The Comfort of Strangers


EACH AFTERNOON, 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 me. 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,