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Cold Indifference


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A few things you should know before reading this fic:

1. This is a prequel fanfic for the film/novel 'Atonement'. You do not need to have seen/read it to understand the plot. The relationship between the characters is explained. They're both students at Cambridge University, circa early 1940s.

2. I've never been to Cambridge, but I did some research. If you've been there/attended school there, I'm sure some of this is really screwy. But I tried.

3. The term "bedder" is a person at Cambridge who would come tidy up your room, do your laundry, etc. during this time period. Nowadays they mostly vacuum/clean up common areas/ etc. Also, from what I understand, the division of a residence at Cambridge is vertical, rather than by 'dorm halls' in the States, with rooms circled around and stacked upwards in sections. Fun facts!

Without further ado, enjoy! smile.png


Fall at Cambridge was beautiful, if not a bit chilly. Cecilia would have preferred a little more warmth, but she trudged onwards along the path beside the lush grass of college lawn. The trees lining the way were turning scarlet and their bark a dark grey in the cooler weather, but the lawn still managed to look spectacular.

She paused alongside a tall brick building with several large windows lit by desk lamps. Glancing upwards, she tried casually to look in on Robbie, who occupied a room in the corner on the top floor. She'd seen him a few times on the street this past term, but he steadily avoided her and she did the same. Besides, it wasn't proper for her to hang about with her housekeeper's son, even if he'd been afforded all the same privileges by her generous father. Robbie wasn't a bad person; far from it actually; but Cecilia was at Cambridge to learn and not to cavort with a childhood playmate. Her family had been against her education to begin with, so she felt she had to put extra effort into making good use of her time at University. Talking to any man for too long or in a way that might be viewed as indecent could be cause for being sent down. There was no point in being an educated woman if she was to get sent-down for falling in love with a lesser-class man and no point in distracting herself with one even if she felt nothing for him. Robbie Turner was out of the question.

His corner window was dark; he was out. At the pub, she surmised, where she (or any decent woman for that matter) couldn't go. It was well enough; she had a great deal of reading to finish and in the dying light of the afternoon, she hoped to sit a while outside by the river. Gas lamps burned along the pathway down to the water where the shared boathouse for Newnham College and Jesus College sat on the bank. Cecilia attended Newnham, which was actually quite a good walk away from the boathouse's location, but she'd gone to borrow a text from the library at Jesus College, where Robbie was enrolled. Once, when they were new students, he'd pointed out his room to her as they parted ways. She'd never forgotten it.

The grass along the river was dotted here and there with students lounging in the late autumn sun. A few young men drifted by punting and several female students giggled as they watched from a bench. Cecilia wandered further, past the boathouse to a spot under a drooping tree, still heavy with unturned green leaves.

A familiar head of brown hair sat not far off, hunched over a book. Cecilia hesitated, partially hidden by the trunk of the tree. Robbie was facing away from her, dressed in a thick cabled sweater, his satchel lying open at his side. His shoulders rose and fell in a silent sigh as he turned the page. Cecilia was sure she saw him yawn.

“Hello then,” she said, emerging from behind the tree. Robbie looked up at her and started, scrambling to gather his books.

“Oh, hello,” he said. His voice sounded thick and hoarse. Perhaps he'd indulged at the pub early tonight, Cee thought.

“It's lovely out,” Cecilia remarked. “I had the same idea, coming here to study. Don't let me bother you; I'll sit farther off.”

Robbie turned his face away from her quite suddenly in a gesture Cecilia thought to be very rude indeed until his head bobbed forward and he sneezed roughly.


“Bless you,” she said, stepping back a few paces. With the slightly cooler turn of the weather, the first batch of student flus were going around and Cecilia had already endured the sound of the girl in the room above hers coughing all night long.

“Thanks,” Robbie replied, reaching into the sleeve of his sweater and taking out a wrinkled blue cotton handkerchief to wipe his nose.

“Sorry,” he apologized, keeping his face turned as he cleaned himself up.

When he felt a bit more presentable, he turned back around to Cecilia and squinted upwards at her in the late afternoon sun.

“Are you ill?” she asked, looking critically at him.

“A touch of cold,” he replied with a shrug. “I've got a paper to write and three books to finish reading, so I though I ought to stay out of my room and work here, else I'd be tempted to go to sleep.”

He looked dreadful, she thought, his aquamarine eyes circled in shadows and his freckled nose a glowing pink around the edges. The sweater he was wrapped in seemed too warm for such a mild fall day and she suspected he felt chilled.

“If you're tempted to sleep, you ought to go do it and not risk making yourself more ill,” she said cooly, though she was worried about him. Robbie had an equal amount of pressure to prove himself worthy of attending university and so far he'd excelled. That came with much effort, though, Cecilia knew. She'd seen him many evenings walking to the library laden with books.

“I can manage, thank you,” he replied. “It was nice to see you.”

She took that as a dismissal and nodded goodbye, walking a bit further back along the bank to settle against the tree she'd scouted earlier.

Robbie was just visible at the bottom of the slope of the bank from Cecilia's vantage point. She opened her reading and leaned against the trunk of the tree, smoothing her long wool skirt out over her legs as she sat.

She'd barely read a paragraph before she caught Robbie's shoulders rise out of the corner of her eye.


She watched him as he snapped forward with the force of the sneeze and sniffled mightily afterwards. He turned, catching her staring, and looked away quickly. Cecilia flushed at being caught and went back to her book, shaking her head. If he wanted to be stubborn and catch his death, then let him, she thought.

Pencil in hand, she carefully marked a passage in her book and wrote a note in the margin for later reference. A few students passed behind her on the path riding bicycles. Another boat floated down the river. And then she heard it; sniffle, sniff...sniffle...sniffle sniffle sniff.

She glanced over at Robbie who was now reclining against a rock, his book held in front of him. His nose twitched in rhythm as he snorted and struggled to breath against apparent congestion.

Sniff. Sniff. Sniffle...

Cecilia went back to her reading, but the sniffling continued. It was as if it was the only sound in the whole of the landscape and it was driving her mad. In a huff, she put her book down and reached into the pocket of her jacket for her handkerchief. Stomping over towards Robbie, she sat down beside him and pressed it into his hand.

“Stop sniveling,” she insisted.

He looked at her with wide, blue eyes and pressed the silk handkerchief to his nostrils, forcing his nose upwards to stop the dribbling. His eyes crinkled into a laugh and he swiped the cloth across his nose several more times as he chuckled.

“Sniveling?” he said. “I'm sorry I've interrupted your studies.”

Cecilia looked back at her spot by the tree, realizing how far she'd been sitting from Robbie and how foolish she must seem to be so focused on him at such a distance.

“It's likely distracting for you too,” she said. “I'll walk you back to your home if you like. I should head back to Newnham soon anyhow.”

“No, thank you,” Robbie said, shutting his book. “I'll see myself home. It's out of the way for you.”

He put the text into his satchel and pocketed Cecilia's handkerchief.

“I'll have the bedder launder it and I'll return it to you, I promise,” he said, patting his pocket. “Have a nice evening, Cee.”

Cecilia stood and turned away, walking back to her things, leaving Robbie without a parting word, though as he walked away she heard him cough and felt a pang of sympathy for him.

As she lay in bed that night, she wondered if he was managing to get some sleep and if someone in his housing had a hot water bottle they'd lend him, or if the heater in his room worked properly.

The next day she took lunch at her normal Tuesday spot at a tearoom before her afternoon lecture. As the waiter set down her cucumber sandwich, she felt a tap on her shoulder. She turned to find Robbie still looking very unwell. He held out her freshly laundered and folded handkerchief.

“Just returning this,” he said hoarsely. He coughed into his arm to clear his throat. “I'll see you around then.”

“Robbie, wait,” she called after him. “Will you take lunch with me?”

He hesitated.

“I should go back to the library.”

“You don't look well,” she said. “At least have a cup of tea.”

“Yes, alright,” he agreed, taking the seat opposite. He was again bundled in a thick jumper with woolen trousers instead of his standard day suit. His eyes didn't sparkle with their normal, cheery light and his nose looked very sore.

The waiter returned with a tea service and Robbie poured cups for both of them, looking like he was trying very hard not to let his nose drip over the teapot.

“Are you enjoying your classes?” Cecilia asked as she accepted her cup from him.

“Yes, very much,” Robbie replied, his hands curled around both sides of his cup as he raised it to drink. It wasn't a civilized way to drink tea, Cecilia thought, and Robbie had been taught better. Still, she kept mum.

“And you?” he asked after drinking a bit of tea.

“I'm doing well,” Cecilia told him. “I'm excelling in the poetry lecture and I'm told I have good skill in life sciences.”

“Perhaps you can train as a nurse,” Robbie suggested, the heel of his hand pressing to his nose as a look of irritation crossed his features.

“Father and Mother wouldn't dream of letting me do that,” Cecilia said. “They barely approved of me attending university in the first place, you know that. Though if was training to be a nurse, I'd ask you again if you're quite alright? You really don't look well.”

Robbie grimaced as he kept pressing at his nose, finally acquiescing to the a tickle in his sinuses. As politely as it possibly was while at the tea table with a lady, he sneezed into his arm with an irritated Huhrhhh'tsght! and quickly retrieved his handkerchief from his jumper pocket, wrapping it around his nose.

“That settles the matter then,” Cecilia said, looking at him with a mixture of pity and disgust. “Do promise you'll go home to bed.”

“Don't be stupid, Cee,” he said from behind the handkerchief. “You know as well as I that examinations are only a few weeks away and I have work to finish.”

“Robbie!” she scoffed. “Don't call me stupid. It's you that's being stupid for trying to ignore this blasted cold of yours and making the rest of us all suffer alongside you!”

“Oh, I'm making you suffer now, am I?” Robbie asked, his eyes glinting with a hint of his familiar wicked humor. “You asked me to tea.”

“Only because you looked so pitiful,” Cecilia said, taking a sip from her cup with a look of irritation.

Robbie stayed silent, reaching for his own cup and taking a sip. He winced visibly upon swallowing and Cecilia took notice. With a single, graceful movement she put down her cup and reached across the table, pressing a few fingers to his throat.

“What are you doing?” he asked, jerking back in surprise and glancing around the tearoom to see if anyone had observed her strange actions.

“Checking your glands,” she said cooly as she leaned back into her seat and reached for her satchel from beside the chair. “And you're much too warm. Let's go.”

She was standing now, looking at him expectantly.

“What?” he said with a pathetic-sounding sniffle.

“Get up,” she instructed. “I'm going to walk you back to your room.”


“Robbie, don't make me make a scene.”

“I'm perfectly fi-”


“I'm fi...hehhh....hehh...hh'sghhhht!

As he snapped forward with a congested-sounding sneeze, Cecilia looked on in smug satisfaction. He sniffed wetly, pressed his handkerchief to his red nose, and looked up at Cecilia with watery eyes.

“Up,” she said again, taking his satchel and handing it to him as he stood.

They walked out together into the crisp air and continued in silence down the path towards Robbie's living quarters. Not two minutes into their silent march, Robbie started to cough. At first, it was a few little hacks here and there before it progressed to red-faced barks.

Cecilia stopped alongside him and put a tentative hand on his back.

“Do you need to sit down?” she asked.

“No,” he choked, his eyes watering freely as his cheeks puffed with each rapid exhale. He took a gasping breath and got the fit under control. He was red in the face, though from exertion or embarrassment, Cecilia wasn't sure.

They continued to walk in silence, only Robbie's occasional sniffles making any noise. His quarters weren't terribly far from the tea room and when they reached the path towards the tower, Robbie stopped and turned to Cecilia.

“I can manage from here,” he said. “Thank you.”

“To bed, I mean it,” she said. “Or I shall tell father you're neglecting your studies.”

“That's very cruel, Cee,” he said, frowning. “Don't make jokes like that.”

She didn't apologize.

“Feel better,” she offered, though with less tones of affection in her voice than the phrase was normally endowed with.

Robbie turned and walked away, his shoulders hunched as he wheezed and sniffled his way to the door, pausing once to sneeze into his arm (a rough, loud Huhhr'tsfftt!).

Cecilia sat on a bench some distance away at a point where she still had a view of his room window. After a few moments, she saw him pass by, a handkerchief held up and his face strained in the midst of blowing his nose. He disappeared for a minute, and when his figure passed the window a second time, he was wearing a set of striped men's pajamas. Satisfied, Cecilia went back down the path towards town to waste another hour before her afternoon class.

She paused outside a small sundries shop before deciding to go inside. She gathered a hot water bottle, a small literary magazine of humorous stories, a packet of tea, and a jar of honey.

“Can you have these sent up to Jesus College?” she asked the cashier.

“Of course,” the boy replied. “Just fill out this slip here and I'll have the courier take it by end of day.”

An hour later, Robbie was in bed, unable to sleep soundly thanks to a nose that was blocked solid and a pounding headache. Someone knocked on his door and he climbed out from under the warm blankets, shivering as his bare feet plodded across the room to answer.

A young man handed him a brown paper parcel addressed with his name and he thanked him before returning to sit on the edge of the bed and open it.

When he saw the contents, he shook his head. Cecilia was a conundrum. Their relationship at school had been strained, at best, and now she went and did something very nice. It was baffling, really.

He put a kettle on and boiled water for tea, pouring the extra into the hot water bottle. Curling back up in bed, he tucked the hot water bottle at his chilly feet and curled his hands around the cup of tea, inhaling the steam. Whatever Cecilia's intentions, he was very grateful for the small gifts. Perhaps they'd work some magic and he'd be back to studying in no time.

Back in her own rooms, Cecilia sat down at her desk to do some work and absentmindedly reached into her pocket to find the handkerchief Robbie had returned to her earlier in the day. She pressed it to her cheek, thinking about him. Things would be so much easier if he was of a higher class family and not her childhood friend from the house staff. She tucked the handkerchief into her drawer and turned back to her work, shaking thoughts of him from her mind. At least for the time being.

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I need a bucket to hold all of my feels right now. I CAN NOT EVEN. Robbie! Cecilia! BAAAABIESSSS!

I seriously feel that this entire scene should have been in the novel/movie, only because it felt so incredibly real. You're amazing, Dusty. :wub:

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surrender.gif I surrender.

And I swear, I am making this exact face right now --> sp_ike.gif





*reads again*


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Magnificent! As ever, you have been scrupulous in your research and in essence this is a really good account of the strained nature of relationships before the invention of mixed sex colleges.

As an old Cambridge hand, it would be dreadful of me to carp on about minor inaccuracies. But of course some things are quite interesting, as Cantab S Fry would say. The staircase system of rooms was apparently universal prior to the C16 [i believe that Wolsey invented corridors at Hampton Court}. However, because women's colleges were converted private houses, Newnham has always had a house and corridor system, indeed the main corridor is notoriously long and straight. Until colleges went mixed in the 70s, women's rowing was not at all popular, so women's colleges didn't even share boathouses.

An oddly good depiction of undergrad life is available in the film "Maurice" [or of course the book]. The locus classicus for bedders is Tom Sharpe's "Porterhouse Blue" which the Beeb televised some years ago. I bet it's on YouTube.

ETA Yes; mikeandberniewinters has posted "Porterhouse Blue; Mrs Biggs teases Zipser...."

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I was waiting for you to come along and give me the details, Count! In fact, I was positively looking forward to it ;) Thanks for the details! I know Newnham and Jesus share a boathouse now, but who knew it wasn't a thing in the 40s? I'll keep it, with the plea of dramatic license!

Thanks for the love, all! <3

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