Atonement by Ian McEwan

Book: Atonement by Ian McEwan Read Free Book Online
Authors: Ian McEwan
Tags: Fiction, Unread
first stories and
her reliance on her mother’s good opinion. They flew over her left
shoulder and lay at her feet. The slender tip of the switch made a two-tone
sound as it sliced the air. No more! she made it say. Enough! Take that!
    Soon, it was
the action itself that absorbed her, and the newspaper report which she revised
to the rhythm of her swipes. No one in the world could do this better than
Briony Tallis who would be representing her country next year at the Berlin
Olympics and was certain to win the gold. People studied her closely and
marveled at her technique, her preference for bare feet because it improved her
balance—so important in this demanding sport—with every toe playing
its part; the manner in which she led with the wrist and snapped the hand round
only at the end of her stroke, the way she distributed her weight and used the
rotation in her hips to gain extra power, her distinctive habit of extending
the fingers of her free hand—no one came near her. Self-taught, the
youngest daughter of a senior civil servant. Look at the concentration in her
face, judging the angle, never fudging a shot, taking each nettle with inhuman
precision. To reach this level required a lifetime’s dedication. And how
close she had come to wasting that life as a playwright!
    She was
suddenly aware of the trap behind her, clattering over the first bridge.
at last. She felt his
eyes upon her. Was this the kid sister he had last seen on Waterloo Station
only three months ago, and now a member of an international elite? Perversely,
she would not allow herself to turn and acknowledge him; he must learn that she
was independent now of other people’s opinion, even his. She was a grand
master, lost to the intricacies of her art. Besides, he was bound to stop the
trap and come running down the bank, and she would have to suffer the
interruption with good grace.
    The sound of
wheels and hooves receding over the second bridge proved, she supposed, that
her brother knew the meaning of distance and professional respect. All the
same, a little sadness was settling on her as she kept hacking away, moving
further round the island temple until she was out of sight of the road. A
ragged line of chopped nettles on the grass marked her progress, as did the
stinging white bumps on her feet and ankles. The tip of the hazel switch sang
through its arc, leaves and stems flew apart, but the cheers of the crowds were
harder to summon. The colors were ebbing from her fantasy, her self-loving
pleasures in movement and balance were fading, her arm was aching. She was
becoming a solitary girl swiping nettles with a stick, and at last she stopped
and tossed it toward the trees and looked around her.
    The cost of
oblivious daydreaming was always this moment of return, the realignment with
what had been before and now seemed a little worse. Her reverie, once rich in
plausible details, had become a passing silliness before the hard mass of the
actual. It was difficult to come back.
Come back
, her sister used to
whisper when she woke her from a bad dream. Briony had lost her godly power of
creation, but it was only at this moment of return that the loss became
evident; part of a daydream’s enticement was the illusion that she was
helpless before its logic: forced by international rivalry to compete at the
highest level among the world’s finest and to accept the challenges that
came with preeminence in her field—her field of nettle
slashing—driven to push beyond her limits to assuage the roaring crowd,
and to be the best, and, most importantly, unique. But of course, it had all
been her—by her and about her—and now she was back in the world,
not one she could make, but the one that had made her, and she felt herself
shrinking under the early evening sky. She was weary of being outdoors, but she
was not ready to go in. Was that really all there was in life, indoors or out?
Wasn’t there somewhere else for people to go? She turned her

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