“A Duet,” by Ian McEwan

But she said sharply, “All of it.”

So he pulled down his underpants and stepped out of them.

“That’s better. Lovely, Roland. And look at you.”

She was right. He had never known such anticipation. Even as she frightened him, he trusted her and was ready to do whatever she asked. All the time he had spent with her in his thoughts and, before that, all the intimidating lessons at the piano had been a rehearsal for what was about to happen. It was all one lesson. She would make him ready to face death, happy to be vaporized. He looked at her expectantly. What did he see?

The memory would never leave him. The bed was a double by the standards of the time, less than five feet across. Two sets of two pillows. She sat against one set with her knees drawn up. While he was undressing, she had taken off her cardigan and jeans. Her knickers, like her T-shirt, were green. Cotton, not silk. The T-shirt was a large man’s size, and perhaps he should have worried about a rival. The folds of the material, brushed cotton, seemed to him voluptuous in his heightened state. Her eyes were also green. He had once thought there was something cruel about them. Now their color suggested daring. She could do anything she wanted. Her bare legs had traces of a summer tan. Her round face, which once had the quality of a mask, now had a soft and open look. The light through the small bedroom window picked out the strength of her cheekbones. No lipstick this Saturday morning. The hair she had worn in a bun for lessons was very fine and strands of it floated up when she moved her head. She was looking at him in that patient, wry way she had. Something about him amused her. She pulled her T-shirt off and let it fall to the floor.

“Time you learned to take a girl’s bra off.”

He knelt beside her on the bed. Though his fingers shook, it turned out to be obvious enough, how to lift the hooks from the eyes. She pushed the blankets and sheets away. She was holding his gaze, as if to prevent him from gaping at her breasts.

“Let’s get in,” she said. “Come here.”

Cartoon by Carolita Johnson

She lay on her back with her arm stretched out. She wanted him to lie on it, or within it. With her free hand she pulled up the covers, turned on her side and drew him toward her. He was uneasy. This was more like a mother-and-child embrace. He sensed that he should be in a more commanding position. He felt strongly that he shouldn’t let himself be babied. But how strongly? To be enveloped like this was sudden, unexpected bliss. There was no choice. She drew his face toward her breasts and now they filled his view and he took her nipple in his mouth. She shuddered and murmured, “Oh, God.” He came up for air. They were face to face and kissing. She guided his fingers between her legs and showed him, then took her hand away. She whispered, “No, gently, slower,” and closed her eyes.

Suddenly, she pushed the bed covers away and rolled on top of him, sat up—and it was complete, accomplished. So simple. Like some trick with a vanishing knot in a length of soft rope. He lay back in sensual wonder, reaching for her hands, unable to speak. Probably only minutes passed. It seemed as if he had been shown a hidden fold in space where there was a catch, a fastener, and that as he released it and peeled away the illusory everyday he saw what had always been there. Their roles—teacher, pupil—the order and self-importance of school, timetables, bikes, cars, clothes, even words: all of it a diversion to keep everyone from this. It was either hilarious or it was tragic that people should go about their daily business in the conventional way when they knew there was this. Even the headmaster, who had a son and a daughter, must know. Even the Queen. Every adult knew. What a façade. What pretense.

Later, she opened her eyes and, gazing down at him with a faraway look, said, “There’s something missing.”

His voice came faintly from beyond the cottage walls, “Yes?”

“You haven’t said my name.”


“Say it three times.”

He did so.

A pause. She swayed, then she said, “Say something to me. With my name.”

He did not hesitate. It was a love letter, and he meant it. “Dear Miriam, I love Miriam. I love you, Miriam.” And as he was saying it again she arched her back, gave a shout, a beautiful tapering cry. That was it for him, too. He followed her, just one step behind, barely a crotchet.

He went downstairs ten minutes after her. His head was clear, his tread was light, and he took the steep stairs two at a time. The clocks had not yet been turned back and the sun was still high enough. It was not even one-thirty. It would be a delight now to be on his bike, taking a different route to school, the Harkstead way, at speed, passing close by the pine wood that contained the secret lake. Alone, to prize the treasure that no one could take from him, to taste it, sift it, reconstruct it. To get the measure of the new person he was. He might extend the ride, take the farm tracks to Freston. The prospect was sweet. But, first, a goodbye. When he arrived in the sitting room, she was bending down to gather up the papers from the floor. He was not too young to sense a shift of mood. Her movements were quick and tense. Her hair was tied back tight. She straightened and looked at him and knew.

She said, “Oh, no, you don’t.”


She came toward him. “You absolutely don’t.”

He started to say, “I don’t know what you mean,” but she spoke over him. “Got what you came for and heading off. Is that it?”

“No. Honestly. I want to stay.”

“Are you telling me the truth?”


“Yes, Miss.”

He looked to see if she was making fun of him. Impossible to tell.

“Yes, Miss.”

“Good. Ever peeled a potato?”

He nodded, not daring to say no.

She led him into the kitchen. By the sink, in a tin bowl, were five big dirty potatoes. She gave him a peeler and a colander. “Did you wash your hands?”

He tried to sound curt. “Yes.”

“Yes, Miss.”

“I thought you wanted me to call you Miriam.”

She gave him a look of exaggerated pity and continued. “When they’re done and rinsed, chop them into four and put them in that pot.”

She stepped into some clogs and went into the back garden, and he started work. He felt trapped, bewildered, and at the same time he thought he owed her a great debt. Of course, it would have been wrong, appalling bad manners, to leave. But even if it had been right he would not have known how to withstand her. She had always frightened him. He had not forgotten how cruel she could be. Now it was more complicated; it was worse, and he had made it worse. He suspected that he had brushed against a fundamental law of the universe: such ecstasy must compromise his freedom. That was its price.

The first potato was slow. Like wood carving, at which he had always been useless. By the fourth, he thought he had the hang of it. The trick was to ignore the detail. He quartered and rinsed his five potatoes and put them in the pot of water. He went to the kitchen’s half-glazed door to see what she was up to. The light was golden. She was dragging a cast-iron table across the lawn toward a shed. Pausing, then dragging a few inches at a time. Her movements were frantic, even angry. The terrible thought came to him that there might be something wrong with her. She saw him and waved at him to come out.

When he got to her, she said, “Don’t just watch. This thing is bloody heavy.”

Together, they stored the table in the shed. Then she put a rake in his hands and told him to sweep up the leaves and put them on the compost heap at the bottom of the garden. While he raked beech leaves from next door’s tree, she was busy in the borders with her secateurs. An hour passed. He was dumping the last of the leaves on the compost. Across the open space, he could make out a slice of the river, part of an inlet, tinted orange. It occurred to him to step over the low fence into the field, walk around to the front of the cottage, retrieve his bike, and be off. Never come back. It would hardly matter if the world was ending. He could do all that. But it was simple—he couldn’t. His urge to leave surprised him as much as his inability to. It was a matter of courtesy to help out, to stay for lunch. He was hungry; the leg of lamb he had seen in the kitchen would be far superior to anything at school. It helped, or simplified matters, minutes later, when Miriam told him to rake the front garden also. He had no choice. As he turned to obey, she pulled him back by the collar of his shirt and kissed him on the cheek.

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