بخش 05

کتاب: هرگز رهایم مکن / فصل 5

هرگز رهایم مکن

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بخش 05

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WE HADN’T MENTIONED THE “POSSIBLE” at all since arriving in the town, and I’d assumed when we sat down we’d finally discuss the matter properly. But once we’d started on our sandwiches, Rodney began talking about their old friend, Martin, who’d left the Cottages the year before and was now living somewhere in the town. Chrissie eagerly took up the subject and soon both veterans were coming out with anecdotes about all the hilarious things Martin had got up to. We couldn’t follow much of it, but Chrissie and Rodney were really enjoying themselves. They kept exchanging glances and laughing, and although they pretended it was for our benefit, it was clear they were remembering for each other. Thinking about it now, it occurs to me the near-taboo at the Cottages surrounding people who’d left might well have stopped them talking about their friend even to each other, and it was only once we’d come away they’d felt able to indulge themselves in this way.

Whenever they laughed, I laughed too just to be polite. Tommy seemed to be understanding things even less than me and was letting out hesitant little half-laughs that lagged some way behind. Ruth, though, was laughing and laughing, and kept nodding to everything being said about Martin just like she too was remembering them. Then once, when Chrissie made a really obscure reference—she’d said something like: “Oh, yes, the time he put out his jeans!”—Ruth gave a big laugh and signalled in our direction, as though to say to Chrissie: “Go on, explain it to them so they can enjoy it too.” I let this all go, but when Chrissie and Rodney started discussing whether we should go round to Martin’s flat, I finally said, maybe a bit coldly: “What exactly is he doing here? Why’s he got a flat?”

There was a silence, then I heard Ruth let out an exasperated sigh. Chrissie leaned over the table towards me and said quietly, like she was explaining to a child: “He’s being a carer. What else do you think he’d be doing here? He’s a proper carer now.” There was a bit of shifting, and I said: “That’s what I mean. We can’t just go and visit him.”

Chrissie sighed. “Okay. We’re not supposed to visit carers. Absolutely strictly speaking. Certainly not encouraged.”

Rodney chuckled and added: “Definitely not encouraged. Naughty naughty to go and visit him.”

“Very naughty,” Chrissie said and made a tutting noise.

Then Ruth joined in, saying: “Kathy hates to be naughty. So we’d better not go and visit him.”

Tommy was looking at Ruth, clearly puzzled about whose side she’d taken, and I wasn’t sure either. It occurred to me she didn’t want the expedition side-tracked and was reluctantly siding with me, so I smiled at her, but she didn’t return my look. Then Tommy asked suddenly: “Whereabouts was it you saw Ruth’s possible, Rodney?”

“Oh . . .” Rodney didn’t seem nearly so interested in the possible now we were in the town, and I could see anxiety cross Ruth’s face. Finally Rodney said: “It was a turning off the High Street, somewhere up the other end. Of course, it might be her day off.” Then when no one said anything, he added: “They do have days off, you know. They’re not always at their work.” For a moment, as he said this, the fear passed through me that we’d misjudged things badly; that for all we knew, veterans often used talk of possibles just as a pretext to go on trips, and didn’t really expect to take it any further. Ruth might well have been thinking along the same lines, because she was now looking definitely worried, but in the end she did a little laugh, like Rodney had made a joke.

Then Chrissie said in a new voice: “You know, Ruth, we might be coming here in a few years’ time to visit you. Working in a nice office. I don’t see how anyone could stop us visiting you then.”

“That’s right,” Ruth said quickly. “You can all come and see me.”

“I suppose,” Rodney said, “there aren’t any rules about visiting people if they’re working in an office.” He laughed suddenly. “We don’t know. It hasn’t really happened with us before.”

“It’ll be all right,” Ruth said. “They let you do it. You can all come and visit me. Except Tommy, that is.”

Tommy looked shocked. “Why can’t I come?”

“Because you’ll already be with me, stupid,” Ruth said. “I’m keeping you.”

We all laughed, Tommy again a little behind the rest of us.

“I heard about this girl up in Wales,” Chrissie said. “She was Hailsham, maybe a few years before you lot. Apparently she’s working in this clothes shop right now. A really smart one.”

There were murmurs of approval and for a while we all looked dreamily out at the clouds.

“That’s Hailsham for you,” Rodney said eventually, and shook his head as though in amazement.

“And then there was that other person”—Chrissie had turned to Ruth—“that boy you were telling us about the other day. The one a couple of years above you who’s a park keeper now.”

Ruth was nodding thoughtfully. It occurred to me that I should shoot Tommy a warning glance, but by the time I’d turned to him, he’d already started to speak.

“Who was that?” he asked in a bewildered voice.

“You know who it is, Tommy,” I said quickly. It was too risky to kick him, or even to make my voice wink-wink: Chrissie would have picked it up in a flash. So I said it dead straight, with a bit of weariness, like we were all fed up with Tommy forgetting all the time. But this just meant Tommy still didn’t twig.

“Someone we knew?”

“Tommy, let’s not go through this again,” I said. “You’ll have to have your brains tested.”

At last the penny seemed to drop, and Tommy shut up.

Chrissie said: “I know how lucky I am, getting to be at the Cottages. But you Hailsham lot, you’re really lucky. You know . . .” She lowered her voice and leaned forward again. “There’s something I’ve been wanting to talk to you lot about. It’s just that back there, at the Cottages, it’s impossible. Everyone always listening in.” She looked around the table, then fixed her gaze on Ruth. Rodney suddenly tensed and he too leaned forward. And something told me we were coming to what was, for Chrissie and Rodney, the central purpose of this whole expedition.

“When Rodney and I, we were up in Wales,” she said. “The same time we heard about this girl in the clothes shop. We heard something else, something about Hailsham students. What they were saying was that some Hailsham students in the past, in special circumstances, had managed to get a deferral. That this was something you could do if you were a Hailsham student. You could ask for your donations to be put back by three, even four years. It wasn’t easy, but just sometimes they’d let you do it. So long as you could convince them. So long as you qualified.” Chrissie paused and looked at each of us, maybe for dramatic effect, maybe to check us for signs of recognition. Tommy and I probably had puzzled looks, but Ruth had on one of her faces where you couldn’t tell what was going on.

“What they said,” Chrissie continued, “was that if you were a boy and a girl, and you were in love with each other, really, properly in love, and if you could show it, then the people who run Hailsham, they sorted it out for you. They sorted it out so you could have a few years together before you began your donations.” There was now a strange atmosphere around the table, a kind of tingle going round.

“When we were in Wales,” Chrissie went on, “the students at the White Mansion. They’d heard of this Hailsham couple, the guy had only a few weeks left before he became a carer. And they went to see someone and got everything put back three years. They were allowed to go on living there together, up at the White Mansion, three years straight, didn’t have to go on with their training or anything. Three years just to themselves, because they could prove they were properly in love.” It was at this point I noticed Ruth nodding with a lot of authority. Chrissie and Rodney noticed too and for a few seconds they watched her like they were hypnotised. And I had a kind of vision of Chrissie and Rodney, back at the Cottages, in the months leading up to this moment, probing and prodding this subject between them. I could see them bringing it up, at first very tentatively, shrugging, putting it to one side, bringing it up again, never able quite to leave it alone. I could see them toying with the idea of talking to us about it, see them refining how they’d do it, what exactly they’d say. I looked again at Chrissie and Rodney in front of me, gazing at Ruth, and tried to read their faces. Chrissie looked both afraid and hopeful. Rodney looked on edge, like he didn’t trust himself not to blurt out something he wasn’t supposed to.

This wasn’t the first time I’d come across the rumour about deferrals. Over the past several weeks, I’d caught more and more snatches of it at the Cottages. It was always veterans talking among themselves, and when any of us showed up, they’d look awkward and go quiet. But I’d heard enough to get the gist of it; and I knew it had specifically to do with us Hailsham students. Even so, it was only that day, in that seafront café, that it really came home to me how important this whole notion had become for some veterans.

“I suppose,” Chrissie went on, her voice wobbling slightly, “you lot would know about it. The rules, all that sort of thing.”

She and Rodney looked at each of us in turn, then their gazes settled back on Ruth.

Ruth sighed and said: “Well, they told us a few things, obviously. But”—she gave a shrug—“it’s not something we know much about. We never talked about it really. Anyway, we should get going soon.”

“Who is it you go to?” Rodney suddenly asked. “Who did they say you had to go to if you wanted, you know, to apply?”

Ruth shrugged again. “Well, I told you. It wasn’t something we talked about much.” Almost instinctively she looked to me and Tommy for support, which was probably a mistake, because Tommy said:

“To be honest, I don’t know what you’re all talking about. What rules are these?”

Ruth stared daggers at him, and I said quickly: “You know, Tommy. All that talk that used to go round at Hailsham.”

Tommy shook his head. “I don’t remember it,” he said flatly. And this time I could see—and Ruth could too—that he wasn’t being slow. “I don’t remember anything like that at Hailsham.”

Ruth turned away from him. “What you’ve got to realise,” she said to Chrissie, “is that even though Tommy was at Hailsham, he isn’t like a real Hailsham student. He was left out of everything and people were always laughing at him. So there’s no point in asking him about anything like this. Now, I want to go and find this person Rodney saw.” A look had appeared in Tommy’s eyes that made me catch my breath. It was one I hadn’t seen for a long time and that belonged to the Tommy who’d had to be barricaded inside a classroom while he kicked over desks. Then the look faded, he turned to the sky outside and let out a heavy breath.

The veterans hadn’t noticed anything because Ruth, at the same moment, had risen to her feet and was fiddling with her coat. Then there was a bit of confusion as the rest of us all moved back our chairs from the little table all at once. I’d been put in charge of the spending money, so I went up to pay. The others filed out behind me, and while I was waiting for the change, I watched them through one of the big misty windows, shuffling about in the sunshine, not talking, looking down at the sea.

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

When I got outside, it was obvious the excitement from when we’d first arrived had evaporated completely. We walked in silence, Rodney leading the way, through little backstreets hardly penetrated by the sun, the pavements so narrow we often had to shuffle along in single file. It was a relief to come out onto the High Street where the noise made our rotten mood less obvious. As we crossed at a pelican to the sunnier side, I could see Rodney and Chrissie conferring about something and I wondered how much of the bad atmosphere had to do with their believing we were holding back on some big Hailsham secret, and how much was just to do with Ruth’s having a go at Tommy.

Then once we’d crossed the High Street, Chrissie announced she and Rodney wanted to go shopping for birthday cards. Ruth was stunned by this, but Chrissie just went on:

“We like buying them in big batches. It’s always cheaper in the long run. And you’ve always got one handy when it’s someone’s birthday.” She pointed to the entrance of a Woolworth’s shop. “You can get pretty good cards in there really cheap.” Rodney was nodding, and I thought there was something a little bit mocking around the edges of his smile. “Of course,” he said, “you end up with a lot of cards the same, but you can put your own illustrations on them. You know, personalise them.” Both veterans were now standing in the middle of the pavement, letting people with pushchairs move round them, waiting for us to put up a challenge. I could tell Ruth was furious, but without Rodney’s co-operation there wasn’t much that could be done anyway.

So we went into the Woolworth’s, and immediately I felt much more cheerful. Even now, I like places like that: a large store with lots of aisles displaying bright plastic toys, greeting cards, loads of cosmetics, maybe even a photo booth. Today, if I’m in a town and find myself with some time to kill, I’ll stroll into somewhere just like that, where you can hang around and enjoy yourself, not buying a thing, and the assistants don’t mind at all.

Anyway, we went in and before long we’d wandered apart to look at different aisles. Rodney had stayed near the entrance beside a big rack of cards, and further inside, I spotted Tommy under a big pop-group poster, rummaging through the music cassettes. After about ten minutes, when I was somewhere near the back of the store, I thought I heard Ruth’s voice and wandered towards it. I’d already turned into the aisle—one with fluffy animals and big boxed jigsaws—before I realised Ruth and Chrissie were standing together at the end of it, having some sort of tête-à-tête. I wasn’t sure what to do: I didn’t want to interrupt, but it was time we were leaving and I didn’t want to turn and walk off again. So I just stopped where I was, pretended to examine a jigsaw and waited for them to notice me.

That was when I realised they were back on the subject of this rumour. Chrissie was saying, in a lowered voice, something like:

“But all that time you were there, I’m amazed you didn’t think more about how you’d do it. About who you’d go to, all of that.”

“You don’t understand,” Ruth was saying. “If you were from Hailsham, then you’d see. It’s never been such a big deal for us. I suppose we’ve always known if we ever wanted to look into it, all we’d have to do is get word back to Hailsham . . .” Ruth saw me and broke off. When I lowered the jigsaw and turned to them, they were both looking at me angrily. At the same time, it was like I’d caught them doing something they shouldn’t, and they moved apart self-consciously.

“It’s time we were off,” I said, pretending to have heard nothing.

But Ruth wasn’t fooled. As they came past, she gave me a really dirty look.

So by the time we set off again, following Rodney in search of the office where he’d seen Ruth’s possible the month before, the atmosphere between us was worse than ever. Things weren’t helped either by Rodney repeatedly taking us down the wrong streets. At least four times, he led us confidently down a turning off the High Street, only for the shops and offices to run out, and we’d have to turn and come back. Before long, Rodney was looking defensive and on the verge of giving up. But then we found it.

Again, we’d turned and were heading back towards the High Street, when Rodney had stopped suddenly. Then he’d indicated silently an office on the other side of the street.

There it was, sure enough. It wasn’t exactly like the magazine advert we’d found on the ground that day, but then it wasn’t so far off either. There was a big glass front at street-level, so anyone going by could see right into it: a large open-plan room with maybe a dozen desks arranged in irregular L-patterns. There were the potted palms, the shiny machines and swooping desk lamps. People were moving about between desks, or leaning on a partition, chatting and sharing jokes, while others had pulled their swivel chairs close to each other and were enjoying a coffee and sandwich.

“Look,” Tommy said. “It’s their lunch break, but they don’t go out. Don’t blame them either.”

We kept on staring, and it looked like a smart, cosy, self-contained world. I glanced at Ruth and noticed her eyes moving anxiously around the faces behind the glass.

“Okay, Rod,” Chrissie said. “So which one’s the possible?”

She said this almost sarcastically, like she was sure the whole thing would turn out to be a big mistake on his part. But Rodney said quietly, with a tremor of excitement:

“There. Over in that corner. In the blue outfit. Her, talking now to the big red woman.”

It wasn’t obvious, but the longer we kept looking, the more it seemed he had something. The woman was around fifty, and had kept her figure pretty well. Her hair was darker than Ruth’s—though it could have been dyed—and she had it tied back in a simple pony-tail the way Ruth usually did. She was laughing at something her friend in the red outfit was saying, and her face, especially when she was finishing her laugh with a shake of her head, had more than a hint of Ruth about it.

We all kept on watching her, not saying a word. Then we became aware that in another part of the office, a couple of the other women had noticed us. One raised a hand and gave us an uncertain wave. This broke the spell and we took to our heels in giggly panic.

WE STOPPED AGAIN FURTHER DOWN THE STREET, talking excitedly all at once. Except for Ruth, that is, who remained silent in the middle of it. It was hard to read her face at that moment: she certainly wasn’t disappointed, but then she wasn’t elated either. She had on a half-smile, the sort a mother might have in an ordinary family, weighing things up while the children jumped and screamed around her asking her to say, yes, they could do whatever. So there we were, all coming out with our views, and I was glad I could say honestly, along with the others, that the woman we’d seen was by no means out of the question. The truth was, we were all relieved: without quite realising it, we’d been bracing ourselves for a let-down. But now we could go back to the Cottages, Ruth could take encouragement from what she’d seen, and the rest of us could back her up. And the office life the woman appeared to be leading was about as close as you could hope to the one Ruth had often described for herself. Regardless of what had been going on between us that day, deep down, none of us wanted Ruth to return home despondent, and at that moment we thought we were safe. And so we would have been, I’m pretty sure, had we put an end to the matter at that point.

But then Ruth said: “Let’s sit over there, over on that wall. Just for a few minutes. Once they’ve forgotten about us, we can go and have another look.”

We agreed to this, but as we walked towards the low wall around the small car park Ruth had indicated, Chrissie said, perhaps a little too eagerly:

“But even if we don’t get to see her again, we’re all agreed she’s a possible. And it’s a lovely office. It really is.”

“Let’s just wait a few minutes,” Ruth said. “Then we’ll go back.”

I didn’t sit on the wall myself because it was damp and crumbling, and because I thought someone might appear any minute and shout at us for sitting there. But Ruth did sit on it, knees on either side like she was astride a horse. And today I have these vivid images of the ten, fifteen minutes we waited there. No one’s talking about the possible any more. We’re pretending instead that we’re just killing a bit of time, maybe at a scenic spot during a carefree day-trip. Rodney’s doing a little dance to demonstrate what a good feeling there is. He gets up on the wall, balances along it then deliberately falls off. Tommy’s making jokes about some passers-by, and though they’re not very funny, we’re all laughing. Just Ruth, in the middle, astride the wall, remains silent. She keeps the smile on her face, but hardly moves. There’s a breeze messing up her hair, and the bright winter sun’s making her crinkle up her eyes, so you’re not sure if she’s smiling at our antics, or just grimacing in the light. These are the pictures I’ve kept of those moments we waited by that car park. I suppose we were waiting for Ruth to decide when it was time to go back for a second look. Well, she never got to make that decision because of what happened next.

Tommy, who had been mucking about on the wall with Rodney, suddenly jumped down and went still. Then he said: “That’s her. That’s the same one.”

We all stopped what we were doing and watched the figure coming from the direction of the office. She was now wearing a cream-coloured overcoat, and struggling to fasten her briefcase as she walked. The buckle was giving her trouble, so she kept slowing down and starting again. We went on watching her in a kind of trance as she went past on the other side. Then as she was turning into the High Street, Ruth leapt up and said: “Let’s see where she goes.” We came out of our trance and were off after her. In fact, Chrissie had to remind us to slow down or someone would think we were a gang of muggers going after the woman. We followed along the High Street at a reasonable distance, giggling, dodging past people, separating and coming together again. It must have been around two o’clock by then, and the pavement was busy with shoppers. At times we nearly lost sight of her, but we kept up, loitering in front of window displays when she went into a shop, squeezing past pushchairs and old people when she came out again.

Then the woman turned off the High Street into the little lanes near the seafront. Chrissie was worried she’d notice us away from the crowds, but Ruth just kept going, and we followed behind her.

Eventually we came into a narrow side-street that had the occasional shop, but was mainly just ordinary houses. We had to walk again in single file, and once when a van came the other way, we had to press ourselves into the houses to let it pass. Before long there was only the woman and us in the entire street, and if she’d glanced back, there was no way she wouldn’t have noticed us. But she just kept walking, a dozen or so steps ahead, then went in through a door—into “The Portway Studios.” I’ve been back to the Portway Studios a number of times since then. It changed owners a few years ago and now sells all kinds of arty things: pots, plates, clay animals. Back then, it was two big white rooms just with paintings—beautifully displayed with plenty of spaces between them. The wooden sign hanging over the door is still the same one though. Anyway, we decided to go in after Rodney pointed out how suspicious we looked in that quiet little street. Inside the shop, we could at least pretend we were looking at the pictures.

We came in to find the woman we’d been following talking to a much older woman with silver hair, who seemed to be in charge of the place. They were sitting on either side of a small desk near the door, and apart from them, the gallery was empty. Neither woman paid much attention as we filed past, spread out and tried to look fascinated by the pictures.

Actually, preoccupied though I was with Ruth’s possible, I did begin to enjoy the paintings and the sheer peacefulness of the place. It felt like we’d come a hundred miles from the High Street. The walls and ceilings were peppermint, and here and there, you’d see a bit of fishing net, or a rotted piece from a boat stuck up high near the cornicing. The paintings too—mostly oils in deep blues and greens—had sea themes. Maybe it was the tiredness suddenly catching up with us—after all, we’d been travelling since before dawn—but I wasn’t the only one who went off into a bit of a dream in there. We’d all wandered into different corners, and were staring at one picture after another, only occasionally making the odd hushed remark like: “Come and look at this!” All the time, we could hear Ruth’s possible and the silver-haired lady talking on and on. They weren’t especially loud, but in that place, their voices seemed to fill the entire space. They were discussing some man they both knew, how he didn’t have a clue with his children. And as we kept listening to them, stealing the odd glance in their direction, bit by bit, something started to change. It did for me, and I could tell it was happening for the others. If we’d left it at seeing the woman through the glass of her office, even if we’d followed her through the town then lost her, we could still have gone back to the Cottages excited and triumphant. But now, in that gallery, the woman was too close, much closer than we’d ever really wanted. And the more we heard her and looked at her, the less she seemed like Ruth. It was a feeling that grew among us almost tangibly, and I could tell that Ruth, absorbed in a picture on the other side of the room, was feeling it as much as anyone. That was probably why we went on shuffling around that gallery for so long; we were delaying the moment when we’d have to confer.

Then suddenly the woman had left, and we all kept standing about, avoiding each other’s eyes. But none of us had thought to follow the woman, and as the seconds kept ticking on, it became like we were agreeing, without speaking, about how we now saw the situation.

Eventually the silver-haired lady came out from behind her desk and said to Tommy, who was the nearest to her: “That’s a particularly lovely work. That one’s a favourite of mine.”

Tommy turned to her and let out a laugh. Then as I was hurrying over to help him out, the lady asked: “Are you art students?”

“Not exactly,” I said before Tommy could respond. “We’re just, well, keen.”

The silver-haired lady beamed, then started to tell us how the artist whose work we were looking at was related to her, and all about the artist’s career thus far. This had the effect, at least, of breaking the trance-like state we’d been in, and we gathered round her to listen, the way we might have done at Hailsham when a guardian started to speak. This really got the silver-haired lady going, and we kept nodding and exclaiming while she talked about where the paintings had been done, the times of day the artist liked to work, how some had been done without sketches. Then there came a kind of natural end to her lecture, and we all gave a sigh, thanked her and went out.

The street outside being so narrow, we couldn’t talk properly for a while longer, and I think we were all grateful for that. As we walked away from the gallery in single file, I could see Rodney, up at the front, theatrically stretching out his arms, like he was exhilarated the way he’d been when we’d first arrived in the town. But it wasn’t convincing, and once we came out onto a wider street, we all shuffled to a halt.

We were once again near a cliff edge. And like before, if you peered over the rail, you could see the paths zigzagging down to the seafront, except this time you could see the promenade at the bottom with rows of boarded-up stalls.

We spent a few moments just looking out, letting the wind hit us. Rodney was still trying to be cheerful, like he’d decided not to let any of this business spoil a good outing. He was pointing out to Chrissie something in the sea, way off on the horizon. But Chrissie turned away from him and said: “Well, I think we’re agreed, aren’t we? That isn’t Ruth.” She gave a small laugh and laid a hand on Ruth’s shoulder. “I’m sorry. We’re all sorry. But we can’t blame Rodney really. It wasn’t that wild a try. You’ve got to admit, when we saw her through those windows, it did look . . .” She trailed off, then touched Ruth on the shoulder again.

Ruth said nothing, but gave a little shrug, almost as if to shrug off the touch. She was squinting into the distance, at the sky rather than the water. I could tell she was upset, but someone who didn’t know her well might well have supposed she was being thoughtful.

“Sorry, Ruth,” Rodney said, and he too gave Ruth a pat on the shoulder. But he had a smile on his face like he didn’t expect for one moment to be blamed for anything. It was the way someone apologised when they’d tried to do you a favour, but it hadn’t worked out.

Watching Chrissie and Rodney at that moment, I remember thinking, yes, they were okay. They were kind in their way and were trying to cheer Ruth up. At the same time, though, I remember feeling—even though they were the ones doing the talking, and Tommy and I were silent—a sort of resentment towards them on Ruth’s behalf. Because however sympathetic they were, I could see that deep down they were relieved. They were relieved things had turned out the way they had; that they were in a position to comfort Ruth, instead of being left behind in the wake of a dizzying boost to her hopes. They were relieved they wouldn’t have to face, more starkly than ever, the notion which fascinated and nagged and scared them: this notion of theirs that there were all kinds of possibilities open to us Hailsham students that weren’t open to them. I remember thinking then how different they actually were, Chrissie and Rodney, from the three of us.

Then Tommy said: “I don’t see what difference it makes. It was just a bit of fun we were having.”

“A bit of fun for you maybe, Tommy,” Ruth said coldly, still gazing straight ahead of her. “You wouldn’t think so if it was your possible we’d been looking for.”

“I think I would,” Tommy said. “I don’t see how it matters. Even if you found your possible, the actual model they got you from. Even then, I don’t see what difference it makes to anything.”

“Thank you for your profound contribution, Tommy,” said Ruth.

“But I think Tommy’s right,” I said. “It’s daft to assume you’ll have the same sort of life as your model. I agree with Tommy. It’s just a bit of fun. We shouldn’t get so serious about it.”

I too reached out and touched Ruth on the shoulder. I wanted her to feel the contrast to when Chrissie and Rodney had touched her, and I deliberately chose exactly the same spot. I expected some response, some signal that she accepted understanding from me and Tommy in a way she didn’t from the veterans. But she gave me nothing, not even the shrug she’d given Chrissie.

Somewhere behind me I could hear Rodney pacing about, making noises to suggest he was getting chilly in the strong wind. “How about going to visit Martin now?” he said. “His flat’s just over there, behind those houses.”

Ruth suddenly sighed and turned to us. “To be honest,” she said, “I knew all along it was stupid.”

“Yeah,” said Tommy, eagerly. “Just a bit of fun.”

Ruth gave him an irritated look. “Tommy, please shut up with all this ‘bit of fun’ stuff. No one’s listening.” Then turning to Chrissie and Rodney she went on: “I didn’t want to say when you first told me about this. But look, it was never on. They don’t ever, ever, use people like that woman. Think about it. Why would she want to? We all know it, so why don’t we all face it. We’re not modelled from that sort . . .” “Ruth,” I cut in firmly. “Ruth, don’t.”

But she just carried on: “We all know it. We’re modelled from trash. Junkies, prostitutes, winos, tramps. Convicts, maybe, just so long as they aren’t psychos. That’s what we come from. We all know it, so why don’t we say it? A woman like that? Come on. Yeah, right, Tommy. A bit of fun. Let’s have a bit of fun pretending. That other woman in there, her friend, the old one in the gallery. Art students, that’s what she thought we were. Do you think she’d have talked to us like that if she’d known what we really were? What do you think she’d have said if we’d asked her? ‘Excuse me, but do you think your friend was ever a clone model?’ She’d have thrown us out. We know it, so we might as well just say it. If you want to look for possibles, if you want to do it properly, then you look in the gutter. You look in rubbish bins. Look down the toilet, that’s where you’ll find where we all came from.” “Ruth”—Rodney’s voice was steady and had a warning in it—“let’s forget about it and go and see Martin. He’s off this afternoon. You’ll like him, he’s a real laugh.”

Chrissie put an arm around Ruth. “Come on, Ruth. Let’s do what Rodney says.”

Ruth got to her feet and Rodney started to walk.

“Well, you lot can go,” I said quietly. “I’m not going.”

Ruth turned and looked at me carefully. “Well, what do you know? Who’s the upset one now?”

“I’m not upset. But sometimes you speak garbage, Ruth.”

“Oh, look who’s upset now. Poor Kathy. She never likes straight talking.”

“It’s nothing to do with that. I don’t want to visit a carer. We’re not supposed to and I don’t even know this guy.”

Ruth shrugged and exchanged glances with Chrissie. “Well,” she said, “there’s no reason we’ve got to go round together the whole time. If little Miss here doesn’t want to join us, she doesn’t have to. Let her go off by herself.” Then she leaned over to Chrissie and said in a stage whisper: “That’s always the best way when Kathy’s in a mood. Leave her alone and she’ll walk it off.” “Be back at the car by four o’clock,” Rodney said to me. “Otherwise you’ll have to hitch-hike.” Then he did a laugh. “Come on, Kathy, don’t get in a sulk. Come with us.”

“No. You go on. I don’t feel like it.”

Rodney shrugged and started to move off again. Ruth and Chrissie followed, but Tommy didn’t move. Only when Ruth stared at him did he say:

“I’ll stay with Kath. If we’re splitting, then I’ll stay with Kath.”

Ruth glared at him in fury, then turned and strode off. Chrissie and Rodney looked at Tommy awkwardly, then they too began walking again.

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

Tommy and I leaned on the rail and stared at the view until the others had gone out of sight.

“It’s just talk,” he said eventually. Then after a pause: “It’s just what people say when they’re feeling sorry for themselves. It’s just talk. The guardians never told us anything like that.”

I started to walk—the opposite way to the others—and let Tommy fall in step beside me.

“It’s not worth getting upset about,” Tommy went on. “Ruth’s always doing things like that now. It’s just her letting off steam. Anyway, like we were telling her, even if it’s true, even a little bit true, I don’t see how it makes any difference. Our models, what they were like, that’s nothing to do with us, Kath. It’s just not worth getting upset about.” “Okay,” I said, and deliberately bumped my shoulder into his. “Okay, okay.”

I had the impression we were walking towards the town centre, though I couldn’t be sure. I was trying to think of a way to change the subject, when Tommy said first:

“You know when we were in that Woolworth’s place earlier? When you were down at the back with the others? I was trying to find something. Something for you.”

“A present?” I looked at him in surprise. “I’m not sure Ruth would approve of that. Not unless you got her a bigger one.”

“A sort of present. But I couldn’t find it. I wasn’t going to tell you, but now, well, I’ve got another chance to find it. Except you might have to help me. I’m not very good at shopping.”

“Tommy, what are you talking about? You want to get me a present, but you want me to help you choose it . . .”

“No, I know what it is. It’s just that . . .” He laughed and shrugged. “Oh, I might as well tell you. In that shop we were in, they had this shelf with loads of records and tapes. So I was looking for the one you lost that time. Do you remember, Kath? Except I couldn’t remember what it was any more.” “My tape? I didn’t realise you ever knew about it, Tommy.”

“Oh yeah. Ruth was getting people to look for it and saying you were really upset about losing it. So I tried to find it. I never told you at the time, but I did try really hard. I thought there’d be places I could look where you couldn’t. In boys’ dorms, stuff like that. I remember looking for ages, but I couldn’t find it.” I glanced at him and felt my rotten mood evaporating. “I never knew that, Tommy. That was really sweet of you.”

“Well, it didn’t help much. But I really wanted to find it for you. And when it looked in the end like it wasn’t going to turn up, I just said to myself, one day I’ll go to Norfolk and I’ll find it there for her.”

“The lost corner of England,” I said, and looked around me. “And here we are!”

Tommy too looked around him, and we came to a halt. We were in another side-street, not as narrow as the one with the gallery. For a moment we both kept glancing around theatrically, then giggled.

“So it wasn’t such a daft idea,” Tommy said. “That Woolworth’s shop earlier, it had all these tapes, so I thought they were bound to have yours. But I don’t think they did.”

“You don’t think they did? Oh, Tommy, you mean you didn’t even look properly!”

“I did, Kath. It’s just that, well, it’s really annoying but I couldn’t remember what it was called. All that time at Hailsham, I was opening boys’ collection chests and everything, and now I can’t remember. It was Julie Bridges or something . . .” “Judy Bridgewater. Songs After Dark.”

Tommy shook his head solemnly. “They definitely didn’t have that.”

I laughed and punched his arm. He looked puzzled so I said: “Tommy, they wouldn’t have something like that in Woolworth’s. They have the latest hits. Judy Bridgewater, she’s someone from ages ago. It just happened to turn up, at one of our Sales. It’s not going to be in Woolworth’s now, you idiot!” “Well, like I said, I don’t know about things like that. But they had so many tapes . . .”

“They had some, Tommy. Oh, never mind. It was a sweet idea. I’m really touched. It was a great idea. This is Norfolk, after all.”

We started walking again and Tommy said hesitantly: “Well, that’s why I had to tell you. I wanted to surprise you, but it’s useless. I don’t know where to look, even if I do know the name of the record. Now I’ve told you, you can help me. We can look for it together.” “Tommy, what are you talking about?” I was trying to sound reproachful, but I couldn’t help laughing.

“Well, we’ve got over an hour. This is a real chance.”

“Tommy, you idiot. You really believe it, don’t you? All this lost-corner stuff.”

“I don’t necessarily believe it. But we might as well look now we’re here. I mean, you’d like to find it again, wouldn’t you? What have we got to lose?”

“All right. You’re a complete idiot, but all right.”

He opened his arms out helplessly. “Well, Kath, where do we go? Like I say, I’m no good at shopping.”

“We have to look in second-hand places,” I said, after a moment’s thought. “Places full of old clothes, old books. They’ll sometimes have a box full of records and tapes.”

“Okay. But where are these shops?”

When I think of that moment now, standing with Tommy in the little side-street about to begin our search, I feel a warmth welling up through me. Everything suddenly felt perfect: an hour set aside, stretching ahead of us, and there wasn’t a better way to spend it. I had to really hold myself back from giggling stupidly, or jumping up and down on the pavement like a little kid. Not long ago, when I was caring for Tommy, and I brought up our Norfolk trip, he told me he’d felt exactly the same. That moment when we decided to go searching for my lost tape, it was like suddenly every cloud had blown away, and we had nothing but fun and laughter before us.

At the start, we kept going into the wrong sort of places: second-hand bookshops, or shops full of old vacuum cleaners, but no music at all. After a while Tommy decided I didn’t know any better than he did and announced he would lead the way. As it happened, by sheer luck really, he discovered straight away a street with four shops of just the kind we were after, standing virtually in a row. Their front windows were full of dresses, handbags, children’s annuals, and when you went inside, a sweet stale smell. There were piles of creased paperbacks, dusty boxes full of postcards or trinkets. One shop specialised in hippie stuff, while another had war medals and photos of soldiers in the desert. But they all had somewhere a big cardboard box or two with LPs and cassette tapes. We rummaged around those shops, and in all honesty, after the first few minutes, I think Judy Bridgewater had more or less slipped from our minds. We were just enjoying looking through all those things together; drifting apart then finding ourselves side by side again, maybe competing for the same box of bric-a-brac in a dusty corner lit up by a shaft of sun.

Then of course I found it. I’d been flicking through a row of cassette cases, my mind on other things, when suddenly there it was, under my fingers, looking just the way it had all those years ago: Judy, her cigarette, the coquettish look for the barman, the blurred palms in the background.

I didn’t exclaim, the way I’d been doing when I’d come across other items that had mildly excited me. I stood there quite still, looking at the plastic case, unsure whether or not I was delighted. For a second, it even felt like a mistake. The tape had been the perfect excuse for all this fun, and now it had turned up, we’d have to stop. Maybe that was why, to my own surprise, I kept silent at first; why I thought about pretending never to have seen it. And now it was there in front of me, there was something vaguely embarrassing about the tape, like it was something I should have grown out of. I actually went as far as flicking the cassette on and letting its neighbour fall on it. But there was the spine, looking up at me, and in the end I called Tommy over.

“Is that it?” He seemed genuinely sceptical, perhaps because I wasn’t making more fuss. I pulled it out and held it in both hands. Then suddenly I felt a huge pleasure—and something else, something more complicated that threatened to make me burst into tears. But I got a hold of the emotion, and just gave Tommy’s arm a tug.

“Yes, this is it,” I said, and for the first time smiled excitedly. “Can you believe it? We’ve really found it!”

“Do you think it could be the same one? I mean, the actual one. The one you lost?”

As I turned it in my fingers, I found I could remember all the design details on the back, the titles of the tracks, everything.

“For all I know, it might be,” I said. “But I have to tell you, Tommy, there might be thousands of these knocking about.”

Then it was my turn to notice Tommy wasn’t as triumphant as he might be.

“Tommy, you don’t seem very pleased for me,” I said, though in an obviously jokey voice.

“I am pleased for you, Kath. It’s just that, well, I wish I’d found it.” Then he did a small laugh and went on: “Back then, when you lost it, I used to think about it, in my head, what it would be like, if I found it and brought it to you. What you’d say, your face, all of that.” His voice was softer than usual and he kept his eyes on the plastic case in my hand. And I suddenly became very conscious of the fact that we were the only people in the shop, except for the old guy behind the counter at the front engrossed in his paperwork. We were right at the back of the shop, on a raised platform where it was darker and more secluded, like the old guy didn’t want to think about the stuff in our area and had mentally curtained it off. For several seconds, Tommy stayed in a sort of trance, for all I know playing over in his mind one of these old fantasies of giving me back my lost tape. Then suddenly he snatched the case out of my hand.

“Well at least I can buy it for you,” he said with a grin, and before I could stop him, he’d started down the floor towards the front.

I went on browsing around the back of the shop while the old guy searched around for the tape to go with the case. I was still feeling a pang of regret that we’d found it so quickly, and it was only later, when we were back at the Cottages and I was alone in my room, that I really appreciated having the tape—and that song—back again. Even then, it was mainly a nostalgia thing, and today, if I happen to get the tape out and look at it, it brings back memories of that afternoon in Norfolk every bit as much as it does our Hailsham days.

AS WE CAME OUT OF THE SHOP, I was keen to regain the carefree, almost silly mood we’d been in before. But when I made a few little jokes, Tommy was lost in his thoughts and didn’t respond.

We began going up a steeply climbing path, and we could see—maybe a hundred yards further up—a kind of viewing area right on the cliff edge with benches facing out to sea. It would have made a nice spot in the summer for an ordinary family to sit and eat a picnic. Now, despite the chilly wind, we found ourselves walking up towards it, but when there was still some way left to go, Tommy slowed to a dawdle and said to me: “Chrissie and Rodney, they’re really obsessed with this idea. You know, the one about people having their donations deferred if they’re really in love. They’re convinced we know all about it, but no one said anything like that at Hailsham. At least, I never heard anything like that, did you, Kath? No, it’s just something going around recently among the veterans. And people like Ruth, they’ve been stoking it up.” I looked at him carefully, but it was hard to tell if he’d just spoken with mischievous affection or else a kind of disgust. I could see anyway there was something else on his mind, nothing to do with Ruth, so I didn’t say anything and waited. Eventually he came to a complete halt and started to poke around with his foot a squashed paper cup on the ground.

“Actually, Kath,” he said, “I’ve been thinking about it for a while. I’m sure we’re right, there was no talk like that when we were at Hailsham. But there were a lot of things that didn’t make sense back then. And I’ve been thinking, if it’s true, this rumour, then it could explain quite a lot. Stuff we used to puzzle over.” “What do you mean? What sort of stuff?”

“The Gallery, for instance.” Tommy had lowered his voice and I stepped in closer, just as though we were still at Hailsham, talking in the dinner queue or beside the pond. “We never got to the bottom of it, what the Gallery was for. Why Madame took away all the best work. But now I think I know. Kath, you remember that time everyone was arguing about tokens? Whether they should get them or not to make up for stuff they’d had taken away by Madame? And Roy J. went in to see Miss Emily about it? Well, there was something Miss Emily said then, something she let drop, and that’s what’s been making me think.” Two women were passing by with dogs on leads, and although it was completely stupid, we both stopped talking until they’d gone further up the slope and out of earshot. Then I said:

“What thing, Tommy? What thing Miss Emily let drop?”

“When Roy J. asked her why Madame took our stuff away. Do you remember what she’s supposed to have said?”

“I remember her saying it was a privilege, and we should be proud . . .”

“But that wasn’t all.” Tommy’s voice was now down to a whisper. “What she told Roy, what she let slip, which she probably didn’t mean to let slip, do you remember, Kath? She told Roy that things like pictures, poetry, all that kind of stuff, she said they revealed what you were like inside. She said they revealed your soul.” When he said this, I suddenly remembered a drawing Laura had done once of her intestines and laughed. But something was coming back to me.

“That’s right,” I said. “I remember. So what are you getting at?”

“What I think,” said Tommy slowly, “is this. Suppose it’s true, what the veterans are saying. Suppose some special arrangement has been made for Hailsham students. Suppose two people say they’re truly in love, and they want extra time to be together. Then you see, Kath, there has to be a way to judge if they’re really telling the truth. That they aren’t just saying they’re in love, just to defer their donations. You see how difficult it could be to decide? Or a couple might really believe they’re in love, but it’s just a s@x thing. Or just a crush. You see what I mean, Kath? It’ll be really hard to judge, and it’s probably impossible to get it right every time. But the point is, whoever decides, Madame or whoever it is, they need something to go on.” I nodded slowly. “So that’s why they took away our art . . .”

“It could be. Madame’s got a gallery somewhere filled with stuff by students from when they were tiny. Suppose two people come up and say they’re in love. She can find the art they’ve done over years and years. She can see if they go. If they match. Don’t forget, Kath, what she’s got reveals our souls. She could decide for herself what’s a good match and what’s just a stupid crush.” I started to walk slowly again, hardly looking in front of me. Tommy fell in step, waiting for my response.

“I’m not sure,” I said in the end. “What you’re saying could certainly explain Miss Emily, what she said to Roy. And I suppose it explains too why the guardians always thought it was so important for us, to be able to paint and all of that.” “Exactly. And that’s why . . .” Tommy sighed and went on with some effort. “That’s why Miss Lucy had to admit she’d been wrong, telling me it didn’t really matter. She’d said that because she was sorry for me at the time. But she knew deep down it did matter. The thing about being from Hailsham was that you had this special chance. And if you didn’t get stuff into Madame’s gallery, then you were as good as throwing that chance away.” It was after he said this that it suddenly dawned on me, with a real chill, where this was leading. I stopped and turned to him, but before I could speak, Tommy let out a laugh.

“If I’ve got this right, then, well, it looks like I might have blown my chance.”

“Tommy, did you ever get anything into the Gallery? When you were much younger maybe?”

He was already shaking his head. “You know how useless I was. And then there was that stuff with Miss Lucy. I know she meant well. She was sorry for me and she wanted to help me. I’m sure she did. But if my theory’s right, well . . .” “It’s only a theory, Tommy,” I said. “You know what your theories are like.”

I’d wanted to lighten things a bit, but I couldn’t get the tone right, and it must have been obvious I was still thinking hard about what he’d just said. “Maybe they’ve got all sorts of ways to judge,” I said after a moment. “Maybe the art’s just one out of all kinds of different ways.” Tommy shook his head again. “Like what? Madame never got to know us. She wouldn’t remember us individually. Besides, it’s probably not just Madame that decides. There’s probably people higher up than her, people who never set foot in Hailsham. I’ve thought about this a lot, Kath. It all fits. That’s why the Gallery was so important, and why the guardians wanted us to work so hard on our art and our poetry. Kath, what are you thinking?” Sure enough, I’d drifted off a bit. Actually, I was thinking about that afternoon I’d been alone in our dorm, playing the tape we’d just found; how I’d been swaying around, clutching a pillow to my breast, and how Madame had been watching me from the doorway, tears in her eyes. Even this episode, for which I’d never yet found a convincing explanation, seemed to fit Tommy’s theory. In my head, I’d been imagining I was holding a baby, but of course, there’d have been no way for Madame to know that. She’d have supposed I was holding a lover in my arms. If Tommy’s theory was right, if Madame was connected to us for the sole purpose of deferring our donations when, later on, we fell in love, then it made sense—for all her usual coldness towards us—she’d be really moved stumbling on a scene like that. All this flashed through my mind, and I was on the point of blurting it all out to Tommy. But I held back because I wanted now to play down his theory.

“I was just thinking over what you said, that’s all,” I said. “We should start going back now. It might take us a while to find the car park.”

We began to retrace our steps down the slope, but we knew we still had time and didn’t hurry.

“Tommy,” I asked, after we’d been walking for a while. “Have you said any of this to Ruth?”

He shook his head and went on walking. Eventually he said: “The thing is, Ruth believes it all, everything the veterans are saying. Okay, she likes to pretend she knows much more than she does. But she does believe it. And sooner or later, she’s going to want to take it further.” “You mean, she’ll want to . . .”

“Yeah. She’ll want to apply. But she hasn’t thought it through yet. Not the way we just did.”

“You’ve never told her your theory about the Gallery?”

He shook his head again, but said nothing.

“If you tell her your theory,” I said, “and she buys it . . . Well, she’s going to be furious.”

Tommy seemed thoughtful, but still didn’t say anything. It wasn’t until we were back down in the narrow side-streets that he spoke again, and then his voice was suddenly sheepish.

“Actually, Kath,” he said, “I have been doing some stuff. Just in case. I haven’t told anyone, not even Ruth. It’s just a start.”

That was when I first heard about his imaginary animals. When he started to describe what he’d been doing—I didn’t actually see anything until a few weeks later—I found it hard to show much enthusiasm. In fact, I have to admit, I was reminded of the original elephant-in-the-grass picture that had started off all Tommy’s problems at Hailsham. The inspiration, he explained, had come from an old children’s book with the back cover missing which he’d found behind one of the sofas at the Cottages. He’d then persuaded Keffers to give him one of the little black notebooks he scribbled his figures in, and since then, Tommy had finished at least a dozen of his fantastic creatures.

“The thing is, I’m doing them really small. Tiny. I’d never thought of that at Hailsham. I think maybe that’s where I went wrong. If you make them tiny, and you have to because the pages are only about this big, then everything changes. It’s like they come to life by themselves. Then you have to draw in all these different details for them. You have to think about how they’d protect themselves, how they’d reach things. Honest, Kath, it’s nothing like anything I ever did at Hailsham.” He started describing his favourites, but I couldn’t really concentrate; the more excited he got telling me about his animals, the more uneasy I was growing. “Tommy,” I wanted to say to him, “you’re going to make yourself a laughing stock all over again. Imaginary animals? What’s up with you?” But I didn’t. I just looked at him cautiously and kept saying: “That sounds really good, Tommy.” Then he said at one point: “Like I said, Kath, Ruth doesn’t know about the animals.” And when he said this, he seemed to remember everything else, and why we’d been talking about his animals in the first place, and the energy faded from his face. Then we were walking in silence again, and as we came out onto the High Street, I said: “Well, even if there’s something to your theory, Tommy, there’s a lot more we’ll have to find out. For one thing, how’s a couple supposed to apply? What are they supposed to do? There aren’t exactly forms lying about.”

“I’ve been wondering about all of that too.” His voice was quiet and solemn again. “As far as I can see, there’s only one obvious way forward. And that’s to find Madame.”

I gave this a think, then said: “That might not be so easy. We don’t really know a thing about her. We don’t even know her name. And you remember how she was? She didn’t like us even coming near her. Even if we did ever track her down, I don’t see her helping much.” Tommy sighed. “I know,” he said. “Well, I suppose we’ve got time. None of us are in any particular hurry.”

BY THE TIME WE GOT BACK TO THE CAR PARK, the afternoon had clouded over and was growing pretty chilly. There was no sign of the others yet, so Tommy and I leaned against our car and looked towards the mini-golf course. No one was playing and the flags were fluttering away in the wind. I didn’t want to talk any more about Madame, the Gallery or any of the rest of it, so I got the Judy Bridgewater tape out from its little bag and gave it a good look-over.

“Thanks for buying this for me,” I said.

Tommy smiled. “If I’d got to that tape box and you were on the LPs, I’d have found it first. It was bad luck for poor old Tommy.”

“It doesn’t make any difference. We only found it because you said to look for it. I’d forgotten about all this lost-corner stuff. After Ruth going on like that, I was in such a mood. Judy Bridgewater. My old friend. It’s like she’s never been away. I wonder who stole it back then?” For a moment, we turned towards the street, looking for the others.

“You know,” Tommy said, “when Ruth said what she did earl-ier on, and I saw how upset you looked . . .”

“Leave it, Tommy. I’m all right about it now. And I’m not going to bring it up with her when she comes back.”

“No, that’s not what I was getting at.” He took his weight off the car, turned and pressed a foot against the front tyre as though to test it. “What I meant was, I realised then, when Ruth came out with all that, I realised why you keep looking through those @@@ mags. Okay, I haven’t realised. It’s just a theory. Another of my theories. But when Ruth said what she did earlier on, it kind of clicked.” I knew he was looking at me, but I kept my eyes straight ahead and made no response.

“But I still don’t really get it, Kath,” he said eventually. “Even if what Ruth says is right, and I don’t think it is, why are you looking through old @@@ mags for your possibles? Why would your model have to be one of those girls?” I shrugged, still not looking at him. “I don’t claim it makes sense. It’s just something I do.” There were tears filling my eyes now and I tried to hide them from Tommy. But my voice wobbled as I said: “If it annoys you so much, I won’t do it any more.” I don’t know if Tommy saw the tears. In any case, I’d got them under control by the time he came close to me and gave my shoulders a squeeze. This was something he’d done before from time to time, it wasn’t anything special or new. But somehow I did feel better and gave a little laugh. He let go of me then, but we stayed almost touching, side by side again, our backs to the car.

“Okay, there’s no sense in it,” I said. “But we all do it, don’t we? We all wonder about our model. After all, that’s why we came out here today. We all do it.”

“Kath, you know, don’t you, I haven’t told anyone. About that time in the boiler hut. Not Ruth, not anyone. But I just don’t get it. I don’t get what it’s about.”

“All right, Tommy. I’ll tell you. It may not make any more sense after you’ve heard it, but you can hear it anyway. It’s just that sometimes, every now and again, I get these really strong feelings when I want to have s@x. Sometimes it just comes over me and for an hour or two it’s scary. For all I know, I could end up doing it with old Keffers, it’s that bad. That’s why . . . that’s the only reason I did it with Hughie. And with Oliver. It didn’t mean anything deep down. I don’t even like them much. I don’t know what it is, and afterwards, when it’s passed over, it’s just scary. That’s why I started thinking, well, it has to come from somewhere. It must be to do with the way I am.” I stopped, but when Tommy didn’t say anything, I went on: “So I thought if I find her picture, in one of those magazines, it’ll at least explain it. I wouldn’t want to go and find her or anything. It would just, you know, kind of explain why I am the way I am.” “I get it too sometimes,” said Tommy. “When I really feel like doing it. I reckon everyone does, if they’re honest. I don’t think there’s anything different about you, Kath. In fact, I get like that quite a lot . . .” He broke off and laughed, but I didn’t laugh with him.

“What I’m talking about’s different,” I said. “I’ve watched other people. They get in the mood for it, but that doesn’t make them do things. They never do things like I’ve done, going with people like that Hughie . . .”

I might have started crying again, because I felt Tommy’s arm going back around my shoulders. Upset as I was, I remained conscious of where we were, and I made a kind of check in my mind that if Ruth and the others came up the street, even if they saw us at that moment, there’d be no room for misunderstanding. We were still side by side, leaning against the car, and they’d see I was upset about something and Tommy was just comforting me. Then I heard him say: “I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing. Once you find someone, Kath, someone you really want to be with, then it could be really good. Remember what the guardians used to tell us? If it’s with the right person, it makes you feel really good.” I made a movement with my shoulder to get Tommy’s arm off me, then took a deep breath. “Let’s forget it. Anyway, I’ve got much better at controlling these moods when they come on. So let’s just forget it.”

“All the same, Kath, it’s stupid looking through those magazines.”

“It’s stupid, okay. Tommy, let’s leave it. I’m all right now.”

I don’t remember what else we talked about until the others showed up. We didn’t discuss any more of those serious things, and if the others sensed something still in the air, they didn’t remark on it. They were in good spirits, and Ruth in particular seemed determined to make up for the bad scene earlier on. She came up and touched my cheek, making some joke or other, and once we got in the car, she made sure the jovial mood kept going. She and Chrissie had found everything about Martin comical and were relishing the chance to laugh openly about him now they’d left his flat. Rodney looked disapproving, and I realised Ruth and Chrissie were making a song and dance of it mainly to tease him. It all seemed good-natured enough. But what I noticed was that whereas before Ruth would have taken the opportunity to keep me and Tommy in the dark about all the jokes and references, throughout the journey back, she kept turning to me and explaining carefully everything they were talking about. In fact it got a bit tiring after a while because it was like everything being said in the car was for our—or at least my—special benefit. But I was pleased Ruth was making such a fuss. I understood—as did Tommy—that she’d recognised she’d behaved badly before, and this was her way of admitting it. We were sitting with her in the middle, just as we’d done on the journey out, but now she spent all her time talking to me, turning occasionally to her other side to give Tommy a little squeeze or the odd kiss. It was a good atmosphere, and no one brought up Ruth’s possible or anything like that. And I didn’t mention the Judy Bridgewater tape Tommy had bought me. I knew Ruth would find out about it sooner or later, but I didn’t want her to find out just yet. On that journey home, with the darkness setting in over those long empty roads, it felt like the three of us were close again and I didn’t want anything to come along and break that mood.

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