All afternoon I couldn’t get the images from the film of Atonement out of my head, the war and the death and the significance of a child’s lie.
The man beside me in the picture theatre belched three times, not once and seemingly not accidentally. I did not like to sit directly beside him but our seats were numbered 12 and 13. When I looked at the tickets as we walked to our seats, I thought we had an unlucky number , but I dismissed it. Besides, as luck would have it, my sister sat in seat 13, I would have had it but moved to fill the gap between myself and this chap in seat 12. I led the way into the theatre with my sister close behind.
I was conscious of this man from the start. He was alone. He sat arms folded over his huge belly. He seemed an unlikely man to see at a film like this – rough looking, but it was dark by the time we arrived and I couldn’t get a close look.
While the credits were rolling I remembered the story a friend once told me about her experience as a small child. She had gone to the movies with several of her siblings who sat in a row in the picture theatre. She was on the end. When the lights went out and the film began a man, a stranger sitting beside her put his hands into her pants and started to masturbate her. She was struck dumb with terror, unable to speak or move.
What would I have done, I wondered? Would I scream, make a fuss? Tell my sister we’re leaving.
I thought what a good thing it was that I was sitting beside this man, and not my sister, that I could manage this ordeal better than she. This might be more traumatic for her.
My sister might be like the little girl I have just described, paralyzed, unable to say no. Not me, I thought. I would put a stop to it.
Or would I? Helen Garner describes it in her book, The First Stone, her own paralysis in the face of sexual assault, unwanted sexual advances, from a masseur in one instance, from another person in authority in the other.
This memory rose out of the film based on Ian McEwan’s book Atonement.
Why wouldn’t it, sitting behind that old man in the picture theatre? He was not old. He was more or less my age, but in my little girl’s mind he was a ‘dirty old man’, given the belching burping noises he made, seemingly oblivious to them. I didn’t even sense him wince by way of apology.
What was an man like him doing in a movie like this? He may have appreciated it. When the end of the film arrived with my sister sniffling beside me and the names of celebrities and workers running down the screen and the beautiful background music fanning the sadness, this man could not wait to get out of the theatre.
And Briony Tallis’s words from Atonement ring in my ears still.
‘How can a novelist achieve atonement when, with her absolute power of deciding outcomes, she is also God? There is no one, no entity or higher form that she can appeal to, or be reconciled with, or that can forgive her. There is nothing outside her. In her imagination she has set the limits and the terms. No atonement for God, or novelists, even if they atheists. It was always an impossible task, and that was precisely the point. The attempt was all.’ (371)