Home > Never Let Me Go(8)

Never Let Me Go(8)
Kazuo Ishiguro

I’d suppose now it was something passed down through the different generations of Hailsham students. I remember a time when I could only have been five or six, sitting at a low table beside Amanda C., our hands clammy with modelling clay. I can’t remember if there were other children with us, or which guardian was in charge. All I remember is Amanda C.—who was a year older than me—looking at what I was making and exclaiming: “That’s really, really good, Kathy! That’s so good! I bet that’ll get in the Gallery!”

I must by then have already known about the Gallery, because I remember the excitement and pride when she said that—and then the next moment, thinking to myself: “That’s ridiculous. None of us are good enough for the Gallery yet.”

As we got older, we went on talking about the Gallery. If you wanted to praise someone’s work, you’d say: “That’s good enough for the Gallery.” And after we discovered irony, whenever we came across any laughably bad work, we’d go: “Oh yes! Straight to the Gallery with that one!”

But did we really believe in the Gallery? Today, I’m not sure. As I’ve said, we never mentioned it to the guardians and looking back, it seems to me this was a rule we imposed on ourselves, as much as anything the guardians had decided. There’s an instance I can remember from when we were about eleven. We were in Room 7 on a sunny winter’s morning. We’d just finished Mr. Roger’s class, and a few of us had stayed on to chat with him. We were sitting up on our desks, and I can’t remember exactly what we were talking about, but Mr. Roger, as usual, was making us laugh and laugh. Then Carole H. had said, through her giggles: “You might even get it picked for the Gallery!” She immediately put her hand over her mouth with an “oops!” and the atmosphere remained light-hearted; but we all knew, Mr. Roger included, that she’d made a mistake. Not a disaster, exactly: it would have been much the same had one of us let slip a rude word, or used a guardian’s nickname to his or her face. Mr. Roger smiled indulgently, as though to say: “Let it pass, we’ll pretend you never said that,” and we carried on as before.

If for us the Gallery remained in a hazy realm, what was solid enough fact was Madame’s turning up usually twice—sometimes three or four times—each year to select from our best work. We called her “Madame” because she was French or Belgian—there was a dispute as to which—and that was what the guardians always called her. She was a tall, narrow woman with short hair, probably quite young still, though at the time we wouldn’t have thought of her as such. She always wore a sharp grey suit, and unlike the gardeners, unlike the drivers who brought in our supplies—unlike virtually anyone else who came in from outside—she wouldn’t talk to us and kept us at a distance with her chilly look. For years we thought of her as “snooty,” but then one night, around when we were eight, Ruth came up with another theory.

“She’s scared of us,” she declared.

We were lying in the dark in our dorm. In the Juniors, we were fifteen to a dorm, so didn’t tend to have the sort of long intimate conversations we did once we got to the Senior dorms. But most of what became our “group” had beds close together by then, and we were already getting the habit of talking into the night.

“What do you mean, scared of us?” someone asked. “How can she be scared of us? What could we do to her?”

“I don’t know,” Ruth said. “I don’t know, but I’m sure she is. I used to think she was just snooty, but it’s something else, I’m sure of it now. Madame’s scared of us.”

We argued about this on and off for the next few days. Most of us didn’t agree with Ruth, but then that just made her all the more determined to prove she was right. So in the end we settled on a plan to put her theory to the test the next time Madame came to Hailsham.

Although Madame’s visits were never announced, it was always pretty obvious when she was due. The lead-up to her arrival began weeks before, with the guardians sifting through all our work—our paintings, sketches, pottery, all our essays and poems. This usually went on for at least a fortnight, by the end of which four or five items from each Junior and Senior year would have ended up in the billiards room. The billiards room would get closed during this period, but if you stood on the low wall of the terrace outside, you’d be able to see through the windows the haul of stuff getting larger and larger. Once the guardians started laying it out neatly, on tables and easels, like a miniature version of one of our Exchanges, then you knew Madame would be coming within a day or two.

That autumn I’m now talking about, we needed to know not just the day, but the precise moment Madame turned up, since she often stayed no longer than an hour or two. So as soon as we saw the stuff getting displayed in the billiards room, we decided to take turns keeping look-out.

This was a task made much easier by the way the grounds were laid out. Hailsham stood in a smooth hollow with fields rising on all sides. That meant that from almost any of the classroom windows in the main house—and even from the pavilion—you had a good view of the long narrow road that came down across the fields and arrived at the main gate. The gate itself was still a fair distance off, and any vehicle would then have to take the gravelled drive, going past shrubs and flowerbeds, before at last reaching the courtyard in front of the main house. Days could sometimes go by without us seeing a vehicle coming down that narrow road, and the ones that did were usually vans or lorries bringing supplies, gardeners or workmen. A car was a rarity, and the sight of one in the distance was sometimes enough to cause bedlam during a class.

The afternoon Madame’s car was spotted coming across the fields, it was windy and sunny, with a few storm clouds starting to gather. We were in Room 9—on the first floor at the front of the house—and when the whisper went around, poor Mr. Frank, who was trying to teach us spelling, couldn’t understand why we’d suddenly got so restless.

The plan we’d come up with to test Ruth’s theory was very simple: we—the six of us in on it—would lie in wait for Madame somewhere, then “swarm out” all around her, all at once. We’d all remain perfectly civilised and just go on our way, but if we timed it right, and she was taken off-guard, we’d see—Ruth insisted—that she really was afraid of us.

Our main worry was that we just wouldn’t get an opportunity during the short time she was at Hailsham. But as Mr. Frank’s class drew to an end, we could see Madame, directly below in the courtyard, parking her car. We had a hurried conference out on the landing, then followed the rest of the class down the stairs and loitered just inside the main doorway. We could see out into the bright courtyard, where Madame was still sitting behind the wheel, rummaging in her briefcase. Eventually she emerged from the car and came towards us, dressed in her usual grey suit, her briefcase held tightly to herself in both arms. At a signal from Ruth we all sauntered out, moving straight for her, but like we were all in a dream. Only when she came to a stiff halt did we each murmur: “Excuse me, Miss,” and separate.

I’ll never forget the strange change that came over us the next instant. Until that point, this whole thing about Madame had been, if not a joke exactly, very much a private thing we’d wanted to settle among ourselves. We hadn’t thought much about how Madame herself, or anyone else, would come into it. What I mean is, until then, it had been a pretty light-hearted matter, with a bit of a dare element to it. And it wasn’t even as though Madame did anything other than what we predicted she’d do: she just froze and waited for us to pass by. She didn’t shriek, or even let out a gasp. But we were all so keenly tuned in to picking up her response, and that’s probably why it had such an effect on us. As she came to a halt, I glanced quickly at her face—as did the others, I’m sure. And I can still see it now, the shudder she seemed to be suppressing, the real dread that one of us would accidentally brush against her. And though we just kept on walking, we all felt it; it was like we’d walked from the sun right into chilly shade. Ruth had been right: Madame was afraid of us. But she was afraid of us in the same way someone might be afraid of spiders. We hadn’t been ready for that. It had never occurred to us to wonder how we would feel, being seen like that, being the spiders.

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