Free Atonement by Ian McEwan

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Authors: Ian McEwan
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drifted out, as though on her way to the lavatory. The others
waited, unaware that the whole project was at an end. The twins thought they
had been trying hard, and
in particular,
feeling he was still in disgrace in the Tallis household, thought he might
begin to rehabilitate himself by pleasing Briony.
    While they
waited, the boys played football with a wooden brick and their sister gazed out
the window, humming softly to herself. After an immeasurable period of time,
she went out into the corridor and along to the end where there was an open
door to an unused bedroom. From here she had a view of the driveway and the
lake across which lay a column of shimmering phosphorescence, white hot from
the fierce late afternoon heat. Against this column she could just make out
Briony beyond the island temple, standing right by the water’s edge. In
fact, she may even have been standing in the water—against such light it
was difficult to tell. She did not look as if she was about to come back. On
her way out of the room, Lola noticed by the bed a masculine-looking suitcase
of tan leather and heavy straps and faded steamer labels. It reminded her
vaguely of her father, and she paused by it, and caught the faint sooty scent
of a railway carriage. She put her thumb against one of the locks and slid it.
The polished metal was cool, and her touch left little patches of shrinking
condensation. The clasp startled her as it sprang up with a loud chunky sound.
She pushed it back and hurried from the room.
followed more formless time for the cousins. Lola sent the twins down to see if
the pool was free—they felt uneasy being there when adults were present.
The twins returned to report that Cecilia was there with two other grown-ups,
but by now Lola was not in the nursery. She was in her tiny bedroom, arranging
her hair in front of a hand mirror propped against the windowsill. The boys lay
on her narrow bed, and tickled each other, and wrestled, and made loud howling
noises. She could not be bothered to send them to their own room. Now there was
no play, and the pool was not available, unstructured time oppressed them.
Homesickness fell upon them when Pierrot said he was hungry—dinner was
hours away, and it would not be proper to go down now and ask for food.
Besides, the boys would not go in the kitchen because they were terrified of Betty
whom they had seen on the stairs grimly carrying red rubber sheets toward their
    A little
later the three found themselves back in the nursery which, apart from the
bedrooms, was the only room they felt they had a right to be in. The scuffed
blue brick was where they had left it, and everything was as before.
    They stood
about and
said, “I
don’t like it here.”
simplicity of the remark unhinged his brother who went by a wall and found
something of interest in the skirting board which he worried with the tip of
his shoe.
    Lola put her
arm across his shoulder and said, “It’s all right. We’ll be
going home soon.” Her arm was much thinner and lighter than his
mother’s and Pierrot began to sob, but quietly, still mindful of being in
a strange house where politeness was all.
was tearful too, but
he was still capable of speech. “It won’t be soon. You’re
just saying that. We can’t go home anyway . . .” He paused to
gather his courage. “It’s a divorce!”
    Pierrot and
Lola froze. The word had never been used in front of the children, and never
uttered by them. The soft consonants suggested an unthinkable obscenity, the
sibilant ending whispered the family’s shame. Jackson himself looked
distraught as the word left him, but no wishing could bring it back now, and
for all he could tell, saying it out loud was as great a crime as the act
itself, whatever that was. None of them, including Lola, quite knew. She was
advancing on him, her green eyes narrowed like a cat’s.
you say that.”
’S true,” he mumbled and looked

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