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'Atonement,' Compared

Cover of 'Atonement'

This excerpt comes from Chapter Two of Atonement. We are introduced to Cecilia Tallis and Robbie Turner. Cecilia is spending a summer of leisure after university at her family's rambling old estate. Robbie is the son of one of the Tallis family's employees, put through school thanks to the grand generosity of Cecilia's father. Cecilia and Robbie have a tense relationship –- and secretly, they fancy each other. As this excerpt begins, Cecilia takes a vase — a family heirloom — over to the stone fountain in the estate's yard to fill it with water. She knows she'll have to cross Robbie's path on the way.

Her idea was to lean over the parapet and hold the flowers in the vase while she lowered it on its side into the water, but it was at this point that Robbie, wanting to make amends, tried to be helpful.

"Let me take that," he said, stretching out a hand. "I'll fill it for you, and you take the flowers."

"I can manage, thanks." She was already holding the vase over the basin.

But he said, "Look, I've got it." And he had, tightly between forefinger and thumb. "Your cigarette will get wet. Take the flowers."

This was a command on which he tried to confer urgent masculine authority. The effect on Cecilia was to cause her to tighten her grip. She had no time, and certainly no inclination, to explain that plunging vase and flowers into the water would help with the natural look she wanted in the arrangement. She tightened her hold and twisted her body away from him. He was not so easily shaken off. With a sound like a dry twig snapping, a section of the lip of the vase came away in his hand, and split into two triangular pieces which dropped into the water and tumbled to the bottom in a synchronous, seesawing motion, and lay there, several inches apart, writhing in the broken light.

Cecilia and Robbie froze in the attitude of their struggle. Their eyes met, and what she saw in the bilious melange of green and orange was not shock, or guilt, but a form of challenge, or even triumph. She had the presence of mind to set the ruined vase back down on the step before letting herself confront the significance of the accident. It was irresistible, she knew, even delicious, for the graver it was, the worse it would be for Robbie. Her dead uncle, her father's dear brother, the wasteful war, the treacherous crossing of the river, the preciousness beyond money, the heroism and goodness, all the years backed up behind the history of the vase reaching back to the genius of Horoldt, and beyond him to the mastery of the arcanists who had reinvented porcelain.

"You idiot! Look what you've done."

He looked into the water, then he looked back at her, and simply shook his head as he raised a hand to cover his mouth. By this gesture he assumed full responsibility, but at that moment, she hated him for the inadequacy of the response. He glanced toward the basin and sighed. For a moment he thought she was about to step backward onto the vase, and he raised his hand and pointed, though he said nothing. Instead he began to unbutton his shirt. Immediately she knew what he was about. Intolerable. He had come to the house and removed his shoes and socks — well, she would show him then. She kicked off her sandals, unbuttoned her blouse and removed it, unfastened her skirt and stepped out of it and went to the basin wall. He stood with hands on his hips and stared as she climbed into the water in her underwear. Denying his help, any possibility of making amends, was his punishment. The unexpectedly freezing water that caused her to gasp was his punishment. She held her breath, and sank, leaving her hair fanned out across the surface. Drowning herself would be his punishment.

When she emerged a few seconds later with a piece of pottery in each hand, he knew better than to offer to help her out of the water. The frail white nymph, from whom water cascaded far more successfully than it did from the beefy Triton, carefully placed the pieces by the vase. She dressed quickly, turning her wet arms with difficulty through her silk sleeves, and tucking the unfastened blouse into the skirt. She picked up her sandals and thrust them under her arm, put the fragments in the pocket of her skirt and took up the vase. Her movements were savage, and she would not meet his eye. He did not exist, he was banished, and this was also the punishment. He stood there dumbly as she walked away from him, barefoot across the lawn, and he watched her darkened hair swing heavily across her shoulders, drenching her blouse. Then he turned and looked into the water in case there was a piece she had missed. It was difficult to see because the roiling surface had yet to recover its tranquility, and the turbulence was driven by the lingering spirit of her fury. He put his hand flat upon the surface, as though to quell it. She, meanwhile, had disappeared into the house.

Excerpted from Atonement by Ian McEwan. Copyright © 2002 by Ian McEwan. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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