Home > Never Let Me Go(10)

Never Let Me Go(10)
Kazuo Ishiguro

It was against this background that Polly T. asked Miss Lucy her question that morning. We were in the library, sitting around the big oak table. I remember there was a log burning in the fireplace, and that we were doing a play-reading. At some point, a line in the play had led to Laura making some wisecrack about the tokens business, and we’d all laughed, Miss Lucy included. Then Miss Lucy had said that since everyone at Hailsham was talking about little else, we should forget the play-reading and spend the rest of the lesson exchanging our views about the tokens. And that’s what we were doing when Polly asked, completely out of the blue: “Miss, why does Madame take our things anyway?”

We all went silent. Miss Lucy didn’t often get cross, but when she did, you certainly knew about it, and we thought for a second Polly was for it. But then we saw Miss Lucy wasn’t angry, just deep in thought. I remember feeling furious at Polly for so stupidly breaking the unwritten rule, but at the same time, being terribly excited about what answer Miss Lucy might give. And clearly I wasn’t the only one with these mixed emotions: virtually everybody shot daggers at Polly, before turning eagerly to Miss Lucy—which was, I suppose, pretty unfair on poor Polly. After what seemed a very long while, Miss Lucy said:

“All I can tell you today is that it’s for a good reason. A very important reason. But if I tried to explain it to you now, I don’t think you’d understand. One day, I hope, it’ll be explained to you.”

We didn’t press her. The atmosphere around the table had become one of deep embarrassment, and curious as we were to hear more, we wanted most for the talk to get away from this dodgy territory. The next moment, then, we were all relieved to be arguing again—a bit artificially perhaps—about the tokens. But Miss Lucy’s words had puzzled me and I kept thinking about them on and off for the next few days. That’s why that afternoon by the pond, when Tommy was telling me about his talk with Miss Lucy, about how she’d said to him we weren’t being “taught enough” about some things, the memory of that time in the library—along with maybe one or two other little episodes like that—started tugging at my mind.

While we’re on the subject of the tokens, I want just to say a bit about our Sales, which I’ve mentioned a few times already. The Sales were important to us because that was how we got hold of things from outside. Tommy’s polo shirt, for instance, came from a Sale. That’s where we got our clothes, our toys, the special things that hadn’t been made by another student.

Once every month, a big white van would come down that long road and you’d feel the excitement all through the house and grounds. By the time it pulled up in the courtyard there’d be a crowd waiting—mainly Juniors, because once you were past twelve or thirteen it wasn’t the thing to be getting so obviously excited. But the truth was we all were.

Looking back now, it’s funny to think we got so worked up, because usually the Sales were a big disappointment. There’d be nothing remotely special and we’d spend our tokens just renewing stuff that was wearing out or broken with more of the same. But the point was, I suppose, we’d all of us in the past found something at a Sale, something that had become special: a jacket, a watch, a pair of craft scissors never used but kept proudly next to a bed. We’d all found something like that at one time, and so however much we tried to pretend otherwise, we couldn’t ever shake off the old feelings of hope and excitement.

Actually there was some point in hanging about the van as it was being unloaded. What you did—if you were one of these Juniors—was to follow back and forth from the storeroom the two men in overalls carrying the big cardboard boxes, asking them what was inside. “A lot of goodies, sweetheart,” was the usual reply. Then if you kept asking: “But is it a bumper crop?” they’d sooner or later smile and say: “Oh, I’d say so, sweetheart. A real bumper crop,” bringing a thrilled cheer.

The boxes were often open at the top, so you’d catch glimpses of all kinds of things, and sometimes, though they weren’t really supposed to, the men would let you move a few items about for a better look. And that was why, by the time of the actual Sale a week or so later, all sorts of rumours would be going around, maybe about a particular track suit or a music cassette, and if there was trouble, it was almost always because a few students had set their hearts on the same item.

The Sales were a complete contrast to the hushed atmosphere of the Exchanges. They were held in the Dining Hall, and were crowded and noisy. In fact the pushing and shouting was all part of the fun, and they stayed for the most part pretty good-humoured. Except, as I say, every now and then, things would get out of hand, with students grabbing and tugging, sometimes fighting. Then the monitors would threaten to close the whole thing down, and we’d all of us have to face a talking to from Miss Emily at assembly the next morning.

Our day at Hailsham always began with an assembly, which was usually pretty brief—a few announcements, maybe a poem read out by a student. Miss Emily didn’t often say much; she’d just sit very straight on the stage, nodding at whatever was being said, occasionally turning a frosty eye towards any whispering in the crowd. But on a morning after a rowdy Sale, everything was different. She’d order us to sit down on the floor—we usually stood at assemblies—and there’d be no announcements or performances, just Miss Emily talking to us for twenty, thirty minutes, sometimes even longer. She’d rarely raise her voice, but there was something steely about her on these occasions and none of us, not even the Senior 5s, dared make a sound.

There was a real sense of feeling bad that we had, in some collective way, let down Miss Emily, but try as we might, we couldn’t really follow these lectures. It was partly her language. “Unworthy of privilege” and “misuse of opportunity”: these were two regular phrases Ruth and I came up with when we were reminiscing in her room at the centre in Dover. Her general drift was clear enough: we were all very special, being Hailsham students, and so it was all the more disappointing when we behaved badly. Beyond that though, things became a fog. Sometimes she’d be going on very intensely then come to a sudden stop with something like: “What is it? What is it? What can it be that thwarts us?” Then she’d stand there, eyes closed, a frown on her face like she was trying to puzzle out the answer. And although we felt bewildered and awkward, we’d sit there willing her on to make whatever discovery was needed in her head. She might then resume with a gentle sigh—a signal that we were going to be forgiven—or just as easily explode out of her silence with: “But I will not be coerced! Oh no! And neither will Hailsham!”

When we were remembering these long speeches, Ruth remarked how odd it was they should have been so unfathomable, since Miss Emily, in a classroom, could be as clear as anything. When I mentioned how I’d sometimes seen the head wandering around Hailsham in a dream, talking to herself, Ruth took offence, saying:

“She was never like that! How could Hailsham have been the way it was if the person in charge had been potty? Miss Emily had an intellect you could slice logs with.”

I didn’t argue. Certainly, Miss Emily could be uncannily sharp. If, say, you were somewhere you shouldn’t be in the main house or the grounds, and you heard a guardian coming, you could often hide somewhere. Hailsham was full of hiding places, indoors and out: cupboards, nooks, bushes, hedges. But if you saw Miss Emily coming, your heart sank because she’d always know you were there hiding. It was like she had some extra sense. You could go into a cupboard, close the door tight and not move a muscle, you just knew Miss Emily’s footsteps would stop outside and her voice would say: “All right. Out you come.”

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