The Singularity: Part 5

Hi everyone. Thanks to all of you who have read and liked this latest story. I’m still working on this particular draft, and I had a week away in South Wales recently, so it’s coming in drips and drabs.

If you’re new to the series, select ‘The Singularity’ from the Categories drop-down menu on the left (or wherever it is on a mobile) to catch up.

Anyway, here’s the most recent section. I hope you enjoy it …

* * *

pt4The afternoon was spent covering the basics of black hole theory. Adam taught them with the chaotic enthusiasm of an expert, dashing between the white boards at the front of the class, scribbling wildly and waving his hands like a madman.

Alice managed to follow about half of what he was saying — the others had clearly covered some of this before, because they sat forward in their chairs, hanging on his every word, nodding now and again in agreement. Even the younger ones seemed to understand more than her.

They wrapped up the afternoon with a riddle — what Adam called an ‘impossible question’. A big black boy called Dan stood up at the front of the class and rubbed his hands together.

“Are you ready?” he said. There was a chorus of ‘Yes’, particularly from the younger ones, who seemed to adore him. Dan smiled. “Okay, here goes. There’s a crocodile that lives in the river Nile. He’s the world’s cleverest crocodile, and he can speak. One day he snatches a baby from its mother, and gets ready to eat it, but the mother begs the crocodile to spare her baby’s life. The crocodile says, ‘Fine, I’ll spare your son, if you can tell me exactly what I’m going to do with him next.’ The question is: what should the woman answer?”

Immediately a cheer went up, and a few of the children laughed. Adam clapped his hands in delight, then stood up and waved his arms.

“All right, you lot!” he bellowed. “Coats, bags, whatever you need to take, and let’s go!”

Even as Alice tried to work out what the question had been about, the classroom became a whirlwind of activity; everyone jumped up and began running back and forth across the room, gathering up belongings and slinging bags across their shoulders.

Alice slipped her coat on and watched the activity. She found it strangely comforting, as if she had been at a family reunion after months apart. There was an air of pleasant chaos, the feeling that everyone knew everyone else so well that they had no need of words to communicate.

Adam appeared beside her, holding a thick textbook.

“Here,” he said, thrusting it at her. “A little light reading for your homework this week. I want you to get through as much as can manage, but at least chapters one, two, eight and thirteen. That will give you some more grounding on what we’ve been doing here recently. Come prepared to talk about gravitational effects within a singularity, and the implications for Newtonian physics.”

Alice took the book. “Thank you,” she said. “It was very interesting today.”

“Excellent!” Adam shoved his hands into his pockets and beamed, as if it was the best news he had heard all day. “Well, we look forward to seeing you again.” He smiled at her for a moment, then spun around as if just remembering that the others were there. “All ready? Marvellous. Right, off we go!”

They filed out of the classroom after him. As they made their way back along the endless corridors Alice found herself wedged between Chris and Ellie. Chris signed something, and Ellie laughed.

“He says he likes you,” he said. “Don’t worry, it’s what he says to everyone.”

“That’s ok,” Alice said. “How do I tell him I like him back?”

“Like this.” Ellie patted her chest with her palm, then pointed at Alice. “You try.”

Alice turned to Chris and copied the action, pointing at him. He smiled so broadly she thought his cheeks would split open, and grabbed her round the waist in a fierce hug.

“Thanks for trying,” Ellie said, as Chris dashed off ahead. “This is the only place where anyone tries to talk to him.”

“Doesn’t he go to a school with other deaf kids?”

Ellie shook her head. “He’s the only one,” she said. “The staff are nice, but he plays by himself. Unless I’m with him, but I can’t always be. It makes him as embarrassed as me. This is the first place he’s seemed like he really belongs. What about you? How did you find out about the school?”

“Some woman called Dr Harding?” Alice said. “She referred me here. Said it would help me.”

“I know Dr Harding!” Ellie exclaimed. “White woman, old, smells of lavender? She sent us here as well, and a couple of the others. She must have some kind of deal with the school. Let me guess: you’re super clever, right?”

“I’m not sure,” Alice said. “I didn’t get most of what Adam was talking about this afternoon.”

“But it seemed interesting, right?”

“Yeah. I suppose.”

Ellie smiled. “That means you’re super clever. We all are. I’m not boasting or anything — it’s just what this place is about. Clever kids learning about clever things. It sounds awful, and I thought it would be when we came the first time. But I guess that’s just who we are. And if it makes us happy, why not?”

Alice thought of Keyana and the other girls at school; then she thought about what Olivia had said over lunch, about making friends.

“Yeah,” she said. “Yeah. Why not?”

They turned the last corner and filed past the office where Clara sat hunched over her monitor in the midst of the chaos. She glanced up as they passed, and one or two of the younger ones waved to her, but she just glared at them and returned to her work without a word.

Up ahead Adam swiped his card and pushed open the doors, and then they were through and spilling out into the empty basement of the Science Museum to meet their waiting parents.

“Here, love!” Mum waved to her from across the room. Alice said a quick goodbye to Ellie and ran to meet her. “All right?” mum said. “How did it go?”

“It was good,” said Alice.

“Want to come again?”

She nodded. “Definitely.”

“That’s great, love.” Mum looked up and spotted Adam talking to some of the other parents across the room. “Let me just have a quick word with your teacher before we go.”

She walked over and waited until Adam had finished his conversation, then introduced herself again. Alice saw Adam beam and shake her hand; he was probably saying how marvellous it was to see her again. While they talked she looked around the rest if the room, watching the children meet their parents.

Some had already left, talking on the phone or hurrying somewhere important; others were hanging around and chatting to each other, as if they had known each other for a while — Alice guessed these were the ones whose children had been coming the longest.

She spied Ellie and Chris, standing with a tall man in a suit who was talking to Olivia, asking questions and listening intently to the replies. The man gestured towards Chris, and Olivia shook her head and said something the man didn’t like; he snapped a reply and turned to leave, clicking his fingers at Ellie and pointing her towards the door. Alice watched them go, Ellie with her head down and Chris scampering along beside her, tapping her arm and trying to find out what the grown-ups had been saying.

Mum appeared beside her. “Ready to go?” she said.

Alice nodded, shrugged on her coat, and followed mum, clutching the book Adam had given her.

They took the stairs up to the museum, which was now empty and silent; the exhibits stood in their display cases, illuminated for the benefit of no-one but them. Alice had hoped they might catch up to Ellie and Chris, but as she and mum emerged from the museum into the biting cold of the night they were nowhere to be seen.

She looked up and down the street; she felt odd, as if she had just come back from a long trip to somewhere far away. But the feeling was not unpleasant, and she realised that part of it was disappointment that the day was over. She glanced back over her shoulder at the darkened museum, taking one last long look, then she turned and followed mum back to the tube station, and home.

*

Later that evening, in a tiny flat in another part of London, the front door opened and Adam and Olivia swept in, their faces all but hidden under hats and hoods. Olivia headed straight for the kitchen with a couple of bags of shopping, and Adam examined the post on the mat.

“What do you want for dinner, dad?” Olivia called. “We can have bolognese or chilli con carne.”

“Whatever suits you,” Adam called back. He threw most of the letters in the bin and opened the remaining envelope with his finger, then stood and read its contents with his jacket hanging half off his shoulder.

“Dad, you ok?”

Adam started guiltily and turned. Olivia was leaning out of the kitchen, her brow furrowed in concern.

“I’m fine, love,” Adam said. He held up the letter. “Just more bills, I’m afraid. They never stop, do they?”

She smiled, and the concern disappeared. “That’ll be the day,” she said. “We’re having bolognese. Half an hour?”

“Sure thing.”

Another quick smile, then she ducked back into the kitchen. A few seconds later the tap began to run, and there was the clatter of pans in the cupboard.

“What did you think about that Alice girl?” Olivia called from the kitchen. “I liked her. She seems smart. Is she one of Jennifer’s?”

“Yes, very smart,” Adam replied distractedly. He glanced at the letter in his hand again, as if maybe its contents had changed. But the words were the same, printed in black and white, stubbornly real. He sighed, then slowly tore the letter into tiny fragments and dropped them into the bin.

His watch bleeped. He rolled up his sleeve and glanced at it. Good. He needed a distraction.

He pulled his jacket back up on his shoulders and pocketed his keys.

“That was Femi,” he called, opening the front door. “I’ll be back in a minute.”

“Shall I keep cooking dinner?” Olivia called from the kitchen.

“Yes, go ahead. I’ll be sure not to eat before I get back.”

“All right. See you in a minute.”

The door closed. There was a moment of silence, punctuated by the sound of the kettle boiling, then the door opened again and Adam stumbled through. He was dressed in a different coat, and his chin was covered in a layer of grimy stubble.

“I’m back!” he shouted. “How’s that chilli con carne going?”

“You decided on pasta,” Olivia reminded him. “I can cook chilli con carne instead if you want, though.” She leaned out of the kitchen door and looked him up and down. “You look awful. Was it dangerous?”

“Not this time.” Adam grimaced as he unzipped his jacket. The left side of his shirt was dark with blood.

“Dad!” Olivia darted forward.

“Oh, tush,” he protested, waving her away. “It’s nothing. Just a scratch.”

“A scratch? Dad, there’s blood everywhere. What happened?”

“I said I’m fine!” Adam raised a hand angrily, warding her off. Olivia stepped back. Adam gingerly pulled the jacket off and let it drop to the floor. The bloodstain extended around the back of his shirt, where a patch of it was still wet.

“I’m fine,” he repeated. “Really, love. It doesn’t hurt much. I’ll have Jennifer patch me up when she has a minute. I’m sorry for losing my temper. Just … let’s have dinner, all right? I’m going to have a shower.”

He turned and hobbled towards the bathroom, leaving Olivia standing by the door with his blood-stained jacket at her feet. The kettle reached a crescendo then switched itself off, and the flat was quiet once again.

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