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)

12 thoughts on “Atonement”

  1. It is interesting how you have constructed not only a persona but a whole life for this poor guy with wind. Suffering not infrequently from it myself my heart goes out to him. Of course you were there – I'm just playing devil's advocate here – but perhaps he didn't apologise is due to the fact he was alone and didn't think he had anyone to apologise to. And as for rushing out that's common practice here. Frequently Carrie and I found ourselves the last to leave; we rarely go to the cinema nowadays. Perhaps the man had a bus to catch. Perhaps he had to rush home to his nagging wife who harps on at him whenever his tummy rumbles or his shoes creak.

    I'll be interested to hear what you think of my review of Amos Oz's book Rhyming Life and Death when I get round to posting it where we see a writer construct a complex scenario by simply building stories around the people he runs across.

  2. Sorry the film was spoiled for you by the man in the neighbouring seat. I love Atonement – I love all his books – and I too was haunted by the effect a child's lie could have on everyone's life.

  3. This is the post to which Jim and I are referring:
    The Chalk Line
    I've been following your blog for quite awhile, but haven't made comments because I'm intimidated by your great writing and your vast frame of reference. I'm kind of a jack-of-all-trades, master of….remains to be seen.

  4. This is a wonderful post Elisabeth.

    There are so many different topics taken up in your post such as, sexual abuse, child molestation,inappropriate behavior, the movie Atonement, Ian McEwan, and yet they all interlink with one another.
    Two things struck me here.
    One is the mention of the author, Ian McEwan. He is one of my favourite authors and I would suggest you read his "Cement Garden" if you haven't yet. It is a psychological horror, macabre,I would say, and BRILLIANT nonetheless.
    I am sure the subject would interest you much.

    Another issue was child abuse. I remember going through similar experience as a ten year old; exactly like that little girl in the movie hall.
    However, the place was different and the person was not a stranger…Yet the terror, the tongue tied,frozen, paralytic silence was the same.
    That thirty four years later, I can talk about it on this public forum might be an indication of healing, but the memory of such traumas linger for long, long time ,I know.
    I enjoyed reading your take on everything.

  5. The Next Belch

    I shall atone once you
    get me to grasp the main point
    of entry into
    dreams of who I was
    when this all started for us.
    Or maybe never
    as I rumble on
    wondering what the next belch
    will taste like for me.

  6. Thanks, Dave. I hope the power does lie within, but I'm never too sure.

    Jim, your comments have left a tug of guilt in my already overcrowded mind. Because the man was unknown to me, because we sat in the dark side by side and did not speak, because his aloneness allowed me to put all sorts of imaginings onto him, I am guilty of the observer's crime.

    My children always make me sit with my back to the restaurant for fear that I will stare at all the other customers. I have a bad habit of making things up in my mind about complete strangers. I do not notice that I am staring at them until one of my children jabs me in the ribs.

    Weaver, the man whom I have perhaps maligned in Jim's eyes did not spoil the film for me, nothing could. The book I think is better but the film is a pretty good adaptation.

    Kass, thanks to you again. I've commented on your blog.

    I now recommend that anyone reading these comments who has not yet done so, go over and visit Kass's blog for The Chalk Line, see above.

    Nazia, child sexual abuse is a fairly constant preoccupation of mine. And hearing about your experience here thirty four years after the event confirms again how damaging it can be.

    I applaud your bravery in mentioning it here. It takes such courage because a child's shame for the unspeakable things that have been visited on her/him live on long after the initial pain has gone. Children carry the responsibility for things for which they are not responsible. It's only when we can give voice to such shame that we can begin to dilute it and thereby stop taking responsibility for things that were once well outside of our control.

    Christopher many thanks for responding to my post with a poem. Like Jim you seem to identify with my poor belching offsider, if I read your poetry right.

    I do not mean the man harm, whoever he is. He simply featured at that moment in my life and sparked off a chain of associations inspired by the film.

    I blame it all on the limitations of my imagination.

  7. Elisabeth, my poetic voice is located weirdly near to my contrarian personality disorder 🙂 This gets me in trouble in my relationships if I don't absolutely adore and worship the one I am relating to. That is I get in trouble if my partner lacks a sense of humor. If my sense of humor has its way with me it gets worse than this…

    I am not really identifying with him or defending him, just going "inside" to see what that might be like if it were me being him.

    This sort of thing is often how I get my poetry. I hope its okay if it happens here sometimes.

  8. I thank you for your comment AND THE SUGGESTION left on The Chalk Line. I never thought of it as a stand-alone piece – it was in my pile of diary pages – but your're right, ending it with just the account and tweaking it some would be better.

    I just wanted to comment on The Atonement. I found that movie so cinematically beautiful, but so wrenching, that I kept averting my face from the screen to look at my surroundings so my heart would stop racing. A belcher might have been welcome (like Christopher's poem and picture, which brought me right back to reality).

  9. Interesting. Like Jim, I found myself almost instantly in sympathy with this poor old fellow, who's probably been so alone for so long that he's lost touch with all the subtle manners that go into living with others. Yet that doesn't mean he doesn't have an active interior life and imagination, which would cause him to seek out such an interesting movie. I suppose it's just a reminder that we should resist as best we can the completely human instinct to judge people based on their appearance. Which of course I do as much as anyone.

  10. It's interesting how powerful the mind is. As soon as I started reading your post I had a different image in my head but related to yours still. A scene from 'The God of Small Things' and it also takes place in a cinema.

    It is a very thoughtful post which calls to those parts of our psyche affected by those visions of strangers behaving deviously.

    Excellent read.

    Greetings from London.

  11. Christopher, I'm honoured that my blog set off a chain of associations in your mind that then led to your poem.

    I hope I have sufficient good humour in this life to enjoy the humorous. Sometimes it's hard on line, though. Hence the use people make of those odd letters, LOL, the smiley face and the like.

    Kass I certainly resonate with your experience of Atonement. I so wanted it to end happily and of course it didn't. War never does.

    The war scenes in the film and in the book as well,and the unfairness of class distinctions that led a young man to be falsely found guilty of something he never did and the real perpetrator to get way with it, also stay with me.

    And John, I agree, we must take care not to judge people. Though this man whom I will never see again, I imagine, and whom I could not even for a minute now recognise if I saw him in real life need never know.

    So I hope I have not hurt him. I suppose I only hurt the feelings of those like Jim who might identify with him. Though I'm sure Jim can take it. Despite his sensitivity he knows I have heaps of compassion for the unfortunates of this life, at least he ought to know by now.

    And yes Cuban, that scene from The God of Small Things comes back to me too, now when you mention it. I'm pleased that my post should evoke such powerful images.

    Thanks all for your thoughts.

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