Tommy and I went on a lot of walks that summer when we were staying at the Cottages. Ruth didn't like it but she'd never have said anything about it directly. When I think about it now, I wonder what changed since those days at Hailsham when we would never think of going outside Hailsham grounds. I suppose leaving behind the ghost stories that had so terrified us as children had been as gradual as us finding out about our future.
Sometimes we'd talk about television we had watched, sometimes about gossip that the veterans had brought back with them from their training or from trips outside. Sometimes, though, we'd talk about Hailsham. And now that I'm a donor, I find myself remembering those walks with Tommy more than anything that happened after.
It seems to me that somehow those walks with Tommy anchored my life at Hailsham. It took me a while to work up the nerve to walk out the door of our cottage and set off down the path leading into the forest. That first time, I was alone.
It wasn't quite what I had pictured when I was a student. One autumn, I spent a lot of time sitting near the Hailsham fence sketching the edge of the woods. By that time none of our year really believed in the ghost stories that had so scared us when we were smaller. Some of the older boys and girls liked scaring the younger students, so the stories still went around, morphing but nevertheless static. The stories didn't bother me. It was silly, but I liked the idea of being alone there, wandering through trees and listening to whispers of spirits.
That December, when the weather turned cold, I sketched the forest from memory, and then from imagination, the warmth from blankets and the fireplace making me fuzzy-headed and drowsy. I thought about what it might be like inside the forest during those times, relaxing and letting my hand do what it would with my messy jumble of knowledge from fairy tales, films, and schoolroom facts about the English forest, twisting lines into brambles, thick bushes, and heavy looming firs and oaks.
Ruth sat beside me often in that time, doodling something of her own and sometimes idly talking about the guardians or Tommy. But more often she'd just look at my sketchbook and watch me draw. That was unusual. I never thought she liked art that much - she had always liked doing her pictures of horses, although at some point between our first game of make believe and that autumn she'd become cagey and secretive about still drawing them, and maybe had stopped entirely. Certainly she stopped sharing those pictures with me. The guardians still praised her for her work in class, and she had things selected for the Gallery during Madame's every visit, but somehow I had the impression that her heart wasn't in it anymore.
But she was taken with one particular forest scene I did, with heavy, spiderwebbed branches in the foreground framing a thinner line of younger trees, with a clearing visible in the background. To be honest, I didn't think it was that good, but she watched me carefully as I drew it.
"Why are your woods always empty?"
"I don't know. Who'd be there?"
"Ghosts." Ruth laughed in that jokey way that meant something was bothering her and she was covering it up.
I was feeling playful that evening, and warm towards Ruth because she'd made up with Tommy after a big fight, and said, "Maybe this picture is through a ghost's eyes. Maybe it's walking towards the clearing, to the school."
I thought that would please her or at least make her laugh, but she looked a little stricken. That surprised me. I didn't think she put any credence in the ghost stories - we weren't first-years anymore, after all - but then I remembered how she'd wake up in the middle of the night sometimes, the things she'd whispered to me over the years about her nightmares, and felt bad.
Anyway, the woods near the cottages weren't nearly as dramatic as I had pictured, and certainly they did not have any ghosts. Although, I had thought with a snicker, you could certainly come out of them quite cut up if you tripped and fell on any number of sharp objects that were scattered on the edge of the forest. Broken beer bottles, rusty wheels, and a section of ancient rusted-over barbed wire fence that had long since fallen over and been half-trampled into the grass littered the tree line. I don't know where that trash had come from, but all of it looked old, and dangerous, and sad.
That trash was part of the reason my walks with Tommy became less frequent as winter approached. It was dangerous to walk through the woods with all that glass and metal half-sunken into the ground after a month of rain, or, later in the year, half-covered in snow. But more importantly, Ruth didn't like Tommy wandering off too much anymore, because she was determined to have a nice Christmas.
Partly it was because she felt it was something that would impress the veterans. None of them had celebrated it before, so Ruth leapt at the chance to be the one to show something new to them rather than the other way around. But mostly, it was because Ruth loved Christmas. She had thrown herself into every role-playing exercise at Hailsham, but the ones to do with the holidays were her favorites. Tommy and I talked a lot about that, how we loved her best then, especially in December, when she became freer with her smiles and more demonstrative in her friendships.
It wasn't just Ruth, though. We were all affected by the anticipation of the holidays, slacking off on schoolwork to hang around the front hall, waiting for the delivery of the Christmas tree and trying to work out who would be chosen to decorate it.
Each year, there were different ornaments, all made by the students and carefully selected by the guardians. It was a big honor to have something up on the tree, especially for younger students, and it seemed that every year the frenzy of polymer clay, shimmery paints, and gold foil started earlier than ever. Painting and poetry were abandoned in favor of sculpting and wire work, and the cleaning ladies grumbled about the piles of paper cuttings they swept from under the furniture at the end of every day.
Even Tommy, so withdrawn from the ebb and flow of Hailsham art trends, liked the excitement. I caught him looking at everyone's ornaments, and once I saw him looking at the tree wistfully. As far as I know, he never tried making anything for the tree, and certainly none of his work ever got selected, except one year - the first and only time something Tommy made got positive attention. It was the same year I was drawing trees and the first year Ruth and Tommy spent Christmas as a proper couple, and we were all three of us really close.
Tommy had found a necklace - a rather pretty golden chain made up of links that were themselves made of many strands of thin wire - at a Sale in September. As I remember, he got teased about buying it quite badly, especially because he didn't ever have many tokens, and choosing to spend them on girls' jewelry looked stupid. Ruth had thought maybe he bought it for her, but he carried it around with him and never gave it to her. And then when everybody was engrossed in trying to outdo each other, he suddenly started disappearing. No one really noticed that he wasn't around as much anymore, but I did. I never really cared about trying to make something worthy of the tree, and that year in particular I was too absorbed in my forest, and so I noticed Tommy sitting in a corner from time to time, doodling something on a pad, and then disappearing into the boys' dormitory.
I can't say that I thought much about what he'd been up to, but I wasn't surprised either when Miss Emily announced that we could submit our ornaments to the guardians and he pulled me aside and whispered that he'd made something, something that was maybe good enough to be picked.
Of course I cajoled him to show me what he'd made, but he refused. So the first time I saw it was a week later, when we all stampeded downstairs to look at the decorated tree for the first time. It was loud and bright in the hall, the students' excited shouts echoing against the walls and ceiling. I stuck close to Tommy, who was trying to circle the tree in the throng with a nervous look on his face.
I spotted the ornament almost before he did, because I recognized the links of that old necklace. Tommy had reworked the wire into the shape of a tree, similar to the ones in my drawings. Strands of the wire formed its base and twisted together into its trunk, spiraling up and separating into three branches that reached upwards and knitted together again at the top. There was a golden sphere suspended between the three branches, probably an old, repurposed and painted ornament.
It was beautiful and delicate. "Wow, Tommy, it must have taken you ages to do this," I said and turned around to look at him.
The nervousness was gone from Tommy's face. Now he just looked happy and pleased, and a little excited. I could tell that he was ready to talk about it, to hear what I thought of it, but truthfully, I didn't want to talk anymore.
I never talked about Tommy's tree with Ruth, either. Somehow I thought she wouldn't like me to. But later, at the Cottages, Tommy told me that she'd loved it, that she came over to the tree and looked at it all the time. It hung a little high to get a really close look, but low enough to touch, and she'd do that sometimes, all the way through January 2 when the tree was taken down. Then the ornament was given back to Tommy, and he gave it to Ruth.
What Tommy didn't tell me, because he hadn't known either, was that Ruth had kept the ornament. I didn't find out about this until after Ruth completed, when the donor centre workers went through Ruth's belongings and found it in a box labeled “For Kathy.” I keep it next to my bed now. I don't know what will happen to it after I complete.
For all the things Tommy and I talked about on our walks, we never spoke about our earliest memories of being in Infants. Neither of us remembered much about it. All my memories before I met Ruth are patchy and vague, and I wouldn't change that. Those gaps in my memory are comforting to me. They are the solitude I never had - a comforting solitude, not the empty quiet of the donor centre corridors.
Maybe Tommy and I shouldn't have dredged up any old memories at all. Maybe we should have just done what we did more often than not anyway, walking in companionable silence, listening to bird calls and kicking pebbles down the forest path, knocking shoulders and exchanging little smiles and reveling for just a little while in our freedom. That friendly quiet and calm is what my memory returns to all the time now. It's implied in my every medical, in each beep of my heart rate monitor. All of it is Tommy and Ruth.