Summary: Chapter 18
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.
Summary: Chapter 19
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.
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