بخش 07

کتاب: هرگز رهایم مکن / فصل 7

هرگز رهایم مکن

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بخش 07

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We entered the woods, and though it was pretty easy walking, I noticed Ruth’s breath coming less and less easily. Tommy, by contrast, didn’t seem to be experiencing any difficulty, though there was a hint of a limp in his gait. Then we came to a barbed wire fence, which was tilted and rusted, the wire itself yanked all over the place. When Ruth saw it, she came to an abrupt halt.

“Oh no,” she said, anxiously. Then she turned to me: “You didn’t say anything about this. You didn’t say we had to get past barbed wire!”

“It’s not going to be difficult,” I said. “We can go under it. We just have to hold it for each other.”

But Ruth looked really upset and didn’t move. And it was then, as she stood there, her shoulders rising and falling with her breathing, that Tommy seemed to become aware for the first time just how frail she was. Maybe he’d noticed before, and hadn’t wanted to take it in. But now he stared at her for a good few seconds. Then I think what happened next—though of course I can’t know for certain—was that the both of us, Tommy and I, we remembered what had happened in the car, when we’d more or less ganged up on her. And almost as an instinct, we both went to her. I took an arm, Tommy supported her elbow on the other side, and we began gently guiding her towards the fence.

I let go of Ruth only to pass through the fence myself. Then I held up the wire as high as I could, and Tommy and I both helped her through. It wasn’t so difficult for her in the end: it was more a confidence thing, and with us there for support, she seemed to lose her fear of the fence. On the other side, she actually made a go of helping me hold up the wire for Tommy. He came through without any bother, and Ruth said to him: “It’s only bending down like that. I’m sometimes not so clever at it.”

Tommy was looking sheepish, and I wondered if he was embarrassed by what had just happened, or if he was remembering again our ganging up on Ruth in the car. He nodded towards the trees in front of us and said:

“I suppose it’s through that way. Is that right, Kath?”

I glanced at my sheet and began to lead the way again. Further into the trees, it grew quite dark and the ground became more and more marshy.

“Hope we don’t get lost,” I heard Ruth say to Tommy with a laugh, but I could see a clearing not far away. And now with time to reflect, I realised why I was so bothered by what had happened in the car. It wasn’t simply that we’d ganged up on Ruth: it was the way she’d just taken it. In the old days, it was inconceivable she’d have let something like that happen without striking back. As this point sunk in, I paused on the path, waited for Ruth and Tommy to catch up, and put my arm around Ruth’s shoulders.

This didn’t seem so soppy; it just looked like carer stuff, because by now there was something uncertain about her walk, and I wondered if I’d badly underestimated how weak she still was. Her breathing was getting quite laboured, and as we walked together, she’d now and then lurch into me. But then we were through the trees and into the clearing, and we could see the boat.

Actually, we hadn’t really stepped into a clearing: it was more that the thin woods we’d come through had ended, and now in front of us there was open marshland as far as we could see. The pale sky looked vast and you could see it reflected every so often in the patches of water breaking up the land. Not so long ago, the woods must have extended further, because you could see here and there ghostly dead trunks poking out of the soil, most of them broken off only a few feet up. And beyond the dead trunks, maybe sixty yards away, was the boat, sitting beached in the marshes under the weak sun.

“Oh, it’s just like my friend said it was,” Ruth said. “It’s really beautiful.”

We were surrounded by silence and when we started to move towards the boat, you could hear the squelch under our shoes. Before long I noticed my feet sinking beneath the tufts of grass, and called out: “Okay, this is as far as we can go.” The other two, who were behind me, raised no objection, and when I glanced over my shoulder, I saw Tommy was again holding Ruth by the arm. It was clear, though, this was just to steady her. I took long strides to the nearest dead tree trunk, where the soil was firmer, and held onto it for balance. Following my example, Tommy and Ruth made their way to another tree trunk, hollow and more emaciated than mine, a short way behind to my left. They perched on either side of it and seemed to settle. Then we gazed at the beached boat. I could now see how its paint was cracking, and how the timber frames of the little cabin were crumbling away. It had once been painted a sky blue, but now looked almost white under the sky.

“I wonder how it got here,” I said. I’d raised my voice to let it get to the others and had expected an echo. But the sound was surprisingly close, like I was in a carpeted room.

Then I heard Tommy say behind me: “Maybe this is what Hailsham looks like now. Do you think?”

“Why would it look like this?” Ruth sounded genuinely puzzled. “It wouldn’t turn into marshland just because it’s closed.”

“I suppose not. Wasn’t thinking. But I always see Hailsham being like this now. No logic to it. In fact, this is pretty close to the picture in my head. Except there’s no boat, of course. It wouldn’t be so bad, if it’s like this now.” “That’s funny,” Ruth said, “because I was having this dream the other morning. I was dreaming I was up in Room 14. I knew the whole place had been shut down, but there I was, in Room 14, and I was looking out of the window and everything outside was flooded. Just like a giant lake. And I could see rubbish floating by under my window, empty drinks cartons, everything. But there wasn’t any sense of panic or anything like that. It was nice and tranquil, just like it is here. I knew I wasn’t in any danger, that it was only like that because it had closed down.” “You know,” Tommy said, “Meg B. was at our centre for a while. She’s left now, gone up north somewhere for her third donation. I never heard how she got on. Have either of you heard?”

I shook my head, and when I didn’t hear Ruth say anything, turned to look at her. At first I thought she was still staring at the boat, but then I saw her gaze was on the vapour trail of a plane in the far distance, climbing slowly into the sky. Then she said: “I’ll tell you something I heard. I heard about Chrissie. I heard she completed during her second donation.”

“I heard that as well,” said Tommy. “It must be right. I heard exactly the same. A shame. Only her second as well. Glad that didn’t happen to me.”

“I think it happens much more than they ever tell us,” Ruth said. “My carer over there. She probably knows that’s right. But she won’t say.”

“There’s no big conspiracy about it,” I said, turning back to the boat. “Sometimes it happens. It was really sad about Chrissie. But that’s not common. They’re really careful these days.”

“I bet it happens much more than they tell us,” Ruth said again. “That’s one reason why they keep moving us around between donations.”

“I ran into Rodney once,” I said. “It wasn’t so long after Chrissie completed. I saw him in this clinic, up in North Wales. He was doing okay.”

“I bet he was cut up about Chrissie though,” said Ruth. Then to Tommy: “They don’t tell you the half of it, you see?”

“Actually,” I said, “he wasn’t too bad about it. He was sad, obviously. But he was okay. They hadn’t seen each other for a couple of years anyway. He said he thought Chrissie wouldn’t have minded too much. And I suppose he should know.” “Why would he know?” Ruth said. “How could he possibly know what Chrissie would have felt? What she would have wanted? It wasn’t him on that table, trying to cling onto life. How would he know?”

This flash of anger was more like the old Ruth, and made me turn to her again. Maybe it was just the glare in her eyes, but she seemed to be looking back at me with a hard, stern expression.

“It can’t be good,” Tommy said. “Completing at the second donation. Can’t be good.”

“I can’t believe Rodney was okay about it,” Ruth said. “You only spoke to him for a few minutes. How can you tell anything from that?”

“Yeah,” said Tommy, “but if like Kath says, they’d already split up . . .”

“That wouldn’t make any difference,” Ruth cut in. “In some ways that might have made it worse.”

“I’ve seen a lot of people in Rodney’s position,” I said. “They do come to terms with it.”

“How would you know?” said Ruth. “How could you possibly know? You’re still a carer.”

“I get to see a lot as a carer. An awful lot.”

“She wouldn’t know, would she, Tommy? Not what it’s really like.”

For a moment we were both looking at Tommy, but he just went on gazing at the boat. Then he said:

“There was this guy, at my centre. Always worried he wouldn’t make it past his second. Used to say he could feel it in his bones. But it all turned out fine. He’s just come through his third now, and he’s completely all right.” He put up a hand to shield his eyes. “I wasn’t much good as a carer. Never learnt to drive even. I think that’s why the notice for my first came so early. I know it’s not supposed to work that way, but I reckon that’s what it was. Didn’t mind really. I’m a pretty good donor, but I was a lousy carer.” No one spoke for a while. Then Ruth said, her voice quieter now:

“I think I was a pretty decent carer. But five years felt about enough for me. I was like you, Tommy. I was pretty much ready when I became a donor. It felt right. After all, it’s what we’re supposed to be doing, isn’t it?” I wasn’t sure if she expected me to respond to this. She hadn’t said it in any obviously leading way, and it’s perfectly possible this was a statement she’d come out with just out of habit—it was the sort of thing you hear donors say to each other all the time. When I turned to them again, Tommy still had his hand up to shade his eyes.

“Pity we can’t go closer to the boat,” he said. “One day when it’s drier, maybe we could come back.”

“I’m glad to have seen it,” Ruth said, softly. “It’s really nice. But I think I want to go back now. This wind’s quite chilly.”

“At least we’ve seen it now,” Tommy said.

WE CHATTED MUCH MORE FREELY on our walk back to the car than on the way out. Ruth and Tommy were comparing notes on their centres—the food, the towels, that kind of thing—and I was always part of the conversation because they kept asking me about other centres, if this or that was normal. Ruth’s walk was much steadier now and when we came to the fence, and I held up the wire, she hardly hesitated.

We got in the car, again with Tommy in the back, and for a while there was a perfectly okay feeling between us. Maybe, looking back, there was an atmosphere of something being held back, but it’s possible I’m only thinking that now because of what happened next.

The way it began, it was a bit like a repeat of earlier. We’d got back onto the long near-empty road, and Ruth made some remark about a poster we were passing. I don’t even remember the poster now, it was just one of those huge advertising images on the roadside. She made the remark almost to herself, obviously not meaning much by it. She said something like: “Oh my God, look at that one. You’d think they’d at least try to come up with something new.” But Tommy said from the back: “Actually I quite like that one. It’s been in the newspapers as well. I think it’s got something.”

Maybe I was wanting that feeling again, of me and Tommy being brought close together. Because although the walk to the boat had been fine in itself, I was starting to feel that apart from our first embrace, and that moment in the car earlier on, Tommy and I hadn’t really had much to do with each other. Anyway, I found myself saying: “Actually, I like it too. It takes a lot more effort than you’d think, making up these posters.”

“That’s right,” Tommy said. “Someone told me it takes weeks and weeks putting something like that together. Months even. People sometimes work all night on them, over and over, until they’re just right.”

“It’s too easy,” I said, “to criticise when you’re just driving by.”

“Easiest thing in the world,” Tommy said.

Ruth said nothing, and kept looking at the empty road in front of us. Then I said:

“Since we’re on the subject of posters. There was one I noticed on the way out. It should be coming up again pretty soon. It’ll be on our side this time. It should come up any time now.”

“What’s it of?” Tommy asked.

“You’ll see. It’ll be coming up soon.”

I glanced at Ruth beside me. There was no anger in her eyes, just a kind of wariness. There was even a sort of hope, I thought, that when the poster appeared, it would be perfectly innocuous—something that reminded us of Hailsham, something like that. I could see all of this in her face, the way it didn’t quite settle on any one expression, but hovered tentatively. All the time, her gaze remained fixed in front of her.

I slowed down the car and pulled over, bumping up onto the rough grass verge.

“Why are we stopping, Kath?” Tommy asked.

“Because you can see it best from here. Any nearer, we have to look up at it too much.”

I could hear Tommy shifting behind us, trying to get a better view. Ruth didn’t move, and I wasn’t even sure she was looking at the poster at all.

“Okay, it’s not exactly the same,” I said after a moment. “But it reminded me. Open-plan office, smart smiling people.”

Ruth stayed silent, but Tommy said from the back: “I get it. You mean, like that place we went to that time.”

“Not only that,” I said. “It’s a lot like that ad. The one we found on the ground. You remember, Ruth?”

“I’m not sure I do,” she said quietly.

“Oh, come on. You remember. We found it in a magazine in some lane. Near a puddle. You were really taken by it. Don’t pretend you don’t remember.”

“I think I do.” Ruth’s voice was now almost a whisper. A lorry went past, making our car wobble and, for a few seconds, obscuring our view of the hoarding. Ruth bowed her head, as though she hoped the lorry had removed the image forever, and when we could see it clearly again, she didn’t raise her gaze.

“It’s funny,” I said, “remembering it all now. Remember how you used to go on about it? How you’d one day work in an office like that one?”

“Oh yeah, that was why we went that day,” Tommy said, like he’d only that second remembered. “When we went to Norfolk. We went to find your possible. Working in an office.”

“Don’t you sometimes think,” I said to Ruth, “you should have looked into it more? All right, you’d have been the first. The first one any of us would have heard of getting to do something like that. But you might have done it. Don’t you wonder sometimes, what might have happened if you’d tried?” “How could I have tried?” Ruth’s voice was hardly audible. “It’s just something I once dreamt about. That’s all.”

“But if you’d at least looked into it. How do you know? They might have let you.”

“Yeah, Ruth,” Tommy said. “Maybe you should at least have tried. After going on about it so much. I think Kath’s got a point.”

“I didn’t go on about it, Tommy. At least, I don’t remember going on about it.”

“But Tommy’s right. You should at least have tried. Then you could see a poster like that one, and remember that’s what you wanted once, and that you at least looked into it . . .”

“How could I have looked into it?” For the first time, Ruth’s voice had hardened, but then she let out a sigh and looked down again. Then Tommy said:

“You kept talking like you might qualify for special treatment. And for all you know, you might have done. You should have asked at least.”

“Okay,” Ruth said. “You say I should have looked into it. How? Where would I have gone? There wasn’t a way to look into it.”

“Tommy’s right though,” I said. “If you believed yourself special, you should at least have asked. You should have gone to Madame and asked.”

As soon as I said this—as soon as I mentioned Madame—I realised I’d made a mistake. Ruth looked up at me and I saw something like triumph flash across her face. You see it in films sometimes, when one person’s pointing a gun at another person, and the one with the gun’s making the other one do all kinds of things. Then suddenly there’s a mistake, a tussle, and the gun’s with the second person. And the second person looks at the first person with a gleam, a kind of can’t-believe-my-luck expression that promises all kinds of vengeance. Well, that was how suddenly Ruth was looking at me, and though I’d said nothing about deferrals, I’d mentioned Madame, and I knew we’d stumbled into some new territory altogether.

Ruth saw my panic and shifted round in her seat to face me. So I was preparing myself for her attack; busy telling myself that no matter what she came at me with, things were different now, she wouldn’t get her way like she’d done in the past. I was telling myself all of this, and that’s why I wasn’t at all ready for what she did come out with.

“Kathy,” she said, “I don’t really expect you to forgive me ever. I can’t even see why you should. But I’m going to ask you to all the same.”

I was so thrown by this, all I could find to say was a rather limp: “Forgive you for what?”

“Forgive me for what? Well, for starters, there’s the way I always lied to you about your urges. When you used to tell me, back then, how sometimes it got so you wanted to do it with virtually anyone.”

Tommy shifted again behind us, but Ruth was leaning forward now, looking straight at me, like for the moment Tommy wasn’t with us in the car at all.

“I knew how it worried you,” she said. “I should have told you. I should have said how it was the same for me too, just the way you described it. You realise all of this now, I know. But you didn’t back then, and I should have said. I should have told you how even though I was with Tommy, I couldn’t resist doing it with other people sometimes. At least three others when we were at the Cottages.” She said this still without looking Tommy’s way. But it wasn’t so much like she was ignoring him, than that she was trying so intensely to get through to me everything else had been blurred out.

“I almost did tell you a few times,” she went on. “But I didn’t. Even then, at the time, I realised you’d look back one day and realise and blame me for it. But I still didn’t say anything to you. There’s no reason you should ever forgive me for that, but I want to ask now because . . .” She stopped suddenly.

“Because what?” I asked.

She laughed and said: “Because nothing. I’d like you to forgive me, but I don’t expect you to. Anyway, that’s not the half of it, not even a small bit of it, actually. The main thing is, I kept you and Tommy apart.” Her voice had dropped again, almost to a whisper. “That was the worst thing I did.” She turned a little, taking Tommy in her gaze for the first time. Then almost immediately, she was looking just at me again, but now it was like she was talking to the both of us.

“That was the worst thing I did,” she said again. “I’m not even asking you to forgive me about that. God, I’ve said all this in my head so many times, I can’t believe I’m really doing it. It should have been you two. I’m not pretending I didn’t always see that. Of course I did, as far back as I can remember. But I kept you apart. I’m not asking you to forgive me for that. That’s not what I’m after just now. What I want is for you to put it right. Put right what I messed up for you.” “How d’you mean, Ruth?” Tommy asked. “How d’you mean, put it right?” His voice was gentle, full of child-like curiosity, and I think that was what started me sobbing.

“Kathy, listen,” Ruth said. “You and Tommy, you’ve got to try and get a deferral. If it’s you two, there’s got to be a chance. A real chance.”

She’d reached out a hand and put it on my shoulder, but I shook her off roughly and glared at her through the tears.

“It’s too late for that. Way too late.”

“It’s not too late. Kathy, listen, it’s not too late. Okay, so Tommy’s done two donations. Who says that has to make any difference?”

“It’s too late for all that now.” I’d started to sob again. “It’s stupid even thinking about it. As stupid as wanting to work in that office up there. We’re all way beyond that now.”

Ruth was shaking her head. “It’s not too late. Tommy, you tell her.”

I was leaning on the steering wheel, so couldn’t see Tommy at all. He made a kind of puzzled humming sound, but didn’t say anything.

“Look,” Ruth said, “both of you, listen. I wanted us all to do this trip, because I wanted to say what I just said. But I also wanted it because I wanted to give you something.” She’d been rummaging in the pockets of her anorak, and now she held out a crumpled piece of paper. “Tommy, you’d better take this. Look after it. Then when Kathy changes her mind, you’ll have it.” Tommy reached forward between the seats and took the paper. “Thanks, Ruth,” he said, like she’d given him a chocolate bar. Then after a few seconds, he said: “What is it? I don’t get it.”

“It’s Madame’s address. It’s like you were saying to me just now. You’ve at least got to try.”

“How d’you find it?” Tommy asked.

“It wasn’t easy. It took me a long time, and I ran a few risks. But I got it in the end, and I got it for you two. Now it’s up to you to find her and try.”

I’d stopped sobbing by now and started the engine. “That’s enough of all this,” I said. “We’ve got to get Tommy back. Then we need to be getting back ourselves.”

“But you will think about it, both of you, won’t you?”

“I just want to get back now,” I said.

“Tommy, you’ll keep that address safe? In case Kathy comes round.”

“I’ll keep it,” Tommy said. Then, much more solemnly than the last time: “Thanks, Ruth.”

“We’ve seen the boat,” I said, “but now we’ve got to get back. It might be over two hours back to Dover.”

I put the car on the road again, and my memory of it is that we didn’t talk much more on the way back to the Kingsfield. There was still a small group of donors huddled under the roof as we came into the Square. I turned the car before letting Tommy out. Neither of us hugged or kissed him, but as he walked away towards his fellow donors, he paused and gave us a big smile and wave.

IT MIGHT SEEM ODD, but on the journey back to Ruth’s centre, we didn’t really discuss any of what had just happened. It was partly because Ruth was exhausted—that last conversation on the roadside seemed to have drained her. But also, I think we both sensed we’d done enough serious talking for one day, and that if we tried any more of it, things would start going wrong. I’m not sure how Ruth was feeling on that drive home, but as for me, once all the strong emotions had settled, once the night began to set in and all the lights came on along the roadside, I was feeling okay. It was like something that had been hanging over me for a long time had gone, and even if things were still far from sorted, it felt like there was now at least a door open to somewhere better. I’m not saying I was elated or anything like that. Everything between the three of us seemed really delicate and I felt tense, but it wasn’t altogether a bad tension.

We didn’t even discuss Tommy beyond saying how he looked okay, and wondering how much weight he’d put on. Then we spent large stretches of the journey watching the road together in silence.

It wasn’t until a few days later I came to see what a difference that trip had made. All the guardedness, all the suspicions between me and Ruth evaporated, and we seemed to remember everything we’d once meant to each other. And that was the start of it, that era, with the summer coming on, and Ruth’s health at least on an even keel, when I’d come in the evenings with biscuits and mineral water, and we’d sit side by side at her window, watching the sun go down over the roofs, talking about Hailsham, the Cottages, anything that drifted into our minds. When I think about Ruth now, of course, I feel sad she’s gone; but I also feel really grateful for that period we had at the end.

There was, even so, one topic we never discussed properly, and that was about what she’d said to us on the roadside that day. Just every now and then, Ruth would allude to it. She’d come out with something like:

“Have you thought any more about becoming Tommy’s carer? You know you could arrange it, if you wanted to.”

Soon, it was this idea—of my becoming Tommy’s carer—that came to stand in for all the rest of it. I’d tell her I was thinking about it, that anyway it wasn’t so simple, even for me, to arrange such a thing. Then we’d usually let the topic drop. But I could tell it was never far from Ruth’s mind, and that’s why, that very last time I saw her, even though she wasn’t able to speak, I knew what it was she wanted to say to me.

That was three days after her second donation, when they finally let me in to see her in the small hours of the morning. She was in a room by herself, and it looked like they’d done everything they could for her. It had become obvious to me by then, from the way the doctors, the co-ordinator, the nurses were behaving, that they didn’t think she was going to make it. Now I took one glance at her in that hospital bed under the dull light and recognised the look on her face, which I’d seen on donors often enough before. It was like she was willing her eyes to see right inside herself, so she could patrol and marshal all the better the separate areas of pain in her body—the way, maybe, an anxious carer might rush between three or four ailing donors in different parts of the country. She was, strictly speaking, still conscious, but she wasn’t accessible to me as I stood there beside her metal bed. All the same, I pulled up a chair and sat with her hand in both of mine, squeezing whenever another flood of pain made her twist away from me.

I stayed beside her like that for as long as they let me, three hours, maybe longer. And as I say, for almost all of that time, she was far away inside herself. But just once, as she was twisting herself in a way that seemed scarily unnatural, and I was on the verge of calling the nurses for more painkillers, just for a few seconds, no more, she looked straight at me and she knew exactly who I was. It was one of those little islands of lucidity donors sometimes get to in the midst of their ghastly battles, and she looked at me, just for that moment, and although she didn’t speak, I knew what her look meant. So I said to her: “It’s okay, I’m going to do it, Ruth. I’m going to become Tommy’s carer as soon as I can.” I said it under my breath, because I didn’t think she’d hear the words anyway, even if I shouted them. But my hope was that with our gazes locked as they were for those few seconds, she’d read my expression exactly as I’d read hers. Then the moment was over, and she was away again. Of course, I’ll never know for sure, but I think she did understand. And even if she didn’t, what occurs to me now is that she probably knew all along, even before I did, that I’d become Tommy’s carer, and that we’d “give it a try,” just as she’d told us to in the car that day.

CHAPTER TWENTY

I became Tommy’s carer almost a year to the day after that trip to see the boat. It wasn’t long after Tommy’s third donation, and though he was recovering well, he was still needing a lot of time to rest, and as it turned out, that wasn’t a bad way at all for us to start this new phase together. Before long, I was getting used to the Kingsfield, growing to like it even.

Most donors at the Kingsfield get their own room after third donation, and Tommy was given one of the largest singles in the centre. Some people assumed afterwards I’d fixed it for him, but that wasn’t the case; it was just luck, and anyway, it wasn’t that great a room. I think it had been a bathroom back in the holiday camp days, because the only window had frosted glass and was really high up near the ceiling. You could only look out by standing on a chair and holding open the pane, and then you only got a view down onto the dense shrubbery. The room was L-shaped, which meant they could get in, as well as the usual bed, chair and wardrobe, a little school desk with a lift-up lid—an item that proved a real bonus, as I’ll explain.

I don’t want to give the wrong idea about that period at the Kingsfield. A lot of it was really relaxed, almost idyllic. My usual time to arrive was after lunch, and I’d come up to find Tommy stretched out on the narrow bed—always fully clothed because he didn’t want to “be like a patient.” I’d sit in the chair and read to him from various paperbacks I’d bring in, stuff like The Odyssey or One Thousand and One Nights. Otherwise we’d just talk, sometimes about the old days, sometimes about other things. He’d often doze off in the late afternoon, when I’d catch up on my reports over at his school desk. It was amazing really, the way the years seemed to melt away, and we were so easy with each other.

Obviously, though, not everything was like before. For a start, Tommy and I finally started having s@x. I don’t know how much Tommy had thought about us having s@x before we started. He was still recovering, after all, and maybe it wasn’t the first thing on his mind. I wasn’t wanting to force it on him, but on the other hand it had occurred to me if we left it too long, just when we were starting out together again, it would just get harder and harder to make it a natural part of us. And my other thought, I suppose, was that if our plans went along the lines Ruth had wanted, and we did find ourselves going for a deferral, it might prove a real drawback if we’d never had s@x. I don’t mean I thought this was necessarily something they’d ask us about. But my worry was that it would show somehow, in a kind of lack of intimacy.

So I decided to start it off one afternoon up in that room, in a way he could take or leave. He’d been lying on the bed as usual, staring at the ceiling while I read to him. When I finished, I went over, sat on the edge of the bed, and slid a hand under his T-shirt. Pretty soon I was down around his stuff, and though it took a while for him to get hard, I could tell straight away he was happy about it. That first time, we still had stitches to worry about, and anyway, after all the years of knowing each other and not having s@x, it was like we needed some intermediary stage before we could get into it in a full-blown way. So after a while I just did it for him with my hands, and he just lay there not making any attempt to feel me up in return, not even making any noises, but just looking peaceful.

But even that first time, there was something there, a feeling, right there alongside our sense that this was a beginning, a gateway we were passing through. I didn’t want to acknowledge it for a long time, and even when I did, I tried to persuade myself it was something that would go away along with his various aches and pains. What I mean is, right from that first time, there was something in Tommy’s manner that was tinged with sadness, that seemed to say: “Yes, we’re doing this now and I’m glad we’re doing it now. But what a pity we left it so late.” And in the days that followed, when we had proper s@x and we were really happy about it, even then, this same nagging feeling would always be there. I did everything to keep it away. I had us going at it all stops out, so that everything would become a delirious blur, and there’d be no room for anything else. If he was on top, I’d put my knees right up for him; whatever other position we used, I’d say anything, do anything I thought would make it better, more passionate, but it still never quite went away.

Maybe it was to do with that room, the way the sun came in through the frosted glass so that even in early summer, it felt like autumn light. Or maybe it was because the stray sounds that would occasionally reach us as we lay there were of donors milling about, going about their business around the grounds, and not of students sitting in a grassy field, arguing about novels and poetry. Or maybe it had to do with how sometimes, even after we’d done it really well and were lying in each other’s arms, bits of what we’d just done still drifting through our heads, Tommy would say something like: “I used to be able to do it twice in a row easy. But I can’t any more.” Then that feeling would come right to the fore and I’d have to put my hand over his mouth, whenever he said things like that, just so we could go on lying there in peace. I’m sure Tommy felt it too, because we’d always hold each other very tight after times like that, as though that way we’d manage to keep the feeling away.

FOR THE FIRST FEW WEEKS after I arrived, we hardly brought up Madame or that conversation with Ruth in the car that day. But the very fact of my having become his carer served as a reminder that we weren’t there to mark time. And so too, of course, did Tommy’s animal drawings.

I’d often wondered about Tommy’s animals over the years, and even that day we’d gone to see the boat, I’d been tempted to ask him about them. Was he still drawing them? Had he kept the ones from the Cottages? But the whole history around them had made it difficult for me to ask.

Then one afternoon, maybe about a month after I’d started, I came up to his room and found him at his school desk, carefully going over a drawing, his face nearly touching the paper. He’d called for me to come in when I’d knocked, but now he didn’t raise his head or stop what he was doing, and just a glance told me he was working on one of his imaginary creatures. I stopped in the doorway, uncertain whether I should come in, but eventually he looked up and closed his notebook—which I noticed looked identical to the black books he’d got from Keffers all those years ago. I came in then and we began talking about something else entirely, and after a while he put away his notebook without us mentioning it. But after that, I’d often come in and see it left on the desk or tossed beside his pillow.

Then one day we were up in his room with several minutes to kill before we set off for some checks, and I noticed something odd coming into his manner: something coy and deliberate which made me think he was after some s@x. But then he said: “Kath, I just want you to tell me. Tell me honestly.”

Then the black notebook came out of his desk, and he showed me three separate sketches of a kind of frog—except with a long tail as though a part of it had stayed a tadpole. At least, that’s what it looked like when you held it away from you. Close up, each sketch was a mass of minute detail, much like the creatures I’d seen years before.

“These two I did thinking they were made of metal,” he said. “See, everything’s got shiny surfaces. But this one here, I thought I’d try making him rubbery. You see? Almost blobby. I want to do a proper version now, a really good one, but I can’t decide. Kath, be honest, what do you think?” I can’t remember what I answered. What I do remember is the strong mix of emotions that engulfed me at that moment. I realised immediately this was Tommy’s way of putting behind us everything that had happened around his drawings back at the Cottages, and I felt relief, gratitude, sheer delight. But I was aware too why the animals had emerged again, and of all the possible layers behind Tommy’s apparently casual query. At the least, I could see, he was showing me he hadn’t forgotten, even though we’d hardly discussed anything openly; he was telling me he wasn’t complacent, and that he was busy getting on with his part of the preparations.

But that wasn’t all I felt looking at those peculiar frogs that day. Because it was there again, only faint and in the background at first, but growing all the while, so that afterwards it was what I kept thinking about. I couldn’t help it, as I looked at those pages, the thought went through my mind, even as I tried to grab it and put it away. It came to me that Tommy’s drawings weren’t as fresh now. Okay, in many ways these frogs were a lot like what I’d seen back at the Cottages. But something was definitely gone, and they looked laboured, almost like they’d been copied. So that feeling came again, even though I tried to keep it out: that we were doing all of this too late; that there’d once been a time for it, but we’d let that go by, and there was something ridiculous, reprehensible even, about the way we were now thinking and planning.

Now I’m going over this again, it occurs to me that might have been another reason we were so slow to talk openly to each other about our plans. It was certainly the case that none of the other donors at the Kingsfield were ever heard talking about deferrals or anything like that, and we were probably vaguely embarrassed, almost like we shared a shameful secret. We might even have been scared of what might happen if word got out to the others.

But as I say, I don’t want to paint too gloomy a view of that time at the Kingsfield. For a lot of it, especially after that day he asked me about his animals, there seemed to be no more shadows left from the past, and we really settled into each other’s com-pany. And though he never asked me again for advice about his pictures, he was happy to work on them in front of me, and we’d often spend our afternoons like that: me on the bed, maybe reading aloud; Tommy at the desk, drawing.

Perhaps we’d have been happy if things had stayed that way for a lot longer; if we could have whiled away more afternoons chatting, having s@x, reading aloud and drawing. But with the summer drawing to an end, with Tommy getting stronger, and the possibility of notice for his fourth donation growing ever more distinct, we knew we couldn’t keep putting things off indefinitely.

IT HAD BEEN AN UNUSUALLY BUSY PERIOD FOR ME, and I’d not been to the Kingsfield for almost a week. I arrived in the morning that day, and I remember it was bucketing down. Tommy’s room was almost dark, and you could hear a gutter splashing away near his window. He’d been down to the main hall for breakfast with his fellow donors, but had come back up again and was now sitting on his bed, looking vacant, not doing anything. I came in exhausted—I’d not had a proper night’s sleep for ages—and just collapsed onto his narrow bed, pushing him against the wall. I lay like that for a few moments, and might easily have fallen asleep if Tommy hadn’t kept prodding my knees with a toe. Then finally I sat up beside him and said: “I saw Madame yesterday, Tommy. I never spoke to her or anything. But I saw her.”

He looked at me, but stayed quiet.

“I saw her come up the street and go into her house. Ruth got it right. The right address, right door, everything.”

Then I described to him how the previous day, since I was down on the south coast anyway, I’d gone to Littlehampton in the late afternoon, and just as I’d done the last two times, walked down that long street near the seafront, past rows of terraced houses with names like “Wavecrest” and “Sea View,” until I’d come to the public bench beside the phone box. And I’d sat down and waited—again, the way I’d done before—with my eyes fixed on the house over the street.

“It was just like detective stuff. The previous times, I’d sat there for over half an hour each go, and nothing, absolutely nothing. But something told me I’d be lucky this time.”

I’d been so tired, I’d nearly nodded off right there on the bench. But then I’d looked up and she was there, coming down the street towards me.

“It was really spooky,” I said, “because she looked exactly the same. Maybe her face was slightly older. But otherwise, there was no real difference. Same clothes even. That smart grey suit.”

“It couldn’t literally have been the same suit.”

“I don’t know. It looked like it was.”

“So you didn’t try and speak to her?”

“Of course not, stupid. Just one step at a time. She was never exactly nice to us, remember.”

I told him how she’d walked right past me on the opposite side, never glancing over to me; how for a second I thought she would also go past the door I’d been watching—that Ruth had got the wrong address. But Madame had turned sharply at the gate, covered the tiny front path in two or three steps and vanished inside.

After I’d finished, Tommy stayed quiet for some time. Then he said:

“You sure you won’t get into trouble? Always driving out to places you’re not supposed to be?”

“Why do you think I’m so tired? I’ve been working all kinds of hours to get everything in. But at least we’ve found her now.”

The rain kept splashing outside. Tommy turned onto his side and put his head on my shoulder.

“Ruth did well for us,” he said, softly. “She got it right.”

“Yeah, she did well. But now it’s up to us.”

“So what’s the plan, Kath? Have we got one?”

“We just go there. We just go there and ask her. Next week, when I take you for the lab tests. I’ll get you signed out for the whole day. Then we can go to Littlehampton on the way back.”

Tommy gave a sigh and put his head deeper into my shoulder. Someone watching might have thought he was being unenthusiastic, but I knew what he was feeling. We’d been thinking about the deferrals, the theory about the Gallery, all of it, for so long—and now, suddenly, here we were. It was definitely a bit scary.

“If we get this,” he said, eventually. “Just suppose we do. Suppose she lets us have three years, say, just to ourselves. What do we do exactly? See what I mean, Kath? Where do we go? We can’t stay here, this is a centre.” “I don’t know, Tommy. Maybe she’ll tell us to go back to the Cottages. But it’d be better somewhere else. The White Mansion, maybe. Or perhaps they’ve got some other place. Somewhere separate for people like us. We’ll just have to see what she says.” We lay quietly on the bed for a few more minutes, listening to the rain. At some stage, I began prodding him with a foot, the way he’d been doing to me earlier. Eventually he retaliated and pushed my feet off the bed altogether.

“If we’re really going,” he said, “we’ll have to decide about the animals. You know, choose the best ones to take along. Maybe six or seven. We’ll have to do it quite carefully.”

“Okay,” I said. Then I stood up and stretched out my arms. “Maybe we’ll take more. Fifteen, twenty even. Yeah, we’ll go and see her. What can she do to us? We’ll go and talk to her.”

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

From days before we went, I’d had in my mind this picture of me and Tommy standing in front of that door, working up the nerve to press the bell, then having to wait there with hearts thumping. The way it turned out, though, we got lucky and were spared that particular ordeal.

We deserved a bit of luck by then, because the day hadn’t been going at all well. The car had played up on the journey out and we were an hour late for Tommy’s tests. Then a mix-up at the clinic had meant Tommy having to re-do three of the tests. This had left him feeling pretty woozy, so when we finally set off for Littlehampton towards the end of the afternoon, he began to feel carsick and we had to keep stopping to let him walk it off.

We finally arrived just before six o’clock. We parked the car behind the bingo hall, took out from the boot the sports bag containing Tommy’s notebooks, then set off towards the town centre. It had been a fine day and though the shops were all closing, a lot of people were hanging about outside the pubs, talking and drinking. Tommy began to feel better the more we walked, until eventually he remembered how he’d had to miss lunch because of the tests, and declared he’d have to eat before facing what was in front of us. So we were searching for some place to buy a takeaway sandwich, when he suddenly grabbed my arm, so hard I thought he was having some sort of attack. But then he said quietly into my ear: “That’s her, Kath. Look. Going past the hairdressers.”

And sure enough there she was, moving along the opposite pavement, dressed in her neat grey suit, just like the ones she’d always worn.

We set off after Madame at a reasonable distance, first through the pedestrian precinct, then along the near-deserted High Street. I think we were both reminded of that day we’d followed Ruth’s possible through another town. But this time things proved far simpler, because pretty soon she’d led us onto that long seafront street.

Because the road was completely straight, and because the setting sun was falling on it all the way down to the end, we found we could let Madame get quite a way ahead—till she wasn’t much more than a dot—and there’d still be no danger of losing her. In fact, we never even stopped hearing the echo of her heels, and the rhythmic thudding of Tommy’s bag against his leg seemed to be a kind of answer.

We went on like that for a long time, past the rows of identical houses. Then the houses on the opposite pavement ran out, areas of flat lawn appeared in their place, and you could see, beyond the lawns, the tops of the beach huts lining the seafront. The water itself wasn’t visible, but you could tell it was there, just from the big sky and the seagull noises.

But the houses on our side continued without a change, and after a while I said to Tommy:

“It’s not long now. See that bench over there? That’s the one I sit on. The house is just over from it.”

Until I said this, Tommy had been pretty calm. But now something seemed to get into him, and he began to walk much faster, like he wanted to catch up with her. But now there was no one between Madame and us, and as Tommy kept closing the gap, I had to grab his arm to slow him down. I was all the time afraid she’d turn and look at us, but she didn’t, and then she was going in through her little gateway. She paused at her door to find her keys in her handbag, and then there we were, standing by her gate, watching her. She still didn’t turn, and I had an idea that she’d been aware of us all along and was deliberately ignoring us. I thought too that Tommy was about to shout something to her, and that it would be the wrong thing. That was why I called from the gate, so quickly and without hesitation.

It was only a polite “Excuse me!” but she spun round like I’d thrown something at her. And as her gaze fell on us, a chill passed through me, much like the one I’d felt years ago that time we’d waylaid her outside the main house. Her eyes were as cold, and her face maybe even more severe than I remembered. I don’t know if she recognised us at that point; but without doubt, she saw and decided in a second what we were, because you could see her stiffen—as if a pair of large spiders was set to crawl towards her.

Then something changed in her expression. It didn’t become warmer exactly. But that revulsion got put away somewhere, and she studied us carefully, squinting in the setting sun.

“Madame,” I said, leaning over the gate. “We don’t want to shock you or anything. But we were at Hailsham. I’m Kathy H., maybe you remember. And this is Tommy D. We haven’t come to give you any trouble.”

She came a few steps back towards us. “From Hailsham,” she said, and a small smile actually went across her face. “Well, this is a surprise. If you aren’t here to give me trouble, then why are you here?”

Suddenly Tommy said: “We have to talk with you. I’ve brought some things”—he raised his bag—“some things you might want for your gallery. We’ve got to talk with you.”

Madame went on standing there, hardly moving in the low sun, her head tilted as though listening for some sound from the seafront. Then she smiled again, though the smile didn’t seem to be for us, but just herself.

“Very well then. Come inside. Then we’ll see what it is you wish to talk about.”

AS WE WENT IN, I noticed the front door had coloured glass panels, and once Tommy closed it behind us, everything got pretty dark. We were in a hallway so narrow you felt you’d be able to touch the walls on either side just by stretching out your elbows. Madame had stopped in front of us, and was standing still, her back to us, again like she was listening. Peering past her, I saw that the hallway, narrow as it was, divided further: to the left was a staircase going upstairs; to the right, an even narrower passage leading deeper into the house.

Following Madame’s example, I listened too, but there was only silence in the house. Then, maybe from somewhere upstairs, there was a faint thump. That small noise seemed to signify something to her, because she now turned to us and pointing into the darkness of the passage, said: “Go in there and wait for me. I’ll be down shortly.”

She began to climb the stairs, then seeing our hesitation, leaned over the banister and pointed again into the dark.

“In there,” she said, then vanished upstairs.

Tommy and I wandered forward and found ourselves in what must have been the front room of the house. It was like a servant of some sort had got the place ready for the night-time, then left: the curtains were closed and there were dim table lamps switched on. I could smell the old furniture, which was probably Victorian. The fireplace had been sealed off with a board, and where the fire would have been, there was a picture, woven like a tapestry, of a strange owl-like bird staring out at you. Tommy touched my arm and pointed to a framed picture hanging in a corner over a little round table.

“It’s Hailsham,” he whispered.

We went up to it, but then I wasn’t so sure. I could see it was a pretty nice watercolour, but the table lamp beneath it had a crooked shade covered with cobweb traces, and instead of lighting up the picture, it just put a shine over the murky glass, so you could hardly make it out at all.

“It’s the bit round the back of the duck pond,” Tommy said.

“What do you mean?” I whispered back. “There’s no pond. It’s just a bit of countryside.”

“No, the pond’s behind you.” Tommy seemed surprisingly irritated. “You must be able to remember. If you’re round the back with the pond behind you, and you’re looking over towards the North Playing Field . . .”

We went silent again because we could hear voices somewhere in the house. It sounded like a man’s voice, maybe coming from upstairs. Then we heard what was definitely Madame’s voice coming down the stairs, saying: “Yes, you’re quite right. Quite right.” We waited for Madame to come in, but her footsteps went past the door and to the back of the house. It flashed through my mind she was going to prepare tea and scones and bring it all in on a trolley, but then I decided that was rubbish, that she’d just as likely forgotten about us, and now she’d suddenly remember, come in and tell us to leave. Then a gruff male voice called something from upstairs, so muffled it might have been two floors up. Madame’s footsteps came back into the hallway, then she called up: “I’ve told you what to do. Just do as I explained.” Tommy and I waited several more minutes. Then the wall at the back of the room began to move. I saw almost immediately it wasn’t really a wall, but a pair of sliding doors which you could use to section off the front half of what was otherwise one long room. Madame had rolled back the doors just part of the way, and she was now standing there staring at us. I tried to see past her, but it was just darkness. I thought maybe she was waiting for us to explain why we were there, but in the end, she said: “You told me you were Kathy H. and Tommy D. Am I correct? And you were at Hailsham how long ago?”

I told her, but there was no way of telling if she remembered us or not. She just went on standing there at the threshold, as though hesitating to come in. But now Tommy spoke again:

“We don’t want to keep you long. But there’s something we have to talk to you about.”

“So you say. Well then. You’d better make yourselves comfortable.”

She reached out and put her hands on the backs of two matching armchairs just in front of her. There was something odd about her manner, like she hadn’t really invited us to sit down. I felt that if we did as she was suggesting and sat on those chairs, she’d just go on standing behind us, not even taking her hands away from the backs. But when we made a move towards her, she too came forwards, and—perhaps I imagined it—tucked her shoulders in tightly as she passed between us. When we turned to sit down, she was over by the windows, in front of the heavy velvet curtains, holding us in a glare, like we were in a class and she was a teacher. At least, that’s the way it looked to me at that moment. Tommy, afterwards, said he thought she was about to burst into song, and that those curtains behind her would open, and instead of the street and the flat grassy expanse leading to the seafront, there’d be this big stage set, like the ones we’d had at Hailsham, with even a chorus line to back her up. It was funny, when he said that afterwards, and I could see her again then, hands clasped, elbows out, sure enough like she was getting ready to sing. But I doubt if Tommy was really thinking anything like that at the time. I remember noticing how tense he’d got, and worrying he’d blurt out something completely daft. That was why, when she asked us, not unkindly, what it was we wanted, I stepped in quickly.

It probably came out pretty muddled at first, but after a while, as I became more confident she’d hear me out, I calmed down and got a lot clearer. I’d been turning over in my mind for weeks and weeks just what I’d say to her. I’d gone over it during those long car journeys, and while sitting at quiet tables in service-station cafés. It had seemed so difficult then, and I’d eventually resorted to a plan: I’d memorised word for word a few key lines, then drawn a mental map of how I’d go from one point to the next. But now she was there in front of me, most of what I’d prepared seemed either unnecessary or completely wrong. The strange thing was—and Tommy agreed when we discussed it afterwards—although at Hailsham she’d been like this hostile stranger from the outside, now that we were facing her again, even though she hadn’t said or done anything to suggest any warmth towards us, Madame now appeared to me like an intimate, someone much closer to us than anyone new we’d met over the recent years. That’s why suddenly all the things I’d been preparing in my head just went, and I spoke to her honestly and simply, almost as I might have done years ago to a guardian. I told her what we’d heard, the rumours about Hailsham students and deferrals; how we realised the rumours might not be accurate, and that we weren’t banking on anything.

“And even if it is true,” I said, “we know you must get tired of it, all these couples coming to you, claiming to be in love. Tommy and me, we never would have come and bothered you if we weren’t really sure.”

“Sure?” It was the first time she’d spoken for ages and we both jolted back a bit in surprise. “You say you’re sure? Sure that you’re in love? How can you know it? You think love is so simple? So you are in love. Deeply in love. Is that what you’re saying to me?” Her voice sounded almost sarcastic, but then I saw, with a kind of shock, little tears in her eyes as she looked from one to the other of us.

“You believe this? That you’re deeply in love? And therefore you’ve come to me for this . . . this deferral? Why? Why did you come to me?”

If she’d asked this in a certain way, like the whole idea was completely crazy, then I’m sure I’d have felt pretty devastated. But she hadn’t quite said it like that. She’d asked it almost like it was a test question she knew the answer to; as if, even, she’d taken other couples through an identical routine many times before. That was what kept me hopeful. But Tommy must have got anxious, because he suddenly burst in: “We came to see you because of your gallery. We think we know what your gallery’s for.”

“My gallery?” She leaned back on the window ledge, causing the curtains to sway behind her, and took a slow breath. “My gallery. You must mean my collection. All those paintings, poems, all those things of yours I gathered over the years. It was hard work for me, but I believed in it, we all did in those days. So you think you know what it was for, why we did it. Well, that would be most interesting to hear. Because I have to say, it’s a question I ask myself all the time.” She suddenly switched her gaze from Tommy to me. “Do I go too far?” she asked.

I didn’t know what to say, so just replied: “No, no.”

“I go too far,” she said. “I’m sorry. I often go too far on this subject. Forget what I just said. Young man, you were going to tell me about my gallery. Please, let me hear.”

“It’s so you could tell,” Tommy said. “So you’d have something to go on. Otherwise how would you know when students came to you and said they were in love?”

Madame’s gaze had drifted over to me again, but I had the feeling she was staring at something on my arm. I actually looked down to see if there was birdsh@t or something on my sleeve. Then I heard her say:

“And this is why you think I gathered all those things of yours. My gallery, as all of you always called it. I laughed when I first heard that’s what you were calling it. But in time, I too came to think of it as that. My gallery. Now why, young man, explain it to me. Why would my gallery help in telling which of you were really in love?” “Because it would help show you what we were like,” Tommy said. “Because . . .”

“Because of course”—Madame cut in suddenly—“your art will reveal your inner selves! That’s it, isn’t it? Because your art will display your souls!” Then suddenly she turned to me again and said: “I go too far?”

She’d said this before, and I again had the impression she was staring at a spot on my sleeve. But by this point a faint suspicion I’d had ever since the first time she’d asked “I go too far?” had started to grow. I looked at Madame carefully, but she seemed to sense my scrutiny and she turned back to Tommy.

“All right,” she said. “Let us continue. What was it you were telling me?”

“The trouble is,” Tommy said, “I was a bit mixed up in those days.”

“You were saying something about your art. How art bares the soul of the artist.”

“Well, what I’m trying to say,” Tommy persisted, “is that I was so mixed up in those days, I didn’t really do any art. I didn’t do anything. I know now I should have done, but I was mixed up. So you haven’t got anything of mine in your gallery. I know that’s my fault, and I know it’s probably way too late, but I’ve brought some things with me now.” He raised his bag, then began to unzip it. “Some of it was done recently, but some of it’s from quite a long time ago. You should have Kath’s stuff already. She got plenty into the Gallery. Didn’t you, Kath?” For a moment they were both looking at me. Then Madame said, barely audibly:

“Poor creatures. What did we do to you? With all our schemes and plans?” She let that hang, and I thought I could see tears in her eyes again. Then she turned to me and asked: “Do we continue with this talk? You wish to go on?” It was when she said this that the vague idea I’d had before became something more substantial. “Do I go too far?” And now: “Do we continue?” I realised, with a little chill, that these questions had never been for me, or for Tommy, but for someone else—someone listening behind us in the darkened half of the room.

I turned round quite slowly and looked into the darkness. I couldn’t see anything, but I heard a sound, a mechanical one, surprisingly far away—the house seemed to go much further back into the dark than I’d guessed. Then I could make out a shape moving towards us, and a woman’s voice said: “Yes, Marie-Claude. Let us carry on.” I was still looking into the darkness when I heard Madame let out a kind of snort, and she came striding past us and on into the dark. Then there were more mechanical sounds, and Madame emerged pushing a figure in a wheelchair. She passed between us again, and for a moment longer, because Madame’s back was blocking the view, I couldn’t see the person in the wheelchair. But then Madame steered it around to face us and said: “You speak to them. It’s you they’ve come to speak to.”

“I suppose it is.”

The figure in the wheelchair was frail and contorted, and it was the voice more than anything that helped me recognise her.

“Miss Emily,” Tommy said, quite softly.

“You speak to them,” Madame said, as though washing her hands of everything. But she remained standing behind the wheelchair, her eyes blazing towards us.

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