The novel is set in an alternate version of England, in the 1990s, and the narrator is Kathy H., a former student at the Hailsham school. Kathy now works as a “carer,” although the details of her job she does not share immediately with the reader. Kathy has been a carer for twelve years, and though she doesn’t want to “brag” about her abilities in her job, she notes that this is a far longer tenure as carer than others are granted by the government. Kathy notes that her “donors,” or the people she cares for, tend to do well, even after “their third of fourth donation.” But Kathy does not explain to the reader what exactly these terms mean.
One of the great ironies of this early part of the novel is the small pride Kathy takes in her abilities as a carer—and her overwhelming modesty in all things, as will become apparent as the novel progresses. After watching Kathy’s interaction with Ruth and Tommy over time, the reader would find it difficult to think of Kathy as anything other than a very grounded, very thoughtful human being.
Kathy notes that she enjoys thinking about Hailsham, and she often tries to choose the people she cares for (something that is only granted to skilled carers like Kathy; other are assigned their donors) so that her donors have gone to Hailsham school. Kathy served as a carer for Ruth, whom she mentions had been a friend of hers at Hailsham, though the two have had a falling out. Kathy mentions another, unnamed donor whom she cares for, who enjoys hearing stories of Hailsham, because it is known as an idyllic place—far better than this unnamed donor’s hometown. Kathy enjoys talking to this donor about Hailsham whenever they meet, and considers herself “lucky” to have gone there.
Kathy's focus on Hailsham highlights its importance to her. That Ruth was her friend there implies it was a school of some sort. The unnamed donor establishes that Hailsham was unique, a special place. Through all this, Ishiguro channels an entire sub-genre of fiction writing—the “novel of education,” or the “campus novel,” but in this case, the twist has to do with the nature of the students’ lives—the reality of their jobs as carers and donors—and how that both does and does not change what Hailsham is and means to them.
Kathy often thinks about Hailsham when she drives around the English countryside, visiting her donors. In particular, a certain kind pavilion she sees often reminds her of Hailsham, a school which, according to her hints and descriptions, appears to have been shut down since she left. Kathy remembers a story involving a pavilion near Hailsham’s athletic area: she is standing there with her female friends, including Ruth, and they are looking out at one of the football fields, where a boy named Tommy is playing. Tommy is wearing his “special blue polo shirt,” which he has recently bought in a school sale, and Kathy wonders if Tommy won’t get it dirty playing.
The novel is constructed throughout as a series of flashbacks of various points in the past—it is a novel of looking back from one stage of life to earlier ones. Kathy is narrating from “the present day,” some time in the 1990s in England; and at that particular moment, she has just finished her career as a carer and is about to embark on her new career as a donor. Tommy is also here established as being important to Kathy.
The other girls begin laughing, as they realize the boys with whom Tommy is preparing to play are ready to turn a practical joke on Tommy. Tommy is a gifted athlete, but he has a terrible temper; the group of boys has decided, when selecting teams, to pick Tommy last, even though he is the most skilled player. When Tommy realizes he has been picked last, he flies into a rage on the field, stamping around on the mud as the other players laugh and run off to another part of the school grounds. Tommy stands alone, raging wildly, getting himself muddy in the process, as the girls (excluding Kathy) laugh at him from the nearby pavilion.
Tommy appears to have very little control of his body when he flies into a tantrum—his flailing here will come back at the end of the novel, when he expresses his final frustration at the fact that he and his fellow clones have no ultimate control as to the direction of their lives. Kathy's lack of laughter at Tommy suggests again her connection to him, and perhaps the seeds of what make her such a skilled carer—she has no interest in harming the dignity of another.
Tommy then walks by, on his way back to his room, and Kathy intercepts him, telling him that he’s gotten his favorite polo shirt dirty. Tommy, instead of thanking Kathy for her concern, continues raging, telling her the shirt is “none of her business.” In his wild fury, Tommy swings his arm around and grazes Kathy on the side of the head. Kathy isn’t hurt, but the other girls “gasp” at Tommy’s impulsiveness. Kathy walks back to the girls, where Ruth consoles her, saying that Kathy has managed to calm Tommy down somewhat.
Tommy’s relationship with Kathy will be one of the novel’s central concerns. Here, at first, Tommy views Kathy as a relatively well-meaning, but somewhat strange and shy, member of Ruth’s set of friends. The emphasis on staying clean, and not being impulsive, and minor physical harm (Tommy grazing Kathy's head) is a bit odd. Later it will be clear that these are concerns that have been nurtured in these children in order to protect their bodies—since their sole purpose, as clones, is to eventually donate their organs to others.