Home > Never Let Me Go(9)

Never Let Me Go(9)
Kazuo Ishiguro

By the time we’d crossed the courtyard and reached the grass, we were a very different group from the one that had stood about excitedly waiting for Madame to get out of her car. Hannah looked ready to burst into tears. Even Ruth looked really shaken. Then one of us—I think it was Laura—said:

“If she doesn’t like us, why does she want our work? Why doesn’t she just leave us alone? Who asks her to come here anyway?”

No one answered, and we carried on over to the pavilion, not saying anything more about what had happened.

Thinking back now, I can see we were just at that age when we knew a few things about ourselves—about who we were, how we were different from our guardians, from the people outside—but hadn’t yet understood what any of it meant. I’m sure somewhere in your childhood, you too had an experience like ours that day; similar if not in the actual details, then inside, in the feelings. Because it doesn’t really matter how well your guardians try to prepare you: all the talks, videos, discussions, warnings, none of that can really bring it home. Not when you’re eight years old, and you’re all together in a place like Hailsham; when you’ve got guardians like the ones we had; when the gardeners and the delivery men joke and laugh with you and call you “sweetheart.”

All the same, some of it must go in somewhere. It must go in, because by the time a moment like that comes along, there’s a part of you that’s been waiting. Maybe from as early as when you’re five or six, there’s been a whisper going at the back of your head, saying: “One day, maybe not so long from now, you’ll get to know how it feels.” So you’re waiting, even if you don’t quite know it, waiting for the moment when you realise that you really are different to them; that there are people out there, like Madame, who don’t hate you or wish you any harm, but who nevertheless shudder at the very thought of you—of how you were brought into this world and why—and who dread the idea of your hand brushing against theirs. The first time you glimpse yourself through the eyes of a person like that, it’s a cold moment. It’s like walking past a mirror you’ve walked past every day of your life, and suddenly it shows you something else, something troubling and strange.

Chapter Four

I won’t be a carer any more come the end of the year, and though I’ve got a lot out of it, I have to admit I’ll welcome the chance to rest—to stop and think and remember. I’m sure it’s at least partly to do with that, to do with preparing for the change of pace, that I’ve been getting this urge to order all these old memories. What I really wanted, I suppose, was to get straight all the things that happened between me and Tommy and Ruth after we grew up and left Hailsham. But I realise now just how much of what occurred later came out of our time at Hailsham, and that’s why I want first to go over these earlier memories quite carefully. Take all this curiosity about Madame, for instance. At one level, it was just us kids larking about. But at another, as you’ll see, it was the start of a process that kept growing and growing over the years until it came to dominate our lives.

After that day, mention of Madame became, while not taboo exactly, pretty rare among us. And this was something that soon spread beyond our little group to just about all the students in our year. We were, I’d say, as curious as ever about her, but we all sensed that to probe any further—about what she did with our work, whether there really was a gallery—would get us into territory we weren’t ready for yet.

The topic of the Gallery, though, still cropped up every once in a while, so that when a few years later Tommy started telling me beside the pond about his odd talk with Miss Lucy, I found something tugging away at my memory. It was only afterwards, when I’d left him sitting on his rock and was hurrying towards the fields to catch up with my friends, that it came back to me.

It was something Miss Lucy had once said to us during a class. I’d remembered it because it had puzzled me at the time, and also because it was one of the few occasions when the Gallery had been mentioned so deliberately in front of a guardian.

We’d been in the middle of what we later came to call the “tokens controversy.” Tommy and I discussed the tokens controversy a few years ago, and we couldn’t at first agree when it had happened. I said we’d been ten at the time; he thought it was later, but in the end came round to agreeing with me. I’m pretty sure I got it right: we were in Junior 4—a while after that incident with Madame, but still three years before our talk by the pond.

The tokens controversy was, I suppose, all part of our getting more acquisitive as we grew older. For years—I think I’ve said already—we’d thought that having work chosen for the billiards room, never mind taken away by Madame, was a huge triumph. But by the time we were ten, we’d grown more ambivalent about it. The Exchanges, with their system of tokens as currency, had given us a keen eye for pricing up anything we produced. We’d become preoccupied with T-shirts, with decorating around our beds, with personalising our desks. And of course, we had our “collections” to think of.

I don’t know if you had “collections” where you were. When you come across old students from Hailsham, you always find them, sooner or later, getting nostalgic about their collections. At the time, of course, we took it all for granted. You each had a wooden chest with your name on it, which you kept under your bed and filled with your possessions—the stuff you acquired from the Sales or the Exchanges. I can remember one or two students not bothering much with their collections, but most of us took enormous care, bringing things out to display, putting other things away carefully.

The point is, by the time we were ten, this whole notion that it was a great honour to have something taken by Madame collided with a feeling that we were losing our most marketable stuff. This all came to a head in the tokens controversy.

It began with a number of students, mainly boys, muttering that we should get tokens to compensate when Madame took something away. A lot of students agreed with this, but others were outraged by the idea. Arguments went on between us for some time, and then one day Roy J.—who was a year above us, and had had a number of things taken by Madame—decided to go and see Miss Emily about it.

Miss Emily, our head guardian, was older than the others. She wasn’t especially tall, but something about the way she carried herself, always very straight with her head right up, made you think she was. She wore her silvery hair tied back, but strands were always coming loose and floating around her. They would have driven me mad, but Miss Emily always ignored them, like they were beneath her contempt. By the evening, she was a pretty strange sight, with bits of loose hair everywhere which she wouldn’t bother to push away off her face when she talked to you in her quiet, deliberate voice. We were all pretty scared of her and didn’t think of her in the way we did the other guardians. But we considered her to be fair and respected her decisions; and even in the Juniors, we probably recognised that it was her presence, intimidating though it was, that made us all feel so safe at Hailsham.

It took some nerve to go and see her without being summoned; to go with the sort of demands Roy was making seemed suicidal. But Roy didn’t get the terrible telling-off we were expecting, and in the days that followed, there were reports of guardians talking—even arguing—about the tokens question. In the end, it was announced that we would get tokens, but not many because it was a “most distinguished honour” to have work selected by Madame. This didn’t really go down well with either camp, and the arguments rumbled on.

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