Disclaimer: Nothing about Atonement belongs to me.
Summary: 20-something Briony thinks about the past, with everything that implies.
Some days are worse.
Some days, like this one, are mild. She can almost forget than anything happened.
Except for that light pounding and thrumming beneath, a suggestion of pain, reminding her that she has a heart and the capacity for regret. A heart with a million infinitesimal nerves, all alive and throbbing, tiny creatures with emotions of their own, she can almost believe, and therefore, when all of them become acquainted with hurt or disappointment at the same time, the pain is brutal, it knocks the air out of her lungs.
But she never lets it show. Not only does she feel it is utterly useless, it is not what people expect of her, it is not like her. Ever since she was a child, the art of shedding tears evaded her. She had regarded it – pompous and awkward as she'd always been – as somewhat of a disgrace, a humiliation. The real dignity was in learning not to cry. In addition to that, she'd found tears to be quite pointless. That childhood wisdom was proving to be right beyond her wildest dreams.
Would Robbie and Cecilia want her tears after everything? Would they find it a suitable additional punishment? Or would they merely scorn her physical attempt at penance? She leant towards the latter. In any case, she understood.
The end of the war, unlike it did for the rest of the world, brought her nothing new, nothing better. The world continued to blur past her, dusty sunshine one minute, grey shadows the next. She vaguely heard of news within her own family, from which she now felt almost entirely distant; Leon's marriage, the birth of Lola and Marshall's firstborn. She'd reacted to them with a vague twinge of curiosity, as though watching a painful but engrossing play. She marvelled, with both genuine awe and tendrils of acidic bitterness, at their capacity for regeneration; life went on, awful things had happened, but they must keep living. No-one wondered, no-one even allowed themselves to. She dearly wished she could have that capacity, even though she also realised that if she did, she would be evading her punishment, succumbing to selfish weakness. That, she must never do. Cowardly as she was, she was set on doing the last thing she could possibly do, carry it out for life.
Impossible not to think of them, to imagine the years faintly showing on their figures, adding new weight to their expressions. First, she had done so under the guise of a novelist's imagination, afterwards as doleful necessity. It repulsed her to think that, after what she had done, she might begin to forget what the two of them had looked like, eventually. She would do more than just remember; she would draw out the rest of their lives, their facial features, for them.
Regret burns; it is acid that she cannot drown out not even through writing a thousand pages, editing maniacally, washing her hands until they are dotted with blood. There is simply nothing she can do, nothing to offer for the last time. She does not cry, she does not even voice the madness that consumes her; but she writhes and twists, and is plagued by sleeplessness, and on the more cruel days with restlessness and writer's block. She can't eat. Nothing she thinks up, sometimes in despair, can distract her. A more appropriate punishment, that, Robbie and Cecilia might say.
She can picture them now; older, as they ought to be, the shadows of war gradually erased from Robbie's handsome features, the golden-greenish glow – like the bottom of the fountain during summer – returned to his eyes. Cecilia's hair is darker, longer, her features a bit softer – shouldn't they be, if she is happy now? – but devoid of girlishness, weighty with the acquiring of new wisdom and maturity. Every single lesson life has taught her, every moment of rage and loneliness and despondency, is written delicately in every new line, round the shape of the eyes, in the sultry but indifferent bat of the raven lashes. In the sharper contours of her cheekbones, in the shape of the red mouth. She has become beautiful. But inaccessible. She is happy now, but still does not forgive her, and nor should she have to.
Would they have children by now? Briony imagines they should. Perhaps just one yet. She pictures loving bedtime caresses – Cecilia's old sisterly condescension towards her, Emily's delicate, nervous inabilities are very far from her when it comes to being a mother herself – perusing books on Robbie's knee, trips to the beach, to the cottage in Wiltshire. An idyllic life. They one they were robbed of.
Briony cannot picture herself meeting this imaginary nephew, he is as clear but as unattainable as a character in a book. She knows she would not have the courage, anyway, and more than likely being spineless would be doing him – all of them – a favour. She does not imagine that Robbie and Cecilia would tell him about her, either.
Their love, of course, is unshakeable – what can still threaten it after what they survived? They do not keep in touch with the Tallises. Cecilia's past is a page torn from history. Neither of them minds. Their child is happily oblivious.
Briony forces her steps to take her to the window, pushes aside the glittering curtain, watches London below. It is a sunny day, that rare bright but still elusive sun that seems to grace London alone. It lends things a different tint, it makes the past more bearable. She can't imagine it never happened, that would be too much, impossible, but she can live with it. She can breathe with a little more ease. She can almost tell herself it was a bad, foolish accident, but that there's nothing she can do, and she mustn't punish herself after all these years.
The last bit is always trickier. She never quite manages it. She dares not voice it. She only allows it to surface in thoughts. It always, irremediably, dies a quick death.
She knows she will be alone. Live alone, die alone. She makes no effort to change it, because she knows it's what she deserves, and she wonders if, even if things had been different, even if she had been free of the stain of the crime she'd committed, she'd be suited to the life expecting her: living in a manor during summer, shopping and tea with friends in the city, with a starch, respectable husband and children she does not know or understand. She cannot imagine herself as a second Emily. Besides, there are certain drives she simply does not possess – she truly does not believe that would have changed if she had acted differently and her life had turned out to be something other than it was.
Perhaps it's all for the best.
The sunshine makes the city more beautiful, lighter, its hues richer. There is no pain. She can picture a bright daily life in this new London. No reminders of war, no class divides, no suspicion, no superiority. Mistakes are easier to forgive. A Utopia, never entirely perfect, but very pleasing, easy to want to cling to desperately, to protect from blemish.
And as soon as the softness settles in, a pang of iron hits her almost immediately. Why can't she do more? Why didn't she do it before? She no longer bothers to try to understand the intricacies, the motivations and tiny cruelties of a thirteen-year-old. She sweeps it all away from her mind, settles it by thinking she was a child. But the difference she could have made during the war, if she had only mustered up a little courage... it was what she'd wanted. Why couldn't mere desire drive her actions, why could she never tear down the looming shadow of pusillanimity from near her? Even if she hadn't earned their forgiveness, she might have learnt to live with herself.
She is tired. The afternoon has rolled along, it's almost coming to an end. The nights are the worst, regardless of how the day was like, and she doesn't want to think about the tortures that always await her come nightfall. It is still early. She will cling to the sun.