I was the only passenger in my carriage on the early afternoon train back to London. As we left the South Downs behind and sped across the Sussex Weald, I tried to work off my agitation by walking up and down the aisle. I sat for a couple of minutes, then I was back on my feet. I blamed myself for a lack of persistence. I should have waited out the hour until his teaching was over, forced him to have lunch with me, gone through it all again, got his consent. But that wasn't it really. I'd come away without his home address. Nor that. Something may or may not have started between us, but it was just a touch — almost nothing at all. I should have stayed and built on it, left with a little more, a bridge to our next meeting. One deep kiss on that mouth that wanted to do my talking for me. I was bothered by the memory of the skin between the shirt buttons, the pale hair in a whorl around the edges of the navel, and the light and slender childlike body. I took up one of his stories to reread but my attention soon slipped. I thought of get- ting off at Haywards Heath and going back. Would I have been so troubled if he hadn't caressed my fingers? I thought I would. Might the touch of his thumb have been entirely accidental? Impossible. He meant it, he was telling me. Stay.But when the train stopped, I didn't move, I didn't trust myself. Look what happened, I thought, when I threw myself at Max.
Sebastian Morel is a teacher of French at a large comprehensive school near Tufnell Park, north London. He is married to Monica and they have two children, a girl and a boy aged seven and four, and they live in a rented terraced house near Finsbury Park. Sebastian's work is tough, pointless and ill-paid, the pupils are insolent and unruly. Sometimes he spends his entire day trying to keep order in class and handing out punishments he doesn't believe in. He marvels at how irrelevant knowledge of rudimentary French is to the lives of these kids. He wanted to like them, but he was repelled by their ignorance and aggression and the way they jeered at and bullied any of their number who dared to show an interest in learning. In this way they kept themselves down. Nearly all of them will leave school as soon as they can and get unskilled jobs or get pregnant or make do with unemployment benefit. He wants to help them. Sometimes he pities them, sometimes he struggles to suppress his contempt.
He is in his early thirties, a wiry man of exceptional strength. At university in Manchester, Sebastian was a keen mountaineer and led expeditions in Norway, Chile and Austria. But these days he no longer gets out onto the heights because his life is too constrained, there is never enough money or time and his spirits are low. His climbing gear was stowed in canvas bags in a cupboard under the stairs, well behind the Hoover and mops and buckets. Money is always a problem. Monica trained as a primary school teacher. Now she stays at home to look after the children and the house. She does it well, she is a loving mother, the children are adorable, but she suffers from bouts of restlessness and frustration that mirror Sebastian's. Their rent is outrageous for such a small house in a dingy street and their marriage of nine years is dull, flattened by worries and hard work, marred by the occasional row — usually about money.
One dark late afternoon in December, three days before the end of term, he is mugged in the street. Monica has asked him to go to the bank at lunchtime to draw out seventy pounds from the joint account so that she can buy presents and Christmas treats. It is almost all they have by way of savings. He has turned into his own road, which is narrow and poorly lit, and is a hundred yards from his front door when he hears steps behind him and feels a tap on his shoulder. He turns and standing before him was a kid of sixteen or so, West Indian, holding a kitchen knife, a big one with a serrated blade. For a few seconds the two stood close, less than three feet apart, staring at each other in silence. What troubles Sebastian is the boy's agitation, the way the knife trembles in his hands, the terror in his face. Things could easily get out of control. In a quiet shaky voice the boy asks for his wallet. Sebastian raises his hand slowly to the inside pocket of his coat. He is about to give away his children's Christmas. He knows he is stronger than the kid and he calculates that as he holds out his wallet he could strike out, hit him hard on the nose and snatch the knife off him.
But it is more than the kid's agitation that restrains Sebastian.There was a general view, strongly held in the staff room, that crime, especially burglary and mugging, was caused by social injustice. Robbers are poor, they've never had the right chances in life and can hardly be blamed for taking what isn't theirs. This is Sebastian's view too, though he's never given the matter much thought. In fact, it isn't even a view, it's a general atmosphere of tolerance that surrounds decent educated people. Those who complain about crime are likely to complain also about graffiti and litter in the streets and hold a whole set of distasteful views on immigration and the unions, tax, war and hanging. It was important therefore, for the sake of one's self-respect, not to mind too much about being mugged.
So he hands over his wallet and the thief runs away. Instead of going straight home Sebastian walks back toward the High Street and goes to the police station to report the incident. As he speaks to the desk sergeant, he feels a bit of a cad or a snitch, for the police are clearly agents of the system that forces people to steal. His discomfort increases in the face of the sergeant's grave concern, and the way he keeps asking about the knife, the length of the blade, and whether Sebastian was able to see anything of the handle. Of course, armed robbery is a very serious offense. That kid could go to jail for years. Even when the sergeant tells him that there was a fatal stabbing only the month before of an old lady who tried to hang on to her purse, Sebastian's unease is not dispelled. He shouldn't have mentioned the knife. As he walks back along the street, he regrets his automatic impulse to report the matter. He's becoming middle-aged and bourgeois. He should have taken responsibility for himself. He is no longer the sort of guy who puts his life on the line and climbs up sheer faces of granite, trusting his agility, strength and skill.
Because he is beginning to feel weakness and trembling in his legs he goes into a pub and with the loose change in his pocket is just about able to afford a large scotch. He downs it in one, and then he goes home.
From Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan. Copyright 2012 by Ian McEwan. Excerpted by permission of Nan A. Talese.