The scene begins in a busy restaurant where Joe, Clarissa and her godfather are celebrating Clarissa’s birthday, which Joe describes as like “walking into a storm”. This is the first hint we get that something awful is about to happen – we can see the similarities with the first chapter already as in the beginning they were “partly protected from the strong, gusty winds”. This similarity also shows us that they are about to witness, or become part of, another earth-shattering episode.
McEwan uses words and phrases such “in memory… afterwards… at the time… what it preceded… a day or so later… the confusion of hindsight can cause memory… ” which gives us a sense of the impending disaster, heightened by his use of the same language at the start – we have been shown already that Joe remains in the prior moments for as long as possible when recounting a horrific scene and we sense he is doing this here, adding to our fears that something terrible is about to happen.
Joe is describing the scene in hindsight so at this point knows the outcome and that the bullet was meant for him and is plagued by guilt – “on a score of sleepless nights I’ve been back to plead with them to leave… I’m from a tainted future. ” He begins putting incredibly precise detail into everything he describes, even telling us the exact colour of his sorbet, “just to the green side of white”, which helps to give us a crystal clear picture of the nightmare about to unfold as well as delaying the inevitable.
McEwan’s description of the murderers is also horrific as he completely dehumanises them. “The two men who had stopped by the table next to ours seemed to have suffered burns to the face. Their skin was a lifeless prosthetic pink, the colour of dolls, or of medical plasters, the colour of no ones skin. ” The monstrous images of burns, violence and pain seem totally inappropriate mixed with ideas of dolls and children, making the image even more grotesque. He adds to this brutality when he describes them as “pig-like” and artificial.
We are also told that “they shared a robotic nullity of expression,” another vile and inhuman image which makes them all the more disturbing. I believe Joe sees them as being so mechanical and detached as it is the only way he can understand them – although the scientific analysis has vanished, so at this point we have an unembellished account of what happened, he still needs to categorise. There is another incongruous juxtaposition in the description of the murderers as having a “priestly look… here was ceremony in their stillness” – this is a sort of parody of the mass as the waiter is brining them their food as he describes the holy appearance of the assassins. It seems more like a sacrificial ceremony with the ritualistic killing about to take place.
The description which follows is hideously direct which heightens the horror of the scene. It seems to be written almost in slow motion which intensifies the sense of inexorable danger. Despite his fear Joe is still frantically considering and classifying until “a variety of possibilities unspoiled before me at speed: a student stunt; vendors; … atients or clients; some new version of the kissogram; crazy members of the family come to embarrass. ” All his ideas seem quite innocent and harmless which leads us to think there isn’t anything to worry about and, despite all the warnings and indications of violence, we have nothing to fear, the two men are not dangerous.
The same technique is used when Joe is describing “a black stick, a wand” which makes us think of innocent childhood games. The black stick is also reminiscent of the description of Logan’s fall, making it synonymous with death and fear to Joe and the reader. The tall man, ready to cast his spell, pointed his wand at Colin Tapp. ” This makes the scene seem innocent and the men almost enchanting but also shows us that Joe doesn’t really know what’s happening as he describes things such as religion and magic which we know he doesn’t believe in which suggests that really we may still have reason to be afraid of the inhuman men. Despite the hint of danger still in the air, we are left entirely unprepared for the brutality that follows the innocent picture we are shown of magic and enchantment.
Once it becomes clear what the “wand” really is there are no more euphemisms as Joe finally understands why the men are here and no longer needs to consider the other possibilities and the terrible realisation of what is about to happen renders him unable to think of anything but the nightmare unfolding before him. His sudden insight changes everything as the tone of innocence becomes violence and terror and the narrative is no longer slow and well thought-out – as soon as the bullet is fired, we are told exactly what happens as it happens. The shocking reality suddenly seems as unbelievable as the ideas of magic and wands.
Joe’s account suddenly becomes very violent and animated as McEwan uses a series of guttural plosives “the silenced bullet struck through his white shirt at his shoulder and lifted him from his chair and smacked him against the wall” to enhance the brutality of the scene. The image of blood seeping through the white shirt is also repulsive but reinforces the cinematic element of the scene as many of the techniques used by McEwan do as several are very visual, such as the description of the men’s grotesque faces or the white shirt, soaked in blood.
The narrative slips into slow motion in the aftermath of the first shot as the two tables, shrouded in confusion and terror, are left reeling from the shocking incident. The suspense builds up as we are told, “the man was raising his gun again and aiming at the top of Tapp’s head and would have killed him for sure”, leaving us and Joe fearing for his life. In the previous chapter we see Joe compiling a list of threats hidden within Parry’s letters, many of which described how easy it was for him “to get people to do things for me” so we are aware of the similarities between Parry’s hints at what was coming and the incident.
The mention of the “man who sat eating alone, facing away from us” hints at the possibility it is Parry, especially after his absence from his post outside the flat that morning so our fears are confirmed when the man draws his “wand”. It is surprising Joe that has no idea of who it is, until it is too late, after his careful consideration of all the threats and his research, and he asks himself, with a sense of regret, “how had I failed to recognise Parry? “.
Joe’s terrible realisation of the significance of Parry’s presence is made worse as it is so unexpected, “I got it, I understood completely, it came to me without effort… Our two tables – their composition, the numbers, the sexes, the relative ages. How had Parry known? ” Joe realises the truth without his usual logical analysis but with a sudden and appalling certainty. “It was a mistake. Nothing personal. It was a contract, and it had been bungled. It should have been me. ” The air of finality and resignation is horrible as Joe knows, absolutely, that he should have been killed.