Cecilia Tallis, Briony’s college-aged older sister, walks the grounds of the family estate and muses about the boredom she feels while stuck at home. Her daily routine is smoking, reading, and lazing about her untidy room. She is eager to leave home, but likes to imagine that she is being prevented from leaving. She also feels like she cannot leave before she clears up awkward feelings she feels towards her longtime friend and peer at Cambridge University, Robbie Turner. Robbie works as a gardener on the estate, and the Tallis family funds his education.
Cecilia’s thoughts of Robbie foreshadow the love affair at the center of the novel. Her somewhat lazy habits, and the way she indulges in them, in contrast to Robbie’s job performing manual labor for her family, underscore the class differences that separate the two characters.
Cecilia places flowers into a priceless family heirloom vase that was given to her late Uncle Clem after he helped save a village in World War I. She goes outside to fill the vase in the fountain, and begins to flirt with Robbie. He tells her about his ambition to study medicine and she wonders why he has been acting distant lately.
Both Cecilia and Robbie have feelings for one another, but they are not yet comfortable enough to display them openly. Robbie’s boldness in speaking to Cecilia shows how the way he was included by the Tallis’s and the education they have given him has made him comfortable interacting with people of much higher social class than he is.
Robbie insists on helping Cecilia fill the vase in the fountain, but Cecilia resists his help. However, Robbie continues to grasp the vase, and part of its lip breaks off. Robbie begins to disrobe to get the piece out of the fountain, but Cecilia pre-empts him. She takes off most of her clothes and retrieves the ceramic shard from the fountain while pointedly ignoring him.
The vase-breaking miscue suggests both Robbie and Cecilia’s inability to really communicate at this point, and the sexual tension beneath that inability. At the same time, the destruction of Uncle Clem’s vase foreshadows the ominous rift in the Tallis family that will come as a result of Cecilia’s relationship to Robbie.