Joe and Clarissa have returned to their London home. The time is 6:00 PM, and Joe is surprised to find that everything looks the same as it did when he left. The couple sit down at the kitchen table and open a bottle of wine, ready to discuss at last the events of the afternoon after saying very little on the car ride home.
Here is another brief lapse in Joe’s rationalism. There is no reason why the apartment shouldn’t be exactly as he left it, but Joe can’t help thinking that it somehow shouldn’t be. This hints at the emotional weight of what he has just experienced, though Joe will not admit this outright.
Their words, Joe tells the reader, come out in a “torrent” of “repetition,” and Joe finds comfort in the “reiteration” of them just as he does in the “familiar weight of the wineglasses and in the grain of the deal table.” First Clarissa speaks, then Joe interrupts, and vice versa. Together, they “heap curses on” James Gadd “and his incompetence,” but they are drawn inevitably back to what they could have done themselves to save John Logan.
This scene is both loving and deeply human. The reader sees Joe and Clarissa’s connection, and it is this aspect of their relationship that will allow the reader to cheer for their reconciliation later on. Yet, even here, the reader gets the sense that Joe’s desire to blame others may end up harming him.
Joe shows Clarissa the rope burns on his palm, which he received just before the balloon carried him briefly into the air, and Clarissa kisses his palms. Though the two of them are briefly distracted from the “ritual” retelling into which they are, for the moment, locked, they cannot escape it for long, returning instead to Logan’s fall. Overwhelmed by the horror of the memory, the two of them retreat “into the peripheries” of the story, trading their recollections of the police, the ambulance, and the stretcher that carried the injured Toby Greene away. They briefly imagine the police contacting Mrs. Logan, but “this [is] unbearable too,” and so they return to their own recollections.
Here, McEwan transforms Joe’s desire to tell his story over and over into something slightly darker. By touching him gently, Clarissa has tried to insert an emotional element into the rational way they are relating to one another. Yet Joe is quickly drawn back into what has become an obsessive repetition of his story, and Clarissa follows shortly behind him with her own version of events.
When Joe comes to the story of Jed Parry and his insatiable desire for prayer, he tells it “as comedy and [makes] Clarissa laugh.” Joe feels an urge to tell Clarissa that he loves her, but instead he is drawn to a description of John Logan’s body, confessing that it is “far worse in recollection than it had been at the time.” Clarissa watches Joe patiently as he “spiral[s] into a regress of emotion, memory, and commentary,” and after a few minutes she moves toward him and embraces him.
That Joe resists the temptation to break off his tale and profess his love for Clarissa is perhaps a troubling sign. So, too, is it potentially problematic that Joe’s first instinct is to render Parry comic rather than explaining the man in a sincere and truthful way. This failure (which will be repeated) will later come to haunt Joe.
Moments later, however, the two of them are back in their seats, going over the story once more. When Clarissa insists that Logan “was a good man,” Joe is reminded of “the routine surgical procedure that left Clarissa unable to bear children.” He recalls her grief, five years earlier, upon a friend’s loss of a “four-week-old baby to a rare bacterial infection,” and he speculates that, in John Logan, Clarissa sees “a man prepared to die to prevent the kind of loss she felt herself to have sustained.”
In these paragraphs, McEwan introduces Clarissa’s own obsession: the notion that she has been denied some essential part of herself because of her inability to bear children. The reader sees in these lines Joe’s notion that Clarissa tends to view events—in this case, the ballooning accident—through this highly personal and emotional lens.
Putting aside that line of thinking, Joe reveals to the reader that the balloon eventually came down safely on its own and that the child, Harry Gadd, is unharmed. Neither Joe nor Clarissa wants to believe that John Logan “died for nothing,” but Clarissa goes a step further, insisting that Logan’s death “must mean something.” Because he has “never liked this line of thinking,” Joe hesitates before he responds, finally stating, simply, that they “tried to help and . . . failed.” The truth is as obvious and unadorned as that.
Joe and Clarissa look at the world in fundamentally different ways—a distinction that undermines their relationship when Jed Parry intrudes into it. Joe doesn’t like Clarissa’s near-supernatural insistence that John Logan’s death must be part of some larger “plan”; Clarissa is suspicious of Joe’s failure to think so.
Clarissa responds that Joe is “so rational sometimes [he’s] like a child,” and she insists that one meaning that can be pulled from the tragedy is that the two of them will “have to love each other even harder.” Moved, Joe wonders why he doesn’t think in such terms, and he allows himself to be led into the bedroom by Clarissa.
As the two of them undress and embrace, Clarissa confesses that she feels “scared” and that she’s “shivering inside.” To calm themselves, the two of them tell stories from childhood: of Clarissa’s young cousin going briefly missing and of Joe’s first public performance on the trumpet. After a time, the two of them make love then sleep briefly. When they awaken, “after an hour or so,” they invite some friends to join them and they spend the next several hours retelling their story, once again interrupting each other and trading portions of the narrative.
The obsessive way that Joe and Clarissa tell their stories—both to each other and, later, to friends—indicates just how deeply the events of the day have affected them. The reader sees, too, in these moments the level of intimacy between Joe and Clarissa at this point in their relationship. The two of them clearly have no secrets from each other—a state of affairs that the novel will challenge.
After their friends leave, just after one in the morning, Joe and Clarissa prepare for the next day—a Monday, and Clarissa’s first day back in the classroom after her research sabbatical—then finally go to bed. Joe is awakened, however, by a phone call in the middle of the night. The call is from Jed Parry, who, bizarrely, confesses to Joe that he “understands” what Joe is feeling, that he “feels it too,” and that he “loves” Joe. When Clarissa asks sleepily who has called, Joe makes his “first serious mistake.” He tells her that it has been a wrong number.
Joe lies to Clarissa about Jed Parry’s telephone call either to protect her, or because he is too tired to have a long conversation about it. Yet in this moment, the reader sees the first instance of Joe’s disloyalty to Clarissa. Meanwhile, in Parry’s declaration that he also feels what he wrongly believes Joe to be feeling, the reader sees the irrationality of Parry’s blooming obsession.