بخش 02کتاب: هرگز رهایم مکن / فصل 2
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I won’t be a carer any more come the end of the year, and though I’ve got a lot out of it, I have to admit I’ll welcome the chance to rest—to stop and think and remember. I’m sure it’s at least partly to do with that, to do with preparing for the change of pace, that I’ve been getting this urge to order all these old memories. What I really wanted, I suppose, was to get straight all the things that happened between me and Tommy and Ruth after we grew up and left Hailsham. But I realise now just how much of what occurred later came out of our time at Hailsham, and that’s why I want first to go over these earlier memories quite carefully. Take all this curiosity about Madame, for instance. At one level, it was just us kids larking about. But at another, as you’ll see, it was the start of a process that kept growing and growing over the years until it came to dominate our lives.
After that day, mention of Madame became, while not taboo exactly, pretty rare among us. And this was something that soon spread beyond our little group to just about all the students in our year. We were, I’d say, as curious as ever about her, but we all sensed that to probe any further—about what she did with our work, whether there really was a gallery—would get us into territory we weren’t ready for yet.
The topic of the Gallery, though, still cropped up every once in a while, so that when a few years later Tommy started telling me beside the pond about his odd talk with Miss Lucy, I found something tugging away at my memory. It was only afterwards, when I’d left him sitting on his rock and was hurrying towards the fields to catch up with my friends, that it came back to me.
It was something Miss Lucy had once said to us during a class. I’d remembered it because it had puzzled me at the time, and also because it was one of the few occasions when the Gallery had been mentioned so deliberately in front of a guardian.
We’d been in the middle of what we later came to call the “tokens controversy.” Tommy and I discussed the tokens controversy a few years ago, and we couldn’t at first agree when it had happened. I said we’d been ten at the time; he thought it was later, but in the end came round to agreeing with me. I’m pretty sure I got it right: we were in Junior 4—a while after that incident with Madame, but still three years before our talk by the pond.
The tokens controversy was, I suppose, all part of our getting more acquisitive as we grew older. For years—I think I’ve said already—we’d thought that having work chosen for the billiards room, never mind taken away by Madame, was a huge triumph. But by the time we were ten, we’d grown more ambivalent about it. The Exchanges, with their system of tokens as currency, had given us a keen eye for pricing up anything we produced. We’d become preoccupied with T-shirts, with decorating around our beds, with personalising our desks. And of course, we had our “collections” to think of.
I don’t know if you had “collections” where you were. When you come across old students from Hailsham, you always find them, sooner or later, getting nostalgic about their collections. At the time, of course, we took it all for granted. You each had a wooden chest with your name on it, which you kept under your bed and filled with your possessions—the stuff you acquired from the Sales or the Exchanges. I can remember one or two students not bothering much with their collections, but most of us took enormous care, bringing things out to display, putting other things away carefully.
The point is, by the time we were ten, this whole notion that it was a great honour to have something taken by Madame collided with a feeling that we were losing our most marketable stuff. This all came to a head in the tokens controversy.
It began with a number of students, mainly boys, muttering that we should get tokens to compensate when Madame took something away. A lot of students agreed with this, but others were outraged by the idea. Arguments went on between us for some time, and then one day Roy J.—who was a year above us, and had had a number of things taken by Madame—decided to go and see Miss Emily about it.
Miss Emily, our head guardian, was older than the others. She wasn’t especially tall, but something about the way she carried herself, always very straight with her head right up, made you think she was. She wore her silvery hair tied back, but strands were always coming loose and floating around her. They would have driven me mad, but Miss Emily always ignored them, like they were beneath her contempt. By the evening, she was a pretty strange sight, with bits of loose hair everywhere which she wouldn’t bother to push away off her face when she talked to you in her quiet, deliberate voice. We were all pretty scared of her and didn’t think of her in the way we did the other guardians. But we considered her to be fair and respected her decisions; and even in the Juniors, we probably recognised that it was her presence, intimidating though it was, that made us all feel so safe at Hailsham.
It took some nerve to go and see her without being summoned; to go with the sort of demands Roy was making seemed suicidal. But Roy didn’t get the terrible telling-off we were expecting, and in the days that followed, there were reports of guardians talking—even arguing—about the tokens question. In the end, it was announced that we would get tokens, but not many because it was a “most distinguished honour” to have work selected by Madame. This didn’t really go down well with either camp, and the arguments rumbled on.
It was against this background that Polly T. asked Miss Lucy her question that morning. We were in the library, sitting around the big oak table. I remember there was a log burning in the fireplace, and that we were doing a play-reading. At some point, a line in the play had led to Laura making some wisecrack about the tokens business, and we’d all laughed, Miss Lucy included. Then Miss Lucy had said that since everyone at Hailsham was talking about little else, we should forget the play-reading and spend the rest of the lesson exchanging our views about the tokens. And that’s what we were doing when Polly asked, completely out of the blue: “Miss, why does Madame take our things anyway?” We all went silent. Miss Lucy didn’t often get cross, but when she did, you certainly knew about it, and we thought for a second Polly was for it. But then we saw Miss Lucy wasn’t angry, just deep in thought. I remember feeling furious at Polly for so stupidly breaking the unwritten rule, but at the same time, being terribly excited about what answer Miss Lucy might give. And clearly I wasn’t the only one with these mixed emotions: virtually everybody shot daggers at Polly, before turning eagerly to Miss Lucy—which was, I suppose, pretty unfair on poor Polly. After what seemed a very long while, Miss Lucy said: “All I can tell you today is that it’s for a good reason. A very important reason. But if I tried to explain it to you now, I don’t think you’d understand. One day, I hope, it’ll be explained to you.”
We didn’t press her. The atmosphere around the table had become one of deep embarrassment, and curious as we were to hear more, we wanted most for the talk to get away from this dodgy territory. The next moment, then, we were all relieved to be arguing again—a bit artificially perhaps—about the tokens. But Miss Lucy’s words had puzzled me and I kept thinking about them on and off for the next few days. That’s why that afternoon by the pond, when Tommy was telling me about his talk with Miss Lucy, about how she’d said to him we weren’t being “taught enough” about some things, the memory of that time in the library—along with maybe one or two other little episodes like that—started tugging at my mind.
WHILE WE’RE ON THE SUBJECT of the tokens, I want just to say a bit about our Sales, which I’ve mentioned a few times already. The Sales were important to us because that was how we got hold of things from outside. Tommy’s polo shirt, for instance, came from a Sale. That’s where we got our clothes, our toys, the special things that hadn’t been made by another student.
Once every month, a big white van would come down that long road and you’d feel the excitement all through the house and grounds. By the time it pulled up in the courtyard there’d be a crowd waiting—mainly Juniors, because once you were past twelve or thirteen it wasn’t the thing to be getting so obviously excited. But the truth was we all were.
Looking back now, it’s funny to think we got so worked up, because usually the Sales were a big disappointment. There’d be nothing remotely special and we’d spend our tokens just renewing stuff that was wearing out or broken with more of the same. But the point was, I suppose, we’d all of us in the past found something at a Sale, something that had become special: a jacket, a watch, a pair of craft scissors never used but kept proudly next to a bed. We’d all found something like that at one time, and so however much we tried to pretend otherwise, we couldn’t ever shake off the old feelings of hope and excitement.
Actually there was some point in hanging about the van as it was being unloaded. What you did—if you were one of these Juniors—was to follow back and forth from the storeroom the two men in overalls carrying the big cardboard boxes, asking them what was inside. “A lot of goodies, sweetheart,” was the usual reply. Then if you kept asking: “But is it a bumper crop?” they’d sooner or later smile and say: “Oh, I’d say so, sweetheart. A real bumper crop,” bringing a thrilled cheer.
The boxes were often open at the top, so you’d catch glimpses of all kinds of things, and sometimes, though they weren’t really supposed to, the men would let you move a few items about for a better look. And that was why, by the time of the actual Sale a week or so later, all sorts of rumours would be going around, maybe about a particular track suit or a music cassette, and if there was trouble, it was almost always because a few students had set their hearts on the same item.
The Sales were a complete contrast to the hushed atmosphere of the Exchanges. They were held in the Dining Hall, and were crowded and noisy. In fact the pushing and shouting was all part of the fun, and they stayed for the most part pretty good-humoured. Except, as I say, every now and then, things would get out of hand, with students grabbing and tugging, sometimes fighting. Then the monitors would threaten to close the whole thing down, and we’d all of us have to face a talking to from Miss Emily at assembly the next morning.
Our day at Hailsham always began with an assembly, which was usually pretty brief—a few announcements, maybe a poem read out by a student. Miss Emily didn’t often say much; she’d just sit very straight on the stage, nodding at whatever was being said, occasionally turning a frosty eye towards any whispering in the crowd. But on a morning after a rowdy Sale, everything was different. She’d order us to sit down on the floor—we usually stood at assemblies—and there’d be no announcements or performances, just Miss Emily talking to us for twenty, thirty minutes, sometimes even longer. She’d rarely raise her voice, but there was something steely about her on these occasions and none of us, not even the Senior 5s, dared make a sound.
There was a real sense of feeling bad that we had, in some collective way, let down Miss Emily, but try as we might, we couldn’t really follow these lectures. It was partly her language. “Unworthy of privilege” and “misuse of opportunity”: these were two regular phrases Ruth and I came up with when we were reminiscing in her room at the centre in Dover. Her general drift was clear enough: we were all very special, being Hailsham students, and so it was all the more disappointing when we behaved badly. Beyond that though, things became a fog. Sometimes she’d be going on very intensely then come to a sudden stop with something like: “What is it? What is it? What can it be that thwarts us?” Then she’d stand there, eyes closed, a frown on her face like she was trying to puzzle out the answer. And although we felt bewildered and awkward, we’d sit there willing her on to make whatever discovery was needed in her head. She might then resume with a gentle sigh—a signal that we were going to be forgiven—or just as easily explode out of her silence with: “But I will not be coerced! Oh no! And neither will Hailsham!” When we were remembering these long speeches, Ruth remarked how odd it was they should have been so unfathomable, since Miss Emily, in a classroom, could be as clear as anything. When I mentioned how I’d sometimes seen the head wandering around Hailsham in a dream, talking to herself, Ruth took offence, saying:
“She was never like that! How could Hailsham have been the way it was if the person in charge had been potty? Miss Emily had an intellect you could slice logs with.”
I didn’t argue. Certainly, Miss Emily could be uncannily sharp. If, say, you were somewhere you shouldn’t be in the main house or the grounds, and you heard a guardian coming, you could often hide somewhere. Hailsham was full of hiding places, indoors and out: cupboards, nooks, bushes, hedges. But if you saw Miss Emily coming, your heart sank because she’d always know you were there hiding. It was like she had some extra sense. You could go into a cupboard, close the door tight and not move a muscle, you just knew Miss Emily’s footsteps would stop outside and her voice would say: “All right. Out you come.” That was what had happened to Sylvie C. once on the second-floor landing, and on that occasion Miss Emily had gone into one of her rages. She never shouted like, say, Miss Lucy did when she got mad at you, but if anything Miss Emily getting angry was scarier. Her eyes narrowed and she’d whisper furiously to herself, like she was discussing with an invisible colleague what punishment was awful enough for you. The way she did it meant half of you was dying to hear and the other half completely not wanting to. But usually with Miss Emily nothing too awful would come out of it. She hardly ever put you in detention, made you do chores or withdrew privileges. All the same, you felt dreadful, just knowing you’d fallen in her estimation, and you wanted to do something straight away to redeem yourself.
But the thing was, there was no predicting with Miss Emily. Sylvie may have got a full portion that time, but when Laura got caught running through the rhubarb patch, Miss Emily just snapped: “Shouldn’t be here, girl. Off you go,” and walked on.
And then there was the time I thought I was in hot water with her. The little footpath that went all round the back of the main house was a real favourite of mine. It followed all the nooks, all the extensions; you had to squeeze past shrubs, you went under two ivy-covered arches and through a rusted gate. And all the time you could peer in through the windows, one after the other. I suppose part of the reason I liked the path so much was because I was never sure if it was out of bounds. Certainly, when classes were going on, you weren’t supposed to walk past. But at the weekends or in the evenings—that was never clear. Most students avoided it anyway, and maybe the feeling of getting away from everyone else was another part of the appeal.
In any case, I was doing this little walk one sunny evening. I think I was in Senior 3. As usual I was glancing into the empty rooms as I went past, and then suddenly I was looking into a classroom with Miss Emily in it. She was alone, pacing slowly, talking under her breath, pointing and directing remarks to an invisible audience in the room. I assumed she was rehearsing a lesson or maybe one of her assembly talks, and I was about to hurry past before she spotted me, but just then she turned and looked straight at me. I froze, thinking I was for it, but then noticed she was carrying on as before, except now she was mouthing her address at me. Then, natural as you like, she turned away to fix her gaze on some other imaginary student in another part of the room. I crept away along the path, and for the next day or so kept dreading what Miss Emily would say when she saw me. But she never mentioned it at all.
BUT THAT’S NOT REALLY WHAT I WANT to talk about just now. What I want to do now is get a few things down about Ruth, about how we met and became friends, about our early days together. Because more and more these days, I’ll be driving past fields on a long afternoon, or maybe drinking my coffee in front of a huge window in a motorway service station, and I’ll catch myself thinking about her again.
She wasn’t someone I was friends with from the start. I can remember, at five or six, doing things with Hannah and with Laura, but not with Ruth. I only have the one vague memory of Ruth from that early part of our lives.
I’m playing in a sandpit. There are a number of others in the sand with me, it’s too crowded and we’re getting irritated with each other. We’re in the open, under a warm sun, so it’s probably the sandpit in the Infants’ play area, just possibly it’s the sand at the end of the long jump in the North Playing Field. Anyway it’s hot and I’m feeling thirsty and I’m not pleased there are so many of us in the sandpit. Then Ruth is standing there, not in the sand with the rest of us, but a few feet away. She’s very angry with two of the girls somewhere behind me, about something that must have happened before, and she’s standing there glaring at them. My guess is that I knew Ruth only very slightly at that point. But she must already have made some impression on me, because I remember carrying on busily with whatever I was doing in the sand, absolutely dreading the idea of her turning her gaze on me. I didn’t say a word, but I was desperate for her to realise I wasn’t with the girls behind me, and had had no part in whatever it was that had made her cross.
And that’s all I remember of Ruth from that early time. We were the same year so we must have run into each other enough, but aside from the sandpit incident, I don’t remember having anything to do with her until the Juniors a couple of years later, when we were seven, going on eight.
The South Playing Field was the one used most by the Juniors and it was there, in the corner by the poplars, that Ruth came up to me one lunchtime, looked me up and down, then asked:
“Do you want to ride my horse?”
I was in the midst of playing with two or three others at that point, but it was clear Ruth was addressing only me. This absolutely delighted me, but I made a show of weighing her up before giving a reply.
“Well, what’s your horse’s name?”
Ruth came a step closer. “My best horse,” she said, “is Thunder. I can’t let you ride on him. He’s much too dangerous. But you can ride Bramble, as long as you don’t use your crop on him. Or if you like, you could have any of the others.” She reeled off several more names I don’t now remember. Then she asked: “Have you got any horses of your own?” I looked at her and thought carefully before replying: “No. I don’t have any horses.”
“Not even one?”
“All right. You can ride Bramble, and if you like him, you can have him to keep. But you’re not to use your crop on him. And you’ve got to come now.”
My friends had, in any case, turned away and were carrying on with what they’d been doing. So I gave a shrug and went off with Ruth.
The field was filled with playing children, some a lot bigger than us, but Ruth led the way through them very purposefully, always a pace or two in front. When we were almost at the wire mesh boundary with the garden, she turned and said:
“Okay, we’ll ride them here. You take Bramble.”
I accepted the invisible rein she was holding out, and then we were off, riding up and down the fence, sometimes cantering, sometimes at a gallop. I’d been correct in my decision to tell Ruth I didn’t have any horses of my own, because after a while with Bramble, she let me try her various other horses one by one, shouting all sorts of instructions about how to handle each animal’s foibles.
“I told you! You’ve got to really lean back on Daffodil! Much more than that! She doesn’t like it unless you’re right back!”
I must have done well enough, because eventually she let me have a go on Thunder, her favourite. I don’t know how long we spent with her horses that day: it felt a substantial time, and I think we both lost ourselves completely in our game. But then suddenly, for no reason I could see, Ruth brought it all to an end, claiming I was deliberately tiring out her horses, and that I’d have to put each of them back in its stable. She pointed to a section of the fence, and I began leading the horses to it, while Ruth seemed to get crosser and crosser with me, saying I was doing everything wrong. Then she asked: “Do you like Miss Geraldine?”
It might have been the first time I’d actually thought about whether I liked a guardian. In the end I said: “Of course I like her.”
“But do you really like her? Like she’s special? Like she’s your favourite?”
“Yes, I do. She’s my favourite.”
Ruth went on looking at me for a long time. Then finally she said: “All right. In that case, I’ll let you be one of her secret guards.”
We started to walk back towards the main house then and I waited for her to explain what she meant, but she didn’t. I found out though over the next several days.
I’m not sure for how long the “secret guard” business carried on. When Ruth and I discussed it while I was caring for her down in Dover, she claimed it had been just a matter of two or three weeks—but that was almost certainly wrong. She was probably embarrassed about it and so the whole thing had shrunk in her memory. My guess is that it went on for about nine months, a year even, around when we were seven, going on eight.
I was never sure if Ruth had actually invented the secret guard herself, but there was no doubt she was the leader. There were between six and ten of us, the figure changing whenever Ruth allowed in a new member or expelled someone. We believed Miss Geraldine was the best guardian in Hailsham, and we worked on presents to give her—a large sheet with pressed flowers glued over it comes to mind. But our main reason for existing, of course, was to protect her.
By the time I joined the guard, Ruth and the others had already known for ages about the plot to kidnap Miss Geraldine. We were never quite sure who was behind it. We sometimes suspected certain of the Senior boys, sometimes boys in our own year. There was a guardian we didn’t like much—a Miss Eileen—who we thought for a while might be the brains behind it. We didn’t know when the abduction would take place, but one thing we felt convinced about was that the woods would come into it.
The woods were at the top of the hill that rose behind Hailsham House. All we could see really was a dark fringe of trees, but I certainly wasn’t the only one of my age to feel their presence day and night. When it got bad, it was like they cast a shadow over the whole of Hailsham; all you had to do was turn your head or move towards a window and there they’d be, looming in the distance. Safest was the front of the main house, because you couldn’t see them from any of the windows. Even so, you never really got away from them.
There were all kinds of horrible stories about the woods. Once, not so long before we all got to Hailsham, a boy had had a big row with his friends and run off beyond the Hailsham boundaries. His body had been found two days later, up in those woods, tied to a tree with the hands and feet chopped off. Another rumour had it that a girl’s ghost wandered through those trees. She’d been a Hailsham student until one day she’d climbed over a fence just to see what it was like outside. This was a long time before us, when the guardians were much stricter, cruel even, and when she tried to get back in, she wasn’t allowed. She kept hanging around outside the fences, pleading to be let back in, but no one let her. Eventually, she’d gone off somewhere out there, something had happened and she’d died. But her ghost was always wandering about the woods, gazing over Hailsham, pining to be let back in.
The guardians always insisted these stories were nonsense. But then the older students would tell us that was exactly what the guardians had told them when they were younger, and that we’d be told the ghastly truth soon enough, just as they were.
The woods played on our imaginations the most after dark, in our dorms as we were trying to fall asleep. You almost thought then you could hear the wind rustling the branches, and talking about it seemed to only make things worse. I remember one night, when we were furious with Marge K.—she’d done something really embarrassing to us during the day—we chose to punish her by hauling her out of bed, holding her face against the window pane and ordering her to look up at the woods. At first she kept her eyes screwed shut, but we twisted her arms and forced open her eyelids until she saw the distant outline against the moonlit sky, and that was enough to ensure for her a sobbing night of terror.
I’m not saying we necessarily went around the whole time at that age worrying about the woods. I for one could go weeks hardly thinking about them, and there were even days when a defiant surge of courage would make me think: “How could we believe rubbish like that?” But then all it took would be one little thing—someone retelling one of those stories, a scary passage in a book, even just a chance remark reminding you of the woods—and that would mean another period of being under that shadow. It was hardly surprising then that we assumed the woods would be central in the plot to abduct Miss Geraldine.
When it came down to it, though, I don’t recall our taking many practical steps towards defending Miss Geraldine; our activities always revolved around gathering more and more evidence concerning the plot itself. For some reason, we were satisfied this would keep any immediate danger at bay.
Most of our “evidence” came from witnessing the conspirators at work. One morning, for instance, we watched from a second-floor classroom Miss Eileen and Mr. Roger talking to Miss Geraldine down in the courtyard. After a while Miss Geraldine said goodbye and went off towards the Orangery, but we kept on watching, and saw Miss Eileen and Mr. Roger put their heads closer together to confer furtively, their gazes fixed on Miss Geraldine’s receding figure.
“Mr. Roger,” Ruth sighed on that occasion, shaking her head. “Who’d have guessed he was in it too?”
In this way we built up a list of people we knew to be in on the plot—guardians and students whom we declared our sworn enemies. And yet, all the time, I think we must have had an idea of how precarious the foundations of our fantasy were, because we always avoided any confrontation. We could decide, after intense discussions, that a particular student was a plotter, but then we’d always find a reason not to challenge him just yet—to wait until “we had in all the evidence.” Similarly, we always agreed Miss Geraldine herself shouldn’t hear a word of what we’d found out, since she’d get alarmed to no good purpose.
It would be too easy to claim it was just Ruth who kept the secret guard going long after we’d naturally outgrown it. Sure enough, the guard was important to her. She’d known about the plot for much longer than the rest of us, and this gave her enormous authority; by hinting that the real evidence came from a time before people like me had joined—that there were things she’d yet to reveal even to us—she could justify almost any decision she made on behalf of the group. If she decided someone should be expelled, for example, and she sensed opposition, she’d just allude darkly to stuff she knew “from before.” There’s no question Ruth was keen to keep the whole thing going. But the truth was, those of us who’d grown close to her, we each played our part in preserving the fantasy and making it last for as long as possible. What happened after that row over the chess illustrates pretty well the point I’m making.
I’D ASSUMED RUTH WAS SOMETHING of a chess expert and that she’d be able to teach me the game. This wasn’t so crazy: we’d pass older students bent over chess sets, in window seats or on the grassy slopes, and Ruth would often pause to study a game. And as we walked off again, she’d tell me about some move she’d spotted that neither player had seen. “Amazingly dim,” she’d murmur, shaking her head. This had all helped get me fascinated, and I was soon longing to become engrossed myself in those ornate pieces. So when I’d found a chess set at a Sale and decided to buy it—despite it costing an awful lot of tokens—I was counting on Ruth’s help.
For the next several days, though, she sighed whenever I brought the subject up, or pretended she had something else really urgent to do. When I finally cornered her one rainy afternoon, and we set out the board in the billiards room, she proceeded to show me a game that was a vague variant on draughts. The distinguishing feature of chess, according to her, was that each piece moved in an L-shape—I suppose she’d got this from watching the knight—rather than in the leap-frogging way of draughts. I didn’t believe this, and I was really disappointed, but I made sure to say nothing and went along with her for a while. We spent several minutes knocking each other’s pieces off the board, always sliding the attacking piece in an “L.” This continued until the time I tried to take her and she claimed it wouldn’t count because I’d slid my piece up to hers in too straight a line.
At this, I stood up, packed up the set and walked off. I never said out loud that she didn’t know how to play—disappointed as I was, I knew not to go that far—but my storming off was, I suppose, statement enough for her.
It was maybe a day later, I came into Room 20 at the top of the house, where Mr. George had his poetry class. I don’t remember if it was before or after the class, or how full the room was. I remember having books in my hands, and that as I moved towards where Ruth and the others were talking, there was a strong patch of sun across the desk-lids they were sitting on.
I could see from the way they had their heads together they were discussing secret guard stuff, and although, as I say, the row with Ruth had been only the day before, for some reason I went up to them without a second thought. It was only when I was virtually right up to them—maybe there was a look exchanged between them—that it suddenly hit me what was about to happen. It was like the split second before you step into a puddle, you realise it’s there, but there’s nothing you can do about it. I felt the hurt even before they went silent and stared at me, even before Ruth said: “Oh, Kathy, how are you? If you don’t mind, we’ve got something to discuss just now. We’ll be finished in just a minute. Sorry.” She’d hardly finished her sentence before I’d turned and was on my way out, angry more at myself for having walked into it than at Ruth and the others. I was upset, no doubt about it, though I don’t know if I actually cried. And for the next few days, whenever I saw the secret guard conferring in a corner or as they walked across a field, I’d feel a flush rising to my cheeks.
Then about two days after this snub in Room 20, I was coming down the stairs of the main house when I found Moira B. just behind me. We started talking—about nothing special—and wandered out of the house together. It must have been the lunch break because as we stepped into the courtyard there were about twenty students loitering around chatting in little groups. My eyes went immediately to the far side of the courtyard, where Ruth and three of the secret guard were standing together, their backs to us, gazing intently towards the South Playing Field. I was trying to see what it was they were so interested in, when I became aware of Moira beside me also watching them. And then it occurred to me that only a month before she too had been a member of the secret guard, and had been expelled. For the next few seconds I felt something like acute embarrassment that the two of us should now be standing side by side, linked by our recent humiliations, actually staring our rejection in the face, as it were. Maybe Moira was experiencing something similar; anyway, she was the one who broke the silence, saying: “It’s so stupid, this whole secret guard thing. How can they still believe in something like that? It’s like they’re still in the Infants.”
Even today, I’m puzzled by the sheer force of the emotion that overtook me when I heard Moira say this. I turned to her, completely furious:
“What do you know about it? You just don’t know anything, because you’ve been out of it for ages now! If you knew everything we’d found out, you wouldn’t dare say anything so daft!”
“Don’t talk rubbish.” Moira was never one to back down easily. “It’s just another of Ruth’s made-up things, that’s all.”
“Then how come I’ve personally heard them talking about it? Talking about how they’re going to take Miss Geraldine to the woods in the milk van? How come I heard them planning it myself, nothing to do with Ruth or anyone else?”
Moira looked at me, unsure now. “You heard it yourself? How? Where?”
“I heard them talking, clear as anything, heard every word, they didn’t know I was there. Down by the pond, they didn’t know I could hear. So that just shows how much you know!”
I pushed past her and as I made my way across the crowded courtyard, I glanced back to the figures of Ruth and the others, still gazing out towards the South Playing Field, unaware of what had just happened between me and Moira. And I noticed I didn’t feel angry at all with them any more; just hugely irritated with Moira.
Even now, if I’m driving on a long grey road and my thoughts have nowhere special to go, I might find myself turning all of this over. Why was I so hostile to Moira B. that day when she was, really, a natural ally? What it was, I suppose, is that Moira was suggesting she and I cross some line together, and I wasn’t prepared for that yet. I think I sensed how beyond that line, there was something harder and darker and I didn’t want that. Not for me, not for any of us.
But at other times, I think that’s wrong—that it was just to do with me and Ruth, and the sort of loyalty she inspired in me in those days. And maybe that’s why, even though I really wanted to on several occasions, I never brought it up—about what had happened that day with Moira—the whole time I was caring for Ruth down at the centre in Dover.
ALL OF THIS ABOUT MISS GERALDINE reminds me of something that happened about three years later, long after the secret guard idea had faded away.
We were in Room 5 on the ground floor at the back of the house, waiting for a class to start. Room 5 was the smallest room, and especially on a winter morning like that one, when the big radiators came on and steamed up the windows, it would get really stuffy. Maybe I’m exaggerating it, but my memory is that for a whole class to fit into that room, students literally had to pile on top of each other.
That morning Ruth had got a chair behind a desk, and I was sitting up on its lid, with two or three others of our group perched or leaning in nearby. In fact, I think it was when I was squeezing up to let someone else in beside me that I first noticed the pencil case.
I can see the thing now like it’s here in front of me. It was shiny, like a polished shoe; a deep tan colour with circled red dots drifting all over it. The zip across the top edge had a furry pom-pom to pull it. I’d almost sat on the pencil case when I’d shifted and Ruth quickly moved it out of my way. But I’d seen it, as she’d intended me to, and I said: “Oh! Where did you get that? Was it in the Sale?”
It was noisy in the room, but the girls nearby had heard, so there were soon four or five of us staring admiringly at the pencil case. Ruth said nothing for a few seconds while she checked carefully the faces around her. Finally she said very deliberately:
“Let’s just agree. Let’s agree I got it in the Sale.” Then she gave us all a knowing smile.
This might sound a pretty innocuous sort of response, but actually it was like she’d suddenly got up and hit me, and for the next few moments I felt hot and chilly at the same time. I knew exactly what she’d meant by her answer and smile: she was claiming the pencil case was a gift from Miss Geraldine.
There could be no mistake about this because it had been building up for weeks. There was a certain smile, a certain voice Ruth would use—sometimes accompanied by a finger to the lips or a hand raised stage-whisper style—whenever she wanted to hint about some little mark of favour Miss Geraldine had shown her: Miss Geraldine had allowed Ruth to play a music tape in the billiards room before four o’clock on a weekday; Miss Geraldine had ordered silence on a fields walk, but when Ruth had drawn up beside her, she’d started to talk to her, then let the rest of the group talk. It was always stuff like that, and never explicitly claimed, just implied by her smile and “let’s say no more” expression.
Of course, officially, guardians weren’t supposed to show favouritism, but there were little displays of affection all the time within certain parameters; and most of what Ruth suggested fell easily within them. Still, I hated it when Ruth hinted in this way. I was never sure, of course, if she was telling the truth, but since she wasn’t actually “telling” it, only hinting, it was never possible to challenge her. So each time it happened, I’d have to let it go, biting my lip and hoping the moment would pass quickly.
Sometimes I’d see from the way a conversation was moving that one of these moments was coming, and I’d brace myself. Even then, it would always hit me with some force, so that for several minutes I wouldn’t be able to concentrate on anything going on around me. But on that winter morning in Room 5, it had come at me straight out of the blue. Even after I’d seen the pencil case, the idea of a guardian giving a present like that was so beyond the bounds, I hadn’t seen it coming at all. So once Ruth had said what she’d said, I wasn’t able, in my usual way, to let the emotional flurry just pass. I just stared at her, making no attempt to disguise my anger. Ruth, perhaps seeing danger, said to me quickly in a stage whisper: “Not a word!” and smiled again. But I couldn’t return the smile and went on glaring at her. Then luckily the guardian arrived and the class started.
I was never the sort of kid who brooded over things for hours on end. I’ve got that way a bit these days, but that’s the work I do and the long hours of quiet when I’m driving across these empty fields. I wasn’t like, say, Laura, who for all her clowning around could worry for days, weeks even, about some little thing someone said to her. But after that morning in Room 5, I did go around in a bit of a trance. I’d drift off in the middle of conversations; whole lessons went by with me not knowing what was going on. I was determined Ruth shouldn’t get away with it this time, but for a long while I wasn’t doing anything constructive about it; just playing fantastic scenes in my head where I’d expose her and force her to admit she’d made it up. I even had one hazy fantasy where Miss Geraldine herself heard about it and gave Ruth a complete dressing-down in front of everyone.
After days of this I started to think more solidly. If the pencil case hadn’t come from Miss Geraldine, where had it come from? She might have got it from another student, but that was unlikely. If it had belonged to anyone else first, even someone years above us, a gorgeous item like that wouldn’t have gone unnoticed. Ruth would never risk a story like hers knowing the pencil case had already knocked around Hailsham. Almost certainly she’d found it at a Sale. Here, too, Ruth ran the risk of others having seen it before she’d bought it. But if—as sometimes happened, though it wasn’t really allowed—she’d heard about the pencil case coming in and reserved it with one of the monitors before the Sale opened, she could then be reasonably confident hardly anyone had seen it.
Unfortunately for Ruth, though, there were registers kept of everything bought at the Sales, along with a record of who’d done the buying. While these registers weren’t easily obtainable—the monitors took them back to Miss Emily’s office after each Sale—they weren’t top secret either. If I hung around a monitor at the next Sale, it wouldn’t be difficult to browse through the pages.
So I had the outlines of a plan, and I think I went on refining it for several days before it occurred to me it wasn’t actually necessary to carry out all the steps. Provided I was right about the pencil case coming from a Sale, all I had to do was bluff.
That was how Ruth and I came to have our conversation under the eaves. There was fog and drizzle that day. The two of us were walking from the dorm huts perhaps towards the pavilion, I’m not sure. Anyway, as we were crossing the courtyard, the rain suddenly got heavier and since we were in no hurry, we tucked ourselves in under the eaves of the main house, a little to one side of the front entrance.
We sheltered there for a while, and every so often a student would come running out of the fog and in through the doors of the house, but the rain didn’t ease. And the longer we continued to stand there, the more tense I grew because I could see this was the opportunity I’d been waiting for. Ruth too, I’m sure, sensed something was coming up. In the end, I decided to come straight out with it.
“At the Sale last Tuesday,” I said. “I was just looking through the book. You know, the register thing.”
“Why were you looking at the register?” Ruth asked quickly. “Why were you doing something like that?”
“Oh, no reason. Christopher C. was one of the monitors, so I was just talking to him. He’s the best Senior boy, definitely. And I was just turning over the pages of the register, just for something to do.”
Ruth’s mind, I could tell, had raced on, and she now knew exactly what this was about. But she said calmly: “Boring sort of thing to look at.”
“No, it was quite interesting really. You can see all the things people have bought.”
I’d said this staring out at the rain. Then I glanced at Ruth and got a real shock. I don’t know what I’d expected; for all my fantasies of the past month, I’d never really considered what it would be like in a real situation like the one unfolding at that moment. Now I saw how upset Ruth was; how for once she was at a complete loss for words, and had turned away on the verge of tears. And suddenly my behaviour seemed to me utterly baffling. All this effort, all this planning, just to upset my dearest friend. So what if she’d fibbed a little about her pencil case? Didn’t we all dream from time to time about one guardian or other bending the rules and doing something special for us? A spontaneous hug, a secret letter, a gift? All Ruth had done was to take one of these harmless daydreams a step further; she hadn’t even mentioned Miss Geraldine by name.
I now felt awful, and I was confused. But as we stood there together staring at the fog and rain, I could think of no way now to repair the damage I’d done. I think I said something pathetic like: “It’s all right, I didn’t see anything much,” which hung stupidly in the air. Then after a few further seconds of silence, Ruth walked off into the rain.
I think I’d have felt better about what had happened if Ruth had held it against me in some obvious way. But this was one instance when she seemed just to cave in. It was like she was too ashamed of the matter—too crushed by it—even to be angry or to want to get me back. The first few times I saw her after the conversation under the eaves, I was ready for at least a bit of huffiness, but no, she was completely civil, if a little flat. It occurred to me she was scared I’d expose her—the pencil case, sure enough, vanished from view—and I wanted to tell her she’d nothing to fear from me. The trouble was, because none of this had actually been talked about in the open, I couldn’t find a way of bringing it all up with her.
I did my best, meanwhile, to take any opportunity to imply to Ruth she had a special place in Miss Geraldine’s heart. There was the time, for example, when a bunch of us were desperate to go out and practise rounders during break, because we’d been challenged by a group from the year above. Our problem was that it was raining, and it looked unlikely we’d be allowed outside. I noticed though that Miss Geraldine was one of the guardians on duty, and so I said: “If Ruth goes and asks Miss Geraldine, then we’d stand a chance.”
As far as I remember, this suggestion wasn’t taken up; maybe hardly anyone heard it, because a lot of us were talking all at once. But the point is, I said it standing right behind Ruth, and I could see she was pleased.
Then another time a few of us were leaving a classroom with Miss Geraldine, and I happened to find myself about to go out the door right after Miss Geraldine herself. What I did was to slow right down so that Ruth, coming behind me, could instead pass through the door beside Miss Geraldine. I did this without any fuss, as though this were the natural and proper thing and what Miss Geraldine would like—just the way I’d have done if, say, I’d accidentally got myself between two best friends. On that occasion, as far as I remember, Ruth looked puzzled and surprised for a split second, then gave me a quick nod and went past.
Little things like these might well have pleased Ruth, but they were still far removed from what had actually happened between us under the eaves that foggy day, and the sense that I’d never be able to sort things just continued to grow. There’s a particular memory I have of sitting by myself one evening on one of the benches outside the pavilion, trying over and over to think of some way out, while a heavy mix of remorse and frustration brought me virtually to tears. If things had stayed that way, I’m not sure what would have happened. Maybe it would all have got forgotten eventually; or maybe Ruth and I would have drifted apart. As it was, right out of the blue, a chance came along for me to put things right.
We were in the middle of one of Mr. Roger’s art lessons, except for some reason he’d gone out half way. So we were all just drifting about among the easels, chatting and looking at each other’s work. Then at one point a girl called Midge A. came over to where we were and said to Ruth, in a perfectly friendly way:
“Where’s your pencil case? It’s so luscious.”
Ruth tensed and glanced quickly about to see who was present. It was our usual gang with perhaps a couple of outsiders loitering nearby. I hadn’t mentioned to a soul anything about the Sales Register business, but I suppose Ruth wasn’t to know that. Her voice was softer than usual when she replied to Midge:
“I haven’t got it here. I keep it in my collection chest.”
“It’s so luscious. Where did you get it?”
Midge was quizzing her completely innocently, that was now obvious. But almost all of us who’d been in Room 5 the time Ruth had first brought out the pencil case were here now, looking on, and I saw Ruth hesitate. It was only later, when I replayed it all, that I appreciated how perfectly shaped a chance it was for me. At the time I didn’t really think. I just came in before Midge or anyone else had the chance to notice Ruth was in a curious quandary.
“We can’t say where it came from.”
Ruth, Midge, the rest of them, they all looked at me, maybe a little surprised. But I kept my cool and went on, addressing only Midge.
“There are some very good reasons why we can’t tell you where it came from.”
Midge shrugged. “So it’s a mystery.”
“A big mystery,” I said, then gave her a smile to show her I wasn’t trying to be nasty to her.
The others were nodding to back me up, though Ruth herself had on a vague expression, like she’d suddenly become preoccupied with something else entirely. Midge shrugged again, and as far as I remember that was the end of it. Either she walked off, or else she started talking about something different.
Now, for much the same reasons I’d not been able to talk openly to Ruth about what I’d done to her over the Sales Register business, she of course wasn’t able to thank me for the way I’d intervened with Midge. But it was obvious from her manner towards me, not just over the next few days, but over the weeks that followed, how pleased she was with me. And having recently been in much the same position, it was easy to recognise the signs of her looking around for some opportunity to do something nice, something really special for me. It was a good feeling, and I remember even thinking once or twice how it would be better if she didn’t get a chance for ages, just so the good feeling between us could go on and on. As it was, an opportunity did come along for her, about a month after the Midge episode, the time I lost my favourite tape.
I STILL HAVE A COPY OF THAT TAPE and until recently I’d listen to it occasionally driving out in the open country on a drizzly day. But now the tape machine in my car’s got so dodgy, I don’t dare play it in that. And there never seems enough time to play it when I’m back in my bedsit. Even so, it’s one of my most precious possessions. Maybe come the end of the year, when I’m no longer a carer, I’ll be able to listen to it more often.
The album’s called Songs After Dark and it’s by Judy Bridgewater. What I’ve got today isn’t the actual cassette, the one I had back then at Hailsham, the one I lost. It’s the one Tommy and I found in Norfolk years afterwards—but that’s another story I’ll come to later. What I want to talk about is the first tape, the one that disappeared.
I should explain before I go any further this whole thing we had in those days about Norfolk. We kept it going for years and years—it became a sort of in-joke, I suppose—and it all started from one particular lesson we had when we were pretty young.
It was Miss Emily herself who taught us about the different counties of England. She’d pin up a big map over the blackboard, and next to it, set up an easel. And if she was talking about, say, Oxfordshire, she’d place on the easel a large calendar with photos of the county. She had quite a collection of these picture calendars, and we got through most of the counties this way. She’d tap a spot on the map with her pointer, turn to the easel and reveal another picture. There’d be little villages with streams going through them, white monuments on hillsides, old churches beside fields; if she was telling us about a coastal place, there’d be beaches crowded with people, cliffs with seagulls. I suppose she wanted us to have a grasp of what was out there surrounding us, and it’s amazing, even now, after all these miles I’ve covered as a carer, the extent to which my idea of the various counties is still set by these pictures Miss Emily put up on her easel. I’d be driving through Derbyshire, say, and catch myself looking for a particular village green with a mock-Tudor pub and a war memorial—and realise it’s the image Miss Emily showed us the first time I ever heard of Derbyshire.
Anyway, the point is, there was a gap in Miss Emily’s calendar collection: none of them had a single picture of Norfolk. We had these same lectures repeated a number of times, and I’d always wonder if this time she’d found a picture of Norfolk, but it was always the same. She’d wave her pointer over the map and say, as a sort of afterthought: “And over here, we’ve got Norfolk. Very nice there.” Then, that particular time, I remember how she paused and drifted off into thought, maybe because she hadn’t planned what should happen next instead of a picture. Eventually she came out of her dream and tapped the map again.
“You see, because it’s stuck out here on the east, on this hump jutting into the sea, it’s not on the way to anywhere. People going north and south”—she moved the pointer up and down—“they bypass it altogether. For that reason, it’s a peaceful corner of England, rather nice. But it’s also something of a lost corner.”
A lost corner. That’s what she called it, and that was what started it. Because at Hailsham, we had our own “Lost Corner” up on the third floor, where the lost property was kept; if you lost or found anything, that’s where you went. Someone—I can’t remember who it was—claimed after the lesson that what Miss Emily had said was that Norfolk was England’s “lost corner,” where all the lost property found in the country ended up. Somehow this idea caught on and soon had become accepted fact virtually throughout our entire year.
Not long ago, when Tommy and I were reminiscing about all of this, he thought we’d never really believed in the notion, that it was a joke right from the start. But I’m pretty certain he was wrong there. Sure enough, by the time we were twelve or thirteen, the Norfolk thing had become a big joke. But my memory of it—and Ruth remembered it the same way—is that at the beginning, we believed in Norfolk in the most literal way; that just as lorries came to Hailsham with our food and stuff for our Sales, there was some similar operation going on, except on a grander scale, with vehicles moving all over England, delivering anything left behind in fields and trains to this place called Norfolk. The fact that we’d never seen a picture of the place only added to its mystique.
This might all sound daft, but you have to remember that to us, at that stage in our lives, any place beyond Hailsham was like a fantasy land; we had only the haziest notions of the world outside and about what was and wasn’t possible there. Besides, we never bothered to examine our Norfolk theory in any detail. What was important to us, as Ruth said one evening when we were sitting in that tiled room in Dover, looking out at the sunset, was that “when we lost something precious, and we’d looked and looked and still couldn’t find it, then we didn’t have to be completely heartbroken. We still had that last bit of comfort, thinking one day, when we were grown up, and we were free to travel around the country, we could always go and find it again in Norfolk.” I’m sure Ruth was right about that. Norfolk came to be a real source of comfort for us, probably much more than we admitted at the time, and that was why we were still talking about it—albeit as a sort of joke—when we were much older. And that’s why, years and years later, that day Tommy and I found another copy of that lost tape of mine in a town on the Norfolk coast, we didn’t just think it pretty funny; we both felt deep down some tug, some old wish to believe again in something that was once close to our hearts.
BUT I WANTED TO TALK ABOUT MY TAPE, Songs After Dark by Judy Bridgewater. I suppose it was originally an LP—the recording date’s 1956—but what I had was the cassette, and the cover picture was what must have been a scaled-down version of the record sleeve. Judy Bridgewater is wearing a purple satin dress, one of those off-the-shoulder ones popular in those days, and you can see her from just above the waist because she’s sitting on a bar-stool. I think it’s supposed to be South America, because there are palms behind her and swarthy waiters in white tuxedos. You’re looking at Judy from exactly where the barman would be when he’s serving her drinks. She’s looking back in a friendly, not too s@xy way, like she might be flirting just a tiny bit, but you’re someone she knows from way back. Now the other thing about this cover is that Judy’s got her elbows up on the bar and there’s a cigarette burning in her hand. And it was because of this cigarette that I got so secretive about the tape, right from the moment I found it at the Sale.
I don’t know how it was where you were, but at Hailsham the guardians were really strict about smoking. I’m sure they’d have preferred it if we never found out smoking even existed; but since this wasn’t possible, they made sure to give us some sort of lecture each time any reference to cigarettes came along. Even if we were being shown a picture of a famous writer or world leader, and they happened to have a cigarette in their hand, then the whole lesson would grind to a halt. There was even a rumour that some classic books—like the Sherlock Holmes ones—weren’t in our library because the main characters smoked too much, and when you came across a page torn out of an illustrated book or magazine, this was because there’d been a picture on it of someone smoking. And then there were the actual lessons where they showed us horrible pictures of what smoking did to the insides of your body. That’s why it was such a shock that time Marge K. asked Miss Lucy her question.
We were sitting on the grass after a rounders match and Miss Lucy had been giving us a typical talk on smoking when Marge suddenly asked if Miss Lucy had herself ever had a cigarette. Miss Lucy went quiet for a few seconds. Then she said:
“I’d like to be able to say no. But to be honest, I did smoke for a little while. For about two years, when I was younger.”
You can imagine what a shock this was. Before Miss Lucy’s reply, we’d all been glaring at Marge, really furious she’d asked such a rude question—to us, she might as well have asked if Miss Lucy had ever attacked anyone with an axe. And for days afterwards I remember how we made Marge’s life an utter misery; in fact, that incident I mentioned before, the night we held Marge’s face to the dorm window to make her look at the woods, that was all part of what came afterwards. But at the time, the moment Miss Lucy said what she did, we were too confused to think any more about Marge. I think we all just stared at Miss Lucy in horror, waiting for what she’d say next.
When she did speak, Miss Lucy seemed to be weighing up each word carefully. “It’s not good that I smoked. It wasn’t good for me so I stopped it. But what you must understand is that for you, all of you, it’s much, much worse to smoke than it ever was for me.”
Then she paused and went quiet. Someone said later she’d gone off into a daydream, but I was pretty sure, as was Ruth, that she was thinking hard about what to say next. Finally she said:
“You’ve been told about it. You’re students. You’re . . . special. So keeping yourselves well, keeping yourselves very healthy inside, that’s much more important for each of you than it is for me.”
She stopped again and looked at us in a strange way. Afterwards, when we discussed it, some of us were sure she was dying for someone to ask: “Why? Why is it so much worse for us?” But no one did. I’ve often thought about that day, and I’m sure now, in the light of what happened later, that we only needed to ask and Miss Lucy would have told us all kinds of things. All it would have taken was just one more question about smoking.
So why had we stayed silent that day? I suppose it was because even at that age—we were nine or ten—we knew just enough to make us wary of that whole territory. It’s hard now to remember just how much we knew by then. We certainly knew—though not in any deep sense—that we were different from our guardians, and also from the normal people outside; we perhaps even knew that a long way down the line there were donations waiting for us. But we didn’t really know what that meant. If we were keen to avoid certain topics, it was probably more because it embarrassed us. We hated the way our guardians, usually so on top of everything, became so awkward whenever we came near this territory. It unnerved us to see them change like that. I think that’s why we never asked that one further question, and why we punished Marge K. so cruelly for bringing it all up that day after the rounders match.
ANYWAY, THAT’S WHY I WAS SO SECRETIVE about my tape. I even turned the cover inside out so you’d only see Judy and her cigarette if you opened up the plastic case. But the reason the tape meant so much to me had nothing to do with the cigarette, or even with the way Judy Bridgewater sang—she’s one of those singers from her time, cocktail-bar stuff, not the sort of thing any of us at Hailsham liked. What made the tape so special for me was this one particular song: track number three, “Never Let Me Go.” It’s slow and late night and American, and there’s a bit that keeps coming round when Judy sings: “Never let me go . . . Oh baby, baby . . . Never let me go . . .” I was eleven then, and hadn’t listened to much music, but this one song, it really got to me. I always tried to keep the tape wound to just that spot so I could play the song whenever a chance came by.
I didn’t have so many opportunities, mind you, this being a few years before Walkmans started appearing at the Sales. There was a big machine in the billiards room, but I hardly ever played the tape in there because it was always full of people. The Art Room also had a player, but that was usually just as noisy. The only place I could listen properly was in our dorm.
By then we’d gone into the small six-bed dorms over in the separate huts, and in ours we had a portable cassette player up on the shelf above the radiator. So that’s where I used to go, in the day when no one else was likely to be about, to play my song over and over.
What was so special about this song? Well, the thing was, I didn’t used to listen properly to the words; I just waited for that bit that went: “Baby, baby, never let me go . . .” And what I’d imagine was a woman who’d been told she couldn’t have babies, who’d really, really wanted them all her life. Then there’s a sort of miracle and she has a baby, and she holds this baby very close to her and walks around singing: “Baby, never let me go . . .” partly because she’s so happy, but also because she’s so afraid something will happen, that the baby will get ill or be taken away from her. Even at the time, I realised this couldn’t be right, that this interpretation didn’t fit with the rest of the lyrics. But that wasn’t an issue with me. The song was about what I said, and I used to listen to it again and again, on my own, whenever I got the chance.
There was one strange incident around this time I should tell you about here. It really unsettled me, and although I wasn’t to find out its real meaning until years later, I think I sensed, even then, some deeper significance to it.
It was a sunny afternoon and I’d gone to our dorm to get something. I remember how bright it was because the curtains in our room hadn’t been pulled back properly, and you could see the sun coming in in big shafts and see all the dust in the air. I hadn’t meant to play the tape, but since I was there all by myself, an impulse made me get the cassette out of my collection box and put it into the player.
Maybe the volume had been turned right up by whoever had been using it last, I don’t know. But it was much louder than I usually had it and that was probably why I didn’t hear her before I did. Or maybe I’d just got complacent by then. Anyway, what I was doing was swaying about slowly in time to the song, holding an imaginary baby to my breast. In fact, to make it all the more embarrassing, it was one of those times I’d grabbed a pillow to stand in for the baby, and I was doing this slow dance, my eyes closed, singing along softly each time those lines came around again: “Oh baby, baby, never let me go . . .”
The song was almost over when something made me realise I wasn’t alone, and I opened my eyes to find myself staring at Madame framed in the doorway.
I froze in shock. Then within a second or two, I began to feel a new kind of alarm, because I could see there was something strange about the situation. The door was almost half open—it was a sort of rule we couldn’t close dorm doors completely except for when we were sleeping—but Madame hadn’t nearly come up to the threshold. She was out in the corridor, standing very still, her head angled to one side to give her a view of what I was doing inside. And the odd thing was she was crying. It might even have been one of her sobs that had come through the song to jerk me out of my dream.
When I think about this now, it seems to me, even if she wasn’t a guardian, she was the adult, and she should have said or done something, even if it was just to tell me off. Then I’d have known how to behave. But she just went on standing out there, sobbing and sobbing, staring at me through the doorway with that same look in her eyes she always had when she looked at us, like she was seeing something that gave her the creeps. Except this time there was something else, something extra in that look I couldn’t fathom.
I didn’t know what to do or say, or what to expect next. Perhaps she would come into the room, shout at me, hit me even, I didn’t have a clue. As it was, she turned and the next moment I could hear her footsteps leaving the hut. I realised the tape had gone on to the next track, and I turned it off and sat down on the nearest bed. And as I did so, I saw through the window in front of me her figure hurrying off towards the main house. She didn’t glance back, but I could tell from the way her back was hunched up she was still sobbing.
When I got back to my friends a few minutes later, I didn’t tell them anything about what had happened. Someone noticed I wasn’t right and said something, but I just shrugged and kept quiet. I wasn’t ashamed exactly: but it was a bit like that earlier time, when we’d all waylaid Madame in the courtyard as she got out of her car. What I wished more than anything was that the thing hadn’t happened at all, and I thought that by not mentioning it I’d be doing myself and everyone else a favour.
I did, though, talk to Tommy about it a couple of years later. This was in those days following our conversation by the pond when he’d first confided in me about Miss Lucy; the days during which—as I see it—we started off our whole thing of wondering and asking questions about ourselves that we kept going between us through the years. When I told Tommy about what had happened with Madame in the dorm, he came up with a fairly simple explanation. By then, of course, we all knew something I hadn’t known back then, which was that none of us could have babies. It’s just possible I’d somehow picked up the idea when I was younger without fully registering it, and that’s why I heard what I did when I listened to that song. But there was no way I’d known properly back then. As I say, by the time Tommy and I were discussing it, we’d all been told clearly enough. None of us, incidentally, was particularly bothered about it; in fact, I remember some people being pleased we could have s@x without worrying about all of that—though proper s@x was still some way off for most of us at that stage. Anyway, when I told Tommy about what had happened, he said: “Madame’s probably not a bad person, even though she’s creepy. So when she saw you dancing like that, holding your baby, she thought it was really tragic, how you couldn’t have babies. That’s why she started crying.”
“But Tommy,” I pointed out, “how could she have known the song had anything to do with people having babies? How could she have known the pillow I was holding was supposed to be a baby? That was only in my head.”
Tommy thought about this, then said only half jokingly: “Maybe Madame can read minds. She’s strange. Maybe she can see right inside you. It wouldn’t surprise me.”
This gave us both a little chill, and though we giggled, we didn’t say any more about it.
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