بخش 06

کتاب: هرگز رهایم مکن / فصل 6

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CHAPTER SIXTEEN

The odd thing about our Norfolk trip was that once we got back, we hardly talked about it. So much so that for a while all kinds of rumours went around about what we’d been up to. Even then, we kept pretty quiet, until eventually people lost interest.

I’m still not sure why this happened. Perhaps we felt it was up to Ruth, that it was her call how much got told, and we were waiting to take our cue from her. And Ruth, for one reason or another—maybe she was embarrassed how things had turned out with her possible, maybe she was enjoying the mystery—had remained completely closed on the subject. Even among ourselves, we avoided talking about the trip.

This air of secrecy made it easier for me to keep from telling Ruth about Tommy buying me the Judy Bridgewater tape. I didn’t go as far as actually hiding the thing. It was always there in my collection, in one of my little piles next to the skirting board. But I always made sure not to leave it out or on top of a pile. There were times when I wanted badly to tell her, when I wanted us to reminisce about Hailsham with the tape playing in the background. But the further away we got from the Norfolk trip, and I still hadn’t told her, the more it came to feel like a guilty secret. Of course, she did spot the tape in the end, much later, and it was probably a much worse time for her to find it, but that’s the way your luck sometimes goes.

As spring came on, there seemed to be more and more veterans leaving to start their training, and though they left without fuss in the usual way, the increased numbers made them impossible to ignore. I’m not sure what our feelings were, witnessing these departures. I suppose to some extent we envied the people leaving. It did feel like they were headed for a bigger, more exciting world. But of course, without a doubt, their going made us increasingly uneasy.

Then, I think it was around April, Alice F. became the first of our Hailsham bunch to leave, and not long after that Gordon C. did too. They’d both asked to start their training, and went off with cheerful smiles, but after that, for our lot anyway, the atmosphere at the Cottages changed forever.

Many veterans, too, seemed affected by the flurry of departures, and maybe as a direct result, there was a fresh spate of rumours of the sort Chrissie and Rodney had spoken about in Norfolk. Talk went around of students, somewhere else in the country, getting deferrals because they’d shown they were in love—and now, just sometimes, the talk was of students with no connections to Hailsham. Here again, the five of us who’d been to Norfolk backed away from these topics: even Chrissie and Rodney, who’d once been at the centre of just this sort of talk, now looked awkwardly away when these rumours got going.

The “Norfolk effect” even got to me and Tommy. I’d been assuming, once we were back, we’d be taking little opportunities, whenever we were alone, to exchange more thoughts on his theory about the Gallery. But for some reason—and it wasn’t any more him than me—this never really happened. The one exception, I suppose, was that time in the goosehouse, the morning when he showed me his imaginary animals.

THE BARN WE CALLED THE GOOSEHOUSE was on the outer fringes of the Cottages, and because the roof leaked badly and the door was permanently off its hinges, it wasn’t used for anything much other than as a place for couples to sneak off to in the warmer months. By then I’d taken to going for long solitary walks, and I think I was setting out on one of these, and had just gone past the goosehouse, when I heard Tommy calling me. I turned to see him in his bare feet, perched awkwardly on a bit of dry ground surrounded by huge puddles, one hand on the side of the barn to keep his balance.

“What happened to your Wellies, Tommy?” I asked. Aside from his bare feet, he was dressed in his usual thick jumper and jeans.

“I was, you know, drawing . . .” He laughed, and held up a little black notebook similar to the ones Keffers always went around with. It was by then over two months since the Norfolk trip, but I realised as soon as I saw the notebook what this was about. But I waited for him to say:

“If you like, Kath, I’ll show you.”

He led the way into the goosehouse, hopping over the jaggy ground. I’d expected it to be dark inside, but the sunlight was pouring through the skylights. Pushed against one wall were various bits of furniture heaved out over the past year or so—broken tables, old fridges, that kind of thing. Tommy appeared to have dragged into the middle of the floor a two-seater settee with stuffing poking out of its black plastic, and I guessed he’d been sitting in it doing his drawing when I’d gone past. Just nearby, his Wellingtons were lying fallen on their sides, his football socks peeking out of the tops.

Tommy jumped back onto the settee, nursing his big toe. “Sorry my feet poo a bit. I took everything off without realising. I think I’ve cut myself now. Kath, do you want to see these? Ruth looked at them last week, so I’ve been meaning to show you ever since. No one’s seen them apart from Ruth. Have a look, Kath.” That was when I first saw his animals. When he’d told me about them in Norfolk, I’d seen in my mind scaled-down versions of the sort of pictures we’d done when we were small. So I was taken aback at how densely detailed each one was. In fact, it took a moment to see they were animals at all. The first impression was like one you’d get if you took the back off a radio set: tiny canals, weaving tendons, miniature screws and wheels were all drawn with obsessive precision, and only when you held the page away could you see it was some kind of armadillo, say, or a bird.

“It’s my second book,” Tommy said. “There’s no way anyone’s seeing the first one! It took me a while to get going.”

He was lying back on the settee now, tugging a sock over his foot and trying to sound casual, but I knew he was anxious for my reaction. Even so, for some time, I didn’t come up with wholehearted praise. Maybe it was partly my worry that any artwork was liable to get him into trouble all over again. But also, what I was looking at was so different from anything the guardians had taught us to do at Hailsham, I didn’t know how to judge it. I did say something like: “God, Tommy, these must take so much concentration. I’m surprised you can see well enough in here to do all this tiny stuff.” And then, as I flicked through the pages, perhaps because I was still struggling to find the right thing to say, I came out with: “I wonder what Madame would say if she saw these.”

I’d said it in a jokey tone, and Tommy responded with a little snigger, but then there was something hanging in the air that hadn’t been there before. I went on turning the pages of the notebook—it was about a quarter full—not looking up at him, wishing I’d never brought up Madame. Finally I heard him say:

“I suppose I’ll have to get a lot better before she gets to see any of it.”

I wasn’t sure if this was a cue for me to say how good the drawings were, but by this time, I was becoming genuinely drawn to these fantastical creatures in front of me. For all their busy, metallic features, there was something sweet, even vulnerable about each of them. I remembered him telling me, in Norfolk, that he worried, even as he created them, how they’d protect themselves or be able to reach and fetch things, and looking at them now, I could feel the same sort of concerns. Even so, for some reason I couldn’t fathom, something continued to stop me coming out with praise. Then Tommy said: “Anyway, it’s not only because of all that I’m doing the animals. I just like doing them. I was wondering, Kath, if I should go on keeping it secret. I was thinking, maybe there’s no harm in people knowing I do these. Hannah still does her watercolours, a lot of the veterans do stuff. I don’t mean I’m going to go round showing everyone exactly. But I was thinking, well, there’s no reason why I should keep it all secret any more.” At last I was able to look up at him and say with some conviction: “Tommy, there’s no reason, no reason at all. These are good. Really, really good. In fact, if that’s why you’re hiding in here now, it’s really daft.”

He didn’t say anything in response, but a kind of smirk appeared over his face, like he was enjoying a joke with himself, and I knew how happy I’d made him. I don’t think we spoke much more to each other after that. I think before long he got his Wellingtons on, and we both left the goosehouse. As I say, that was about the only time Tommy and I touched directly on his theory that spring.

THEN THE SUMMER CAME, and the one year point from when we’d first arrived. A batch of new students turned up in a minibus, much as we’d done, but none of them were from Hailsham. This was in some ways a relief: I think we’d all been getting anxious about how a fresh lot of Hailsham students might complicate things. But for me at least, this non-appearance of Hailsham students just added to a feeling that Hailsham was now far away in the past, and that the ties binding our old crowd were fraying. It wasn’t just that people like Hannah were always talking about following Alice’s example and starting their training; others, like Laura, had found boyfriends who weren’t Hailsham and you could almost forget they’d ever had much to do with us.

And then there was the way Ruth kept pretending to forget things about Hailsham. Okay, these were mostly trivial things, but I got more and more irritated with her. There was the time, for instance, we were sitting around the kitchen table after a long breakfast, Ruth, me and a few veterans. One of the veterans had been talking about how eating cheese late at night always disturbed your sleep, and I’d turned to Ruth to say something like: “You remember how Miss Geraldine always used to tell us that?” It was just a casual aside, and all it needed was for Ruth to smile or nod. But she made a point of staring back at me blankly, like she didn’t have the faintest what I was talking about. Only when I said to the veterans, by way of explanation: “One of our guardians,” did Ruth give a frowning nod, as though she’d just that moment remembered.

I let her get away with it that time. But there was another occasion when I didn’t, that evening we were sitting out in the ruined bus shelter. I got angry then because it was one thing to play this game in front of veterans; quite another when it was just the two of us, in the middle of a serious talk. I’d referred, just in passing, to the fact that at Hailsham, the short-cut down to the pond through the rhubarb patch was out of bounds. When she put on her puzzled look, I abandoned whatever point I’d been trying to make and said: “Ruth, there’s no way you’ve forgotten. So don’t give me that.” Perhaps if I hadn’t pulled her up so sharply—perhaps if I’d just made a joke of it and carried on—she’d have seen how absurd it was and laughed. But because I’d snapped at her, Ruth glared back and said:

“What does it matter anyway? What’s the rhubarb patch got to do with any of this? Just get on with what you were saying.”

It was getting late, the summer evening was fading, and the old bus shelter felt musty and damp after a recent thunderstorm. So I didn’t have the head to go into why it mattered so much. And though I did just drop it and carry on with the discussion we’d been having, the atmosphere had gone chilly, and could hardly have helped us get through the difficult matter in hand.

But to explain what we were talking about that evening, I’ll have to go back a little bit. In fact, I’ll have to go back several weeks, to the earlier part of the summer. I’d been having a relationship with one of the veterans, a boy called Lenny, which, to be honest, had been mainly about the s@x. But then he’d suddenly opted to start his training and left. This unsettled me a little, and Ruth had been great about it, watching over me without seeming to make a fuss, always ready to cheer me up if I seemed gloomy. She also kept doing little favours for me, like making me sandwiches, or taking on parts of my cleaning rota.

Then about a fortnight after Lenny had gone, the two of us were sitting in my attic room some time after midnight chatting over mugs of tea, and Ruth got me really laughing about Lenny. He hadn’t been such a bad guy, but once I’d started telling Ruth some of the more intimate things about him, it did seem like everything to do with him was hilarious, and we just kept laughing and laughing. Then at one point Ruth was running a finger up and down the cassettes stacked in little piles along my skirting board. She was doing this in an absent-minded sort of way while she kept laughing, but afterwards, I went through a spell of suspecting it hadn’t been by chance at all; that she’d noticed it there maybe days before, perhaps even examined it to make sure, then had waited for the best time to “find” it. Years later, I gently hinted this to Ruth, and she didn’t seem to know what I was talking about, so maybe I was wrong. Anyway, there we were, laughing and laughing each time I came out with another detail about poor Lenny, and then suddenly it was like a plug had been pulled out. There was Ruth, lying on her side across my rug, peering at the spines of the cassettes in the low light, and then the Judy Bridgewater tape was in her hands. After what seemed an eternity, she said: “So how long have you had this again?”

I told her, as neutrally as I could, about how Tommy and I had come across it that day while she’d been gone with the others. She went on examining it, then said:

“So Tommy found it for you.”

“No. I found it. I saw it first.”

“Neither of you told me.” She shrugged. “At least, if you did, I never heard.”

“The Norfolk thing was true,” I said. “You know, about it being the lost corner of England.”

It did flash through my mind Ruth would pretend not to remember this reference, but she nodded thoughtfully.

“I should have remembered at the time,” she said. “I might have found my red scarf then.”

We both laughed and the uneasiness seemed to pass. But there was something about the way Ruth put the tape back without discussing it any further that made me think it wasn’t finished with yet.

I don’t know if the way the conversation went after that was something controlled by Ruth in the light of her discovery, or if we were headed that way anyway, and that it was only afterwards Ruth realised she could do with it what she did. We went back to discussing Lenny, in particular a lot of stuff about how he had s@x, and we were laughing away again. At that point, I think I was just relieved she’d finally found the tape and not made a huge scene about it, and so maybe I wasn’t being as careful as I might have been. Because before long, we’d drifted from laughing about Lenny to laughing about Tommy. At first it had all felt good-natured enough, like we were just being affectionate towards him. But then we were laughing about his animals.

As I say, I’ve never been sure whether or not Ruth deliberately moved things round to this. To be fair, I can’t even say for certain she was the one who first mentioned the animals. And once we started, I was laughing just as much as she was—about how one of them looked like it was wearing underpants, how another had to have been inspired by a squashed hedgehog. I suppose I should have said in there somewhere that the animals were good, that he’d done really well to have got where he had with them. But I didn’t. That was partly because of the tape; and maybe, if I have to be honest, because I was pleased by the notion that Ruth wasn’t taking the animals seriously, and everything that implied. I think when we eventually broke up for the night, we felt as close as we’d ever done. She touched my cheek on her way out, saying: “It’s really good the way you always keep your spirits up, Kathy.” So I wasn’t prepared at all for what happened at the churchyard several days later. Ruth had discovered that summer a lovely old church about half a mile from the Cottages, which had behind it rambling grounds with very old gravestones leaning in the grass. Everything was overgrown, but it was really peaceful and Ruth had taken to doing a lot of her reading there, near the back railings, on a bench under a big willow. I hadn’t at first been too keen on this development, remembering how the previous summer we’d all sat around together in the grass right outside the Cottages. All the same, if I was headed that way on one of my walks, and I knew Ruth was likely to be there, I’d find myself going through the low wooden gate and along the overgrown path past the gravestones. On that afternoon, it was warm and still, and I’d come down the path in a dreamy mood, reading off names on the stones, when I saw not only Ruth, but Tommy, on the bench under the willow.

Ruth was actually sitting on the bench, while Tommy was standing with one foot up on its rusty armrest, doing a kind of stretching exercise as they talked. It didn’t look like they were having any big conversation and I didn’t hesitate to go up to them. Maybe I should have picked up something in the way they greeted me, but I’m sure there wasn’t anything obvious. I had some gossip I was dying to tell them—something about one of the newcomers—and so for a while it was just me blabbing on while they nodded and asked the odd question. It was some time before it occurred to me something wasn’t right, and even then, when I paused and asked: “Did I interrupt something here?” it was in a jokey sort of way.

But then Ruth said: “Tommy’s been telling me about his big theory. He says he’s already told you. Ages ago. But now, very kindly, he’s allowing me to share in it too.”

Tommy gave a sigh and was about to say something, but Ruth said in a mock whisper: “Tommy’s big Gallery theory!”

Then they were both looking at me, like I was now in charge of everything and it was up to me what happened next.

“It’s not a bad theory,” I said. “It might be right, I don’t know. What do you think, Ruth?”

“I had to really dig it out of Sweet Boy here. Not very keen at all on letting me in on it, were you, sweety gums? It was only when I kept pressing him to tell me what was behind all this art.”

“I’m not doing it just for that,” Tommy said sulkily. His foot was still up on the armrest and he kept on with his stretching. “All I said was, if it was right, about the Gallery, then I could always try and put in the animals . . .”

“Tommy, sweety, don’t make a fool of yourself in front of our friend. Do it to me, that’s all right. But not in front of our dear Kathy.”

“I don’t see why it’s such a joke,” Tommy said. “It’s as good a theory as anyone else’s.”

“It’s not the theory people will find funny, sweety gums. They might well buy the theory, right enough. But the idea that you’ll swing it by showing Madame your little animals . . .” Ruth smiled and shook her head.

Tommy said nothing and continued with his stretching. I wanted to come to his defence and was trying to think of just the right thing that would make him feel better without making Ruth even more angry. But that was when Ruth said what she did. It felt bad enough at the time, but I had no idea in the churchyard that day how far-reaching the repercussions would be. What she said was: “It’s not just me, sweety. Kathy here finds your animals a complete hoot.”

My first instinct was to deny it, then just to laugh. But there was a real authority about the way Ruth had spoken, and the three of us knew each other well enough to know there had to be something behind her words. So in the end I stayed silent, while my mind searched back frantically, and with a cold horror, settled on that night up in my room with our mugs of tea. Then Ruth said: “As long as people think you’re doing those little creatures as a kind of joke, fine. But don’t give out you’re serious about it. Please.”

Tommy had stopped his stretching and was looking questioningly at me. Suddenly he was really child-like again, with no front whatsoever, and I could see too something dark and troubling gathering behind his eyes.

“Look, Tommy, you’ve got to understand,” Ruth went on. “If Kathy and I have a good laugh about you, it doesn’t really matter. Because that’s just us. But please, let’s not bring everyone else in on it.”

I’ve thought about those moments over and over. I should have found something to say. I could have just denied it, though Tommy probably wouldn’t have believed me. And to try to explain the thing truthfully would have been too complicated. But I could have done something. I could have challenged Ruth, told her she was twisting things, that even if I might have laughed, it wasn’t in the way she was implying. I could even have gone up to Tommy and hugged him, right there in front of Ruth. That’s something that came to me years later, and probably wasn’t a real option at the time, given the person I was, and the way the three of us were with each other. But that might have done it, where words would only have got us in deeper.

But I didn’t say or do anything. It was partly, I suppose, that I was so floored by the fact that Ruth would come out with such a trick. I remember a huge tiredness coming over me, a kind of lethargy in the face of the tangled mess before me. It was like being given a maths problem when your brain’s exhausted, and you know there’s some far-off solution, but you can’t work up the energy even to give it a go. Something in me just gave up. A voice went: “All right, let him think the absolute worst. Let him think it, let him think it.” And I suppose I looked at him with resignation, with a face that said: “Yes, it’s true, what else did you expect?” And I can recall now, as fresh as anything, Tommy’s own face, the anger receding for the moment, being replaced by an expression almost of wonder, like I was a rare butterfly he’d come across on a fence-post.

It wasn’t that I thought I’d burst into tears or lose my temper or anything like that. But I decided just to turn and go. Even later that day, I realised this was a bad mistake. All I can say is that at the time what I feared more than anything was that one or the other of them would stalk off first, and I’d be left with the remaining one. I don’t know why, but it didn’t seem an option for more than one of us to storm off, and I wanted to make sure that one was me. So I turned and marched back the way I’d come, past the gravestones towards the low wooden gate, and for several minutes, I felt as though I’d triumphed; that now they’d been left in each other’s company, they were suffering a fate they thoroughly deserved.

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

As I’ve said, it wasn’t until a long time afterwards—long after I’d left the Cottages—that I realised just how significant our little encounter in the churchyard had been. I was upset at the time, yes. But I didn’t believe it to be anything so different from other tiffs we’d had. It never occurred to me that our lives, until then so closely interwoven, could unravel and separate over a thing like that.

But the fact was, I suppose, there were powerful tides tugging us apart by then, and it only needed something like that to finish the task. If we’d understood that back then—who knows?—maybe we’d have kept a tighter hold of one another.

For one thing, more and more students were going off to be carers, and among our old Hailsham crowd, there was a growing feeling this was the natural course to follow. We still had our essays to finish, but it was well known we didn’t really have to finish them if we chose to start our training. In our early days at the Cottages, the idea of not finishing our essays would have been unthinkable. But the more distant Hailsham grew, the less important the essays seemed. I had this idea at the time—and I was probably right—that if our sense of the essays being important was allowed to seep away, then so too would whatever bound us together as Hailsham students. That’s why I tried for a while to keep going our enthusiasm for all the reading and note-taking. But with no reason to suppose we’d ever see our guardians again, and with so many students moving on, it soon began to feel like a lost cause.

Anyway, in the days after that talk in the churchyard, I did what I could to put it behind us. I behaved towards both Tommy and Ruth as though nothing special had occurred, and they did much the same. But there was always something there now, and it wasn’t just between me and them. Though they still made a show of being a couple—they still did the punching-on-the-arm thing when they parted—I knew them well enough to see they’d grown quite distant from each other.

Of course I felt bad about it all, especially about Tommy’s animals. But it wasn’t as simple any more as going to him and saying sorry and explaining how things really were. A few years earlier, even six months earlier, it might have worked out that way. Tommy and I would have talked it over and sorted it out. But somehow, by that second summer, things were different. Maybe it was because of this relationship with Lenny, I don’t know. Anyway, talking to Tommy wasn’t so easy any more. On the surface, at least, it was much like before, but we never mentioned the animals or what had happened in the churchyard.

So that was what had been happening just before I had that conversation with Ruth in the old bus shelter, when I got so annoyed with her for pretending to forget about the rhubarb patch at Hailsham. Like I said, I’d probably not have got nearly so cross if it hadn’t come up in the middle of such a serious conversation. Okay, we’d got through a lot of the meat of it by then, but even so, even if we were just easing off and chatting by that point, that was still all part of our trying to sort things with each other, and there was no room for any pretend stuff like that.

What had happened was this. Although something had come between me and Tommy, it hadn’t quite got like that with Ruth—or at least that’s what I’d thought—and I’d decided it was time I talked with her about what had happened in the churchyard. We’d just had one of those summer days of rain and thunderstorms, and we’d been cooped up indoors despite the humidity. So when it appeared to clear for the evening, with a nice pink sunset, I suggested to Ruth we get a bit of air. There was a steep footpath I’d discovered leading up along the edge of the valley and just where it came out onto the road was an old bus shelter. The buses had stopped coming ages ago, the bus stop sign had been taken away, and on the wall at the back of the shelter, there was left only the frame of what must have once been a glassed-in notice displaying all the bus times. But the shelter itself—which was like a lovingly constructed wooden hut with one side open to the fields going down the valleyside—was still standing, and even had its bench intact. So that’s where Ruth and I were sitting to get our breath back, looking at the cobwebs up on the rafters and the summer evening outside. Then I said something like: “You know, Ruth, we should try and sort it out, what happened the other day.”

I’d made my voice conciliatory, and Ruth responded. She said immediately how daft it was, the three of us having rows over the most stupid things. She brought up other times we’d rowed and we laughed a bit about them. But I didn’t really want Ruth just to bury the thing like that, so I said, still in the least challenging voice I could: “Ruth, you know, I think sometimes, when you’re in a couple, you don’t see things as clearly as maybe someone can from the outside. Just sometimes.”

She nodded. “That’s probably right.”

“I don’t want to interfere. But sometimes, just lately, I think Tommy’s been quite upset. You know. About certain things you’ve said or done.”

I was worried Ruth would get angry, but she nodded and sighed. “I think you’re right,” she said in the end. “I’ve been thinking about it a lot too.”

“Then maybe I shouldn’t have brought it up. I should have known you’d see what was happening. It’s not my business really.”

“But it is, Kathy. You’re really one of us, and so it’s always your business. You’re right, it hasn’t been good. I know what you mean. That stuff the other day, about his animals. That wasn’t good. I told him I was sorry about that.”

“I’m glad you talked it over. I didn’t know if you had.”

Ruth had been picking at some moulding flakes of wood on the bench beside her, and for a moment she seemed completely absorbed in this task. Then she said:

“Look, Kathy, it’s good we’re talking now about Tommy. I’ve been wanting to tell you something, but I’ve never quite known how to say it, or when, really. Kathy, promise you won’t be too cross with me.”

I looked at her and said: “As long as it’s not about those T-shirts again.”

“No, seriously. Promise you won’t get too cross. Because I’ve got to tell you this. I wouldn’t forgive myself if I kept quiet much longer.”

“Okay, what is it?”

“Kathy, I’ve been thinking this for some time. You’re no fool, and you can see that maybe me and Tommy, we might not be a couple forever. That’s no tragedy. We were right for each other once. Whether we always will be, that’s anyone’s guess. And now there’s all this talk, about couples getting deferrals if they can prove, you know, that they’re really right. Okay, look, what I wanted to say, Kathy, is this. It’d be completely natural if you’d thought about, you know, what would happen if me and Tommy decided we shouldn’t be together any more. We’re not about to split, don’t get me wrong. But I’d think it was completely normal if you at least wondered about it. Well, Kathy, what you have to realise is that Tommy doesn’t see you like that. He really, really likes you, he thinks you’re really great. But I know he doesn’t see you like, you know, a proper girlfriend. Besides . . .” Ruth paused, then sighed. “Besides, you know how Tommy is. He can be fussy.” I stared at her. “What do you mean?”

“You must know what I mean. Tommy doesn’t like girls who’ve been with . . . well, you know, with this person and that. It’s just a thing he has. I’m sorry, Kathy, but it wouldn’t be right not to have told you.”

I thought about it, then said: “It’s always good to know these things.”

I felt Ruth touch my arm. “I knew you’d take it the right way. What you’ve got to understand, though, is that he thinks the world of you. He really does.”

I wanted to change the subject, but for the moment my mind was a blank. I suppose Ruth must have picked up on this, because she stretched out her arms and did a kind of yawn, saying:

“If I ever learn to drive a car, I’d take us all on a trip to some wild place. Dartmoor, say. The three of us, maybe Laura and Hannah too. I’d love to see all the bogs and stuff.”

We spent the next several minutes talking about what we’d do on a trip like that if we ever went on one. I asked where we’d stay, and Ruth said we could borrow a big tent. I pointed out the wind could get really fierce in places like that and our tent could easily blow away in the night. None of this was that serious. But it was around here I remembered the time back at Hailsham, when we’d still been Juniors and we were having a picnic by the pond with Miss Geraldine. James B. had been sent to the main house to fetch the cake we’d all baked earlier, but as he was carrying it back, a strong gust of wind had taken off the whole top layer of sponge, tossing it into the rhubarb leaves. Ruth said she could only vaguely remember the incident, and I’d said, trying to clinch it for her memory: “The thing was, he got into trouble because that proved he’d been coming down through the rhubarb patch.”

And that was when Ruth looked at me and said: “Why? What was wrong with that?”

It was just the way she said it, suddenly so false even an onlooker, if there’d been one, would have seen through it. I sighed with irritation and said:

“Ruth, don’t give me that. There’s no way you’ve forgotten. You know that route was out of bounds.”

Maybe it was a bit sharp, the way I said it. Anyway, Ruth didn’t back down. She continued pretending to remember nothing, and I got all the more irritated. And that was when she said:

“What does it matter anyway? What’s the rhubarb patch got to do with anything? Just get on with what you were saying.”

After that I think we went back to talking in a more or less friendly way, and then before long we were making our way down the footpath in the half-light back to the Cottages. But the atmosphere never quite righted itself, and when we said our goodnights in front of the Black Barn, we parted without our usual little touches on the arms and shoulders.

IT WASN’T LONG AFTER THAT I made my decision, and once I’d made it, I never wavered. I just got up one morning and told Keffers I wanted to start my training to become a carer. It was surprisingly easy. He was walking across the yard, his Wellingtons covered in mud, grumbling to himself and holding a piece of piping. I went up and told him, and he just looked at me like I’d bothered him about more firewood. Then he mumbled something about coming to see him later that afternoon to go through the forms. It was that easy.

It took a little while after that, of course, but the whole thing had been set in motion, and I was suddenly looking at everything—the Cottages, everybody there—in a different light. I was now one of the ones leaving, and soon enough, everyone knew it. Maybe Ruth thought we’d be spending hours talking about my future; maybe she thought she’d have a big influence on whether or not I changed my mind. But I kept a certain distance from her, just as I did from Tommy. We didn’t really talk properly again at the Cottages, and before I knew it, I was saying my goodbyes.

PART THREE

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

For the most part being a carer’s suited me fine. You could even say it’s brought the best out of me. But some people just aren’t cut out for it, and for them the whole thing becomes a real struggle. They might start off positively enough, but then comes all that time spent so close to the pain and the worry. And sooner or later a donor doesn’t make it, even though, say, it’s only the second donation and no one anticipated complications. When a donor completes like that, out of the blue, it doesn’t make much difference what the nurses say to you afterwards, and neither does that letter saying how they’re sure you did all you could and to keep up the good work. For a while at least, you’re demoralised. Some of us learn pretty quick how to deal with it. But others—like Laura, say—they never do.

Then there’s the solitude. You grow up surrounded by crowds of people, that’s all you’ve ever known, and suddenly you’re a carer. You spend hour after hour, on your own, driving across the country, centre to centre, hospital to hospital, sleeping in overnights, no one to talk to about your worries, no one to have a laugh with. Just now and again you run into a student you know—a carer or donor you recognise from the old days—but there’s never much time. You’re always in a rush, or else you’re too exhausted to have a proper conversation. Soon enough, the long hours, the travelling, the broken sleep have all crept into your being and become part of you, so everyone can see it, in your posture, your gaze, the way you move and talk.

I don’t claim I’ve been immune to all of this, but I’ve learnt to live with it. Some carers, though, their whole attitude lets them down. A lot of them, you can tell, are just going through the motions, waiting for the day they’re told they can stop and become donors. It really gets me, too, the way so many of them “shrink” the moment they step inside a hospital. They don’t know what to say to the whitecoats, they can’t make themselves speak up on behalf of their donor. No wonder they end up feeling frustrated and blaming themselves when things go wrong. I try not to make a nuisance of myself, but I’ve figured out how to get my voice heard when I have to. And when things go badly, of course I’m upset, but at least I can feel I’ve done all I could and keep things in perspective.

Even the solitude, I’ve actually grown to quite like. That’s not to say I’m not looking forward to a bit more companionship come the end of the year when I’m finished with all of this. But I do like the feeling of getting into my little car, knowing for the next couple of hours I’ll have only the roads, the big grey sky and my daydreams for company. And if I’m in a town somewhere with several minutes to kill, I’ll enjoy myself wandering about looking in the shop windows. Here in my bedsit, I’ve got these four desk-lamps, each a different colour, but all the same design—they have these ribbed necks you can bend whichever way you want. So I might go looking for a shop with another lamp like that in its window—not to buy, but just to compare with my ones at home.

Sometimes I get so immersed in my own company, if I unexpectedly run into someone I know, it’s a bit of a shock and takes me a while to adjust. That’s the way it was the morning I was walking across the windswept car park of the service station and spotted Laura, sitting behind the wheel of one of the parked cars, looking vacantly towards the motorway. I was still some way away, and just for a second, even though we hadn’t met since the Cottages seven years before, I was tempted to ignore her and keep walking. An odd reaction, I know, considering she’d been one of my closest friends. As I say, it may have been partly because I didn’t like being bumped out of my daydreams. But also, I suppose, when I saw Laura slumped in her car like that, I saw immediately she’d become one of these carers I’ve just been describing, and a part of me just didn’t want to find out much more about it.

But of course I did go to her. There was a chilly wind blowing against me as I walked over to her hatchback, parked away from the other vehicles. Laura was wearing a shapeless blue anorak, and her hair—a lot shorter than before—was sticking to her forehead. When I tapped on her window, she didn’t start, or even look surprised to see me after all that time. It was almost like she’d been sitting there waiting, if not for me precisely, then for someone more or less like me from the old days. And now I’d shown up, her first thought seemed to be: “At last!” Because I could see her shoulders move in a kind of sigh, then without further ado, she reached over to open the door for me.

We talked for about twenty minutes: I didn’t leave until the last possible moment. A lot of it was about her, how exhausted she’d been, how difficult one of her donors was, how much she loathed this nurse or that doctor. I waited to see a flash of the old Laura, with the mischievous grin and inevitable wisecrack, but none of that came. She talked faster than she used to, and although she seemed pleased to see me, I sometimes got the impression it wouldn’t have mattered much if it wasn’t me, but someone else, so long as she got to talk.

Maybe we both felt there was something dangerous about bringing up the old days, because for ages we avoided any mention of them. In the end, though, we found ourselves talking about Ruth, who Laura had run into at a clinic a few years earlier, when Ruth was still a carer. I began quizzing her about how Ruth had been, but she was so unforthcoming, in the end I said to her: “Look, you must have talked about something.”

Laura let out a long sigh. “You know how it gets,” she said. “We were both in a hurry.” Then she added: “Anyway, we hadn’t parted the best of friends, back at the Cottages. So maybe we weren’t so delighted to see one another.”

“I didn’t realise you’d fallen out with her too,” I said.

She shrugged. “It wasn’t any big deal. You remember the way she was back then. If anything, after you left, she got worse. You know, always telling everyone what to do. So I was keeping out of her way, that was all. We never had a big fight or anything. So you haven’t seen her since then?”

“No. Funny, but I’ve never even glimpsed her.”

“Yeah, it’s funny. You’d think we’d all run into each other much more. I’ve seen Hannah a few times. And Michael H. too.” Then she said: “I heard this rumour, that Ruth had a really bad first donation. Just a rumour, but I heard it more than once.”

“I heard that too,” I said.

“Poor Ruth.”

We were quiet for a moment. Then Laura asked: “Is it right, Kathy? That they let you choose your donors now?”

She’d not asked in the accusing way people do sometimes, so I nodded and said: “Not every time. But I did well with a few donors, so yeah, I get to have a say every now and then.”

“If you can choose,” Laura said, “why don’t you become Ruth’s carer?”

I shrugged. “I’ve thought about it. But I’m not sure it’s such a great idea.”

Laura looked puzzled. “But you and Ruth, you were so close.”

“Yeah, I suppose so. But like with you, Laura. She and I weren’t such great friends by the end.”

“Oh, but that was back then. She’s had a bad time. And I’ve heard she’s had trouble with her carers too. They’ve had to change them around a lot for her.”

“Not surprising really,” I said. “Can you imagine? Being Ruth’s carer?”

Laura laughed, and for a second a look came into her eyes that made me think she was finally going to come out with a crack. But then the light died, and she just went on sitting there looking tired.

We talked a little more about Laura’s problems—in particular about a certain nursing sister who seemed to have it in for her. Then it was time for me to go, and I reached for the door and was telling her we’d have to talk more the next time we met. But we were both of us by then acutely aware of something we’d not yet mentioned, and I think we both sensed there’d be something wrong about us parting like that. In fact, I’m pretty sure now, at that moment, our minds were running along exactly the same lines. Then she said: “It’s weird. Thinking it’s all gone now.”

I turned in my seat to face her again. “Yeah, it’s really strange,” I said. “I can’t really believe it’s not there any more.”

“It’s so weird,” Laura said. “I suppose it shouldn’t make any difference to me now. But somehow it does.”

“I know what you mean.”

It was that exchange, when we finally mentioned the closing of Hailsham, that suddenly brought us close again, and we hugged, quite spontaneously, not so much to comfort one another, but as a way of affirming Hailsham, the fact that it was still there in both our memories. Then I had to hurry off to my own car.

I’d first started hearing rumours about Hailsham closing a year or so before that meeting with Laura in the car park. I’d be talking to a donor or a carer and they’d bring it up in passing, like they expected me to know all about it. “You were at Hailsham, weren’t you? So is it really true?” That sort of thing. Then one day I was coming out of a clinic in Suffolk and ran into Roger C., who’d been in the year below, and he told me with complete certainty it was about to happen. Hailsham was going to close any day and there were plans to sell the house and grounds to a hotel chain. I remember my first response when he told me this. I said: “But what’ll happen to all the students?” Roger obviously thought I’d meant the ones still there, the little ones dependent on their guardians, and he put on a troubled face and began speculating how they’d have to be transferred to other houses around the country, even though some of these would be a far cry from Hailsham. But of course, that wasn’t what I’d meant. I’d meant us, all the students who’d grown up with me and were now spread across the country, carers and donors, all separated now but still somehow linked by the place we’d come from.

That same night, trying to get to sleep in an overnight, I kept thinking about something that had happened to me a few days earlier. I’d been in a seaside town in North Wales. It had been raining hard all morning, but after lunch, it had stopped and the sun had come out a bit. I was walking back to where I’d left my car, along one of those long straight seafront roads. There was hardly anyone else about, so I could see an unbroken line of wet paving stones stretching on in front of me. Then after a while a van pulled up, maybe thirty yards ahead of me, and a man got out dressed as a clown. He opened the back of the van and took out a bunch of helium balloons, about a dozen of them, and for a moment, he was holding the balloons in one hand, while he bent down and rummaged about in his vehicle with the other. As I came closer, I could see the balloons had faces and shaped ears, and they looked like a little tribe, bobbing in the air above their owner, waiting for him.

Then the clown straightened, closed up his van and started walking, in the same direction I was walking, several paces ahead of me, a small suitcase in one hand, the balloons in the other. The seafront continued long and straight, and I was walking behind him for what seemed like ages. Sometimes I felt awkward about it, and I even thought the clown might turn and say something. But since that was the way I had to go, there wasn’t much else I could do. So we just kept walking, the clown and me, on and on along the deserted pavement still wet from the morning, and all the time the balloons were bumping and grinning down at me. Every so often, I could see the man’s fist, where all the balloon strings converged, and I could see he had them securely twisted together and in a tight grip. Even so, I kept worrying that one of the strings would come unravelled and a single balloon would sail off up into that cloudy sky.

Lying awake that night after what Roger had told me, I kept seeing those balloons again. I thought about Hailsham closing, and how it was like someone coming along with a pair of shears and snipping the balloon strings just where they entwined above the man’s fist. Once that happened, there’d be no real sense in which those balloons belonged with each other any more. When he was telling me the news about Hailsham, Roger had made a remark, saying he supposed it wouldn’t make so much difference to the likes of us any more. And in certain ways, he might have been right. But it was unnerving, to think things weren’t still going on back there, just as always; that people like Miss Geraldine, say, weren’t leading groups of Juniors around the North Playing Field.

In the months after that talk with Roger, I kept thinking about it a lot, about Hailsham closing and all the implications. And it started to dawn on me, I suppose, that a lot of things I’d always assumed I’d plenty of time to get round to doing, I might now have to act on pretty soon or else let them go forever. It’s not that I started to panic, exactly. But it definitely felt like Hailsham’s going away had shifted everything around us. That’s why what Laura said to me that day, about my becoming Ruth’s carer, had such an impact on me, even though I’d stone-walled her at the time. It was almost like a part of me had already made that decision, and Laura’s words had simply pulled away a veil that had been covering it over.

I FIRST TURNED UP AT RUTH’S recovery centre in Dover—the modern one with the white tiled walls—just a few weeks after that talk with Laura. It had been around two months since Ruth’s first donation—which, as Laura had said, hadn’t gone at all well. When I came into her room, she was sitting on the edge of her bed in her night-dress and gave me a big smile. She got up to give me a hug, but almost immediately sat down again. She told me I was looking better than ever, and that my hair suited me really well. I said nice things about her too, and for the next half hour or so, I think we were genuinely delighted to be with each other. We talked about all kinds of things—Hailsham, the Cottages, what we’d been doing since then—and it felt like we could talk and talk forever. In other words, it was a really encouraging start—better than I’d dared expect.

Even so, that first time, we didn’t say anything about the way we’d parted. Maybe if we’d tackled it at the start, things would have played out differently, who knows? As it was, we just skipped over it, and once we’d been talking for a while, it was as if we’d agreed to pretend none of that had ever happened.

That may have been fine as far as that first meeting was concerned. But once I officially became her carer, and I began to see her regularly, the sense of something not being right grew stronger and stronger. I developed a routine of coming in three or four times a week in the late afternoon, with mineral water and a packet of her favourite biscuits, and it should have been wonderful, but at the beginning it was anything but that. We’d start talking about something, something completely innocent, and for no obvious reason we’d come to a halt. Or if we did manage to keep up a conversation, the longer we went on, the more stilted and guarded it became.

Then one afternoon, I was coming down her corridor to see her and heard someone in the shower room opposite her door. I guessed it was Ruth in there, so I let myself into her room, and was standing waiting for her, looking at the view from her window over all the rooftops. About five minutes passed, then she came in wrapped in a towel. Now to be fair, she wasn’t expecting me for another hour, and I suppose we all feel a bit vulnerable after a shower with just a towel on. Even so, the look of alarm that went across her face took me aback. I have to explain this a bit. Of course, I was expecting her to be a little surprised. But the thing was, after she’d taken it in and seen it was me, there was a clear second, maybe more, when she went on looking at me if not with fear, then with a real wariness. It was like she’d been waiting and waiting for me to do something to her, and she thought the time had now come.

The look was gone the next instant and we just carried on as usual, but that incident gave us both a jolt. It made me realise Ruth didn’t trust me, and for all I know, maybe she herself hadn’t fully realised it until that moment. In any case, after that day, the atmosphere got even worse. It was like we’d let something out into the open, and far from clearing the air, it had made us more aware than ever of everything that had come between us. It got to the stage where before I went in to see her, I’d sit in my car for several minutes working myself up for the ordeal. After one particular session, when we did all the checks on her in stony silence, then afterwards just sat there in more silence, I was about ready to report to them that it hadn’t worked out, that I should stop being Ruth’s carer. But then everything changed again, and that was because of the boat.

GOD KNOWS HOW THESE THINGS WORK. Sometimes it’s a particular joke, sometimes a rumour. It travels from centre to centre, right the way across the country in a matter of days, and suddenly every donor’s talking about it. Well, this time it was to do with this boat. I’d first heard about it from a couple of my donors up in North Wales. Then a few days later, Ruth too started telling me about it. I was just relieved we’d found something to talk about, and encouraged her to go on.

“This boy on the next floor,” she said. “His carer’s actually been to see it. He says it’s not far from the road, so anyone can get to it without much bother. This boat, it’s just sitting there, stranded in the marshes.”

“How did it get there?” I asked.

“How do I know? Maybe they wanted to dump it, whoever owned it. Or maybe sometime, when everything was flooded, it just drifted in and got itself beached. Who knows? It’s supposed to be this old fishing boat. With a little cabin for a couple of fishermen to squeeze into when it’s stormy.”

The next few times I came to see her, she always managed to bring up the boat again. Then one afternoon, when she began telling me how one of the other donors at the centre had been taken by her carer to see it, I said to her:

“Look, it’s not particularly near, you know. It would take an hour, maybe an hour and a half to drive.”

“I wasn’t suggesting anything. I know you’ve got other donors to worry about.”

“But you’d like to see it. You’d like to see this boat, wouldn’t you, Ruth?”

“I suppose so. I suppose I would. You spend day after day in this place. Yeah, it’d be good to see something like that.”

“And do you suppose”—I said this gently, without a hint of sarcasm—“if we’re driving all that way, we should think about calling in on Tommy? Seeing his centre’s just down the road from where this boat’s meant to be?”

Ruth’s face didn’t show anything at first. “I suppose we could think about it,” she said. Then she laughed and added: “Honest, Kathy, that wasn’t the only reason I’ve been going on about the boat. I do want to see it, for its own sake. All this time in and out of hospital. Then cooped up here. Things like that matter more than they once did. But all right, I did know. I knew Tommy was at the Kingsfield centre.” “Are you sure you want to see him?”

“Yes,” she said, no hesitation, looking straight at me. “Yes, I do.” Then she said quietly: “I haven’t seen that boy for a long time. Not since the Cottages.”

Then, at last, we talked about Tommy. We didn’t go into things in a big way and I didn’t learn much I didn’t know already. But I think we both felt better we’d finally brought him up. Ruth told me how, by the time she left the Cottages the autumn after me, she and Tommy had more or less drifted apart.

“Since we were going different places to do our training anyway,” she said, “it didn’t seem worth it, to split up properly. So we just stayed together until I left.”

And at that stage, we didn’t say much more about it than that.

As for the trip out to see the boat, I neither agreed nor disagreed to it, that first time we discussed it. But over the next couple of weeks, Ruth kept bringing it up, and our plans somehow grew firmer, until in the end, I sent a message to Tommy’s carer through a contact, saying that unless we heard from Tommy telling us not to, we’d show up at the Kingsfield on a particular afternoon the following week.

CHAPTER NINETEEN

I’d hardly ever been to the Kingsfield in those days, so Ruth and I had to consult the map a number of times on the way and we still arrived several minutes late. It’s not very well-appointed as recovery centres go, and if it wasn’t for the associations it now has for me, it’s not somewhere I’d look forward to visiting. It’s out of the way and awkward to get to, and yet when you’re there, there’s no real sense of peace and quiet. You can always hear traffic on the big roads beyond the fencing, and there’s a general feeling they never properly finished converting the place. A lot of the donors’ rooms you can’t get to with a wheelchair, or else they’re too stuffy or too draughty. There aren’t nearly enough bathrooms and the ones there are are hard to keep clean, get freezing in winter and are generally too far from the donors’ rooms. The Kingsfield, in other words, falls way short of a place like Ruth’s centre in Dover, with its gleaming tiles and double-glazed windows that seal at the twist of a handle.

Later on, after the Kingsfield became the familiar and precious place it did, I was in one of the admin buildings and came across a framed black-and-white photo of the place the way it was before it was converted, when it was still a holiday camp for ordinary families. The picture was probably taken in the late fifties or early sixties, and shows a big rectangular swimming pool with all these happy people—children, parents—splashing about having a great time. It’s concrete all around the pool, but people have set up deck chairs and sun loungers, and they’ve got large parasols to keep them in the shade. When I first saw this, it took me a while to realise I was looking at what the donors now call “the Square”—the place where you drive in when you first arrive at the centre. Of course, the pool’s filled in now, but the outline’s still there, and they’ve left standing at one end—an example of this unfinished atmosphere—the metal frame for the high diving board. It was only when I saw the photo it occurred to me what the frame was and why it was there, and today, each time I see it, I can’t help picturing a swimmer taking a dive off the top only to crash into the cement.

I might not have easily recognised the Square in the photo, except for the white bunker-like two-storey buildings in the background, on all three visible sides of the pool area. That must have been where the families had their holiday apartments, and though I’d guess the interiors have changed a lot, the outsides look much the same. In some ways, I suppose, the Square today isn’t so different to what the pool was back then. It’s the social hub of the place, where donors come out of their rooms for a bit of air and a chat. There are a few wooden picnic benches around the Square, but—especially when the sun’s too hot, or it’s raining—the donors prefer to gather under the overhanging flat roof of the recreation hall at the far end behind the old diving board frame.

That afternoon Ruth and I went to the Kingsfield, it was overcast and a bit chilly, and as we drove into the Square it was deserted except for a group of six or seven shadowy figures underneath that roof. As I brought the car to a stop somewhere over the old pool—which of course I didn’t know about then—one figure detached itself from the group and came towards us, and I saw it was Tommy. He had on a faded green track suit top and looked about a stone heavier than when I’d last seen him.

Beside me Ruth, for a second, seemed to panic. “What do we do?” she went. “Do we get out? No, no, let’s not get out. Don’t move, don’t move.”

I don’t know what I’d been intending to do, but when Ruth said this, for some reason, without really thinking about it, I just stepped out of the car. Ruth stayed where she was, and that was why, when Tommy came up to us, his gaze fell on me and why it was me he hugged first. I could smell a faint odour of something medical on him which I couldn’t identify. Then, though we hadn’t yet said anything to each other, we both sensed Ruth watching us from the car and pulled away.

There was a lot of sky reflected in the windscreen, so I couldn’t make her out very well. But I got the impression Ruth had on a serious, almost frozen look, like Tommy and I were people in a play she was watching. There was something odd about the look and it made me uneasy. Then Tommy was walking past me to the car. He opened a rear door, got into the back seat, and then it was my turn to watch them, inside the car, exchanging words, then polite little kisses on the cheeks.

Across the Square, the donors under the roof were also watching, and though I felt nothing hostile about them, I suddenly wanted to get out of there quickly. But I made myself take my time getting back into the car, so that Tommy and Ruth could have a little longer to themselves.

WE BEGAN BY DRIVING THROUGH NARROW, twisting lanes. Then we came out into open, featureless countryside and travelled on along a near-empty road. What I remember about that part of our trip to the boat was that for the first time in ages the sun started to shine weakly through the greyness; and whenever I glanced at Ruth beside me, she had on a quiet little smile. As for what we talked about, well, my memory is that we behaved much as if we’d been seeing each other regularly, and there was no need to talk about anything other than what we had immediately in front of us. I asked Tommy if he’d been to see the boat already, and he said no, he hadn’t, but a lot of the other donors at the centre had. He’d had a few opportunities, but hadn’t taken them.

“I wasn’t not wanting to go,” he said, leaning forward from the back. “I couldn’t be bothered really. I was going to go once, with a couple of others and their carers, but then I got a bit of bleeding and couldn’t go any more. That was ages ago now. I don’t get any trouble like that any more.”

Then a little further on, as we continued across the empty countryside, Ruth turned right round in her seat until she was facing Tommy, and just kept looking at him. She still had on her little smile, but said nothing, and I could see in my mirror Tommy looking distinctly uncomfortable. He kept looking out of the window beside him, then back at her, then back out of the window again. After a while, without taking her gaze off him, Ruth started on a rambling anecdote about someone or other, a donor at her centre, someone we’d never heard of, and all the time she kept looking at Tommy, the gentle smile never leaving her face. Perhaps because I was getting bored by her anecdote, perhaps because I wanted to help Tommy out, I interrupted after a minute or so, saying: “Yeah, okay, we don’t need to hear every last thing about her.”

I said this without any malice, and really hadn’t intended anything by it. But even before Ruth paused, almost as I was still speaking, Tommy made a sudden laughing noise, a kind of explosion, a noise I’d never heard him make before. And he said:

“That’s exactly what I was about to say. I lost track of it a while ago.”

My eyes were on the road, so I wasn’t sure if he’d addressed me or Ruth. In any case, Ruth stopped talking and slowly turned back in her seat until she was facing the front again. She didn’t seem particularly upset, but the smile had gone, and her eyes looked far away, fixed somewhere on the sky ahead of us. But I have to be honest: at that instant I wasn’t really thinking about Ruth. My heart had done a little leap, because in a single stroke, with that little laugh of agreement, it felt as though Tommy and I had come close together again after all the years.

I found the turning we needed around twenty minutes after we’d set off from the Kingsfield. We went down a narrow curving road shrouded by hedges, and parked beside a clump of sycamores. I led the way to where the woods began, but then, faced with three distinct paths through the trees, had to stop to consult the sheet of directions I’d brought with me. While I stood there trying to decipher the person’s handwriting, I was suddenly conscious of Ruth and Tommy standing behind me, not talking, waiting almost like children to be told which way to go.

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