بخش 03کتاب: هرگز رهایم مکن / فصل 3
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THE TAPE DISAPPEARED a couple of months after the incident with Madame. I never linked the two events at the time and I’ve no reason to link them now. I was in the dorm one night, just before lights-out, and was rummaging through my collection chest to pass the time until the others came back from the bathroom. It’s odd but when it first dawned on me the tape wasn’t there any more, my main thought was that I mustn’t give away how panicked I was. I can remember actually making a point of humming absent-mindedly while I went on searching. I’ve thought about it a lot and I still don’t know how to explain it: these were my closest friends in that room with me and yet I didn’t want them to know how upset I was about my tape going missing.
I suppose it had something to do with it being a secret, just how much it had meant to me. Maybe all of us at Hailsham had little secrets like that—little private nooks created out of thin air where we could go off alone with our fears and longings. But the very fact that we had such needs would have felt wrong to us at the time—like somehow we were letting the side down.
Anyway, once I was quite sure the tape was gone, I asked each of the others in the dorm, very casually, if they’d seen it. I wasn’t yet completely distraught because there was just the chance I’d left it in the billiards room; otherwise my hope was that someone had borrowed it and would give it back in the morning.
Well, the tape didn’t turn up the next day and I’ve still no idea what happened to it. The truth is, I suppose, there was far more thieving going on at Hailsham than we—or the guardians—ever wanted to admit. But the reason I’m going into all this now is to explain about Ruth and how she reacted. What you have to remember is that I lost my tape less than a month after that time Midge had quizzed Ruth in the Art Room about her pencil case and I’d come to the rescue. Ever since, as I told you, Ruth had been looking out for something nice to do for me in return, and the tape disappearing gave her a real opportunity. You could even say it wasn’t until after my tape vanished that things got back to normal with us—maybe for the first time since that rainy morning I’d mentioned the Sales Register to her under the eaves of the main house.
The night I first noticed the tape had gone, I’d made sure to ask everyone about it, and that of course had included Ruth. Looking back, I can see how she must have realised, then and there, exactly what losing the tape meant to me, and at the same time, how important it was for me there was no fuss. So she’d replied that night with a distracted shrug and gone on with what she was doing. But the next morning, when I was coming back from the bathroom, I could hear her—in a casual voice like it wasn’t anything much—asking Hannah if she was sure she hadn’t seen my tape.
Then maybe a fortnight later, when I’d long reconciled myself to having truly lost my tape, she came and found me during the lunch break. It was one of the first really good days of spring that year, and I’d been sitting on the grass talking with a couple of the older girls. When Ruth came up and asked if I wanted to go for a little stroll, it was obvious she had something particular on her mind. So I left the older girls and followed her to the edge of the North Playing Field, then up the north hill, until we were standing there by the wooden fence looking down on the sweep of green dotted with clusters of students. There was a strong breeze at the top of the hill, and I remember being surprised by it because I hadn’t noticed it down on the grass. We stood there looking over the grounds for a while, then she held out a little bag to me. When I took it, I could tell there was a cassette tape inside and my heart leapt. But Ruth said immediately: “Kathy, it’s not your one. The one you lost. I tried to find it for you, but it’s really gone.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Gone to Norfolk.”
We both laughed. Then I took the tape out of the bag with a disappointed air, and I’m not sure the disappointment wasn’t still there on my face while I examined it.
I was holding something called Twenty Classic Dance Tunes. When I played it later, I discovered it was orchestra stuff for ballroom dancing. Of course, the moment she was giving it to me, I didn’t know what sort of music it was, but I did know it wasn’t anything like Judy Bridgewater. Then again, almost immediately, I saw how Ruth wasn’t to know that—how to Ruth, who didn’t know the first thing about music, this tape might easily make up for the one I’d lost. And suddenly I felt the disappointment ebbing away and being replaced by a real happiness. We didn’t do things like hug each other much at Hailsham. But I squeezed one of her hands in both mine when I thanked her. She said: “I found it at the last Sale. I just thought it’s the sort of thing you’d like.” And I said that, yes, it was exactly the sort of thing.
I still have it now. I don’t play it much because the music has nothing to do with anything. It’s an object, like a brooch or a ring, and especially now Ruth has gone, it’s become one of my most precious possessions.
I want to move on now to our last years at Hailsham. I’m talking about the period from when we were thirteen to when we left at sixteen. In my memory my life at Hailsham falls into two distinct chunks: this last era, and everything that came before. The earlier years—the ones I’ve just been telling you about—they tend to blur into each other as a kind of golden time, and when I think about them at all, even the not-so-great things, I can’t help feeling a sort of glow. But those last years feel different. They weren’t unhappy exactly—I’ve got plenty of memories I treasure from them—but they were more serious, and in some ways darker. Maybe I’ve exaggerated it in my mind, but I’ve got an impression of things changing rapidly around then, like day moving into night.
That talk with Tommy beside the pond: I think of it now as a kind of marker between the two eras. Not that anything significant started to happen immediately afterwards; but for me at least, that conversation was a turning point. I definitely started to look at everything differently. Where before I’d have backed away from awkward stuff, I began instead, more and more, to ask questions, if not out loud, at least within myself.
In particular, that conversation got me looking at Miss Lucy in a new light. I watched her carefully whenever I could, not just from curiosity, but because I now saw her as the most likely source of important clues. And that’s how it was, over the next year or two, I came to notice various odd little things she said or did that my friends missed altogether.
There was the time, for example, maybe a few weeks after the talk by the pond, when Miss Lucy was taking us for English. We’d been looking at some poetry, but had somehow drifted onto talking about soldiers in World War Two being kept in prison camps. One of the boys asked if the fences around the camps had been electrified, and then someone else had said how strange it must have been, living in a place like that, where you could commit suicide any time you liked just by touching a fence. This might have been intended as a serious point, but the rest of us thought it pretty funny. We were all laughing and talking at once, and then Laura—typical of her—got up on her seat and did a hysterical impersonation of someone reaching out and getting electrocuted. For a moment things got riotous, with everyone shouting and mimicking touching electric fences.
I went on watching Miss Lucy through all this and I could see, just for a second, a ghostly expression come over her face as she watched the class in front of her. Then—I kept watching carefully—she pulled herself together, smiled and said: “It’s just as well the fences at Hailsham aren’t electrified. You get terrible accidents sometimes.”
She said this quite softly, and because people were still shouting, she was more or less drowned out. But I heard her clearly enough. “You get terrible accidents sometimes.” What accidents? Where? But no one picked her up on it, and we went back to discussing our poem.
There were other little incidents like that, and before long I came to see Miss Lucy as being not quite like the other guardians. It’s even possible I began to realise, right back then, the nature of her worries and frustrations. But that’s probably going too far; chances are, at the time, I noticed all these things without knowing what on earth to make of them. And if these incidents now seem full of significance and all of a piece, it’s probably because I’m looking at them in the light of what came later—particularly what happened that day at the pavilion while we were sheltering from the downpour.
WE WERE FIFTEEN BY THEN, already into our last year at Hailsham. We’d been in the pavilion getting ready for a game of rounders. The boys were going through a phase of “enjoying” rounders in order to flirt with us, so there were over thirty of us that afternoon. The downpour had started while we were changing, and we found ourselves gathering on the veranda—which was sheltered by the pavilion roof—while we waited for it to stop. But the rain kept going, and when the last of us had emerged, the veranda was pretty crowded, with everyone milling around restlessly. I remember Laura was demonstrating to me an especially disgusting way of blowing your nose for when you really wanted to put off a boy.
Miss Lucy was the only guardian present. She was leaning over the rail at the front, peering into the rain like she was trying to see right across the playing field. I was watching her as carefully as ever in those days, and even as I was laughing at Laura, I was stealing glances at Miss Lucy’s back. I remember wondering if there wasn’t something a bit odd about her posture, the way her head was bent down just a little too far so she looked like a crouching animal waiting to pounce. And the way she was leaning forward over the rail meant drops from the overhanging gutter were only just missing her—but she seemed to show no sign of caring. I remember actually convincing myself there was nothing unusual in all this—that she was simply anxious for the rain to stop—and turning my attention back to what Laura was saying. Then a few minutes later, when I’d forgotten all about Miss Lucy and was laughing my head off at something, I suddenly realised things had gone quiet around us, and that Miss Lucy was speaking.
She was standing at the same spot as before, but she’d turned to face us now, so her back was against the rail, and the rainy sky behind her.
“No, no, I’m sorry, I’m going to have to interrupt you,” she was saying, and I could see she was talking to two boys sitting on the benches immediately in front of her. Her voice wasn’t exactly strange, but she was speaking very loudly, in the sort of voice she’d use to announce something to the lot of us, and that was why we’d all gone quiet. “No, Peter, I’m going to have to stop you. I can’t listen to you any more and keep silent.” Then she raised her gaze to include the rest of us and took a deep breath. “All right, you can hear this, it’s for all of you. It’s time someone spelt it out.”
We waited while she kept staring at us. Later, some people said they’d thought she was going to give us a big telling-off; others that she was about to announce a new rule on how we played rounders. But I knew before she said another word it would be something more.
“Boys, you must forgive me for listening. But you were right behind me, so I couldn’t help it. Peter, why don’t you tell the others what you were saying to Gordon just now?”
Peter J. looked bewildered and I could see him getting ready his injured innocence face. But then Miss Lucy said again, this time much more gently:
“Peter, go on. Please tell the others what you were just saying.”
Peter shrugged. “We were just talking about what it would feel like if we became actors. What sort of life it would be.”
“Yes,” Miss Lucy said, “and you were saying to Gordon you’d have to go to America to stand the best chance.”
Peter J. shrugged again and muttered quietly: “Yes, Miss Lucy.”
But Miss Lucy was now moving her gaze over the lot of us. “I know you don’t mean any harm. But there’s just too much talk like this. I hear it all the time, it’s been allowed to go on, and it’s not right.” I could see more drops coming off the gutter and landing on her shoulder, but she didn’t seem to notice. “If no one else will talk to you,” she continued, “then I will. The problem, as I see it, is that you’ve been told and not told. You’ve been told, but none of you really understand, and I dare say, some people are quite happy to leave it that way. But I’m not. If you’re going to have decent lives, then you’ve got to know and know properly. None of you will go to America, none of you will be film stars. And none of you will be working in supermarkets as I heard some of you planning the other day. Your lives are set out for you. You’ll become adults, then before you’re old, before you’re even middle-aged, you’ll start to donate your vital organs. That’s what each of you was created to do. You’re not like the actors you watch on your videos, you’re not even like me. You were brought into this world for a purpose, and your futures, all of them, have been decided. So you’re not to talk that way any more. You’ll be leaving Hailsham before long, and it’s not so far off, the day you’ll be preparing for your first donations. You need to remember that. If you’re to have decent lives, you have to know who you are and what lies ahead of you, every one of you.” Then she went silent, but my impression was that she was continuing to say things inside her head, because for some time her gaze kept roving over us, going from face to face just as if she were still speaking to us. We were all pretty relieved when she turned to look out over the playing field again.
“It’s not so bad now,” she said, even though the rain was as steady as ever. “Let’s just go out there. Then maybe the sun will come out too.”
I think that was all she said. When I was discussing it with Ruth a few years ago at the centre in Dover, she claimed Miss Lucy had told us a lot more; that she’d explained how before donations we’d all spend some time first as carers, about the usual sequence of the donations, the recovery centres and so on—but I’m pretty sure she didn’t. Okay, she probably intended to when she began talking. But my guess is once she’d set off, once she’d seen the puzzled, uncomfortable faces in front of her, she realised the impossibility of completing what she’d started.
It’s hard to say clearly what sort of impact Miss Lucy’s outburst at the pavilion made. Word got round fast enough, but the talk mostly focused on Miss Lucy herself rather than on what she’d been trying to tell us. Some students thought she’d lost her marbles for a moment; others that she’d been asked to say what she had by Miss Emily and the other guardians; there were even some who’d actually been there and who thought Miss Lucy had been telling us off for being too rowdy on the veranda. But as I say there was surprisingly little discussion about what she’d said. If it did come up, people tended to say: “Well so what? We already knew all that.” But that had been Miss Lucy’s point exactly. We’d been “told and not told,” as she’d put it. A few years ago, when Tommy and I were going over it all again, and I reminded him of Miss Lucy’s “told and not told” idea, he came up with a theory.
Tommy thought it possible the guardians had, throughout all our years at Hailsham, timed very carefully and deliberately everything they told us, so that we were always just too young to understand properly the latest piece of information. But of course we’d take it in at some level, so that before long all this stuff was there in our heads without us ever having examined it properly.
It’s a bit too much like a conspiracy theory for me—I don’t think our guardians were that crafty—but there’s probably something in it. Certainly, it feels like I always knew about donations in some vague way, even as early as six or seven. And it’s curious, when we were older and the guardians were giving us those talks, nothing came as a complete surprise. It was like we’d heard everything somewhere before.
One thing that occurs to me now is that when the guardians first started giving us proper lectures about s@x, they tended to run them together with talk about the donations. At that age—again, I’m talking of around thirteen—we were all pretty worried and excited about s@x, and naturally would have pushed the other stuff into the background. In other words, it’s possible the guardians managed to smuggle into our heads a lot of the basic facts about our futures.
Now to be fair, it was probably natural to run these two subjects together. If, say, they were telling us how we’d have to be very careful to avoid diseases when we had s@x, it would have been odd not to mention how much more important this was for us than for normal people outside. And that, of course, would bring us onto the donations.
Then there was the whole business about our not being able to have babies. Miss Emily used to give a lot of the s@x lectures herself, and I remember once, she brought in a life-size skeleton from the biology class to demonstrate how it was done. We watched in complete astonishment as she put the skeleton through various contortions, thrusting her pointer around without the slightest self-consciousness. She was going through all the nuts and bolts of how you did it, what went in where, the different variations, like this was still Geography. Then suddenly, with the skeleton in an obscene heap on the desktop, she turned away and began telling us how we had to be careful who we had s@x with. Not just because of the diseases, but because, she said, “s@x affects emotions in ways you’d never expect.” We had to be extremely careful about having s@x in the outside world, especially with people who weren’t students, because out there s@x meant all sorts of things. Out there people were even fighting and killing each other over who had s@x with whom. And the reason it meant so much—so much more than, say, dancing or table-tennis—was because the people out there were different from us students: they could have babies from s@x. That was why it was so important to them, this question of who did it with whom. And even though, as we knew, it was completely impossible for any of us to have babies, out there, we had to behave like them. We had to respect the rules and treat s@x as something pretty special.
Miss Emily’s lecture that day was typical of what I’m talking about. We’d be focusing on s@x, and then the other stuff would creep in. I suppose that was all part of how we came to be “told and not told.”
I think in the end we must have absorbed quite a lot of information, because I remember, around that age, a marked change in the way we approached the whole territory surrounding the donations. Until then, as I’ve said, we’d done everything to avoid the subject; we’d backed off at the first sign we were entering that ground, and there’d been severe punishment for any idiot—like Marge that time—who got careless. But from when we were thirteen, like I say, things started to change. We still didn’t discuss the donations and all that went with them; we still found the whole area awkward enough. But it became something we made jokes about, in much the way we joked about s@x. Looking back now, I’d say the rule about not discussing the donations openly was still there, as strong as ever. But now it was okay, almost required, every now and then, to make some jokey allusion to these things that lay in front of us.
A good example is what happened the time Tommy got the gash on his elbow. It must have been just before my talk with him by the pond; a time, I suppose, when Tommy was still coming out of that phase of being teased and taunted.
IT WASN’T SUCH A BAD GASH, and though he was sent to Crow Face to have it seen to, he was back almost straight away with a square of dressing plastered to his elbow. No one thought much about it until a couple of days later, when Tommy took off the dressing to reveal something at just that stage between sealing and still being an open wound. You could see bits of skin starting to bond, and soft red bits peeping up from underneath. We were in the middle of lunch, so everyone crowded round to go “urgh!” Then Christopher H., from the year above, said with a dead straight face: “Pity it’s on that bit of the elbow. Just about anywhere else, it wouldn’t matter.” Tommy looked worried—Christopher being someone he looked up to in those days—and asked what he meant. Christopher went on eating, then said nonchalantly:
“Don’t you know? If it’s right on the elbow like that, it can unzip. All you have to do is bend your arm quickly. Not just that actual bit, the whole elbow, it can all unzip like a bag opening up. Thought you’d know that.”
I could hear Tommy complaining that Crow Face hadn’t warned him of anything of that sort, but Christopher shrugged and said: “She thought you knew, of course. Everyone knows.”
A number of people nearby murmured agreement. “You’ve got to keep your arm dead straight,” someone else said. “Bending it at all’s really dangerous.”
The next day I could see Tommy going about with his arm held out very rigidly and looking worried. Everybody was laughing at him, and I was cross about that, but I had to admit, there was a funny side to it. Then towards the end of the afternoon as we were leaving the Art Room, he came up to me in the corridor and said: “Kath, can I just have a quick word?”
This was maybe a couple of weeks after the time I’d gone up to him in the playing field to remind him about his polo shirt, so it had got about we were special friends of some sort. All the same, his coming up like that asking for a private talk was pretty embarrassing and threw me off balance. Maybe that partly explains why I wasn’t more helpful than I was.
“I’m not too worried or anything,” he began, once he’d got me aside. “But I wanted to play safe, that’s all. We should never take chances with our health. I need someone to help, Kath.” He was, he explained, concerned about what he’d do in his sleep. He might easily bend his elbow in the night. “I have these dreams all the time where I’m fighting loads of Roman soldiers.”
When I quizzed him a bit, it became obvious all kinds of people—people who hadn’t been there that lunch-time—had been coming up to him to repeat Christopher H.’s warning. In fact, it seemed a few had carried the joke further: Tommy had been told of a student who’d gone to sleep with a cut on the elbow just like his and woken up to find his whole upper arm and hand skeletally exposed, the skin flopping about next to him “like one of those long gloves in My Fair Lady.” What Tommy was asking me now was to help tie a splint on the arm to keep it rigid through the night.
“I don’t trust any of the others,” he said, holding up a thick ruler he wanted to use. “They might deliberately do it so it comes undone in the night.”
He was looking at me in complete innocence and I didn’t know what to say. A part of me wanted badly to tell him what was going on, and I suppose I knew that to do anything else would be to betray the trust we’d built up since the moment I’d reminded him about his polo shirt. And for me to strap up his arm in a splint would have meant my becoming one of the main perpetrators of the joke. I still feel ashamed I didn’t tell him then. But you’ve got to remember I was still young, and that I only had a few seconds to decide. And when someone’s asking you to do something in such a pleading way, everything goes against saying no.
I suppose the main thing was that I didn’t want to upset him. Because I could see, for all his anxiety about his elbow, Tommy was touched by all the concern he believed had been shown him. Of course, I knew he’d find out the truth sooner or later, but at that moment I just couldn’t tell him. The best I could do was to ask:
“Did Crow Face tell you you had to do this?”
“No. But imagine how angry she’d be if my elbow slipped out.”
I still feel bad about it, but I promised to strap his arm for him—in Room 14 half an hour before the night bell—and watched him go off grateful and reassured.
As it happened, I didn’t have to go through with it because Tommy found out first. It was around eight in the evening, I was coming down the main staircase, and heard a burst of laughter rising up the stairwell from the ground floor. My heart sank because I knew immediately it was to do with Tommy. I paused on the first-floor landing and looked over the rail just as Tommy came out of the billiards room with thunderous footsteps. I remember thinking: “At least he’s not shouting.” And he didn’t, the whole time he went to the cloakroom, got his things and left the main house. And all that time, laughter kept coming from the open doorway of the billiards room, and voices yelling things like: “If you lose your temper, your elbow will definitely pop out!” I thought about following him out into the evening and catching up with him before he got to his dorm hut, but then I remembered how I’d promised to put his arm in a splint for the night, and didn’t move. I just kept saying to myself: “At least he didn’t have a tantrum. At least he kept hold of that temper.”
But I’ve gone off a bit. The reason I was talking about all this was because the idea of things “unzipping” carried over from Tommy’s elbow to become a running joke among us about the donations. The idea was that when the time came, you’d be able just to unzip a bit of yourself, a kidney or something would slide out, and you’d hand it over. It wasn’t something we found so funny in itself; it was more a way of putting each other off our food. You unzipped your liver, say, and dumped it on someone’s plate, that sort of thing. I remember once Gary B., who had this unbelievable appetite, coming back with a third helping of pudding, and virtually the whole table “unzipping” bits of themselves and piling it all over Gary’s bowl, while he went on determinedly stuffing himself.
Tommy never liked it much when the unzipping stuff came up again, but by then the days of his being teased were past and no one connected the joke with him any more. It was just done to get a laugh, to put someone off their dinner—and, I suppose, as some way of acknowledging what was in front of us. And this was my original point. By that time in our lives, we no longer shrank from the subject of donations as we’d have done a year or two earlier; but neither did we think about it very seriously, or discuss it. All that business about “unzipping,” that was typical of the way the whole subject impinged on us when we were thirteen.
So I’d say Miss Lucy had it about right when she said, a couple of years later, that we’d been “told and not told.” And what’s more, now I think about it, I’d say what Miss Lucy said to us that afternoon led to a real shift in our attitudes. It was after that day, jokes about donations faded away, and we started to think properly about things. If anything, the donations went back to being a subject to be avoided, but not in the way it had been when we were younger. This time round it wasn’t awkward or embarrassing any more; just sombre and serious.
“It’s funny,” Tommy said to me when we were remembering it all again a few years ago. “None of us stopped to think about how she felt, Miss Lucy herself. We never worried if she’d got into trouble, saying what she did to us. We were so selfish back then.”
“But you can’t blame us,” I said. “We’d been taught to think about each other, but never about the guardians. The idea the guardians had differences between them, that never occurred to us.”
“But we were old enough,” Tommy said. “By that age, it should have occurred to us. But it didn’t. We didn’t think about poor Miss Lucy at all. Not even after that time, you know, when you saw her.”
I knew straight away what he meant. He was talking about the morning early in our last summer at Hailsham, when I’d stumbled across her up in Room 22. Thinking about it now, I’d say Tommy had a point. After that moment it should have been clear, even to us, how troubled Miss Lucy had become. But as he said, we never considered anything from her viewpoint, and it never occurred to us to say or do anything to support her.
Many of us had turned sixteen by then. It was a morning of brilliant sunshine and we’d all just come down to the courtyard after a lesson in the main house, when I remembered something I’d left in the classroom. So I went back up to the third floor and that’s how the thing with Miss Lucy happened.
In those days I had this secret game. When I found myself alone, I’d stop and look for a view—out of a window, say, or through a doorway into a room—any view so long as there were no people in it. I did this so that I could, for a few seconds at least, create the illusion the place wasn’t crawling with students, but that instead Hailsham was this quiet, tranquil house where I lived with just five or six others. To make this work, you had to get yourself into a sort of dream, and shut off all the stray noises and voices. Usually you had to be pretty patient too: if, say, you were focusing from a window on one particular bit of the playing field, you could wait ages for those couple of seconds when there wasn’t anyone at all in your frame. Anyway, that was what I was doing that morning after I’d fetched whatever it was I’d left in the classroom and come back out onto the third-floor landing.
I was keeping very still near a window looking down onto a section of the courtyard where I’d been standing only moments before. My friends had gone, and the courtyard was steadily emptying, so I was waiting for my trick to work, when I heard behind me what sounded like gas or steam escaping in sharp bursts.
It was a hissing noise that would go on for about ten seconds, pause, then come again. I wasn’t alarmed exactly, but since I seemed to be the only person around, I thought I’d better go and investigate.
I went across the landing towards the sound, along the corridor past the room I’d just been in, and down to Room 22, second from the end. The door was partly open, and just as I came up to it, the hissing started up again with a new intensity. I don’t know what I expected to discover as I cautiously pushed the door, but I was properly surprised to find Miss Lucy.
Room 22 was hardly used for classes because it was so small and, even on a day like that one, hardly any light got in. The guardians sometimes went in there to mark our work or get on with reading. That morning the room was darker than ever because the blinds had been pulled almost all the way down. There were two tables pushed together for a group to sit around, but Miss Lucy was there alone near the back. I could see several loose sheets of dark, shiny paper scattered over the table in front of her. She herself was leaning over in concentration, forehead very low, arms up on the surface, scrawling furious lines over a page with a pencil. Underneath the heavy black lines I could see neat blue handwriting. As I watched, she went on scrubbing the pencil point over the paper, almost in the way we did shading in Art, except her movements were much more angry, as if she didn’t mind gouging right through the sheet. Then I realised, in the same instant, that this was the source of the odd noise, and that what I’d taken for dark shiny paper on the table had also, not long before, been pages of neat handwriting.
She was so lost in what she was doing, it took a while for her to realise I was there. When she looked up with a start, I could see her face was flushed, but there were no traces of tears. She stared at me, then put down her pencil.
“Hello, young lady,” she said, then took a deep breath. “What can I do for you?”
I think I turned away so I didn’t have to look at her or at the papers over the desk. I can’t remember if I said very much—if I explained about the noise and how I’d worried about it being gas. In any case, there was no proper conversation: she didn’t want me there and neither did I. I think I made some apology and went out, half expecting her to call me back. But she didn’t, and what I remember now is that I went down the staircase burning with shame and resentment. At that moment I wished more than anything that I hadn’t seen what I’d just seen, though if you’d asked me to define just what I was so upset about, I wouldn’t have been able to explain. Shame, as I say, had a lot to do with it, and also fury, though not exactly at Miss Lucy herself. I was very confused, and that’s probably why I didn’t say anything about it to my friends until much later.
After that morning I became convinced something else—perhaps something awful—lay around the corner to do with Miss Lucy, and I kept my eyes and ears open for it. But the days passed and I heard nothing. What I didn’t know at the time was that something pretty significant had happened only a few days after I’d seen her in Room 22—something between Miss Lucy and Tommy that had left him upset and disorientated. There would have been a time not so much earlier when Tommy and I would have immediately reported to each other any news of this sort; but just around that summer, various things were going on which meant we weren’t talking so freely.
That’s why I didn’t hear about it for so long. Afterwards I could have kicked myself for not guessing, for not seeking Tommy out and getting it out of him. But as I’ve said, there was a lot going on around then, between Tommy and Ruth, a whole host of other stuff, and I’d put all the changes I’d noticed in him down to that.
It’s probably going too far to say Tommy’s whole act fell apart that summer, but there were times when I got seriously worried he was turning back into the awkward and changeable figure from several years before. Once, for instance, a few of us were going back from the pavilion towards the dorm huts and found ourselves walking behind Tommy and a couple of other boys. They were just a few paces ahead, and all of them—Tommy included—looked to be in good form, laughing and shoving each other. In fact, I’d say Laura, who was walking beside me, took her cue from the way the boys were larking about. The thing was, Tommy must have been sitting on the ground earlier, because there was a sizeable chunk of mud stuck on his rugby shirt near the small of his back. He was obviously unaware of it, and I don’t think his friends had seen it either or they’d surely have made something of it. Anyway, Laura being Laura shouted out something like: “Tommy! You got poo-poo on your back! What have you been doing?” She’d done this in a completely friendly way, and if some of the rest of us made a few noises too, it wasn’t anything more than the sort of thing students did the whole time. So it was a complete shock when Tommy came to a dead halt, wheeled round and stared at Laura with a face like thunder. We all stopped too—the boys looking as bewildered as we were—and for a few seconds I thought Tommy was going to blow for the first time in years. But then he abruptly stalked off, leaving us all swapping looks and shrugging.
Nearly as bad was the time I showed him Patricia C.’s calendar. Patricia was two years below us but everyone was in awe of her drawing skills, and her stuff was always sought after at the Art Exchanges. I’d been particularly pleased with the calendar, which I’d managed to get at the last Exchange, because word had been going round about it from weeks before. It wasn’t anything like, say, Miss Emily’s flappy colour calendars of the English counties. Patricia’s calendar was tiny and dumpy, and for each month there was a stunning little pencil sketch of a scene from Hailsham life. I wish I still had it now, especially since in some of the pictures—like the ones for June and for September—you can make out the faces of particular students and guardians. It’s one of the things I lost when I left the Cottages, when my mind was elsewhere and I wasn’t being so careful what I took with me—but I’ll come to all that in its place. My point now is that Patricia’s calendar was a real catch, I was proud of it, and that’s why I wanted to show it to Tommy.
I’d spotted him standing in the late afternoon sunshine beside the big sycamore near the South Playing Field, and since my calendar was there in my bag—I’d been showing it off during our music lesson—I’d gone over to him.
He was absorbed in a football match involving some younger boys over in the next field and at this stage his mood seemed just fine, tranquil even. He smiled when I came up to him and we chatted for a minute about nothing in particular. Then I said: “Tommy, look what I managed to get.” I didn’t try to keep the triumph out of my voice, and I may even have gone “dah-dah!” as I brought it out and handed it to him. When he took the calendar, there was still a smile on his features, but as he flicked through I could see something closing off inside him.
“That Patricia,” I began to say, but I could hear my own voice changing. “She’s so clever . . .”
But Tommy was already handing it back to me. Then without another word he marched past me off towards the main house.
This last incident should have given me a clue. If I’d thought about it with half a brain, I should have guessed Tommy’s recent moods had something to do with Miss Lucy and his old problems about “being creative.” But with everything else going on just at that time, I didn’t, as I say, think in these terms at all. I suppose I must have assumed those old problems had been left behind with our early teen years, and that only the big issues that now loomed so large could possibly preoccupy any of us.
So what had been going on? Well, for a start, Ruth and Tommy had had a serious bust-up. They’d been a couple for about six months by then; at least, that’s how long they’d been “public” about it—walking around with arms around each other, that kind of thing. They were respected as a couple because they weren’t show-offs. Some others, Sylvia B. and Roger D., for example, could get stomach-churning, and you had to give them a chorus of vomiting noises just to keep them in order. But Ruth and Tommy never did anything gross in front of people, and if sometimes they cuddled or whatever, it felt like they were genuinely doing it for each other, not for an audience.
Looking back now, I can see we were pretty confused about this whole area around s@x. That’s hardly surprising, I suppose, given we were barely sixteen. But what added to the confusion—I can see it more clearly now—was the fact that the guardians were themselves confused. On the one hand we had, say, Miss Emily’s talks, when she’d tell us how important it was not to be ashamed of our bodies, to “respect our physical needs,” how s@x was “a very beautiful gift” as long as both people really wanted it. But when it came down to it, the guardians made it more or less impossible for any of us actually to do much without breaking rules. We couldn’t visit the boys’ dorms after nine o’clock, they couldn’t visit ours. The classrooms were all officially “out of bounds” in the evenings, as were the areas behind the sheds and the pavilion. And you didn’t want to do it in the fields even when it was warm enough, because you’d almost certainly discover afterwards you’d had an audience watching from the house passing around binoculars. In other words, for all the talk of s@x being beautiful, we had the distinct impression we’d be in trouble if the guardians caught us at it.
I say this, but the only real case I personally knew of like that was when Jenny C. and Rob D. got interrupted in Room 14. They were doing it after lunch, right there over one of the desks, and Mr. Jack had come in to get something. According to Jenny, Mr. Jack had turned red and gone right out again, but they’d been put off and had stopped. They’d more or less dressed themselves when Mr. Jack came back, just as though for the first time, and pretended to be surprised and shocked.
“It’s very clear to me what you’ve been doing and it’s not appropriate,” he’d said, and told them both to go and see Miss Emily. But once they’d got to Miss Emily’s office, she’d told them she was on her way to an important meeting and didn’t have time to talk to them.
“But you know you shouldn’t have been doing whatever you were doing, and I don’t expect you’ll do it again,” she’d said, before rushing out with her folders.
Gay s@x, incidentally, was something we were even more confused about. For some reason, we called it “umbrella s@x”; if you fancied someone your own s@x, you were “an umbrella.” I don’t know how it was where you were, but at Hailsham we definitely weren’t at all kind towards any signs of gay stuff. The boys especially could do the cruellest things. According to Ruth this was because quite a few of them had done things with each other when they’d been younger, before they’d realised what they were doing. So now they were ridiculously tense about it. I don’t know if she was right, but for sure, accusing someone of “getting all umbrella” could easily end in a fight.
When we discussed all these things—as we did endlessly back then—we couldn’t decide whether or not the guardians wanted us to have s@x or not. Some people thought they did, but that we kept trying to do it at all the wrong times. Hannah had the theory that it was their duty to make us have s@x because otherwise we wouldn’t be good donors later on. According to her, things like your kidneys and pancreas didn’t work properly unless you kept having s@x. Someone else said what we had to remember was that the guardians were “normals.” That’s why they were so odd about it; for them, s@x was for when you wanted babies, and even though they knew, intellectually, that we couldn’t have babies, they still felt uneasy about us doing it because deep down they couldn’t quite believe we wouldn’t end up with babies.
Annette B. had another theory: that the guardians were uncomfortable about us having s@x with each other because they’d then want to have s@x with us. Mr. Chris in particular, she said, looked at us girls in that way. Laura said that what Annette really meant was she wanted to have s@x with Mr. Chris. We all cracked up at this because the idea of having s@x with Mr. Chris seemed absurd, as well as completely sick-making.
The theory I think came closest was the one put forward by Ruth. “They’re telling us about s@x for after we leave Hailsham,” she said. “They want us to do it properly, with someone we like and without getting diseases. But they really mean it for after we leave. They don’t want us doing it here, because it’s too much hassle for them.”
My guess, anyway, is that there wasn’t nearly as much s@x going on as people made out. A lot of snogging and touching up, maybe; and couples hinting they were having proper s@x. But looking back, I wonder how much of it there really was. If everyone who claimed to be doing it really had been, then that’s all you’d have seen when you walked about Hailsham—couples going at it left, right and centre.
What I remember is that there was this discreet agreement among us all not to quiz each other too much about our claims. If, say, Hannah rolled her eyes when you were discussing another girl and murmured: “Virgin”—meaning “Of course we’re not, but she is, so what can you expect?”—then it definitely wasn’t on to ask her: “Who did you do it with? When? Where?” No, you just nodded knowingly. It was like there was some parallel universe we all vanished off to where we had all this s@x.
I must have seen at the time how all these claims being made around me didn’t add up. All the same, as that summer approached, I began to feel more and more the odd one out. In a way, s@x had got like “being creative” had been a few years earlier. It felt like if you hadn’t done it yet, you ought to, and quickly. And in my case, the whole thing was made more complicated by the fact that two of the girls I was closest to definitely had done it. Laura with Rob D., even though they’d never been a proper couple. And Ruth with Tommy.
For all that, I’d been holding it off for ages, repeating to myself Miss Emily’s advice—“If you can’t find someone with whom you truly wish to share this experience, then don’t!” But around the spring of the year I’m talking about now, I started to think I wouldn’t mind having s@x with a boy. Not just to see what it was like, but also because it occurred to me I needed to get familiar with s@x, and it would be just as well to practise first with a boy I didn’t care about too much. Then later on, if I was with someone special, I’d have more chance of doing everything right. What I mean is, if Miss Emily was correct and s@x was this really big deal between people, then I didn’t want to be doing it for the first time when it was really important how well it went.
So I had my eye on Harry C. I chose him for a number of reasons. First, I knew he’d definitely done it before, with Sharon D. Next, I didn’t fancy him that much, but I certainly didn’t find him sick-making. Also, he was quiet and decent, so unlikely to go round gossiping afterwards if it was a complete disaster. And he’d hinted a few times he’d like to have s@x with me. Okay, a lot of the boys were making flirty noises in those days, but it was clear by then what was a real proposition and what was the usual boys’ stuff.
So I’d chosen Harry, and I only delayed those couple of months because I wanted to make sure I’d be all right physically. Miss Emily had told us it could be painful and a big failure if you didn’t get wet enough and this was my one real worry. It wasn’t being ripped apart down there, which we often joked about, and was the secret fear of quite a few girls. I kept thinking, as long as I got wet quick enough, there’d be no problem, and I did it a lot on my own just to make sure.
I realise this may sound like I was getting obsessive, but I remember I also spent a lot of time re-reading passages from books where people had s@x, going over the lines again and again, trying to tease out clues. The trouble was, the books we had at Hailsham weren’t at all helpful. We had a lot of nineteenth-century stuff by Thomas Hardy and people like that, which was more or less useless. Some modern books, by people like Edna O’Brien and Margaret Drabble, had some s@x in them, but it wasn’t ever very clear what was happening because the authors always assumed you’d already had a lot of s@x before and there was no need to go into details. So I was having a frustrating time with the books, and the videos weren’t much better. We’d got a video player in the billiards room a couple of years earlier, and by that spring had built up quite a good collection of movies. A lot of them had s@x in them, but most scenes would end just as the s@x was starting up, or else you’d only see their faces and their backs. And when there was a useful scene, it was difficult to see it more than fleetingly because there were usually twenty others in the room watching with you. We’d evolved this system where we called for particular favourite scenes to be played again—like, for instance, the moment the American jumps over the barbed wire on his bike in The Great Escape. There’d be a chant of: “Rewind! Rewind!” until someone got the remote and we’d see the portion again, sometimes three, four times. But I could hardly, by myself, start shouting for rewinds just to see s@x scenes again.
So I kept delaying week by week, while I went on preparing, until the summer came and I decided I was as ready as I’d ever be. By then, I was even feeling reasonably confident about it, and began dropping hints to Harry. Everything was going fine and according to plan, when Ruth and Tommy split up and it all got confused.
What happened was that a few days after they split, I was in the Art Room with some other girls, working on a still life. I remember it being stifling that day, even though we had the fan rattling behind us. We were using charcoal, and because someone had commandeered all the easels, we were having to work with our boards propped up on our laps. I was sitting beside Cynthia E., and we’d just been chatting and complaining about the heat. Then somehow we’d got onto the subject of boys, and she’d said, not looking up from her work: “And Tommy. I knew it wouldn’t last with Ruth. Well, I suppose you’re the natural successor.”
She’d said it in a throwaway manner. But Cynthia was a perceptive person, and the fact that she wasn’t part of our group just gave her remark more weight. What I mean is, I couldn’t help thinking she represented what anyone with any distance on the subject would think. After all, I’d been Tommy’s friend for years until all this couples stuff had come up. It was perfectly possible that to someone on the outside, I’d look like Ruth’s “natural successor.” I just let it go, though, and Cynthia, who wasn’t trying to make any big point, said nothing else about it.
Then maybe a day or two later, I was coming out of the pavilion with Hannah when she suddenly nudged me and nodded towards a group of boys over on the North Playing Field.
“Look,” she said quietly. “Tommy. Sitting by himself.”
I shrugged, as though to say: “So what?” And that’s all there was to it. But afterwards I found myself thinking a lot about it. Maybe all Hannah had meant to do was point out how Tommy, since splitting with Ruth, looked a bit of a spare part. But I couldn’t quite buy this; I knew Hannah too well. The way she’d nudged me and lowered her voice had made it all too obvious she too was expressing some assumption, probably doing the rounds, about me being the “natural successor.” All this did, as I say, put me in a bit of a confusion, because until then I’d been all set on my Harry plan. In fact, looking back now, I’m sure I would have had s@x with Harry if it hadn’t been for this “natural successor” business. I’d had it all sorted, and my preparations had gone well. And I still think Harry was a good choice for that stage in my life. I think he would have been considerate and gentle, and have understood what I was wanting from him.
I saw Harry fleetingly a couple of years ago at the recovery centre in Wiltshire. He was being brought in after a donation. I wasn’t in the best of moods because my own donor had just completed the night before. No one was blaming me for that—it had been a particularly untidy operation—but I wasn’t feeling great all the same. I’d been up most of the night, sorting all the arrangements, and I was in the front reception getting ready to leave when I saw Harry coming in. He was in a wheelchair—because he was so weak, I found out later, not because he couldn’t actually walk—and I’m not sure he recognised me when I went up and said hello. I suppose there’s no reason I should have any special place in his memory. We’d never had much to do with each other apart from that one time. To him, if he remembered me at all, I’d just be this daft girl who came up to him once, asked if he wanted s@x, then backed off. He must have been pretty mature for his age, because he didn’t get annoyed or go round telling people I was a tease, or any of that. So when I saw him being brought in that day, I felt grateful to him and wished I was his carer. I looked about, but whoever was his carer wasn’t even around. The orderlies were impatient to get him to his room, so I didn’t talk with him long. I just said hello, that I hoped he’d feel better soon, and he smiled tiredly. When I mentioned Hailsham he did a thumbs-up, but I could tell he didn’t recognise me. Maybe later, when he wasn’t so tired, or when the medication wasn’t so strong, he’d have tried to place me and remembered.
Anyway, I was talking about back then: about how after Ruth and Tommy split, all my plans got confused. Looking at it now, I feel a bit sorry for Harry. After all the hints I’d been dropping the previous week, there I was, suddenly whispering stuff to put him off. I suppose I must have assumed he was raring to go, that I had my work cut out just to hold him off. Because whenever I saw him, I’d always get something in quick, then rush off before he could say anything back. It was only much later, when I thought about it, it occurred to me he might not have had s@x on his mind at all. For all I know, he might have been happy to forget the whole thing, except that every time he saw me, along a corridor or in the grounds, I’d come up and whisper some excuse why I didn’t want s@x with him just then. It must have looked pretty daft from his side, and if he hadn’t been such a decent type, I’d have been a laughing stock in no time. Well, anyway, this era of putting Harry off lasted maybe a couple of weeks, and then came Ruth’s request.
THAT SUMMER, right up until the warm weather faded, we developed this odd way of listening to music together in the fields. Walkmans had started appearing at Hailsham since the previous year’s Sales and by that summer there were at least six of them in circulation. The craze was for several people to sit on the grass around a single Walkman, passing the headset around. Okay, it sounds a stupid way to listen to music, but it created a really good feeling. You listened for maybe twenty seconds, took off the headset, passed it on. After a while, provided you kept the same tape going over and over, it was surprising how close it was to having heard all of it by yourself. As I say, the craze really took off that summer, and during the lunch breaks you’d see all these clusters of students lying about the grass around the Walkmans. The guardians weren’t too keen, saying we’d spread ear infections, but they let us carry on. I can’t remember that last summer without thinking about those afternoons around the Walkmans. Someone would wander up and ask: “What’s the sound?” and if they liked the answer, they’d sit down on the grass and wait their turn. There was almost always a good atmosphere around these sessions and I don’t remember anyone being refused a share of the headset.
Anyway, that’s what I was up to with a few other girls when Ruth came up to ask if we could have a talk. I could tell it was something important, so I left my other friends and the two of us walked off, all the way to our dorm hut. When we got to our room, I sat down on Ruth’s bed, close to the window—the sun had warmed the blanket—and she sat on mine over by the back wall. There was a bluebottle buzzing around, and for a minute we had a laugh playing “bluebottle tennis,” throwing our hands about to make the demented creature go from one to the other of us. Then it found its way out of the window, and Ruth said: “I want me and Tommy to get back together again. Kathy, will you help?” Then she asked: “What’s the matter?”
“Nothing. I was just a bit surprised, after what’s happened. Of course I’ll help.”
“I haven’t told anybody else about wanting to get back with Tommy. Not even Hannah. You’re the only one I trust.”
“What do you want me to do?”
“Just talk to him. You’ve always had this way with him. He’ll listen to you. And he’ll know you’re not bullsh@tting about me.”
For a moment we sat there swinging our feet under our beds.
“It’s really good you’re telling me this,” I said eventually. “I probably am the best person. Talking to Tommy and all that.”
“What I want is for us to make a fresh start. We’re about evens now, we’ve both done daft things just to hurt each other, but it’s enough now. Martha bloody H., I ask you! Maybe he did it just to give me a good laugh. Well you can tell him he succeeded, and the scores are all even again. It’s time we grew up and started afresh. I know you can reason with him, Kathy. You’ll deal with it the best way possible. Then if he’s still not prepared to be sensible, I’ll know there’s no point carrying on with him.” I shrugged. “As you say, Tommy and I, we’ve always been able to talk.”
“Yeah, and he really respects you. I know because he’s often talked about it. How you’ve got guts and how you always do what you say you’re going to do. He told me once if he was in a corner, he’d rather have you backing him than any of the boys.” She did a quick laugh. “Now you’ve got to admit, that’s a real compliment. So you see, it’s got to be you to our rescue. Tommy and I were made for each other and he’ll listen to you. You’ll do it for us, won’t you, Kathy?” I didn’t say anything for a moment. Then I asked: “Ruth, are you serious about Tommy? I mean, if I do persuade him, and you get back together, you won’t hurt him again?”
Ruth gave an impatient sigh. “Of course I’m serious. We’re adults now. Soon we’ll be leaving Hailsham. It’s not a game any more.”
“Okay. I’ll talk to him. Like you say, we’ll be leaving here soon. We can’t afford to waste time.”
After that, I remember us sitting on those beds, talking for some time. Ruth wanted to go over everything again and again: how stupid he was being, why they were really suited to each other, how differently they’d do things next time round, how they’d keep much more private, how they’d have s@x in better places at better times. We talked about it all and she wanted my advice on everything. Then at one point, I was looking out of the window towards the hills in the distance, when I was startled to feel Ruth, suddenly beside me, squeeze my shoulders.
“Kathy, I knew we could depend on you,” she said. “Tommy’s right. You’re just the person to have when you’re in a corner.”
WHAT WITH ONE THING AND ANOTHER, I didn’t get a chance to talk to Tommy for the next few days. Then one lunch-time I spotted him on the edge of the South Playing Field practising with his football. He’d been having a kickabout earlier with two other boys, but now he was alone, juggling the ball about in the air. I went over and sat down on the grass behind him, putting my back against a fence post. This couldn’t have been long after that time I’d shown him Patricia C.’s calendar and he’d marched off, because I remember we weren’t sure how we stood with each other. He went on with his ball-juggling, scowling with concentration—knee, foot, head, foot—while I sat there picking away at clovers and gazing at the woods in the distance that we’d once been so frightened of. In the end I decided to break the deadlock and said: “Tommy, let’s talk now. There’s something I want to talk to you about.”
As soon as I said this, he let the ball roll away and came to sit down beside me. It was typical of Tommy that once he knew I was willing to talk, there was suddenly no trace left of any sulkiness; just a kind of grateful eagerness that reminded me of the way we were back in the Juniors when a guardian who’d been telling us off went back to being normal. He was panting a bit, and though I knew this was from the football, it added to his overall impression of eagerness. In other words, before we’d said anything, he’d already got my back up. Then when I said to him: “Tommy, I can tell. You haven’t been too happy lately,” he said: “What do you mean? I’m perfectly happy. I really am.” And he did a big beam, followed by this hearty laugh. That was what did it. Years later, when I saw a shadow of it every now and then, I’d just smile. But back then, it really used to get to me. If Tommy happened to say to you: “I’m really upset about it,” he’d have to put on a long, downcast face, then and there, to back up his words. I don’t mean he did this ironically. He actually thought he’d be more convincing. So now, to prove he was happy, here he was, trying to sparkle with bonhomie. As I say, there would come a time when I’d think this was sweet; but that summer all I could see was that it advertised what a child he still was, and how easily you could take advantage of him. I didn’t know much then about the world that awaited us beyond Hailsham, but I’d guessed we’d need all our wits about us, and when Tommy did anything like this, I felt something close to panic. Until that afternoon I’d always let it go—it always seemed too difficult to explain—but this time I burst out, saying: “Tommy, you look so stupid, laughing like that! If you want to pretend you’re happy, you don’t do it that way! Just take it from me, you don’t do it that way! You definitely don’t! Look, you’ve got to grow up. And you’ve got to get yourself back on track. Everything’s been falling apart for you just lately, and we both know why.”
Tommy was looking puzzled. When he was sure I’d finished, he said: “You’re right. Things have been falling apart for me. But I don’t see what you mean, Kath. What do you mean, we both know? I don’t see how you could know. I haven’t told anyone.”
“Obviously I don’t have all the details. But we all know about you splitting with Ruth.”
Tommy still looked puzzled. Finally he did another little laugh, but this time it was a real one. “I see what you mean,” he mumbled, then paused a moment to think something over. “To be honest, Kath,” he said eventually, “that’s not really what’s bothering me. It’s really something else altogether. I just keep thinking about it all the time. About Miss Lucy.”
And that was how I came to hear about it, about what had happened between Tommy and Miss Lucy at the start of that summer. Later, when I’d had time to think it over, I worked out it must have happened no more than a few days after the morning I’d seen Miss Lucy up in Room 22 scrawling over her paperwork. And like I said, I felt like kicking myself I hadn’t found out from him earlier.
It had been in the afternoon near the “dead hour”—when the lessons were finished but there was still some time to go until supper. Tommy had seen Miss Lucy coming out of the main house, her arms loaded with flipcharts and box files, and because it looked like she’d drop something any moment, he’d run over and offered to help.
“Well, she gave me a few things to carry and said we were headed back to her study with it all. Even between the two of us there was too much and I dropped a couple of things on the way. Then when we were coming up to the Orangery, she suddenly stopped, and I thought she’d dropped something else. But she was looking at me, like this, straight in the face, all serious. Then she says we’ve got to have a talk, a good talk. I say fine, and so we go into the Orangery, into her study, put all the stuff down. And she tells me to sit down, and I end up exactly where I was the last time, you know, that time years ago. And I can tell she’s remembering that time as well, because she starts talking about it like it was only the day before. No explanations, nothing, she just starts off saying something like: ‘Tommy, I made a mistake, when I said what I did to you. And I should have put you right about it long before now.’ Then she’s saying I should forget everything she told me before. That she’d done me a big disservice telling me not to worry about being creative. That the other guardians had been right all along, and there was no excuse for my art being so rubbish . . .” “Hold on, Tommy. Did she actually say your art was ‘rubbish?’ ”
“If it wasn’t ‘rubbish’ it was something like it. Negligible. That might have been it. Or incompetent. She might as well have said rubbish. She said she was sorry she’d told me what she had the last time because if she hadn’t, I might have sorted it all by now.”
“What were you saying through all this?”
“I didn’t know what to say. In the end, she actually asked. She said: ‘Tommy, what are you thinking?’ So I said I wasn’t sure but that she shouldn’t worry either way because I was all right now. And she said, no, I wasn’t all right. My art was rubbish, and that was partly her fault for telling me what she had. And I said to her, but what does it matter? I’m all right now, no one laughs at me about that any more. But she keeps shaking her head saying: ‘It does matter. I shouldn’t have said what I did.’ So it occurs to me she’s talking about later, you know, about after we leave here. So I say: ‘But I’ll be all right, Miss. I’m really fit, I know how to look after myself. When it’s time for donations, I’ll be able to do it really well.’ When I said this, she starts shaking her head, shaking it really hard so I’m worried she’ll get dizzy. Then she says: ‘Listen, Tommy, your art, it is important. And not just because it’s evidence. But for your own sake. You’ll get a lot from it, just for yourself.’ ” “Hold on. What did she mean, ‘evidence’?”
“I don’t know. But she definitely said that. She said our art was important, and ‘not just because it’s evidence.’ God knows what she meant. I did actually ask her, when she said that. I said I didn’t understand what she was telling me, and was it something to do with Madame and her gallery? And she did a big sigh and said: ‘Madame’s gallery, yes, that’s important. Much more important than I once thought. I see that now.’ Then she said: ‘Look, there are all kinds of things you don’t understand, Tommy, and I can’t tell you about them. Things about Hailsham, about your place in the wider world, all kinds of things. But perhaps one day, you’ll try and find out. They won’t make it easy for you, but if you want to, really want to, you might find out.’ She started shaking her head again after that, though not as bad as before, and she says: ‘But why should you be any different? The students who leave here, they never find out much. Why should you be any different?’ I didn’t know what she was talking about, so I just said again: ‘I’ll be all right, Miss.’ She was quiet for a time, then she suddenly stood up and kind of bent over me and hugged me. Not in a s@xy way. More like they used to do when we were little. I just kept as still as possible. Then she stood back and said again she was sorry for what she’d told me before. And that it wasn’t too late, I should start straight away, making up the lost time. I don’t think I said anything, and she looked at me and I thought she’d hug me again. But instead she said: ‘Just do it for my sake, Tommy.’ I told her I’d do my best, because by then I just wanted out of there. I was probably bright scarlet, what with her hugging me and everything. I mean, it’s not the same, is it, now we’ve got bigger.” Until this point I’d been so engrossed in Tommy’s story, I’d forgotten my reason for having this talk with him. But this reference to our getting “bigger” reminded me of my original mission.
“Look, Tommy,” I said, “we’ll have to talk this over carefully soon. It’s really interesting and I can see how it must have made you miserable. But either way, you’re going to have to pull yourself together a bit more. We’re going to be leaving here this summer. You’ve got to get yourself sorted again, and there’s one thing you can straighten out right now. Ruth told me she’s prepared to call it quits and have you get back with her again. I think that’s a good chance for you. Don’t mess it up.” He was quiet for a few seconds, then said: “I don’t know, Kath. There are all these other things to think about.”
“Tommy, just listen. You’re really lucky. Of all the people here, you’ve got Ruth fancying you. After we leave, if you’re with her, you won’t have to worry. She’s the best, you’ll be fine so long as you’re with her. She’s saying she wants a fresh start. So don’t blow it.”
I waited but Tommy gave no response, and again I felt something like panic coming over me. I leaned forward and said: “Look, you fool, you’re not going to get many more chances. Don’t you realise, we won’t be here together like this much longer?”
To my surprise Tommy’s response, when it came, was calm and considered—the side of Tommy that was to emerge more and more in the years ahead.
“I do realise that, Kath. That’s exactly why I can’t rush back into it with Ruth. We’ve got to think about the next move really carefully.” Then he sighed and looked right at me. “Like you say, Kath. We’re going to be leaving here soon. It’s not like a game any more. We’ve got to think carefully.”
I was suddenly lost for what to say and just sat there tugging away at the clovers. I could feel his eyes on me, but I didn’t look up. We might have gone on that way for a while longer, except we were interrupted. I think the boys he’d been playing football with earlier came back, or maybe it was some students strolling by who came and sat down with us. Anyway, our little heart-to-heart was at an end and I came away feeling I hadn’t done what I’d set out to do—that I’d somehow let Ruth down.
I NEVER GOT TO ASSESS WHAT KIND of impact my talk with Tommy had had, because it was the very next day the news broke. It was midway through the morning and we’d been in yet another Culture Briefing. These were classes where we had to role play various people we’d find out there—waiters in cafés, policemen and so on. The sessions always got us excited and worried all at the same time, so we were pretty keyed up anyway. Then at the end of the lesson, as we were filing out, Charlotte F. came rushing into the room and the news about Miss Lucy leaving Hailsham spread through us in an instant. Mr. Chris, who’d been taking the class and who must have known all along, shuffled off guiltily before we could ask him anything. At first we weren’t sure if Charlotte was just reporting a rumour, but the more she told us, the clearer it became this was for real. Earlier in the morning, one of the other Senior classes had gone into Room 12 expecting Music Appreciation with Miss Lucy. But Miss Emily had been there instead and she’d told them Miss Lucy couldn’t come just at that moment, so she would take the class. For the next twenty minutes or so everything had gone quite normally. Then suddenly—right in mid-sentence, apparently—Miss Emily had broken off from talking about Beethoven and announced that Miss Lucy had left Hailsham and wouldn’t be returning. That class had finished several minutes early—Miss Emily had rushed off with a preoccupied frown—and the word had started to go round as soon as the students had come out.
I immediately set off to look for Tommy, because I desperately wanted him to hear it first from me. But when I stepped into the courtyard, I saw I was too late. There was Tommy, over on the far side, on the edge of a circle of boys, nodding to what was being said. The other boys were animated, maybe excited even, but Tommy’s eyes looked empty. That very evening, Tommy and Ruth got back together again, and I remember Ruth finding me a few days later to thank me for “sorting it all out so well.” I told her I probably hadn’t helped much, but she was having none of that. I was most definitely in her good books. And that was more or less the way things stayed throughout our last days at Hailsham.
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