The room they entered was large and bright, with a low ceiling and no windows. The walls of the room were painted the same white as the corridors, and they were covered with notice boards on which had been pinned drawings, paintings, and other displays. The far wall was dominated by a large electronic whiteboard and a set of speakers, flanked by two other regular whiteboards. Tables and chairs were scattered around the room; some arranged in a horseshoe shape in the middle, the rest stacked to one side. A group of children was clustered around the horseshoe. They had all stopped talking and turned to look as she and Adam entered, and they stared at her now, much as visitors to a zoo might stare at a new and unexpected specimen.
Alice stared back at them. They were all different ages and different nationalities: the youngest, a tiny East-African boy, looked about nine or ten, whilst the eldest was a tall white girl with blonde hair, long legs and athletic arms, who could have been seventeen or eighteen.
This girl was at the centre of the group, and had clearly been leading some sort of activity; she stood now and walked through the group towards them, a smile breaking out across her perfect lips and bright eyes.
“Hi,” she said cheerfully, holding out her hand. Alice shook it carefully. “Welcome to the Shannen School. Don’t worry, we’re not all as odd as my dad.” The girl turned to Adam. “Welcome back.”
“Nice to be back, love,” Adam said. He leaned over and gave her a peck on the cheek. “Would you like to make introductions?”
“Sure.” The girl took Alice’s hand and led her towards the group. “My name’s Olivia,” she said. “Olive for short. I’ve been at the school the longest. Anything you need, you come to me, okay? Hey, guys.” She waved the group in as they approached, and they crowded round, forming a semicircle. The younger ones — of which there was a group of about five — were particularly interested, coming right up to Alice and staring up at her.
“This is Alice,” Olivia said, placing her hand on Alice’s shoulder. “Today’s her first day, so be nice, okay?”
The small East African boy, who had the widest eyes and most enormous smile Alice had ever seen, came right up to her and held out his arms. Alice looked uncertainly at Olivia.
“This is Chris,” Olivia said. ”He wants to be picked up. It’s his way of saying hello. Go on, or else he’ll just follow you around all day.”
Alice bent down and took the boy in her arms. He giggled and wrapped his legs around her waist, then put his face close to hers and stared deep into her eyes. Alice returned the stare, which seemed to satisfy the boy. When he had had his fill he hopped down and scurried off behind the others.
“He’s deaf,” Olivia said. “This is his sister, Ellie. She signs for him.” She pointed to a slender girl in a pink hijab, who looked about Alice’s age; the girl smiled and waved, and Alice waved back.
Olivia began to introduce the rest of the class, giving names and a fact or two about each one — but before long the names and faces began to blur together, and Alice found herself feeling restless in the way she did when she was around too many people. She was about to say that maybe she should go home and come back another time, when Adam strode into the middle of the group, clapping his hands and shooing them away.
“All right, all right!” he boomed cheerfully. “That’s enough for now, I think. Our guest will still be here at lunchtime — you can interrogate her as much as you like then. Now — who’s done their homework?”
The little deaf boy called Chris started jumping up and down, his hand so far in the air it looked like his arm might break. Adam laughed.
“We have a volunteer!” he announced. “Everyone, take your seats. Chris is going to present his research project to us.”
“Come on,” said Olivia, touching Alice’s elbow. “We can sit at the back. Don’t worry about joining in. Just watch for today.”
Everyone spread out around the classroom, sitting in seats and perching on desks. Chris strode to the front of the room by the whiteboard, his tiny chest puffed out and an enormous grin plastered across his face. When the room had settled down he looked around expectantly and started to sign, his hands flashing and his eyes widening as he launched into his presentation. For a second Alice wondered whether they were expected to understand, then the girl called Ellie began to speak from her seat near the front, interpreting what her brother was saying in a calm, clear voice:
“Erwin Schrodinger is one of the most famous scientists of the twentieth century. He was born in Austria in 1887, and conducted research into quantum physics. His most famous idea was the ‘Schrodinger’s cat’ thought experiment. He described a sealed metal box which contained a cat and a machine that would kill the cat at a random time. You could say that the cat was both alive and dead until someone opened the box.
“I think that Erwin Schrodinger is fascinating because he could think about things that are impossible to fully understand. He dared to think about things that other people could not think about, and he wanted to ask deep questions about the world around us. I think he should be more famous than Albert Einstein. Thank you.”
Chris finished signing with a flourish, watched his sister until he could see her words had caught up with him, then turned to the room and bowed deeply and extravagantly. Everyone clapped, Adam loudest and longest of all.
“Wonderful!” he boomed, looking proudly around the room. “Absolutely wonderful! Who’s next?”
Alice watched as four more students came up to the front to speak, each for varying lengths of time, describing a range of physicists and mathematicians and the key ideas of each one. She had no idea who some of the subjects were, and most of the concepts were strange and unfamiliar to her; but as she listened something unexpected began to happen, as if a door had cracked open, somewhere in her mind, and a beam of light was shining through the crack. There was something behind the door, something she desperately wanted to see, but she did not know what it was or why she wanted to see it so badly. All she knew was that it had something to do with the words she was hearing now, something about these men and women and the work they had been doing.
Without thinking she began to lean forward in her seat, letting the words wash over her, surrounding herself with the names and dates and descriptions of theorems and experiments. She was so engrossed in the presentations, and so wrapped up in her own thoughts, that when Olivia touched her arm she jumped in shock.
“Come on,” Olivia said, standing up and gesturing towards the door. “Lunchtime. I’ll show you where the canteen is.”
They left the classroom and made their way down another maze of corridors to a large hall packed with rows of tables and with serving hatches along one wall. The hall was mostly empty, the tables occupied by scattered groups of adults in ones and twos, bent over plates of food or else engaged in quiet conversation. Olivia and Alice grabbed trays and queued up behind the rest of the children from the class.
The food was decent, and free. Alice chose rice and curry with a naan bread and sat down with Olivia on the end of one of the tables. The rest of the children had arranged themselves nearby, and were chatting animatedly; Alice could see Ellie and Chris signing to each other, their plates virtually untouched.
“So how are you liking it so far?” Olivia said, digging her fork into a pasta bake.
“It’s nice,” Alice replied. She poked at her rice, waiting for Olivia to ask her more questions. When she did not Alice looked up to find Olivia smiling gently at her. She felt she was supposed to say something else. “I liked the presentations,” she added. “Will we be doing more like that?”
Olivia raised her eyebrows, and her smile became mysterious. “Oh yes,” she said. “A lot more. You haven’t seen half of it, believe me. Think you’ll stay, then?”
Alice nodded. “I think so. If mum and dad let me — but I think they will. They let me do pretty much whatever I want these days.”
“And what is that? Do you have any hobbies?”
“I like puzzles. Puzzle books, logic puzzles, sometimes crosswords …” Alice trailed off. “That’s it, I suppose.”
“What about friends?”
“Not really.” Alice shrugged. “But that’s ok. I don’t like most people, and most people don’t like me. It’s better that way. Easier.”
“I’m surprised,” Olivia said. “You seem nice enough. Why do you think it is?”
Alice looked down at her food, and didn’t answer for a long time. Mekala had been her only real friend; in primary school they had kept to themselves, and in secondary school she had been included with Mekala’s friends by default. She had not minded — Mekala was all the friend she had needed — and it was only now that Alice realised how alone she really was. Now Keyanah and her friends were the only ones who paid her any attention, and it was the wrong kind.
“Let me guess,” Olivia’s voice brought her out of her thoughts. Alice looked up to see Olivia gazing at her with half a smile on her pretty face. “It’s hard for you to make friends. People just don’t seem to be enough for you. You try sometimes, but it never works. You don’t quite know why.”
Alice frowned. “Yes,” she said. “That’s exactly it. But … how did you know?”
Olivia shrugged. “Because that’s how it’s always been for me.”
“You?” Alice looked her up and down. “But you’re … I mean, you’re pretty. And you’re friendly. And you’re thin, and …”
Olivia laughed, not unkindly. “This?” she said, leaning back and making a show of examining herself. “This is recent. You should have seen me in year seven. I was the kid with the braces and the massive backpack, the one all the girls picked on. They called me every name under the sun. This hair? Conditioner and straighteners. And a lot of time.”
Alice looked at her. She never would have thought it. In her experience the pretty girls were always the mean ones. She had never been pretty, never popular, never in with the right crowd. It was just as Olivia had said — people never seemed to be enough: not smart enough, not interesting enough.
Except Mekala. Mekela had always understood her, could always make her laugh, always knew what she was thinking and what she needed.
“Hey, Femi!” Olivia’s shout jerked Alice out of her thoughts. Olivia was waving to a young Nigerian man in a white coat, who was carrying his tray past the end of their table. He stopped and nodded to them, but he looked like he would rather get away.
Olivia didn’t let him. “This is Alice,” she told him, putting her hand on Alice’s arm. “She’s new to the school. Want to say hello?”
Femi forced a smile. “Hello.”
“Any questions, you go to Femi,” Olivia confided to Alice, winking at him. “He’s dad’s right-hand-man.”
“Yeah, I don’t think you should be saying stuff like that around the students,” Femi said. He still looked shifty, edgy, as if he was uncomfortable talking to them. “I have to go, all right?”
“All right, suit yourself. Eat in peace. Don’t worry about us.”
Femi gave them both another fraction of a smile, then turned and left the canteen as quickly as he could.
Olivia snorted. “Sorry about that,” she said. “He’s a bit of a stickler for rules. They’re not really supposed to talk to you.”
“Ah.” Olivia wagged a finger. “That’s the point. I can’t tell you.”
Alice glanced around the cafeteria. She could see now that there was a clear division between the adults and the children. The adults kept their heads down and ate quietly, as if the children did not exist, and the children kept to one end of the hall and did not disturb them.
“Who are they, anyway?” Alice said, suddenly curious. “All these people. Are they teachers?”
Olivia put down her fork, a cryptic smile on her face. “You know, I like you,” she said after a pause. “I like you a lot. And I wish … I really wish I could tell you what else we do here. I have a feeling you’d understand perfectly. But I can’t. Not yet. Maybe one day.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means …” Olivia picked up a pasta spiral and popped it into her mouth. “It means you haven’t seen the half of it yet.”
Her smile broadened, and Alice wondered, not for the first time that day, what exactly this place was.