“Closer to the black hole spacetime starts to deform. Now there are more paths moving towards the black hole than paths moving away.”
“So — how did it go?”
Sarah closed the door as Alice took off her bag and sat in the green chair; Sarah sat opposite her in the purple chair, as usual, and crossed her legs. Her clipboard lay out of arm’s reach on the desk.
“Tell me about the school. Did you talk to your friends again?”
Alice nodded, looking around at the drawings. There were a few new ones today: one over Sarah’s desk of a girl’s face, looking down, her eyes closed, beautifully rendered in soft pencil; next to it, a more childish drawing of a bright blue river winding away between green hills, lollipop trees standing tall and straight on the horizon, a plane soaring through the blue sky above them.
She looked away, back at Sarah, who was regarding her thoughtfully.
“Are you all right?” Sarah asked.
Alice nodded again. “I’m fine,” she said. “Sorry, what was the question?”
“I was just asking about the Shannen School. On Saturday. How did it go?”
“It was good,” Alice said.
“Did you talk to your new friend? What was her name?”
“Ellie. Yes, we talked. It was nice. But …”
Alice trailed off. Her eyes drifted back to the drawing of the hills, and the white plane against the blue sky. She knew why she was drawn to it, in the same way she would probe an ulcer with her tongue despite the pain.
“But what?” Sarah prompted gently.
Alice looked down at her lap, at her hands — anywhere but into Sarah’s eyes. “It’s not easy,” she said. “Sometimes I’m not … I don’t know what to say, and sometimes Ellie asks me about stuff that I don’t want to talk about. She asked me on Saturday. About Mekala. Well, not about Mekala … she just asked if I had any brothers or sisters. And she didn’t know what she was asking. But …”
Again she trailed off, unsure how to finish the thought.
“Well, that’s part of having friends,” Sarah said. “We have to learn how to live with other people, and what to do if people make us feel uncomfortable — having a friend can be a safe way of working through that. Tell you what. Why don’t you try telling her, the next time you don’t feel comfortable talking about something? I’m sure she would understand. You might find it helps to build the friendship.”
Alice shrugged. “Maybe,” she said, knowing it was something she probably would not try. She still wasn’t ready. Not yet. Better to keep quiet. Keep quiet, and nothing bad could happen.
Sarah did not ask her anything else about Ellie. They talked about other things instead — about the session with Olivia, and Adam, and Alice’s run-in with Clara. As they talked Alice relaxed, and sat forward in her chair, and once or twice she even smiled, though she did not realise it. When they were finished Sarah wished her luck for the next Saturday, and insisted Alice would have to fill her in on everything the next time they met.
After Alice had left Sarah sat for a while, biting the end of her pencil. Eventually she reached over and picked up the phone, dialled a number, and waited.
“Yes,” she said, when the line was answered. “It’s me. No, it went well. I just had Alice Mensah in. She’s getting along well, I think. She’s made friends with Elisha Elmi. It seems to be developing. I’d like to recommend that the friendship is encouraged … Yes, I was thinking that perhaps Olivia could help …? Of course. Yes. No, nothing too outright. Just a gentle … Thank you. Yes. That would be great. You too. Goodbye.”
She replaced the receiver, and sat looking at it for a long time in silence.
The rest of the week passed, if possible, even more slowly than the last. Alice spent most of her lessons with half an eye on the clock, willing the hands to move — but like the clocks in the theoretical experiments in Valeris’ book they all seemed reluctant to move, extending each minute of school into an agonising eternity. The only time the clocks seemed to race was at lunchtime, when her precious hour spent reading in the library was over almost as soon as it had begun.
The torture of lunchtime was made worse by the rain that started on Tuesday and hardly stopped for the rest of the week, battering on windows and sweeping in freezing sheets across the concourse. At break and lunch every inch of indoor space was suddenly packed with students escaping from the wet — in corridors and classrooms, the canteen and the toilets: anywhere there was space to sit or stand.
The library was the most crowded of all, as hordes of students who before had only ever come in to print their homework suddenly descended and occupied every nook and corner, leaning up against the shelves, sitting on the stairs that led down to the sixth form study area, and generally driving the librarians to distraction with their noise and litter.
By the time Thursday came there was barely room to stand, let alone sit. Alice was forced to pick her way through the scattered bodies, searching for a gap between the gossiping, texting groups where she might be able to read the book in peace. At last she found a space at the far end of the last row of shelves, right up against the window that looked out over the concourse. She lowered herself cross-legged on to the carpet, took the book from her bag, and tried to block out the shrieks and giggles of the girls sitting beside her.
She had finished the book the day before, sitting up late into the night as she devoured the final chapter. It had been something about interdimensional string theory; she hadn’t really understood it, but the words alone had been enough to thrill her and keep her reading into the early hours. Now she turned back to the beginning and began again, this time with a pencil in her hand to make a note of anything particularly interesting or particularly difficult. The book started with Valeris’ introduction, in his usual unapologetic style:
In nature we find that nothing is alone: a single organism is composed of multiple organ systems, each in turn comprised of multiple organs, which are made up of tissues formed by cells, which have their own component parts descending to the subatomic level, where we find each quark tightly bound to its twin by immense forces of attraction. Even the organism — however lonely it may seem — does not exist in a vacuum, for its every action informs and changes its environment, by which environment it is also informed and changed in its turn; and where organisms group themselves together in families, packs, societies and nations, this interaction becomes ever more profound.
So the scientist, however lonely, however insulated from society or his peers, finds himself informed and changed, not only by his environment, but also by the sum of the labours of the brothers and sisters who have gone before him and those who will follow him. Within the discipline we call ‘science’, the scientist is not himself an organism; he is but a cell, a single part of a great whole, without which he has no purpose or function. Only by accepting his place in this greater order, and surrendering himself to its aims and desires over his own, can he hope to survive the storm of contradiction and confusion that is the universe we call our home.
Alice stopped at the end of the paragraph, went back, and carefully underlined the phrase ‘nothing is alone’. Then she sat and looked at the page for a long time, until a noise in front of her made her look up, and she found herself looking straight at Keyana and her gang, crowding into the narrow space between the shelves.
“What you reading?” Keyana said, her arms folded, a faint sneer playing over her perfectly-glossed lips.
Alice did not reply. Her eyes darted to the groups of girls to either side of her, but they were all caught up in their conversations and dramas, and no-one paid any attention to Alice or the group confronting her.
Keyana put out a hand. “Let’s see, then,” she said. “Come on: give it.”
Still Alice did not move. There was no way she was going to hand the book over to Keyana. Just the thought of it made her feel sick. She sat and stared back silently — though not out of bravery, or defiance — she simply could not will herself to do anything. She was aware of the glass at her back, at the hundreds of eyes who could look up and see her at any minute, but still she knew she was utterly alone. Anyone glancing at the situation would see only a group of girls talking to another girl — nothing suspicious, nothing threatening. And yet she felt like a lone and tiny animal crouched before a pack of wolves who were ready to tear her apart at a moment’s notice.
Keyana sighed. “Seriously?” She glanced at Shereen, who was standing beside her, chewing gum noisily. “Go get it.”
Shereen picked her way down between the shelves, reached out with her french-tipped nails, and gently plucked the book from Alice’s unresisting fingers. Alice wanted to resist — she wanted to shout, to call for help, to let everyone know just how wrong this was and how much she wanted them to stop — but she was frozen, watching helplessly as Shereen handed the book to Keyana, who opened it and started flipping lazily through the pages.
“What is this?” Keyana snorted. “You taking A-Levels or GCSEs? Seriously, this is A-grade geekishness. Look.” She showed the book around the group, who sniggered and nudged each other.
Alice watched them in silence, her face burning. Something private was being violated; the book was hers, the one thing she had to remind her of the Shannen School and help her through the long grey week. Keyana had no right — none of them had any right — to be touching it and pawing at it with their creamed and manicured hands, contaminating it, desecrating it.
But still she did nothing. There was nothing she could do, nothing she could say to stop them. All she could do was keep quiet. Keep quiet, and nothing bad could happen.
Finally Keyana grew bored, and turned back to Alice with a contemptuous sneer. “Think you’re so great, don’t you?” she said. “Think you’re miss perfect? Think everyone feels sorry for you, for poor little Alice? Think everyone needs to give you special treatment? Well, I’ll give you special treatment.”
She reached down, grasped a page from the middle of the book, and slowly and deliberately tore it away from the spine.
“There,” she said, tossing the book back to Alice. It hit her in the chest, but she hardly noticed. “Consider yourself treated.” Keyana folded the page in half and half again, and tucked it into the waistband of her skirt. “Mind if I hold on to this?”
“Girls? Are you sitting down or not?”
One of the librarians appeared, peering over the girls’ heads and shooing them with her hands, while they turned and gave her dirty looks in return. Alice knew she should say something, show her the ruined book, point out the page tucked into Keyana’s waistband — but it didn’t matter what she knew. No matter how many times they had been told ‘the right thing to do’ in bullying workshops, Alice understood that there was only one thing she could do right now: keep quiet. Keep quiet, and nothing worse would happen.
The gang of girls gave the librarian lip for a few minutes then turned and left, commenting loudly on her dress sense, hairstyle and jewellery. Keyana was the last one to go; when it was just her and Alice she paused, turned, and frowned.
“You know what you really need?” she said, then smiled brightly. “A study-buddy. Pity there isn’t anyone around for that.”
She blew a kiss, then turned and disappeared behind the shelves, leaving Alice clutching the book so hard her knuckles turned pale.
* * *
Just a quick note: due to me having caught up with myself in terms of edits, future instalments will be weekly, on a Wednesday. I will continue to post writing videos and other posts in-between.