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Although caring is difficult and lonely work, Kathy copes with the strain more effectively than many other carers. Kathy spends hours driving to see her donors at hospitals and recovery centers. One day, she runs into her Hailsham classmate Laura at a car service station. Laura is also a carer, and seems completely worn down. Laura brings up a rumor that Ruth had a bad first donation, and asks why Kathy has not asked to be her carer. Kathy says that she and Ruth did not part on good terms. Kathy and Laura also discuss Hailsham, which has recently closed. Kathy’s memories skip back a year or so to the day she heard that Hailsham was definitely closing. She wondered what would happen to the carers and donors who had attended Hailsham, which linked them together. That night, she thought about a clown she had recently seen while walking down a gloomy road. The clown was walking ahead of her and carrying balloons. She imagined the closure of Hailsham would be like cutting the strings and letting the balloons drift away.
After speaking with Laura, Kathy decides to become Ruth’s carer. It is about two months after Ruth’s first donation, and she is still weak. Although their first visit is pleasant, Kathy and Ruth do not discuss their parting at the Cottages. Kathy soon realizes that Ruth does not entirely trust her. Their visits become increasingly guarded and silent, until Kathy is ready to give up. The situation changes when they hear rumors of an old fishing boat stranded in the marshes by the Kingsfield recovery center. Ruth wants to see the boat, and Kathy agrees to drive her. Kathy also suggests visiting Tommy, who is at the Kingsfield recovery center. Ruth admits that she wants to see Tommy, whom she has not seen since the Cottages. Kathy sends a message to Tommy’s carer, explaining that they will visit the following week.
Kathy drives Ruth to the Kingsfield recovery center. Ruth panics as Tommy approaches the car, but Kathy gets out and hugs him. Tommy sits in the back seat with Ruth, where they greet each other politely. On the drive, Ruth tells a rambling story about another donor at her center. Kathy somewhat light-heartedly cuts her off, causing Tommy to laugh. Ruth is quiet for the rest of the drive. After parking, they walk through the woods to find the boat. The walk tires Ruth, who panics again when they have to cross a barbed wire fence. Kathy and Tommy help her through the fence. Looking back on it, Kathy thinks they both felt badly for ganging up on Ruth in the car. As they walk to the boat, Kathy realizes that Ruth would have snapped back at them for it in the old days. They find the boat, but the marsh prevents them from getting too close. Kathy sits on a dead tree trunk, and Tommy sits on a nearby trunk with Ruth. The boat is bleached and crumbling, but Ruth says it is beautiful.
Tommy says that he imagines Hailsham now looks like the marsh. Ruth shares that she recently dreamed she was at Hailsham, looking out the window at a giant flood with rubbish floating in it. The scene in her dream was tranquil, much like the marsh. Ruth also brings up Chrissie, who completed on her second donation. Kathy saw Rodney not long afterwards, and she says that he seemed to be doing okay. Ruth angrily tells Kathy that she could not understand what Rodney felt because she is still a carer. Tommy says he thinks he was a lousy carer, while Ruth says that she felt ready to become a donor after five years of caring. On the drive back, Kathy feels disappointed that she and Tommy have not had much to do with one another during the day. Kathy pulls the car over to point out a billboard featuring an open-plan office. She reminds Ruth of the magazine ad they saw near the Cottages, and Tommy recalls their trip to Norfolk. Kathy says that Ruth should have looked into working at an office. Tommy agrees, and points out that Ruth always talked as if she might qualify for special treatment. Ruth protests that there was no way to look into it.
Suddenly, Ruth apologizes to Kathy for holding Kathy’s sexual urges against her. Ruth admits to having the same urges, and to having sex with veterans at the Cottages. She also apologizes for keeping Kathy and Tommy apart, when she knew they belonged together. She urges them to pursue a deferral. Kathy begins to cry, protesting that it is too late. Ruth says that she has uncovered Madame’s address for them, handing it on a piece of paper to Tommy for safekeeping. They drop Tommy off at his recovery center and do not discuss what had just happened on their way back to Ruth’s center. After the trip, Kathy and Ruth spend peaceful days reminiscing together at Ruth’s recovery center. They still never directly reference their roadside conversation, but Ruth periodically encourages Kathy to become Tommy’s carer. Ruth later completes after giving her second donation. As Ruth is dying, Kathy promises to become Tommy’s carer. Their eyes lock briefly, and although she is not certain, Kathy thinks that Ruth heard and understood her.
Kathy’s encounter with Laura recalls their shared childhood, bringing back memories of both Hailsham and the Cottages. It also highlights the fragility of such connections, showing Laura to be an exhausted shadow of the girl whom Kathy remembers. Their conversation again highlights Kathy’s unreliability as a narrator. Although Hailsham has been closed for several years, Kathy has neglected to share this information with the reader until now. Kathy’s reaction to the closure shows how deeply her sense of identity is tied to the school. She worries not about the current students, but about the former students scattered across the country. Kathy’s memory of the clown emphasizes her sense of loss. The clown is a symbol of childhood, associated with birthday parties and circuses. Kathy reinforces this symbolism in comparing the clown’s balloons to Hailsham students. Yet the clown is eerily out of place on the road where she sees him, just as Kathy’s memories of Hailsham are out of place in her adult life as a carer. Kathy sees Hailsham as a last anchor holding the former students together. The school’s closing only exacerbates her sense of loss and loneliness, as expressed in her image of the drifting balloons.
Read more about Kathy’s reliability or unreliability as a narrator.
Kathy combats her increasing sense of disconnectedness by seeking out Ruth. However, silence and suspicion continue to define their relationship as carer and donor. Like Laura, the adult Ruth has become a faded and weary version of her former self. The walk to the marsh highlights Ruth’s physical frailty, as she relies heavily on Tommy and Kathy for guidance. The marsh itself offers additional reminders of mortality, including the dead tree trunks on which they sit. The boat is a crumbling skeleton, stripped of its former vitality. Both Ruth and Tommy associate the marsh with Hailsham, which emphasizes the fact that Hailsham itself is no more than a ghostly memory. Yet the marsh is also a beautiful and tranquil place, suggesting that Hailsham still continues to offer a quiet comfort. Although Ruth dreams about Hailsham as a flooded ruin, she feels a sense of peace and safety in her imagined return to the school.
Read more about the crumbling boat as a symbol.
The visit to the boat is also a somber echo of the trip to Norfolk years earlier. Kathy drives while Ruth and Tommy sit in back, highlighting the absence of Chrissie and Rodney. Their talk by the boat also emphasizes this absence, revealing that Chrissie has completed. Chrissie’s death is a dark reminder of the future that awaits Ruth, Tommy, and Kathy. Chrissie’s death also recalls the failed hopes that she once had for a deferral. Instead of gaining time, Chrissie prematurely completes on her second donation. In addition, the conversation by the boat highlights divisions between Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy. While Kathy is still a carer, Ruth and Tommy are donors. Ruth herself marks Kathy as an outsider for this reason, claiming that Kathy cannot understand how Rodney felt when Chrissie completed because she is a carer. Reflecting this divide, Ruth and Tommy sit together on one tree trunk while Kathy sits by herself on another.
Read more about how the open-office plan and billboard work as symbols.
In addition to their status as donors, Ruth and Tommy share a past as a couple. This also separates them from Kathy, whose behavior hints at her own desire for closeness with Tommy. On the way to the boat, Kathy alternates between upsetting Ruth and supporting her. After she cuts off Ruth’s story in the car, she feels both a momentary closeness with Tommy and a sense of guilt towards Ruth. She quite literally holds Ruth up on the walk, offering physical support her as if to balance her insensitivity in the car. This oscillation reflects the ongoing tensions in Kathy’s friendship with Ruth, which remains complicated by Kathy’s unspoken feelings for Tommy. Kathy’s decision to point out the billboard is another characteristically indirect attempt to upset Ruth, linked again to Kathy’s own sense of disappointment about Tommy. The open-plan office on the billboard further reinforces the parallels between this trip and the visit to Norfolk. It ironically recalls Ruth’s former dreams, at a moment when her future looks most bleak.
Read more about deferrals and the inevitability of loss.
But while the office on the billboard reflects the disappointment of Ruth’s adolescent dreams, it also continues to symbolize her hopefulness. Instead of dreaming about her own future, Ruth now hopes to change the future for Tommy and Kathy. Ruth extends this hope in the form of Madame’s address, which represents the chance for a deferral. Appropriately, her last gift to them is one of possibility. It is also a sort of blessing, in which Ruth acknowledges the shared feelings between Kathy and Tommy. Ruth’s apology and her gift show that despite her flaws, she is still essentially guided by a deep sense of decency and goodness. They also mark a final turning point in her friendship with Kathy, which becomes more open and nostalgic in the days that follow. Instead of speaking about the future, Ruth and Kathy look back on their shared memories of the past. Ruth turns to memories of Hailsham in the face of her coming donation, while her only allusions to the future concern Kathy and Tommy.
Read more about the motif of copies.