At that time, on a weekday winter's evening, Soho was only just coming to life. The pubs were full, but the clubs were not yet open, and the pavements were uncrowded. It was easy to notice the couple coming towards them along Old Compton Street. They were rockers - he was a big fellow in his mid-twenties, with long sideburns, studded leather jacket, tight jeans and boots, and his plump girlfriend, holding on to his arm, was identically dressed. As they passed, and without breaking stride, the man swung his arm out to deliver a hard, flat-handed smack to the back of Mather's head which caused him to stagger, and sent his Buddy Holly glasses skidding across the road. It was an act of casual contempt for Mather's height and studious appearance, or for the fact that he looked, and was, Jewish. Perhaps it was intended to impress or amuse the girl. Edward did not stop to think about it. As he strode after the couple, he heard Harold call out something like a 'no' or a 'don't', but that was the kind of entreaty he was deaf to. He was back in that dream. He would have found it difficult to describe his state: his anger had lifted itself and spiralled into a kind of ecstasy. With his right hand he gripped the man's shoulder and spun him round, and with his left, took him by the throat and pushed him back against a wall. The man's head clunked satisfyingly against a cast iron drainpipe. Still clenching his throat, Edward hit him in the face, just once, but very hard, with a closed fist. Then he went back to help Mather find his glasses, one lens of which was cracked. They walked on, leaving the fellow sitting on the pavement, both hands covering his face, while his girlfriend fussed over him.
It took Edward some while into the evening to become aware of Harold Mather's lack of gratitude, and then of his silence, or silence towards him, and even longer, a day or two, to realise that his friend not only disapproved, but worse - he was embarrassed. In the pub neither man told their friends the story, and afterwards Mather's never spoke about the incident to Edward. Rebuke would have been a relief. Without making any great show of it, Mather withdrew from him. Though they saw each other in company, and he was never obviously distant towards Edward, the friendship was never the same. Edward was in agonies when he considered that Mather was actually repelled by his behaviour, but he did not have the courage to raise the subject. Besides, Mather made sure they were never alone together. At first Edward believed that his error was to have damaged Mather's pride by witnessing his humiliation, which Edward then compounded by acting as his champion, demonstrating that he was tough while Mather was a vulnerable weakling. Later on, Edward realised that what he had done was simply not cool, and his shame was the greater. Street fighting did not go with poetry and irony, bebop or history. He was guilty of a lapse of taste. He was not the person he had thought. What he believed was an interesting quirk, a rough virtue, turned out to be a vulgarity. He was a country boy, a provincial idiot who thought a bare-knuckle swipe could impress a friend. It was a mortifying reappraisal. He was making one of the advances typical of early adulthood: the discovery that there were new values by which he preferred to be judged. Since then, Edward had stayed out of fights.
[On Chesil Beach, McEwan, I.]