I had been a donor for two years by the time I noticed it.
It's funny, the tiny ways you change after your first donation. I stopped reading, I stopped listening to music now that I wasn't driving as I had done when I was a carer. I kept the tape Tommy had bought me, the Judy Bridgewater one, "Songs After Midnight". It wasn't an active avoidance; I simply never thought to listen to it anymore, though I carried it with me. As I've said already, it became an object of memory. So many things have, now.
I don't know why I decided to listen to it that morning. The song, I mean. It had been years, since before I was Tommy's carer, I imagine. But this morning I felt the need for it. I begged an indulgence of my carer, who is a kind young woman named Sarah. Sometimes, when I see her out of the corner of my eye, I think improbably that she's Ruth--it's the hair, and perhaps a similar kind of energy. She's bossy with a layer of insecurity. Ordinarily I think she might have asked me what I wanted a cassette player for, but in this instance I think she saw something in my aspect that kept her quiet. She simply nodded and left to requisition one from the nurses. She set it gently on my bedside table and left my room, closing the door with a soft final click.
I don't remember digging the cassette out of my box. The case looked the same as it always had, the woman smoking on the cover. In the harsh fluorescent light of my room, the palm trees looked rather more tacky than glamorous. I wondered briefly if Judy had aged well, if she was still making records, or if she had died.
I had listened to it so often that I still remembered which point it needed to be rewound to. I sighed and settled back against my pillow as the tape played the last verse of the song before it, then the beginning of "Never Let Me Go", on its tinny speakers. I had just begun to think of Hailsham, of that morning when we had organized ourselves into a chess tournament after the boys' football game was interrupted by a sudden rain.
But, not halfway through the first verse, the song cut out. I startled out of my reverie and reached for the stop button, when suddenly I heard a cough, a pause, a static rustle.
I was wholly unprepared for Tommy's voice. "Kath?" he said, and I felt all the blood rush from my face straight back to my heart. Or anyhow, that's what it felt like. "Kath, I know you'll listen to this eventually. Probably after I've completed. Maybe years after. I've just got the notice for my final donation, and tomorrow I'm going to request a new carer. I'm sorry. It's funny, I've watched other donors go through this. Some of them seem excited, radiant. Me, I just feel tired. I'm tired, Kath. Part of me is glad that it's going to be over. That I'll be giving to someone. This is the gift I have to give, this is what I have been meant to do, to be, since before I was born. There's something powerful and... and forever about that, Kath. They suddenly start treating you with deference. They give your carer the best pudding to give to you, little things like that. They actually smile at you in the hallway, the doctors and nurses, though they still never quite meet your eyes.
"But I am leaving this for a reason, Kath. I've been thinking about it a lot. For years, actually.
"I never told you this story, not for all the time you were my carer. God I still miss you. I couldn't tell you to your face, but I wish I were strong enough to ask you to stay. Truth is, Kath, I'm terrified. I wanted to spare you this. This isn't what I'm trying to tell you. God..."
There was several seconds of silence here, broken only by some unidentifiable rustles and terrible noises. I tried not to think about the kind of pain Tommy was in, but it's somehow easier not to see someone's pain than it is not to hear it. I heard it now, in the tension of his voice, stuck here on magnetic tape for me to find years later.
"Right. I'm sorry, Kath. I'm sorry for that. What I'm trying to tell you is a memory. It's someone else's, but it's been with me since my first assignment as a carer, to a man named Adam. He was a beautiful man, Kath, but not the way you would think of. He was... he was bright. Lively. When he turned his attention on you, it felt like he was listening, really listening to you, weighing everything you say. I'm not saying this right.
"He had these long eyelashes, blond ones, you couldn't see them really unless it was just the right light or you were looking very closely at him. We got very close, the kind of close they warn you against in training. We stayed up late talking about our lives. He asked me about Hailsham, and I heard about the place he was from. It wasn't like Hailsham, Kath. It made me appreciate so much what we had, not least what we had together, you and me and Ruth.
"But I need to tell you this. On the night before his third donation, Adam insisted I stay with him even though I knew he should be getting rest. He had never really recovered from the second donation, and it seemed likely that he'd complete on this one, even though I had tried everything to help him gain his strength. He said he had to tell me something. He said, among the students of his school, they often whispered about the Memory. He said it like that, Kath, like it comes in a capital letter. Not an ordinary memory. A Memory. He said everyone has one. Everyone makes that decision carefully. The Memory you want to be thinking about when they put you under for your last donation.
"He told me about his Memory. He said it was late autumn, but not so late. His school was near a city, in a sort of repurposed industrial district. They didn't have the beautiful grounds we had. On this evening, it snowed about 20 centimetres, and the children all wanted to go play in it. They had new Guardians, lenient ones, who took them out that night. He had never been allowed simply to play in the snow before, Kath, imagine. He remembered taking a handful of snow and feeling it melt against his gloves, mashing it into a snowball. He turned his face to the sky and caught a few flakes on his tongue. Adam said it was the first moment he felt his body, alive, warm, that he felt his heat radiating beyond his body, that the cold was the most beautiful thing he'd ever felt against his cheeks.
"He said he wanted to tell me his Memory, that it wasn't enough just to have it and think about it. He wanted to know that something of him would stay behind, even if it's such a tiny thing as a moment in the snow. And it has, Kath. I'm keeping that Memory, and all the memories I had with him. All the memories I had with everyone. With Ruth. With you.
"I've been thinking about it a lot, Kath. I want to tell you my Memory. I've kept trying to think of bigger, more important moments, like the first time I kissed Ruth, or the time I won the football game back at Hailsham, or the time you and I were together and we had to stop having sex because we both started giggling so much, we were so happy and relieved to be together. Those are all fond memories for me, important ones. But this is always the one that I've come back to.
"It was late in the summer, and we, you, me and Ruth, we had all gone to that spot by the pond for an afternoon of reading and napping in the sun. There were a dozen days just like it, do you remember?"
I was so caught up in hearing his voice, distorted though it was through the little speakers, that I whispered, "yes, I remember."
"Well, the thing that made this afternoon special was this one moment. It was after Ruth and I had got together, but only just. We were arguing about something or other, some finer point in literature, we were always getting into it about things like that. You were lying on your stomach poring over War and Peace. At one point, I saw Ruth lean past you to pick up the bottle of water she had brought. But, I saw this tiny thing she did. Her hand just brushed your shoulder, it seemed accidental but I could tell she let it stay there for just a moment too long. And she leaned her face a bit too close to you, and I saw her close her eyelashes against your hair, and she breathed you in.
"It was so small, Kath. I don't even think she realized she was doing it. But I couldn't look away. She loved you. It was unmistakeable. That's the word for it, really. It was why she stayed with me so long, because... because she didn't want to lose you. And she didn't want to be alone. And I think, in her way, she loved me, too. And something about the look on her face comforted me. Every time I think of the two of you, I think of that moment first. Of the smell of cut grass and the late-summer scent of the pond. And it makes me feel so happy. Content. Like we could have existed in that place forever. We could have loved each other forever, and hated each other, and fought and got sick and got angry and made up and slept together and done all of those things that people in love do.
"We all loved each other, and we never faced that because we knew it would make everything harder. Because we weren't meant for that kind of happiness. We had always been meant for something else, this thing that we have spent our whole lives preparing for. I knew it in that moment and I forgot it just as quickly, because I was young and something in it terrified me. It was too huge, too fierce. We were lucky to have the time together that we had, Kath. And now, it'll be enough. It has to be. But... Kath, that moment was the happiest moment in my life, even though it came to nothing in the end. And that's what I'll be thinking of tomorrow, when I say goodbye to you.
"I wasn't sure how to tell you. But then I remembered how much you loved this tape, and this song. I knew you hadn't listened to it for years. But I hoped you would think of it again. Part of this is to tell you about the tradition of the Memory--I had never heard you talk about it, so I thought maybe nobody had mentioned it to you. But my Memory, and Adam's... well, I had to pass it on. I should have told you in person, but... well. I hope, at least, that my voice is a comfort to you today. I love you. And I love Ruth. Even when we're all gone, there has to be something left of us. Something more than our hearts pumping blood through strangers' bodies."
His voice clicked out, and I sat there, staring at the wall. I sat there for a long time, and I can't tell you all the thoughts that spilled through my head. I thought, mostly, of Ruth. Of her jealousy, her imperious ways, how Tommy always quietly anchored her, or boiled over and picked a fight. How my placating grounded her. Of how the three of us, more than being a triangle, were a simple unit. A fact. And now I was the only one left.
I think I cried myself to sleep, then, with the rest of the tape playing out softly. I don't remember my carer coming back in and setting it aside. My last thought was of the trip we would make the next day. I would need blank tapes and my own recorder. Tommy was right--something of our lives should remain, something beyond our bodies. I am the only one left, and when I go I will leave behind our stories, all of them.