Alice’s appointment with the doctor was on the following Friday. Mum picked her up from school early, and they took the train together into central London. The doctor’s office turned out to be not in a hospital, but in a tall terraced house in the west end of London — the kind of place where private and confidential consultations were held with private and wealthy clients. Everything was hushed, from the gentle whisper of the air conditioning to the discrete entrances and exits of the nursing staff; the carpets and walls were cream, and everything smelt of polish.
Mum and Alice sat in silence in the empty waiting room, mum flicking through magazines and Alice completing a Sudoku puzzle, until they were called through to meet Dr Harding: a slightly elderly, professional woman who was very good at being pleasant but would probably not remember them after they left. She shook Alice’s hand and made sure to include her in the conversation, which was mostly held with mum. Alice remembered to nod her head and act politely, and paid little attention to what they were saying.
When the initial interview was over Dr Harding led them through to another room, where Alice lay on a narrow plastic guerney that slid her in and out of a massive scanner for an hour, then submitted herself to various needles and swabs from a quiet and efficient nurse. Afterwards they returned to Dr Harding’s office for what seemed like three more hours while she and mum talked and talked over a series of blobby images that apparently told them something about Alice’s brain.
The conclusion, as far as Alice could tell, was that her brain needed exercise. Something to do with neurons and pathways, from what she gathered. At the end of the meeting Dr Harding rummaged in her desk drawers and handed a leaflet to mum.
“This is for a very good Saturday school,” she said, “for gifted and talented children — invitation only. I happen to know the owner. Lovely man. I recommend students to him now and again. They specialise in advanced problem-solving, higher mathematics, that sort of thing. The key here is to give Alice an adequate challenge, something to really give her brain a chance of developing in the way it wants to. I’ll also prescribe something to help reduce the risk of another episode.”
Mum took the leaflet and flicked through it. She glanced at Alice. “What do you think, love?”
Alice shrugged. She couldn’t see how she was either gifted or talented, but problem-solving was what she liked, and she was good at it. There were other children her age in the school — more like a class than an actual school, Dr Harding explained — and though the idea of meeting new people didn’t appeal to her, she was curious to see if they had anything in common. She agreed to visit and see what she thought, and this seemed to make Dr Harding happy.
They finally wrapped up the visit, Dr Harding shook their hands and smiled a perfect white smile, and they emerged from the office into the four o’clock darkness of winter.
On the train on the way back home Alice glanced through the leaflet. It was amateurishly produced, a photocopy of a photocopy, the photographs darkened into indecipherable blurs. The text talked about ‘exciting opportunities’ and ‘the chance to work with some of the greatest minds in the country’, and went on in breathless prose about the possibilities of the human brain.
The last photograph, on the back of the leaflet, was the only one she could make out; it was of an old white man with glasses, gazing mawkishly out at her with a lopsided smile on his lopsided face. The caption said his name was Professor Knight, and that he was one of the founders of the school back in the 1980s.
Alice peered at him. He looked nice enough, the stereotype of a retired teacher, the kind of man who would wear thin ties and tweed jackets, someone who could be trusted. But if she had learned anything over the past year it was that appearances were not everything; in fact, more often than not, she had discovered that people went out of their way to hide what they really wanted.
She closed the leaflet and put it in her bag. She would decide what she thought about Professor Knight, and the Shannen School, when she saw them tomorrow.
They talked about the school over dinner that evening.
“So what do you reckon?” dad said, slurping spaghetti. “Mind giving up your Saturdays for a bit?”
“No,” said Alice, carefully cutting her spaghetti into more manageable pieces. “Saturdays are boring. Will I still have time for homework?”
“I’ll talk to your tutor,” mum said. She wound the spaghetti delicately around her fork and held it over her plate as she talked. “I’m sure the school won’t mind cutting down on homework for a while if you’re doing extra classes.”
“Will you be all right going on your own?” dad asked.
“She’ll be fine,” mum said. Dad shot her a look, but she ignored it. “She’s fourteen years old. She can manage a trip up to London by herself.”
“I was just asking if she minded,” dad said, putting his fork down deliberately.
Alice knew that tone. It was the one he used before they started fighting. “I don’t mind,” she cut in, before mum could reply. “I can go by myself.”
Mum smiled at her. “I’ll take you tomorrow,” she said. “Just so we can check the route together. You can go on your own after that.”
“Good idea,” said dad. He stayed glaring at mum for a moment, then picked up his fork and continued eating.
There was another argument that night. This time it ended with the front door banging, and when Alice went downstairs she found mum sitting by herself in the kitchen, her hands folded in her lap, staring out of the darkened window.
She looked up when Alice came in, tried to smile, but failed.
“Your dad’s just popped out for some milk,” she said, her voice hoarse, and though they both knew it was a lie neither one said anything about it.
Alice slipped into the chair on the other side of the table.
“I’m really looking forward to tomorrow,” she said. “The school seems interesting.”
“Really? That’s good.” Mum nodded, then her eyes drifted back to the window.
“I’m going to take the medicine Dr Harding gave us,” Alice continued. “She said I have to take it in the morning and before bed. Do you think it’ll help?”
Mum shrugged. “Maybe,” she said.
Alice sat for a while longer, but mum didn’t say anything else, and in the end she left her sitting in the kitchen and went back upstairs to read the leaflet again.
Saturday dawned grey and overcast: the kind of day for staying indoors and watching TV. Alice and mum left the house straight after breakfast, with dad still sleeping in the bedroom. They took the train to Victoria, then descended to the almost-empty underground to catch the tube to South Kensington. Alice engrossed herself in her puzzle book, and only looked up when mum nudged her to say they had arrived at their stop.
She followed close behind mum as they made their way up and out of the station, dodging cabs and bikes across Cromwell Road, then walked up past the imposing edifice of the Natural History Museum to the smaller, unassuming entrance of the Science Museum next door. Mum showed the school leaflet to the woman on the door, who directed them to the Learning Centre in the basement and showed them the way to go.
It was early, and the museum was still quiet, with just a few families meandering around and keeping warm. Alice and mum made their way around the giant red steam engine in the atrium and down through the main galleries, past the replica moon lander and the enormous space rockets hanging from the darkened ceiling.
At the far end of the gallery they passed a darkened alcove where a film was playing, and Alice stopped to watch. The film was about Albert Einstein and the general theory of relativity, which described how time and space bent around gravity. Alice had heard about the theory before, but she had never studied it in any detail. As she watched the film she wondered whether this was the kind of thing she would be learning about in the Shannen School — maybe that would be something she would enjoy learning, for once.
Mum tugged on her arm.
“Come on, love,” she said. “We don’t want to be late, do we?”
They left the alcove and made their way downstairs to the basement, where they found a large hall lined with shallow steps for families to sit and eat packed lunches on one side, and a children’s play area on the other. The hall was all but deserted, the cafe at the far end closed and the play area occupied by three siblings who chased each other in and out and ignored the occasional shouts from their weary-looking dad, who spent most of the time with his head bent over his phone.
Mum looked down at the leaflet, then peered around the basement.
“They didn’t say where exactly it was, did they?” she said. “You’d think there would be a sign, or something …”
They turned to see a man striding through the empty hall towards them, clutching a battered box file against his chest. Alice recognised him immediately: it was Professor Knight, the man from the back of the leaflet. He was older than his photo, his face drawn and lined and his chin bristling with a haze of stubble. He was dressed casually in brown trousers and a rumpled blue shirt with the sleeves rolled up, his greying hair tousled wildly and his wrinkled shoes scuffed at the toes.
But his face still had that loose, baggy appearance, and when he smiled his eyebrows drooped at the edges in a public schoolboy kind of way. He looked like a puppet that had been dropped one too many times.
“So good to meet you,” he beamed, grasping mum’s hand and pumping it enthusiastically. “My name is Adam, Adam Knight. So good to meet you. I was so excited when I got the call from Jennifer — Dr Harding, I should say. It’s been a while since we’ve had a new addition to the group. You must be Alice, I take it?”
He turned to her, and she forced what she hoped was a smile and gingerly took his hand. He shook it a couple of times, then stood back with one hand in his pocket and beamed.
“Wonderful,” he said. He looked around. “Shall we take a seat? I can talk you through the basics, then Alice and I can go to meet the others.”
“Yes, of course.” Mum followed him up the shallow steps to a bench at the top. Alice went with them and squeezed herself down beside mum, and immediately Adam launched into a speech about the school, going through some of its history and boring details like lesson times and term dates.
Alice switched off and looked around the basement. It did not seem like the kind of place for a school — she could not see an entrance anywhere, or hear any sounds of lessons. She was still worried about meeting new people, and all the awkwardness that came with that. She had never been good with new people — even the people she already knew were hard enough to get along with. Mekala had always been the one who was good at making friends and being charming; Alice had preferred to hover nearby, automatically included in any circle by reason of being Mekala’s sister, and gently tugged into conversations by her whenever she could.
Last year all that had changed. No-one spoke to her afterwards, though she heard the whispers and saw the pointed fingers and the not-so-secret glances. Very quickly she had become used to solitude, and existing on the edges of things, and being ignored and forgotten. She didn’t mind. It suited her, and it meant avoiding awkward questions.
That was, until Keyana had noticed her.
“Now, unless you have any more questions, maybe Alice and I should get going?”
Alice looked up. Mum and Adam were looking at her.
“Do you have any questions, love?” Mum asked. Alice shook her head. “All right then.” Mum stood up and slung her bag over her shoulder. She smiled at Adam and shook his hand. “Thank you very much. I’ll be back at six. See you later, love.”
“We’ll take good care of her,” Adam said, as mum gave Alice a quick squeeze and headed towards the stairs. Alice watched as she opened the door to the stairwell, and then she was gone, and Alice and Adam were alone in the empty basement.
“Well,” said Adam, gathering up his box file and looking around as if he had forgotten which way to go. “Shall we?”
He turned on his heel and marched back towards the stairwell; Alice followed after him at a discrete distance, not far enough to seem rude, but not close enough to be uncomfortable. He seemed nice enough, but she had learned to be suspicious. Keep quiet, she told herself, and nothing bad could happen.
Adam stopped by a drinking fountain, in front of a door with a sign on it that read, ‘Electrical Riser No. 3. No unauthorised entry.’ He took a card from his breast pocket, which he tapped it against a reader to one side; the reader chirruped brightly, and an LED glowed green. Adam swung the door open and looked back at Alice.
“Just through here,” he said, beaming, then stepped through the door. Alice hesitated for a moment, her heart hammering, then she took a deep breath and followed him through.
The doorway led to a long, narrow corridor lit by stark fluorescent tubes; the walls were white-painted breeze-blocks, and the concrete floor was bare. Adam beckoned for her to follow him, and led her down past rows of closed doors with wire mesh in the windows.
“I’m sorry it’s not more luxurious,” he apologised, his voice echoing off the bare walls. “Our funding has never been generous, and we have to make do with what we can. This is our admin office …”
He stopped by a doorway that opened into a small, brightly-lit room. The room was mostly filled with two large desks, both piled high with stacks of paper and box files. Notice boards covered the walls, busy with rotas, timetables, calendars, posters, flyers and a hundred other scraps of paper pinned one on top of another; on one wall a grimy whiteboard struggled to emerge from the chaos, its face a mess of notes and lists in various grubby shades of coloured pen.
As Alice peered into the room she became aware of a someone sitting huddled behind the desk furthest from the door, peering into an ancient PC monitor. The someone looked up. She was an old woman, about the size of a seven-year-old, her white hair pulled up in a severe bun and a pair of smoked glasses perched on the end of her long beaked nose. Her eyes narrowed as she saw them looking at her.
“What is it?” she snapped.
Adam smiled cheerfully. “This is Alice, Clara,” he said, raising his voice. “A new student.”
“And?” The woman called Clara glared at them, as though they had personally offended her by barging into her sanctuary. “Was there something you wanted?”
“No, just saying hello.”
“Then push off.”
Adam chuckled and shook his head as he ushered Alice back into the corridor.
“Pay no attention to Clara,” he said. “She works very hard for the school, but she doesn’t tolerate interruptions well, bless her. She used to have an assistant, but … well, the less said about that, the better.”
They reached the end of the corridor and turned right, down an identical corridor past identical doors. Halfway down this corridor they turned left, down another identical corridor, then right, then left again. Every corridor was the same: the same white-painted breeze blocks; the same closed doors; the same wire mesh windows. The air tasted stale, as if it had been recycled — ‘aeroplane air’, mum would have called it, though she didn’t use that expression any more. Some kind of air-conditioning machinery throbbed somewhere far away.
“Excuse me,” she said, touching Adam’s elbow. He turned his head slightly. “Where exactly is this class?”
“Nearly there,” Adam replied cheerfully. “Just down this corridor here …”
They turned right again and stopped halfway down the next corridor, by a door that looked no different to any other. From behind this door came the faint sound of voices, and a sudden burst of laughter.
“Here we are,” said Adam. “Are you ready to meet the others?”
Alice wasn’t, but she nodded anyway. Adam laid a hand on the door, then paused and looked back at her.
“What you need to understand before we go any further,” he said, “is that this is isn’t a normal school. Here you’ll be learning things that most of your teachers will never be able to understand. You’re here because we think you’re one of the few who can. Some of the things you’re about to hear and see will seem impossible — but I have found that impossible things can be understood by those who are willing to ask impossible questions, and accept impossible answers. Here. This might help.”
He reached into his trouser pocket and drew out a slim white card, like a business card. Alice came nearer and took it. A line of text had been printed across the face of the card, in neat black capitals. It said:
THE SENTENCE ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THIS CARD IS TRUE.
She turned the card over. Another sentence was printed on the back:
THE SENTENCE ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THIS CARD IS FALSE.
She frowned and looked up at Adam, who smiled lopsidedly then shoved on the doors and swung them open.
“Welcome to the Shannen School,” he said.