Disclaimer: Atonement is the property of Working Title Films and Ian McEwan. This is a work of not-for-profit fan fiction. No copyright infringement is intended.
Author's note: Atonement is without doubt one of the most fascinating and complex novels of our time, both in its idea and execution. Its main theme is guilt and how a person tries to deal with it. In the story, Briony does not let herself be forgiven, which makes the novel a truly heart-breaking read. But many of us must have wondered: what if Robbie and Cecilia had actually been given their happy ending? My attempt to explore this possibility springs from a passage in part 3, when Briony is at St. Thomas's hospital.
Excerpt from Atonement by Ian McEwan:
She was told to attend to a soldier with stomach wounds who had also lost a part of his nose. She could see through the bloody cartilage into his mouth and onto the back of his lacerated tongue. Her job was to clean up his face. Again, it was oil and sand which had been blasted into the skin. He was awake, she guessed, but he kept his eyes closed. Morphine had calmed him and he swayed slightly from side to side, as though in time to music in his head.
As his features began to appear from behind the mask of black, she thought of those books of glossy blank pages she had in childhood which she rubbed with a blunt pencil to make a picture appear. She thought too how one of these men might be Robbie, how she would dress his wounds without knowing who he was, and with cotton wool tenderly rub his face until his familiar features emerged, and how he would turn to her with gratitude, realize who she was, and take her hand, and in silently squeezing it, forgive her. Then he would let her settle him down into sleep...
Her responsibilities increased. She was sent to tend to of the serious cases, a Dunkirk refugee, just arrived from one of the stations in the south. At a first glance Briony could tell that the soldier was older than her previous patients, probably about 30, but not above this age. There was no information at all about the newcomers, so she could not learn anything about him, his age or exact condition, but from her own experience and observation.
However, the more Briony observed, the more anxious she grew. The young man was unconscious, but he appeared to have a bad dream or a flow of unpleasant memories which made his eyes flutter and move intensely behind his swollen eyelids. His knuckles turned white whenever he clenched his hands to fists, as though to suppress pain; and his brow was covered by strings of glistening beads of sweat. Briony could not trace his features behind a thick mask of dried soil mixed with sand on the soldier's face. Here and there she even noticed grass blades in the dirty layer. Still, she was able to recognize that he was pale, deadly pale, almost like the color of the freshly-washed cover he was lying under.
The dangerous symptoms increased and Briony was almost sure the young man had suffered some bad injury or illness: short, painful gasps began to escape his blistered lips, sometimes quiet, sometimes just as loud as cries; he was feverish and the temperature rose in the course of the next minutes; his breathing increased and deepened as if he was suffocating. She suspected an infection, probably an inflamed or badly treated wound and decided to quickly examine the soldier's body. She carefully pulled the covers aside and saw a greenish uniform with black and brown patches of colour - or maybe dirt - all about it.
It seemed most sensible to begin with the head and work all her way down to the legs until she would find the wound. She leaned over the soldier's face and examined it as well as she could, but there was nothing suspicious about it. Then she gently put her hands around the head and lifted it a little from the pillow, revealing an oily stain of grease on its otherwise blank surface. Briony felt the fluid all over her fingers, slowly flowing down her forearms, and a strong desire to scrub them with soap came upon her. Pushing it aside, she resisted and carried on with the examination. Now it was the turn of the back of the head, the neck, the shoulders and still nothing suspicious could be found.
Allowing herself a short break, she quickly washed her hands in small basin next to the bed, moved in the direction of the feet and let her fingers slip across the raw, uneven material of the uniform before touching the shining round buttons and loosening them. She suddenly realized that her palms were trembling and sweaty, but she could not understand or explain to herself the anxiety - not quite, not yet. The buttons slipped from her fingers and she was hardly able to go on. At last she was somehow done with it and drew the parts of the uniform aside. The folds of material revealed a muscular although thin torso with parallel arches of ribs rising up under the skin.
Briony's attention was instantly captivated by a wound, a little larger than a penny, located a few inches to the right from the solar plexus which stretched its borders of torn skin and reddish-black dried blood along a swollen area around it. The wound itself seemed clean, but in its centre a dark small edge of a yet unknown object became visible. This something in there caused the infection, deducted Briony, and, considering the size and the depth of the injury, she concluded that it was not a bullet wound. She had seen many bullets being removed from all parts of bodies in the last hours and this wound did not fit in that category. Maybe it was a piece of wood or shrapnel that peeped out of the ruptured flesh.
It was clear to Briony that she would not be permitted to remove the object from the wound herself, so she had to find something else to do with the injured soldier before the operation. She decided to clean the wound and the area around it first, and then to carry on with the rest of the body.
She took a clean cotton wool and soaked it in alcohol. Turning from back to the bed she observed the soldier for a few moments. Unsure about where to begin her work she habitually bit on her lower lip and nervously threw the wet mass from one hand to another. She still couldn't get used to its acrid smell and it was nauseating her.
Briony's hadn't outgrown her natural curiosity and she longed to put duty aside for once and to remove the cover from the soldier's face first, to draw the curtain of anonymity aside and trace his features one after another. She wondered what shape his face had, what his lips were like once they would be touched and revived by water, what shade of white his skin used to be, what the colour of his eyes was. It always fascinated her to watch a face appear from behind a mass of something dark and shapeless; she almost believed it was herself alone who gave the anonymous men a look, an identity, a new life by washing away the traces of grease and oil from their features.
A fresh idea came to her mind, like a revelation: together with those remainders of the battlefields – the sand, oil and clay – she could try to erase the memories about it as well. That would be a gracious relief for the tormented minds, she thought. But, of course, she could never succeed – too deep were the wounds, too intense the experience of seeing injuries, death and destruction for months and years on end. Her youth prevented her from grasping the terrifying reality and the truth about the war; she had seen much, but not enough to understand and unconsciously she even fought against understanding it.
But duty urged her to proceed and Briony slipped out of her daydream. She should not begin with the face, she thought – the wound had the priority. Before placing the smelly cotton close to the infected area she carefully touched the swollen skin and withdrew her hand quickly when the man groaned and grimaced in pain. She would have to treat him more gently. Trying not to exert too much pressure she made several passes around the wound, coming closer to it each time. Still, the moans which escaped his dry lips indicated that every touch caused him to suffer. But inch after inch the grease came away. Finally Briony removed the dirty cotton and threw it into the bin. Now that the thin layer of fine sand and grime was gone, the skin turned out to be just as pale as other places of the body.
Her work would be finished now, but Briony still wanted to see the face she was so curious about. There seemed to be something familiar in the little movements of the head, in the way this dark hair fell back from the forehead, in the shape of the muscular hands and the timbre of the voice, and she longed to know why. Taking a fresh cotton wool she leaned over his face again and began to sweep away the cover of soil and dirt. The layer proved to be more difficult to remove than she had expected: it had dried and now formed a thick crust all over the skin. She had to wipe several times over a place with increased pressure to get it clean and the cotton had to be changed twice. Slowly but continually she succeeded – first the forehead turned from a brownish-grey into its usual colour, then the broad temples, the hollow cheeks, the nose, the chin.
During the whole process a strange feeling spread in Briony's stomach and at first she believed it to be nausea again. But it was something entirely different, a sensation that resonated in something between dread and nervousness in her mind, and it increased every minute, every single moment in which she removed a new part of the layer.
Finally she threw away the last piece of cotton and turned around slowly, as if against her own will. A single look at this familiar and yet so changed face made Briony's greatest wish and at the same time her worst anticipation come true. How could she forget this face whose features haunted her every night after that hot summer day in 1935? How could she not have recognized this man, the very man whom she wanted to be alive and whom she dreaded to encounter? How would she encounter him now?...
Robbie. Robbie Turner. The criminal. The victim. The lover. Briony could not turn away, could not withdraw her gaze from him. How changed he looked now, so much older than she remembered him. It was visible how his skin had been burnt by sun and scratched by sand and salty sea water, especially around his closed eyes. She had always been compassionate towards her patients, but now it stung her very painfully, in an almost physical way, how terribly he appeared. Shame, guilt and relief brought tears to her eyes. She took her apron to wipe them away, hopeful that no one would notice.
The realization took a while to sink into Briony's confused mind. Robbie was injured, yet alive and this meant that she would have the possibility to apologize for what she had done that evening, that terrible summer evening. She would tell him and Cecilia everything, explain her thoughts and misconceptions, then they would be reunited and it all would be forgotten. She knew it. Her sister had loved her when she was young, and Robbie too must remember how he taught her to swim. This was her chance to b forgiven. She hoped that it would happen. And the hope was stronger now than ever.
Suddenly Robbie moaned and turned under the sheets. It came back to Briony now – the infection! The strange object from his wound had to be removed immediately. Or else... She dared not imagine what would happen, because she knew it must not. She would save him. She would do everything she could and even more. She would show that she regretted everything and then they would certainly forgive her.
Yes, this is how it all would be – no fairy-tales, no childish fantasies, no letters, no crimes. No little Briony. All wiped away, together with the dirt of the battlefield. Her own battle with her conscience would be over. She was an adult now, she knew the world and its ways better, or so she thought. She would certainly not get everything wrong. Not again. Lesson learned.
Briony took one last glimpse at Robbie and then ran to the other end of the ward, her shoes making clicking noises on the polished floor. Sister Drummond would help, she was sure. Just hurry, hurry!...