It did not come, but he was not troubled. Let her pass a white night reexamining her life and what was meaningful, let her weigh in the scales of human worth a horny-handed Tarpin and his shrouded boat against ethereal Beard of planetary renown. The following five nights she stayed home, as far as he could tell, while he was committed to his lectures and other meetings and dinners, and when he came in, usually after midnight, he hoped his confident footfalls gave the impression to the darkened house of a man returning from a tryst.
On the sixth night, he was free to stay in, and she chose to go out, having spent longer than usual under shower and hair dryer. From his place, a small, deeply recessed window on a first-floor half landing, he watched her go along the garden path and pause by a tall drift of vermilion hollyhocks, pause as though reluctant to leave, and put her hand out to examine a flower. She picked it, squeezing it between newly painted nails of thumb and forefinger, held it a moment to consider, then let it drop to her feet. The summer dressbeige silk, sleeveless, with a single pleat in the small of her backwas new, a signal he was uncertain how to read. She continued to the front gate, and he thought there was heaviness in her step, or at least some slackening of her customary eagerness, and she parted from the curb in the Peugeot at near-normal acceleration.
But he was less happy that night waiting in, confused again about his judgment, beginning to think he was right after all, his radio prank had sunk him. To help think matters through, he poured a scotch and watched football. In place of dinner he ate a liter tub of strawberry ice cream and prized apart a half kilo of pistachios. He was restless, bothered by unfocused sexual need, and coming to the conclusion that he might as well be having or resuming a real affair. He passed some time turning the pages of his address book, stared at the phone a good while but did not pick it up.
He drank half the bottle and before eleven fell asleep fully dressed on the bed with the overhead light on, and for several seconds did not know where he was when, some hours later, he was woken by the sound of a voice downstairs. The bedside clock showed two-thirty. It was Patrice talking to Tarpin, and Beard, still fortified by drink, was in the mood to have a word. He stood groggily in the center of the bedroom, swaying a little as he tucked in his shirt. Quietly he opened his door. All the house lights were on, and that was fine; he was already going down the stairs with no thought for the consequences. Patrice was still talking, and as he crossed the hall toward the open sitting-room door he thought that he heard her laughing or singing and that he was about to break up a little celebration.
But she was alone and crying, sitting hunched forward on the sofa with her shoes lying on their sides on the long glass coffee table. It was an unfamiliar bottled, keening sound. If she had ever cried like this for him, it had been in his absence. He paused in the doorway, and she did not see him at first. She was a sad sight. A handkerchief or tissue was twisted in her hand, her delicate shoulders were bowed and shaking, and Beard was filled with pity. He sensed that a reconciliation was at hand and that all she needed was a gentle touch, kind words, no questions, and she would fold into him and he would take her upstairs, though even in his sudden warmth of feeling, he knew he could not carry her, not even in both arms.
As he began to cross the room a floorboard creaked and she looked up. Their eyes met, but only for a second, because her hands flew up to her face and covered it as she twisted away. He said her name, and she shook her head. Awkwardly, with her back to him, she got up from the sofa, and walking almost sideways, she stumbled on the polar-bear skin, which tended to slide too easily on the polished wooden floor. He had come close to breaking an ankle once and had despised the rug ever since. He also disliked its leering, wide-open mouth and bared teeth yellowed by exposure to the light. They had never done anything to secure it to the floor, and there was no question of throwing it out because it was a wedding present from her father. She steadied herself, remembered to pick up her shoes, and, with a free hand covering her eyes, hurried past him, flinching as he reached out to touch her arm and beginning to cry again, more freely this time, as she ran up the stairs.
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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