bedroom floor, Colin would roll a marihuana joint which they would smoke on their balcony and which would enhance that delightful moment when they stepped out of the hotel lobby into the creamy evening air.

While they were out, and not only in the mornings, a maid came and tidied the beds, or removed the sheets, if she thought that was necessary. Unused to hotel life, they were inhibited by this intimacy with a stranger they rarely saw. The maid took away used paper tissues, she lined up their shoes in the cupboard in a tidy row, she folded their dirty clothes into a neat pile on a chair and arranged loose change into little stacks along the bedside table. Rapidly, however, they came to depend on her and grew lazy with their possessions. They became incapable of looking after one another, incapable, in this heat, of plumping their own pillows, or of bending down to retrieve a dropped towel. At the same time they had become less tolerant of disorder. One late morning, they returned to their room to find it as they had left it, simply uninhabitable, and they had no choice but to go out again and wait until it had been dealt with.

The hours before their afternoon sleep were equally well-defined, though less predictable. It was mid-summer, and the city overflowed with visitors. Colin and Mary set out each morning after breakfast with their money, sunglasses and maps, and joined the crowds who swarmed across the canal bridges and down every narrow street. They dutifully fulfilled the many tasks of tourism the ancient city imposed, visiting its major and minor churches, its museums and palaces, all treasure-packed. In the shopping streets they spent time in front of window displays, discussing presents they might buy.
So far, they had yet to enter a shop. Despite the maps, they frequently became lost, and could spend an hour or so doubling back and round, consulting (Colin’s trick) the position of the sun, to find themselves approaching a familiar landmark from an unexpected direction, and still lost. When the going was particularly hard, and the heat more than usually oppressive, they reminded each other, sardonically, that they were ‘on holiday’. They passed many hours searching for ‘ideal’ restaurants, or relocating the restaurant of two days before. Frequently, the ideal restaurants were full or, if it was past nine o’clock in the evening, just closing; if they passed one that wasn’t, they sometimes ate in it long before they were hungry.

Alone, perhaps, they each could have explored the city with pleasure, followed whims, dispensed with destinations and so enjoyed or ignored being lost. There was much to wonder at here, one needed only to be alert and to attend. But they knew one another much as they knew themselves, and their intimacy, rather like too many suitcases, was a matter of perpetual concern; together they moved slowly, clumsily, effecting lugubrious compromises, attending to delicate shifts of mood, repairing breaches. As individuals they did not easily take offence; but together they managed to offend each other in surprising, unexpected ways; then the offender – it had happened twice since their arrival – became irritated by the cloying susceptibilities of the other, and they would continue to explore the twisting alleyways and sudden squares in silence, and with each step the city would recede as they locked tighter into each other’s presence.

Mary stood up from her yoga and, after carefully considering her underwear, began to dress. Through the half-open french window she could see Colin on the balcony. Dressed in all white, he sprawled in the aluminium and plastic beach-chair, his wrist dangling near the ground. He inhaled, tilted his head and held his breath, and breathed smoke across the pots of geraniums that lined the balcony wall. She loved him, though not at this particular moment. She put on a silk blouse and a white cotton skirt and, as she sat down on the edge of the bed
to fasten her sandals, picked up a tourist guide from the bedside table. In other parts of the country, according to the photographs, were meadows, mountains, deserted beaches, a path that wound through a forest to a lake. Here, in her only free month of the year, the commitment was to museums and restaurants. At the sound of Colin’s chair creaking, she crossed to the dressing-table and began to brush her hair with short, vigorous strokes.

Colin had brought the joint indoors for Mary, and she had refused it – a quick murmur of ‘No thanks’ – without turning in her seat. He lingered behind her, staring into the mirror with her, trying to catch her eye. But she looked straight ahead at herself and continued to brush her hair. He traced the line of her shoulder with his finger. Sooner or later, the silence would have to break. Colin turned to leave, and changed his mind. He cleared his throat, and rested his hand firmly on her shoulder. Outside there was the beginning of a sunset to watch, and indoors there were negotiations which needed to be opened. His indecision was wholly drug-induced and was of the tail-chasing kind that argued that if he moved away now, having touched her, she might, conceivably at least, be offended … but then, she was continuing to brush her hair, long after it was necessary, and it seemed she was waiting for Colin to leave … and why? … because she sensed his reluctance to stay and was already offended? … but was he reluctant? Miserably, he ran his finger along the line of Mary’s spine. She now held the handle of the brush in one hand and rested the bristles in the open palm of the other, and continued to stare ahead. Colin leaned forward and kissed her nape, and when she still did not acknowledge him, he crossed the room with a noisy sigh and returned to the balcony.

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