بخش 08

کتاب: هرگز رهایم مکن / فصل 8

بخش 08

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CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

“Marie-Claude is correct,” Miss Emily said. “I’m the one to whom you should be speaking. Marie-Claude worked hard for our project. And the way it all ended has left her feeling somewhat disillusioned. As for myself, whatever the disappointments, I don’t feel so badly about it. I think what we achieved merits some respect. Look at the two of you. You’ve turned out well. I’m sure you have much you could tell me to make me proud. What did you say your names were? No, no, wait. I think I shall remember. You’re the boy with the bad temper. A bad temper, but a big heart. Tommy. Am I right? And you, of course, are Kathy H. You’ve done well as a carer. We’ve heard a lot about you. I remember, you see. I dare say I can remember you all.” “What good does it do you or them?” Madame asked, then strode away from the wheelchair, past the two of us and into the darkness, for all I know to occupy the space Miss Emily had been in before.

“Miss Emily,” I said, “it’s very nice to see you again.”

“How kind of you to say so. I recognised you, but you may well not have recognised me. In fact, Kathy H., once not so long ago, I passed you sitting on that bench out there, and you certainly didn’t recognise me then. You glanced at George, the big Nigerian man pushing me. Oh yes, you had quite a good look at him, and he at you. I didn’t say a word, and you didn’t know it was me. But tonight, in context, as it were, we know each other. You both look rather shocked at the sight of me. I’ve not been well recently, but I’m hoping this contraption isn’t a permanent fixture. Unfortunately, my dears, I won’t be able to entertain you for as long as I’d like just now, because in a short while some men are coming to take away my bedside cabinet. It’s a quite wonderful object. George has put protective padding around it, but I’ve insisted I’ll accompany it myself all the same. You never know with these men. They handle it roughly, hurl it around their vehicle, then their employer claims it was like that from the start. It happened to us before, so this time, I’ve insisted on going along with it. It’s a beautiful object, I had it with me at Hailsham, so I’m determined to get a fair price. So when they come, I’m afraid that’s when I shall have to leave you. But I can see, my dears, you’ve come on a mission close to your hearts. I must say, it does cheer me to see you. And it cheers Marie-Claude too, even though you’d never know it to look at her. Isn’t that so, darling? Oh, she pretends it’s not so, but it is. She’s touched that you’ve come to find us. Oh, she’s in a sulk, ignore her, students, ignore her. Now, I’ll try and answer your questions the best I can. I’ve heard this rumour countless times. When we still had Hailsham, we’d get two or three couples each year, trying to get in to talk to us. One even wrote to us. I suppose it’s not so hard to find a large estate like that if you mean to break the rules. So you see, it’s been there, this rumour, from long before your time.” She stopped, so I said: “What we want to know now, Miss Emily, is if the rumour’s true or not.”

She went on gazing at us for a moment, then took a deep breath. “Within Hailsham itself, whenever this talk started up, I made sure to stamp it out good and proper. But as for what students said after they’d left us, what could I do? In the end, I came to believe—and Marie-Claude believes this too, don’t you, darling?—I came to believe that this rumour, it’s not just a single rumour. What I mean is, I think it’s one that gets created from scratch over and over. You go to the source, stamp it out, you’ll not stop it starting again elsewhere. I came to this conclusion and ceased to worry about it. Marie-Claude never did worry about it. Her view was: ‘If they’re so foolish, let them believe it.’ Oh yes, don’t show me that sour face of yours. That’s been your view of it from the beginning. After many years of it, I came not exactly to the same viewpoint. But I began to think, well, perhaps I shouldn’t worry. It’s not my doing, after all. And for the few couples who get disappointed, the rest will never put it to the test anyway. It’s something for them to dream about, a little fantasy. What harm is there? But for the two of you, I can see this doesn’t apply. You are serious. You’ve thought carefully. You’ve hoped carefully. For students like you, I do feel regret. It gives me no pleasure at all to disappoint you. But there it is.” I didn’t want to look at Tommy. I felt surprisingly calm, and even though Miss Emily’s words should have crushed us, there was an aspect to them that implied something further, something being held back, that suggested we hadn’t yet got to the bottom of things. There was even the possibility she wasn’t telling the truth. So I asked:

“Is it the case, then, that deferrals don’t exist? There’s nothing you can do?”

She shook her head slowly from side to side. “There’s no truth in the rumour. I’m sorry. I truly am.”

Suddenly Tommy asked: “Was it true once though? Before Hailsham closed?”

Miss Emily went on shaking her head. “It was never true. Even before the Morningdale scandal, even back when Hailsham was considered a shining beacon, an example of how we might move to a more humane and better way of doing things, even then, it wasn’t true. It’s best to be clear about this. A wishful rumour. That’s all it ever was. Oh dear, is that the men come for the cabinet?” The doorbell had gone, and footsteps came down the stairs to answer it. There were men’s voices out in the narrow hall, and Madame came out of the darkness behind us, crossed the room and went out. Miss Emily leaned forward in the wheelchair, listening intently. Then she said:

“It’s not them. It’s that awful man from the decorating com-pany again. Marie-Claude will see to it. So, my dears, we have a few minutes more. Was there something else you wished to talk to me about? This is all strictly against regulations, of course, and Marie-Claude should never have asked you in. And naturally, I should have turned you out the second I knew you were here. But Marie-Claude doesn’t care much for their regulations these days, and I must say, neither do I. So if you wish to stay a little longer, you’re very welcome.” “If the rumour was never true,” Tommy said, “then why did you take all our art stuff away? Didn’t the Gallery exist either?”

“The Gallery? Well, that rumour did have some truth to it. There was a gallery. And after a fashion, there still is. These days it’s here, in this house. I had to prune it down, which I regret. But there wasn’t room for all of it in here. But why did we take your work away? That’s what you’re asking, isn’t it?”

“Not just that,” I said quietly. “Why did we do all of that work in the first place? Why train us, encourage us, make us produce all of that? If we’re just going to give donations anyway, then die, why all those lessons? Why all those books and discussions?”

“Why Hailsham at all?” Madame had said this from the hallway. She came past us again and back into the darkened section of the room. “It’s a good question for you to ask.”

Miss Emily’s gaze followed her, and for a moment, remained fixed behind us. I felt like turning to see what looks were being exchanged, but it was almost like we were back at Hailsham, and we had to keep facing the front with complete attention. Then Miss Emily said:

“Yes, why Hailsham at all? Marie-Claude likes to ask that a lot these days. But not so long ago, before the Morningdale scandal, she wouldn’t have dreamt of asking a question like that. It wouldn’t have entered her head. You know that’s right, don’t look at me like that! There was only one person in those days who would ask a question like that, and that was me. Long before Morningdale, right from the very beginning, I asked that. And that made it easy for the rest of them, Marie-Claude, all the rest of them, they could all carry on without a care. All you students too. I did all the worrying and questioning for the lot of you. And as long as I was steadfast, then no doubts ever crossed your minds, any of you. But you asked your questions, dear boy. Let’s answer the simplest one, and perhaps it will answer all the rest. Why did we take your artwork? Why did we do that? You said an interesting thing earlier, Tommy. When you were discussing this with Marie-Claude. You said it was because your art would reveal what you were like. What you were like inside. That’s what you said, wasn’t it? Well, you weren’t far wrong about that. We took away your art because we thought it would reveal your souls. Or to put it more finely, we did it to prove you had souls at all.” She paused, and Tommy and I exchanged glances for the first time in ages. Then I asked:

“Why did you have to prove a thing like that, Miss Emily? Did someone think we didn’t have souls?”

A thin smile appeared on her face. “It’s touching, Kathy, to see you so taken aback. It demonstrates, in a way, that we did our job well. As you say, why would anyone doubt you had a soul? But I have to tell you, my dear, it wasn’t something commonly held when we first set out all those years ago. And though we’ve come a long way since then, it’s still not a notion universally held, even today. You Hailsham students, even after you’ve been out in the world like this, you still don’t know the half of it. All around the country, at this very moment, there are students being reared in deplorable conditions, conditions you Hailsham students could hardly imagine. And now we’re no more, things will only get worse.” She paused again, and for a moment she seemed to be inspecting us carefully through narrowed eyes. Finally she went on:

“Whatever else, we at least saw to it that all of you in our care, you grew up in wonderful surroundings. And we saw to it too, after you left us, you were kept away from the worst of those horrors. We were able to do that much for you at least. But this dream of yours, this dream of being able to defer. Such a thing would always have been beyond us to grant, even at the height of our influence. I’m sorry, I can see what I’m saying won’t be welcome to you. But you mustn’t be dejected. I hope you can appreciate how much we were able to secure for you. Look at you both now! You’ve had good lives, you’re educated and cultured. I’m sorry we couldn’t secure more for you than we did, but you must realise how much worse things once were. When Marie-Claude and I started out, there were no places like Hailsham in existence. We were the first, along with Glenmorgan House. Then a few years later came the Saunders Trust. Together, we became a small but very vocal movement, and we challenged the entire way the donations programme was being run. Most importantly, we demonstrated to the world that if students were reared in humane, cultivated environments, it was possible for them to grow to be as sensitive and intelligent as any ordinary human being. Before that, all clones—or students, as we preferred to call you—existed only to supply medical science. In the early days, after the war, that’s largely all you were to most people. Shadowy objects in test tubes. Wouldn’t you agree, Marie-Claude? She’s being very quiet. Usually you can’t get her to shut up on this subject. Your presence, my dears, appears to have tied her tongue. Very well. So to answer your question, Tommy. That was why we collected your art. We selected the best of it and put on special exhibitions. In the late seventies, at the height of our influence, we were organising large events all around the country. There’d be cabinet ministers, bishops, all sorts of famous people coming to attend. There were speeches, large funds pledged. ‘There, look!’ we could say. ‘Look at this art! How dare you claim these children are anything less than fully human?’ Oh yes, there was a lot of support for our movement back then, the tide was with us.” For the next few minutes, Miss Emily went on reminiscing about different events from those days, mentioning a lot of people whose names meant nothing to us. In fact, for a moment, it was almost like we were listening to her again at one of her morning assemblies as she drifted off on tangents none of us could follow. She seemed to enjoy herself, though, and a gentle smile settled around her eyes. Then suddenly she came out of it and said in a new tone: “But we never quite lost touch with reality, did we, Marie-Claude? Not like our colleagues at the Saunders Trust. Even during the best of times, we always knew what a difficult battle we were engaged in. And sure enough, the Morningdale business came along, then one or two other things, and before we knew it all our hard work had come undone.”

“But what I don’t understand,” I said, “is why people would want students treated so badly in the first place.”

“From your perspective today, Kathy, your bemusement is perfectly reasonable. But you must try and see it historically. After the war, in the early fifties, when the great breakthroughs in science followed one after the other so rapidly, there wasn’t time to take stock, to ask the sensible questions. Suddenly there were all these new possibilities laid before us, all these ways to cure so many previously incurable conditions. This was what the world noticed the most, wanted the most. And for a long time, people preferred to believe these organs appeared from nowhere, or at most that they grew in a kind of vacuum. Yes, there were arguments. But by the time people became concerned about . . . about students, by the time they came to consider just how you were reared, whether you should have been brought into existence at all, well by then it was too late. There was no way to reverse the process. How can you ask a world that has come to regard cancer as curable, how can you ask such a world to put away that cure, to go back to the dark days? There was no going back. However uncomfortable people were about your existence, their overwhelming concern was that their own children, their spouses, their parents, their friends, did not die from cancer, motor neurone disease, heart disease. So for a long time you were kept in the shadows, and people did their best not to think about you. And if they did, they tried to convince themselves you weren’t really like us. That you were less than human, so it didn’t matter. And that was how things stood until our little movement came along. But do you see what we were up against? We were virtually attempting to square the circle. Here was the world, requiring students to donate. While that remained the case, there would always be a barrier against seeing you as properly human. Well, we fought that battle for many years, and what we won for you, at least, were many improvements, though of course, you were only a select few. But then came the Morningdale scandal, then other things, and before we knew it, the climate had quite changed. No one wanted to be seen supporting us any more, and our little movement, Hailsham, Glenmorgan, the Saunders Trust, we were all of us swept away.” “What was this Morningdale scandal you keep mentioning, Miss Emily?” I asked. “You’ll have to tell us, because we don’t know about it.”

“Well, I suppose there’s no reason why you should. It was never such a large matter in the wider world. It concerned a scientist called James Morningdale, quite talented in his way. He carried on his work in a remote part of Scotland, where I suppose he thought he’d attract less attention. What he wanted was to offer people the possibility of having children with enhanced characteristics. Superior intelligence, superior athleticism, that sort of thing. Of course, there’d been others with similar ambitions, but this Morningdale fellow, he’d taken his research much further than anyone before him, far beyond legal boundaries. Well, he was discovered, they put an end to his work and that seemed to be that. Except, of course, it wasn’t, not for us. As I say, it never became an enormous matter. But it did create a certain atmosphere, you see. It reminded people, reminded them of a fear they’d always had. It’s one thing to create students, such as yourselves, for the donation programme. But a generation of created children who’d take their place in society? Children demonstrably superior to the rest of us? Oh no. That frightened people. They recoiled from that.” “But Miss Emily,” I said, “what did any of that have to do with us? Why did Hailsham have to close because of something like that?”

“We didn’t see an obvious connection either, Kathy. Not at first. And I often think now, we were culpable not to do so. Had we been more alert, less absorbed with ourselves, if we’d worked very hard at that stage when the news about Morningdale first broke, we might have been able to avert it. Oh, Marie-Claude disagrees. She thinks it would have happened no matter what we did, and she might have a point. After all, it wasn’t just Morningdale. There were other things at that time. That awful television series, for instance. All these things contributed, contributed to the turning of the tide. But I suppose when it comes down to it, the central flaw was this. Our little movement, we were always too fragile, always too dependent on the whims of our supporters. So long as the climate was in our favour, so long as a corporation or a politician could see a benefit in supporting us, then we were able to keep afloat. But it had always been a struggle, and after Morningdale, after the climate changed, we had no chance. The world didn’t want to be reminded how the donation programme really worked. They didn’t want to think about you students, or about the conditions you were brought up in. In other words, my dears, they wanted you back in the shadows. Back in the shadows where you’d been before the likes of Marie-Claude and myself ever came along. And all those influential people who’d once been so keen to help us, well of course, they all vanished. We lost our sponsors, one after the other, in a matter of just over a year. We kept going for as long as we could, we went on for two years more than Glenmorgan. But in the end, as you know, we were obliged to close, and today there’s hardly a trace left of the work we did. You won’t find anything like Hailsham anywhere in the country now. All you’ll find, as ever, are those vast government ‘homes,’ and even if they’re somewhat better than they once were, let me tell you, my dears, you’d not sleep for days if you saw what still goes on in some of those places. And as for Marie-Claude and me, here we are, we’ve retreated to this house, and upstairs we have a mountain of your work. That’s what we have to remind us of what we did. And a mountain of debt too, though that’s not nearly so welcome. And the memories, I suppose, of all of you. And the knowledge that we’ve given you better lives than you would have had otherwise.” “Don’t try and ask them to thank you,” Madame’s voice said from behind us. “Why should they be grateful? They came here looking for something much more. What we gave them, all the years, all the fighting we did on their behalf, what do they know of that? They think it’s God-given. Until they came here, they knew nothing of it. All they feel now is disappointment, because we haven’t given them everything possible.” Nobody spoke for a while. Then there was a noise outside and the doorbell rang again. Madame came out of the darkness and went out into the hall.

“This time it must be the men,” Miss Emily said. “I shall have to get ready. But you can stay a little longer. The men have to bring the thing down two flights of stairs. Marie-Claude will see they don’t damage it.”

Tommy and I couldn’t quite believe that was the end of it. We neither of us stood up, and anyway, there was no sign of anyone helping Miss Emily out of her wheelchair. I wondered for a moment if she was going to try and get up by herself, but she remained still, leaning forward as before, listening intently. Then Tommy said:

“So there’s definitely nothing. No deferral, nothing like that.”

“Tommy,” I murmured, and glared at him. But Miss Emily said gently:

“No, Tommy. There’s nothing like that. Your life must now run the course that’s been set for it.”

“So, what you’re saying, Miss,” Tommy said, “is that everything we did, all the lessons, everything. It was all about what you just told us? There was nothing more to it than that?”

“I can see,” Miss Emily said, “that it might look as though you were simply pawns in a game. It can certainly be looked at like that. But think of it. You were lucky pawns. There was a certain climate and now it’s gone. You have to accept that sometimes that’s how things happen in this world. People’s opinions, their feelings, they go one way, then the other. It just so happens you grew up at a certain point in this process.” “It might be just some trend that came and went,” I said. “But for us, it’s our life.”

“Yes, that’s true. But think of it. You were better off than many who came before you. And who knows what those who come after you will have to face. I’m sorry, students, but I must leave you now. George! George!”

There had been a lot of noise out in the hallway, and perhaps this had stopped George from hearing, because there was no response. Tommy asked suddenly:

“Is that why Miss Lucy left?”

For a while I thought Miss Emily, whose attention was on what was going on in the hallway, hadn’t heard him. She leaned back in her wheelchair and began moving it gradually towards the door. There were so many little coffee tables and chairs there didn’t seem a way through. I was about to get up and clear a path, when she stopped suddenly.

“Lucy Wainright,” she said. “Ah yes. We had a little trouble with her.” She paused, then adjusted her wheelchair back to face Tommy. “Yes, we had a little trouble with her. A disagreement. But to answer your question, Tommy. The disagreement with Lucy Wainright wasn’t to do with what I’ve just been telling you. Not directly, anyway. No, that was more, shall we say, an internal matter.” I thought she was going to leave it at that, so I asked: “Miss Emily, if it’s all right, we’d like to know about it, about what happened with Miss Lucy.”

Miss Emily raised her eyebrows. “Lucy Wainright? She was important to you? Forgive me, dear students, I’m forgetting again. Lucy wasn’t with us for long, so for us she’s just a peripheral figure in our memory of Hailsham. And not an altogether happy one. But I appreciate, if you were there during just those years . . .” She laughed to herself and seemed to be remembering something. In the hall, Madame was telling the men off really loudly, but Miss Emily now seemed to have lost interest. She was going through her memories with a look of concentration. Finally she said: “She was a nice enough girl, Lucy Wainright. But after she’d been with us for a while, she began to have these ideas. She thought you students had to be made more aware. More aware of what lay ahead of you, who you were, what you were for. She believed you should be given as full a picture as possible. That to do anything less would be somehow to cheat you. We considered her view and concluded she was mistaken.” “Why?” Tommy asked. “Why did you think that?”

“Why? She meant well, I’m sure of that. I can see you were fond of her. She had the makings of an excellent guardian. But what she was wanting to do, it was too theoretical. We had run Hailsham for many years, we had a sense of what could work, what was best for the students in the long run, beyond Hailsham. Lucy Wainright was idealistic, nothing wrong with that. But she had no grasp of practicalities. You see, we were able to give you something, something which even now no one will ever take from you, and we were able to do that principally by sheltering you. Hailsham would not have been Hailsham if we hadn’t. Very well, sometimes that meant we kept things from you, lied to you. Yes, in many ways we fooled you. I suppose you could even call it that. But we sheltered you during those years, and we gave you your childhoods. Lucy was well-meaning enough. But if she’d had her way, your happiness at Hailsham would have been shattered. Look at you both now! I’m so proud to see you both. You built your lives on what we gave you. You wouldn’t be who you are today if we’d not protected you. You wouldn’t have become absorbed in your lessons, you wouldn’t have lost yourselves in your art and your writing. Why should you have done, knowing what lay in store for each of you? You would have told us it was all pointless, and how could we have argued with you? So she had to go.” We could hear Madame now shouting at the men. She hadn’t lost her temper exactly, but her voice was frighteningly stern, and the men’s voices, which until this point had been arguing with her, fell silent.

“Perhaps it’s just as well I’ve remained in here with you,” Miss Emily said. “Marie-Claude does this sort of thing so much more efficiently.”

I don’t know what made me say it. Maybe it was because I knew the visit would have to finish pretty soon; maybe I was getting curious to know how exactly Miss Emily and Madame felt about each other. Anyway, I said to her, lowering my voice and nodding towards the doorway:

“Madame never liked us. She’s always been afraid of us. In the way people are afraid of spiders and things.”

I waited to see if Miss Emily would get angry, no longer caring much if she did. Sure enough, she turned to me sharply, as if I’d thrown a ball of paper at her, and her eyes flashed in a way that reminded me of her Hailsham days. But her voice was even and soft when she replied:

“Marie-Claude has given everything for you. She has worked and worked and worked. Make no mistake about it, my child, Marie-Claude is on your side and will always be on your side. Is she afraid of you? We’re all afraid of you. I myself had to fight back my dread of you all almost every day I was at Hailsham. There were times I’d look down at you all from my study window and I’d feel such revulsion . . .” She stopped, then something in her eyes flashed again. “But I was determined not to let such feelings stop me doing what was right. I fought those feelings and I won. Now, if you’d be so good as to help me out of here, George should be waiting with my crutches.” With us at each elbow, she walked carefully into the hall, where a large man in a nursing uniform started with alarm and quickly produced a pair of crutches.

The front door was open to the street and I was surprised to see there was still daylight left. Madame’s voice was coming from outside, talking more calmly now to the men. It felt like time for Tommy and me to slip away, but the George man was helping Miss Emily with her coat, while she stood steadily between her crutches; there was no way we could get past, so we just waited. I suppose, too, we were waiting to say goodbye to Miss Emily; maybe, after everything else, we wanted to thank her, I’m not sure. But she was now preoccupied with her cabinet. She began to make some urgent point to the men outside, then left with George, not looking back at us.

Tommy and I stayed in the hall for a while longer, not sure what to do. When we did eventually wander outside, I noticed the lamps had come on all the way down the long street, even though the sky wasn’t yet dark. A white van was starting up its engine. Right behind was a big old Volvo with Miss Emily in the passenger seat. Madame was crouching by the window, nodding to something Miss Emily was saying, while George closed up the boot and moved round to the driver’s door. Then the white van moved off, and Miss Emily’s car followed.

Madame watched the departing vehicles for a long time. Then she turned as though to go back into the house, and seeing us there on the pavement, stopped abruptly, almost shrinking back.

“We’re going now,” I said. “Thank you for talking to us. Please say goodbye to Miss Emily for us.”

I could see her studying me in the fading light. Then she said:

“Kathy H. I remember you. Yes, I remember.” She fell silent, but went on looking at me.

“I think I know what you’re thinking about,” I said, in the end. “I think I can guess.”

“Very well.” Her voice was dreamy and her gaze had slightly lost focus. “Very well. You are a mind-reader. Tell me.”

“There was a time you saw me once, one afternoon, in the dormitories. There was no one else around, and I was playing this tape, this music. I was sort of dancing with my eyes closed and you saw me.”

“That’s very good. A mind-reader. You should be on the stage. I only recognised you just now. But yes, I remember that occasion. I still think about it from time to time.”

“That’s funny. So do I.”

“I see.”

We could have ended the conversation there. We could have said goodbye and left. But she stepped closer to us, looking into my face all the time.

“You were much younger then,” she said. “But yes, it’s you.”

“You don’t have to answer this if you don’t want to,” I said. “But it’s always puzzled me. May I ask you?”

“You read my mind. But I cannot read yours.”

“Well, you were . . . upset that day. You were watching me, and when I realised, and I opened my eyes, you were watching me and I think you were crying. In fact, I know you were. You were watching me and crying. Why was that?”

Madame’s expression didn’t change and she kept staring into my face. “I was weeping,” she said eventually, very quietly, as though afraid the neighbours were listening, “because when I came in, I heard your music. I thought some foolish student had left the music on. But when I came into your dormitory, I saw you, by yourself, a little girl, dancing. As you say, eyes closed, far away, a look of yearning. You were dancing so very sympathetically. And the music, the song. There was something in the words. It was full of sadness.” “The song,” I said, “it was called ‘Never Let Me Go.’ ” Then I sang a couple of lines quietly under my breath for her. “Never let me go. Oh, baby, baby. Never let me go . . .”

She nodded as though in agreement. “Yes, it was that song. I’ve heard it once or twice since then. On the radio, on the television. And it’s taken me back to that little girl, dancing by herself.”

“You say you’re not a mind-reader,” I said. “But maybe you were that day. Maybe that’s why you started to cry when you saw me. Because whatever the song was really about, in my head, when I was dancing, I had my own version. You see, I imagined it was about this woman who’d been told she couldn’t have babies. But then she’d had one, and she was so pleased, and she was holding it ever so tightly to her breast, really afraid something might separate them, and she’s going baby, baby, never let me go. That’s not what the song’s about at all, but that’s what I had in my head that time. Maybe you read my mind, and that’s why you found it so sad. I didn’t think it was so sad at the time, but now, when I think back, it does feel a bit sad.” I’d spoken to Madame, but I could sense Tommy shifting next to me, and was aware of the texture of his clothes, of everything about him. Then Madame said:

“That’s most interesting. But I was no more a mind-reader then than today. I was weeping for an altogether different reason. When I watched you dancing that day, I saw something else. I saw a new world coming rapidly. More scientific, efficient, yes. More cures for the old sicknesses. Very good. But a harsh, cruel world. And I saw a little girl, her eyes tightly closed, holding to her breast the old kind world, one that she knew in her heart could not remain, and she was holding it and pleading, never to let her go. That is what I saw. It wasn’t really you, what you were doing, I know that. But I saw you and it broke my heart. And I’ve never forgotten.” Then she came forward until she was only a step or two from us. “Your stories this evening, they touched me too.” She looked now to Tommy, then back at me. “Poor creatures. I wish I could help you. But now you’re by yourselves.”

She reached out her hand, all the while staring into my face, and placed it on my cheek. I could feel a trembling go all through her body, but she kept her hand where it was, and I could see again tears appearing in her eyes.

“You poor creatures,” she repeated, almost in a whisper. Then she turned and went back into her house.

WE HARDLY DISCUSSED OUR MEETING with Miss Emily and Madame on the journey back. Or if we did, we talked only about the less important things, like how much we thought they’d aged, or the stuff in their house.

I kept us on the most obscure back roads I knew, where only our headlights disturbed the darkness. We’d occasionally encounter other headlights, and then I’d get the feeling they belonged to other carers, driving home alone, or maybe like me, with a donor beside them. I realised, of course, that other people used these roads; but that night, it seemed to me these dark byways of the country existed just for the likes of us, while the big glittering motorways with their huge signs and super cafés were for everyone else. I don’t know if Tommy was thinking something similar. Maybe he was, because at one point, he remarked: “Kath, you really know some weird roads.”

He did a little laugh as he said this, but then he seemed to fall deep into thought. Then as we were going down a particularly dark lane in the back of nowhere, he said suddenly:

“I think Miss Lucy was right. Not Miss Emily.”

I can’t remember if I said anything to that. If I did, it certainly wasn’t anything very profound. But that was the moment I first noticed it, something in his voice, or maybe his manner, that set off distant alarm bells. I remember taking my eyes off the twisting road to glance at him, but he was just sitting there quietly, gazing straight ahead into the night.

A few minutes later, he said suddenly: “Kath, can we stop? I’m sorry, I need to get out a minute.”

Thinking he was feeling sick again, I pulled up almost immediately, hard against a hedge. The spot was completely unlit, and even with the car lights on, I was nervous another vehicle might come round the curve and run into us. That’s why, when Tommy got out and disappeared into the blackness, I didn’t go with him. Also, there’d been something purposeful about the way he’d got out that suggested even if he was feeling ill, he’d prefer to cope with it on his own. Anyway, that’s why I was still in the car, wondering whether to move it a little further up the hill, when I heard the first scream.

At first I didn’t even think it was him, but some maniac who’d been lurking in the bushes. I was already out of the car when the second and third screams came, and by then I knew it was Tommy, though that hardly lessened my urgency. In fact, for a moment, I was probably close to panic, not having a clue where he was. I couldn’t really see anything, and when I tried to go towards the screams, I was stopped by an impenetrable thicket. Then I found an opening, and stepping through a ditch, came up to a fence. I managed to climb over it and I landed in soft mud.

I could now see my surroundings much better. I was in a field that sloped down steeply not far in front of me, and I could see the lights of some village way below in the valley. The wind here was really powerful, and a gust pulled at me so hard, I had to reach for the fence post. The moon wasn’t quite full, but it was bright enough, and I could make out in the mid-distance, near where the field began to fall away, Tommy’s figure, raging, shouting, flinging his fists and kicking out.

I tried to run to him, but the mud sucked my feet down. The mud was impeding him too, because one time, when he kicked out, he slipped and fell out of view into the blackness. But his jumbled swear-words continued uninterrupted, and I was able to reach him just as he was getting to his feet again. I caught a glimpse of his face in the moonlight, caked in mud and distorted with fury, then I reached for his flailing arms and held on tight. He tried to shake me off, but I kept holding on, until he stopped shouting and I felt the fight go out of him. Then I realised he too had his arms around me. And so we stood together like that, at the top of that field, for what seemed like ages, not saying anything, just holding each other, while the wind kept blowing and blowing at us, tugging our clothes, and for a moment, it seemed like we were holding onto each other because that was the only way to stop us being swept away into the night.

When at last we pulled apart, he muttered: “I’m really sorry, Kath.” Then he gave a shaky laugh and added: “Good job there weren’t cows in the field. They’d have got a fright.”

I could see he was doing his best to reassure me it was all okay now, but his chest was still heaving and his legs shaking. We walked together back towards the car, trying not to slip.

“You stink of cow poo,” I said, finally.

“Oh God, Kath. How do I explain this? We’ll have to sneak in round the back.”

“You’ll still have to sign in.”

“Oh God,” he said, and laughed again.

I found some rags in the car and we got the worst of the muck off. But I’d taken out of the boot, just while I was searching for the rags, the sports bag containing his animal pictures, and when we set off again, I noticed Tommy brought it inside with him.

We travelled some way, not saying much, the bag on his lap. I was waiting for him to say something about the pictures; it even occurred to me he was working up to another rage, when he’d throw all the pictures out of the window. But he held the bag protectively with both hands and kept staring at the dark road unfolding before us. After a long period of silence, he said: “I’m sorry about just now, Kath. I really am. I’m a real idiot.” Then he added: “What are you thinking, Kath?”

“I was thinking,” I said, “about back then, at Hailsham, when you used to go bonkers like that, and we couldn’t understand it. We couldn’t understand how you could ever get like that. And I was just having this idea, just a thought really. I was thinking maybe the reason you used to get like that was because at some level you always knew.”

Tommy thought about this, then shook his head. “Don’t think so, Kath. No, it was always just me. Me being an idiot. That’s all it ever was.” Then after a moment, he did a small laugh and said: “But that’s a funny idea. Maybe I did know, somewhere deep down. Something the rest of you didn’t.”

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

Nothing seemed to change much in the week or so after that trip. I didn’t expect it to stay that way though, and sure enough, by the start of October, I started noticing little differences. For one thing, though Tommy carried on with his animal pictures, he became cagey about doing them in my presence. We weren’t quite back to how it was when I’d first become his carer and all the Cottages stuff was still hanging over us. But it was like he’d thought about it and come to a decision: that he’d continue with the animals as the mood took him, but if I came in, he’d stop and put them away. I wasn’t that hurt by this. In fact, in many ways, it was a relief: those animals staring us in the face when we were together would have only made things more awkward.

But there were other changes I found less easy. I don’t mean we weren’t still having some good times up in his room. We were even having s@x every now and then. But what I couldn’t help noticing was how, more and more, Tommy tended to identify himself with the other donors at the centre. If, for instance, the two of us were reminiscing about old Hailsham people, he’d sooner or later move the conversation round to one of his current donor friends who’d maybe said or done something similar to what we were recalling. There was one time in particular, when I drove into the Kingsfield after a long journey and stepped out of the car. The Square was looking a bit like that time I’d come to the centre with Ruth the day we’d gone to see the boat. It was an overcast autumn afternoon, and there was no one about except for a group of donors clustered under the overhanging roof of the recreation building. I saw Tommy was with them—he was standing with a shoulder against a post—and was listening to a donor who was sitting crouched on the entrance steps. I came towards them a little way, then stopped and waited, there in the open, under the grey sky. But Tommy, though he’d seen me, went on listening to his friend, and eventually he and all the others burst out laughing. Even then, he carried on listening and smiling. He claimed afterwards he’d signalled to me to come over, but if he had, it hadn’t been at all obvious. All I registered was him smiling vaguely in my direction, then going back to what his friend was saying. Okay, he was in the middle of something, and after a minute or so, he did come away, and the two of us went up to his room. But it was quite different to the way things would have happened before. And it wasn’t just that he’d kept me waiting out in the Square. I wouldn’t have minded that so much. It was more that I sensed for the first time that day something close to resentment on his part at having to come away with me, and once we were up in his room, the atmosphere between us wasn’t so great.

To be fair, a lot of it might have been down to me as much as him. Because as I’d stood there watching them all talking and laughing, I’d felt an unexpected little tug; because there was something about the way these donors had arranged themselves in a rough semi-circle, something about their poses, almost studiedly relaxed, whether standing or sitting, as though to announce to the world how much each one of them was savouring the company, that reminded me of the way our little gang used to sit around our pavilion together. That comparison, as I say, tugged something inside me, and so maybe, once we were up in his room, it was as much me feeling resentful as the other way round.

I’d feel a similar little prickle of resentment each time he told me I didn’t understand something or other because I wasn’t yet a donor. But apart from one particular time, which I’ll come to in a moment, a little prickle was all it was. Usually he’d say these things to me half-jokingly, almost affectionately. And even when there was something more to it, like the time he told me to stop taking his dirty washing to the laundry because he could do it himself, it hardly amounted to a row. That time, I’d asked him: “What difference does it make, which one of us takes the towels down? I’m going out that way anyway.”

To which he’d shaken his head and said: “Look, Kath, I’ll sort out my own things. If you were a donor, you’d see.”

Okay, it did niggle, but it was something I could forget easily enough. But as I say, there was this one time he brought it up, about my not being a donor, that really riled me.

It happened about a week after the notice came for his fourth donation. We’d been expecting it and had already talked it through a lot. In fact, we’d had some of our most intimate conversations since the Littlehampton trip discussing the fourth donation. I’ve known donors to react in all sorts of ways to their fourth donation. Some want to talk about it all the time, endlessly and pointlessly. Others will only joke about it, while others refuse to discuss it at all. And then there’s this odd tendency among donors to treat a fourth donation as something worthy of congratulations. A donor “on a fourth,” even one who’s been pretty unpopular up till then, is treated with special respect. Even the doctors and nurses play up to this: a donor on a fourth will go in for a check and be greeted by whitecoats smiling and shaking their hand. Well, Tommy and I, we talked about all of this, sometimes jokingly, other times seriously and carefully. We discussed all the different ways people tried to handle it, and which ways made the best sense. Once, lying side by side on the bed with the dark coming on, he said: “You know why it is, Kath, why everyone worries so much about the fourth? It’s because they’re not sure they’ll really complete. If you knew for certain you’d complete, it would be easier. But they never tell us for sure.”

I’d been wondering for a while if this would come up, and I’d been thinking about how I’d respond. But when it did, I couldn’t find much to say. So I just said: “It’s just a lot of rubbish, Tommy. Just talk, wild talk. It’s not even worth thinking about.”

But Tommy would have known I had nothing to back up my words. He’d have known, too, he was raising questions to which even the doctors had no certain answers. You’ll have heard the same talk. How maybe, after the fourth donation, even if you’ve technically completed, you’re still conscious in some sort of way; how then you find there are more donations, plenty of them, on the other side of that line; how there are no more recovery centres, no carers, no friends; how there’s nothing to do except watch your remaining donations until they switch you off. It’s horror movie stuff, and most of the time people don’t want to think about it. Not the whitecoats, not the carers—and usually not the donors. But now and again, a donor will bring it up, as Tommy did that evening, and I wish now we’d talked about it. As it was, after I dismissed it as rubbish, we both shrank back from the whole territory. At least, though, I knew it was on Tommy’s mind after that, and I was glad he’d at least confided in me that far. What I’m saying is that all in all I was under the impression we were dealing with the fourth donation pretty well together, and that’s why I was so knocked off balance by what he came out with that day we walked around the field.

THE KINGSFIELD DOESN’T HAVE MUCH in the way of grounds. The Square’s the obvious congregating point and the few bits behind the buildings look more like wasteland. The largest chunk, which the donors call “the field,” is a rectangle of overgrown weeds and thistles held in by wire-mesh fences. There’s always been talk of turning it into a proper lawn for the donors, but they haven’t done it yet, even now. It might not be so peaceful even if they did get round to it, because of the big road nearby. All the same, when donors get restless and need to walk it off, that’s where they tend to go, scraping through all the nettles and brambles. The particular morning I’m talking about, it was really foggy, and I knew the field would be soaking, but Tommy had been insistent we go there for a walk. Not surprisingly, we were the only ones there—which probably suited Tommy fine. After crashing about the thickets for a few minutes, he stopped next to the fence and stared at the blank fog on the other side. Then he said: “Kath, I don’t want you to take this the wrong way. But I’ve been thinking it over a lot. Kath, I think I ought to get a different carer.”

In the few seconds after he said this, I realised I wasn’t surprised by it at all; that in some funny way I’d been waiting for it. But I was angry all the same and didn’t say anything.

“It’s not just because the fourth donation’s coming up,” he went on. “It’s not just about that. It’s because of stuff like what happened last week. When I had all that kidney trouble. There’s going to be much more stuff like that coming.”

“That’s why I came and found you,” I said. “That’s exactly why I came to help you. For what’s starting now. And it’s what Ruth wanted too.”

“Ruth wanted that other thing for us,” Tommy said. “She wouldn’t necessarily have wanted you to be my carer through this last bit.”

“Tommy,” I said, and I suppose by now I was furious, but I kept my voice quiet and under control, “I’m the one to help you. That’s why I came and found you again.”

“Ruth wanted the other thing for us,” Tommy repeated. “All this is something else. Kath, I don’t want to be that way in front of you.”

He was looking down at the ground, a palm pressed against the wire-mesh fence, and for a moment he looked like he was listening intently to the sound of the traffic somewhere beyond the fog. And that was when he said it, shaking his head slightly:

“Ruth would have understood. She was a donor, so she would have understood. I’m not saying she’d necessarily have wanted the same thing for herself. If she’d been able to, maybe she’d have wanted you as her carer right to the end. But she’d have understood, about me wanting to do it differently. Kath, sometimes you just don’t see it. You don’t see it because you’re not a donor.” It was when he came out with this that I turned and walked off. As I said, I’d been almost prepared for the bit about not wanting me any more as his carer. But what had really stung, coming after all those other little things, like when he’d kept me standing in the Square, was what he’d said then, the way he’d divided me off yet again, not just from all the other donors, but from him and Ruth.

This never turned into a huge fight though. When I stalked off, there wasn’t much else I could do other than go back up to his room, and then he came up himself several minutes later. I’d cooled down by then and so had he, and we were able to have a better conversation about it. It was a bit stiff, but we made peace, and even got into some of the practicalities of changing carers. Then, as we were sitting in the dull light, side by side on the edge of his bed, he said to me: “I don’t want us to fight again, Kath. But I’ve been wanting to ask you this a lot. I mean, don’t you get tired of being a carer? All the rest of us, we became donors ages ago. You’ve been doing it for years. Don’t you sometimes wish, Kath, they’d hurry up and send you your notice?”

I shrugged. “I don’t mind. Anyway, it’s important there are good carers. And I’m a good carer.”

“But is it really that important? Okay, it’s really nice to have a good carer. But in the end, is it really so important? The donors will all donate, just the same, and then they’ll complete.”

“Of course it’s important. A good carer makes a big difference to what a donor’s life’s actually like.”

“But all this rushing about you do. All this getting exhausted and being by yourself. I’ve been watching you. It’s wearing you out. You must do, Kath, you must sometimes wish they’d tell you you can stop. I don’t know why you don’t have a word with them, ask them why it’s been so long.” Then when I kept quiet, he said: “I’m just saying, that’s all. Let’s not fight again.” I put my head on his shoulder and said: “Yeah, well. Maybe it won’t be for much longer anyway. But for now, I have to keep going. Even if you don’t want me around, there are others who do.”

“I suppose you’re right, Kath. You are a really good carer. You’d be the perfect one for me too if you weren’t you.” He did a laugh and put his arm round me, though we kept sitting side by side. Then he said: “I keep thinking about this river somewhere, with the water moving really fast. And these two people in the water, trying to hold onto each other, holding on as hard as they can, but in the end it’s just too much. The current’s too strong. They’ve got to let go, drift apart. That’s how I think it is with us. It’s a shame, Kath, because we’ve loved each other all our lives. But in the end, we can’t stay together forever.” When he said this, I remembered the way I’d held onto him that night in the wind-swept field on the way back from Little-hampton. I don’t know if he was thinking about that too, or if he was still thinking about his rivers and strong currents. In any case, we went on sitting like that on the side of the bed for a long time, lost in our thoughts. Then in the end I said to him: “I’m sorry I blew up at you earlier. I’ll talk to them. I’ll try and see to it you get someone really good.”

“It’s a shame, Kath,” he said again. And I don’t think we talked any more about it that morning.

I REMEMBER THE FEW WEEKS that came after that—the last few weeks before the new carer took over—as being surprisingly tranquil. Maybe Tommy and I were making a special effort to be nice to each other, but the time seemed to slip by in an almost carefree way. You might think there would have been an air of unreality about us being like that, but it didn’t seem strange at the time. I was quite busy with a couple of my other donors in North Wales and that kept me from the Kingsfield more than I’d have wanted, but I still managed to come in three or four times a week. The weather grew colder, but stayed dry and often sunny, and we whiled away the hours in his room, sometimes having s@x, more often just talking, or with Tommy listening to me read. Once or twice, Tommy even brought out his notebook and doodled away for new animal ideas while I read from the bed.

Then I came in one day and it was the last time. I arrived just after one o’clock on a crisp December afternoon. I went up to his room, half expecting some change—I don’t know what. Maybe I thought he’d have put up decorations in his room or something. But of course, everything was as normal, and all in all, that was a relief. Tommy didn’t look any different either, but when we started talking, it was hard to pretend this was just another visit. Then again, we’d talked over so much in the previous weeks, it wasn’t as though we had anything in particular we had to get through. And I think we were reluctant to start any new conversation we’d regret not being able to finish properly. That’s why there was a kind of emptiness to our talk that day.

Just once, though, after I’d been wandering aimlessly around his room for a while, I did ask him:

“Tommy, are you glad Ruth completed before finding out everything we did in the end?”

He was lying on the bed, and went on staring at the ceiling for a while before saying: “Funny, because I was thinking about the same thing the other day. What you’ve got to remember about Ruth, when it came to things like that, she was always different to us. You and me, right from the start, even when we were little, we were always trying to find things out. Remember, Kath, all those secret talks we used to have? But Ruth wasn’t like that. She always wanted to believe in things. That was Ruth. So yeah, in a way, I think it’s best the way it happened.” Then he added: “Of course, what we found out, Miss Emily, all of that, it doesn’t change anything about Ruth. She wanted the best for us at the end. She really wanted the best for us.” I didn’t want to get into a big discussion about Ruth at that stage, so I just agreed with him. But now I’ve had more time to think about it, I’m not so sure how I feel. A part of me keeps wishing we’d somehow been able to share everything we discovered with Ruth. Okay, maybe it would have made her feel bad; made her see whatever damage she’d once done to us couldn’t be repaired as easily as she’d hoped. And maybe, if I’m honest, that’s a small part of my wishing she knew it all before she completed. But in the end, I think it’s about something else, something much more than my feeling vengeful and mean-spirited. Because as Tommy said, she wanted the best for us at the end, and though she said that day in the car I’d never forgive her, she was wrong about that. I’ve got no anger left for her now. When I say I wish she’d found out the whole score, it’s more because I feel sad at the idea of her finishing up different from me and Tommy. The way it is, it’s like there’s a line with us on one side and Ruth on the other, and when all’s said and done, I feel sad about that, and I think she would too if she could see it.

Tommy and I, we didn’t do any big farewell number that day. When it was time, he came down the stairs with me, which he didn’t usually do, and we walked across the Square together to the car. Because of the time of year, the sun was already setting behind the buildings. There were a few shadowy figures, as usual, under the overhanging roof, but the Square itself was empty. Tommy was silent all the way to the car. Then he did a little laugh and said: “You know, Kath, when I used to play football back at Hailsham. I had this secret thing I did. When I scored a goal, I’d turn round like this”—he raised both arms up in triumph—“and I’d run back to my mates. I never went mad or anything, just ran back with my arms up, like this.” He paused for a moment, his arms still in the air. Then he lowered them and smiled. “In my head, Kath, when I was running back, I always imagined I was splashing through water. Nothing deep, just up to the ankles at the most. That’s what I used to imagine, every time. Splash, splash, splash.” He put his arms up again. “It felt really good. You’ve just scored, you turn, and then, splash, splash, splash.” He looked at me and did another little laugh. “All this time, I never told a single soul.” I laughed too and said: “You crazy kid, Tommy.”

After that, we kissed—just a small kiss—then I got into the car. Tommy kept standing there while I turned the thing round. Then as I pulled away, he smiled and waved. I watched him in my rear-view, and he was standing there almost till the last moment. Right at the end, I saw him raise his hand again vaguely and turn away towards the overhanging roof. Then the Square had gone from the mirror.

I WAS TALKING TO ONE OF MY DONORS a few days ago who was complaining about how memories, even your most precious ones, fade surprisingly quickly. But I don’t go along with that. The memories I value most, I don’t see them ever fading. I lost Ruth, then I lost Tommy, but I won’t lose my memories of them.

I suppose I lost Hailsham too. You still hear stories about some ex-Hailsham student trying to find it, or rather the place where it used to be. And the odd rumour will go round sometimes about what Hailsham’s become these days—a hotel, a school, a ruin. Myself, for all the driving I do, I’ve never tried to find it. I’m not really interested in seeing it, whatever way it is now.

Mind you, though I say I never go looking for Hailsham, what I find is that sometimes, when I’m driving around, I suddenly think I’ve spotted some bit of it. I see a sports pavilion in the distance and I’m sure it’s ours. Or a row of poplars on the horizon next to a big woolly oak, and I’m convinced for a second I’m coming up to the South Playing Field from the other side. Once, on a grey morning, on a long stretch of road in Gloucestershire, I passed a broken-down car in a lay-by, and I was sure the girl standing in front of it, gazing emptily out towards the on-coming vehicles, was Susanna C., who’d been a couple of years above us and one of the Sales monitors. These moments hit me when I’m least expecting it, when I’m driving with something else entirely in my mind. So maybe at some level, I am on the lookout for Hailsham.

But as I say, I don’t go searching for it, and anyway, by the end of the year, I won’t be driving around like this any more. So the chances are I won’t ever come across it now, and on reflection, I’m glad that’s the way it’ll be. It’s like with my memories of Tommy and of Ruth. Once I’m able to have a quieter life, in whichever centre they send me to, I’ll have Hailsham with me, safely in my head, and that’ll be something no one can take away.

The only indulgent thing I did, just once, was a couple of weeks after I heard Tommy had completed, when I drove up to Norfolk, even though I had no real need to. I wasn’t after anything in particular and I didn’t go up as far as the coast. Maybe I just felt like looking at all those flat fields of nothing and the huge grey skies. At one stage I found myself on a road I’d never been on, and for about half an hour I didn’t know where I was and didn’t care. I went past field after flat, featureless field, with virtually no change except when occasionally a flock of birds, hearing my engine, flew up out of the furrows. Then at last I spotted a few trees in the distance, not far from the roadside, so I drove up to them, stopped and got out.

I found I was standing before acres of ploughed earth. There was a fence keeping me from stepping into the field, with two lines of barbed wire, and I could see how this fence and the cluster of three or four trees above me were the only things breaking the wind for miles. All along the fence, especially along the lower line of wire, all sorts of rubbish had caught and tangled. It was like the debris you get on a sea-shore: the wind must have carried some of it for miles and miles before finally coming up against these trees and these two lines of wire. Up in the branches of the trees, too, I could see, flapping about, torn plastic sheeting and bits of old carrier bags. That was the only time, as I stood there, looking at that strange rubbish, feeling the wind coming across those empty fields, that I started to imagine just a little fantasy thing, because this was Norfolk after all, and it was only a couple of weeks since I’d lost him. I was thinking about the rubbish, the flapping plastic in the branches, the shore-line of odd stuff caught along the fencing, and I half-closed my eyes and imagined this was the spot where everything I’d ever lost since my childhood had washed up, and I was now standing here in front of it, and if I waited long enough, a tiny figure would appear on the horizon across the field, and gradually get larger until I’d see it was Tommy, and he’d wave, maybe even call. The fantasy never got beyond that—I didn’t let it—and though the tears rolled down my face, I wasn’t sobbing or out of control. I just waited a bit, then turned back to the car, to drive off to wherever it was I was supposed to be.

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