At two a.m. one night in late July he was in his dressing gown on his bed listening to the radio when he heard her come in and immediately, without premeditation, enacted a scheme to make her jealous and unsure and want to come back to him. On the BBC World Service a woman was discussing village customs as they affected domestic life among Turkish Kurds, a soothing drone of cruelty, injustice, and absurdity. Turning the volume down but keeping his fingers on the knob, Beard loudly intoned a fragment of a nursery rhyme. He figured that from her room she would hear his voice but not his words. As he finished his sentence, he turned up the volume of the womans voice for a few seconds, which he then interrupted with a line from the lecture he had given that night, and made the woman reply at greater length. He kept this going for five minutes, his voice, then the womans, sometimes artfully overlapping the two. The house was silentlistening, of course. He went into the bathroom, ran a tap, flushed the lavatory, and laughed out loud. Patrice should know that his lover was a wit. Then he gave out a muted kind of whoop. Patrice should know he was having fun.
He did not sleep much that night. At four, after a long silence suggestive of tranquil intimacy, he opened his bedroom door while keeping up an insistent murmur and went down the stairs backward, bending forward to beat out on the treads with his palms the sound of his companions footfall, syncopated with his own. This was the kind of logical plan only a madman might embrace. After seeing his companion to the hall, saying his good- byes between silent kisses, and closing the front door on her with a firmness that resounded through the house, he went upstairs and fell into a doze at last, after six, repeating to himself softly, Judge me by my results. He was up an hour later to be sure of running into Patrice before she left for work and of letting her see how suddenly cheerful he was.
At the front door she paused, car keys in her hand, the strap of her book-crammed satchel cutting into the shoulder of her floral blouse. No one could doubt it: she looked shattered, drained, though her voice was as bright as ever. She told him that she would be inviting Rodney for dinner that evening, and that he would probably stay the night, and she would appreciate it if he, Michael, would stay clear of the kitchen.
That happened to be his day for traveling to the Center out at Reading. Dizzy with fatigue, he began the journey staring through his smeared train window at suburban Londons miraculous combination of chaos and dullness and damning himself for his folly. His turn to listen to voices through the wall? Impossible; he would stay out somewhere. Driven from his own home by his wifes lover? Impossible; he would stay and confront him. A fight with Tarpin? Impossible; he would be stamped into the hallway parquet. Clearly he had been in no state to take decisions or to devise schemes, and from now on he must take into account his unreliable mental state and act conservatively, passively, honestly, and break no rules, do nothing extreme.
Months later he would violate every element of this resolution, but it was forgotten by the end of that day because Patrice arrived home from work without supplies (there was nothing in the fridge) and the builder did not come to dinner. He saw her only once that night, crossing the hallway with a mug of tea in her hand, looking slumped and gray, less the movie icon, more the overworked primary-school teacher whose private life was awry. Had he been wrong to berate himself on the train, had his plan actually worked, and in her sorrow had she been forced to cancel?
Reflecting on the night before, he found it extraordinary that after a lifetime of infidelities, a night with an imaginary friend was no less exciting. For the first time in weeks he felt faintly cheerful, even whistled a show tune as he microwaved his supper, and when he saw himself in the gold-leaf Sun King mirror in the cloakroom downstairs, he thought his face had lost some fat and looked purposeful, with a shadow of cheekbone visible, and was, by the light of the thirty-watt bulb, somewhat noble, a possible effect of the sugary cholesterol-lowering yogurt drink he was forcing himself to swallow each morning. When he went to bed, he kept the radio off and lay waiting with the light turned low for the remorseful little tap of her fingernails on his door.
Excerpted from Solar by Ian McEwan Copyright © 2010 by Ian McEwan. Excerpted by permission of Nan A. Talese, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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