The next morning found Alice standing outside the counselling room, building up the nerve to knock. Normally the room was a sanctuary, a break from the madness of school life, where no-one could get to her and where she could be herself. But today the door was a barrier, and on the other side was the one thing she did not want to face, the thing she had been running from since last summer, and the longer she waited the harder it became.
She considered just walking away and going back to her lesson. But that would not do any good, she knew. Sarah would just come and find her. Not because she was trying to be cruel, or because she wanted her to suffer, but just because she wanted to help — and somehow that was worse.
In the end she took a deep breath, swallowed down the fear, raised her fist, hesitated, and knocked.
“Come in!” Sarah called brightly.
Alice opened the door. Sarah was sitting at her tiny desk in the corner, typing something on her laptop. A few files and folders were spread open across her desk; she quickly closed them as she looked up, smiling.
“Good morning,” she said. “Thank you for coming. Just give me one second …” She finished typing, closed the lid of her laptop and gestured towards the chairs. “Shall we?”
Alice sat in the green chair and Sarah sat in the purple chair. She left her pen and clipboard on the desk, and sat with her legs crossed, relaxed, like they were just having a chat instead of a session.
“So how are things at home?” Sarah said, when Alice had taken off her bag and coat and dumped them beside her chair. “How are mum and dad getting along?”
Alice shrugged. “Still fighting,” she said. “They had another argument last night. Mum went out and didn’t come back until late. Something to do with dad’s work.”
“Is he still working quite long hours?”
Alice nodded. “He came back after dinner. I think that’s why mum was upset with him. She cooks a lot, and she says she doesn’t like it being wasted.”
“And how are you dealing with it?”
Another shrug. “It’s fine. I just go to my room.”
“Okay.” Sarah nodded slowly, and looked at Alice as if she was waiting for something else. Alice looked back. She knew what was coming; she braced herself for it, like she was waiting for a cold wave to hit.
But Sarah didn’t ask the question she had been expecting. Instead she said, “I heard your appointment with Dr Harding went well. Did you go to the school on Saturday?”
It might have been relief at not having been asked the question she was dreading, but at the mention of the Shannen School Alice sat up, her back straighter and her eyes brighter, though she did not know it herself.
“Yes,” she said. “It was good. I liked it. They gave me this book …”
She turned and rummaged in her bag, bringing out the textbook. She handed it over to Sarah, who flicked through a couple of pages then returned it.
“As usual, I have no idea,” she said, smiling. “What sort of things did you learn about?”
“They were talking about black holes,” Alice replied, “and someone called Schroedinger, and an experiment he did with a cat. It was something about the cat being alive and dead at the same time, in a box. I didn’t really get it, but it was really interesting. I think there’s something about it in the book.” She stopped, feeling her cheeks begin to burn. She hadn’t meant to say so much.
“Are you all right?” Sarah said, looking at her in concern.
“I’m fine,” Alice said. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to say so much.”
“That’s absolutely fine,” Sarah said. “Don’t worry about it. In here, you can say as much or as little as you like. You know that. Did you want to tell me any more?”
Alice thought for a minute. “There was a girl called Ellie,” she said at last. “She was nice. She had a brother called Chris — he’s deaf, so she signs for him, like some of the staff here.”
“Did you talk to her much?”
“Just random stuff. But it was nice. She taught me some sign language. And there was another girl, called Olivia. She showed me round. She was nice too. I think she’s in college. And I met a guy called Femi at lunchtime. He was a bit odd, but I think he’s a scientist or something. I think he was busy. Yeah. And that’s it.”
“Do you think you’ll go back again?”
Alice nodded at once. “Yes,” she said. “I liked it.”
Sarah smiled. “Well that’s good,” she said. “It’s important to have something in your life that you enjoy, especially if it’s something you can do with other people. I know you’ve felt a bit isolated recently, and that’s completely understandable — but if you’re starting to make a few friends that’s a real step in the right direction.”
Alice nodded again. She knew what Sarah was getting at, and she knew she was right. But there was something inside her that resisted the idea. She wasn’t ready. Not yet. It was still too soon.
Sarah watched Alice as her arms folded inwards across her lap, and her eyes began flicking around the room, avoiding her gaze. She decided that was enough for today. Let her relax some more, take time to get used to the school. There would be other opportunities to talk.
“I think that should be enough for today,” she said. “Unless there was anything else you wanted to talk about?”
Alice shook her head, still avoiding eye contact. Sarah glanced down at Alice’s hands, still clasped in her lap, and saw the red grazes on the heels of her palms. They had not been there the last time she saw Alice, and they looked fresh. She made a mental note to keep an eye on it.
“All right, then,” she said, smiling brightly. “I’ll make another appointment for next week, and we can talk a bit more about this Saturday school. See you later.”
Alice gathered her things and left in silence. When the door had closed Sarah turned back to the papers on her desk and pulled a slim cardboard file from the bottom of the pile, with the name ‘Alice Mensah’ printed on a plain white label on the front. She opened the file, wrote a few notes in it, then slotted it into the grey filing cabinet that stood beside the desk and returned to her work on the laptop.
The rest of the week dragged by. Every lunchtime Alice hid herself in the library with the book, and every afternoon she left school as quickly as possible. Aside from the confrontation with Keyana on Monday the days passed quietly. Keyana and her friends seemed to have disappeared — Alice heard something vaguely about boyfriend trouble, but as long as it kept them out of her way she didn’t care.
Home was quiet as well. There was only one more argument that week, and it was a short one. Mum and dad skirted around each other in stony silence, and dad continued to work late and come home well after dinner; but for the most part they left each other alone.
On Saturday morning Alice woke early, and showered and dressed in the quiet darkness before padding downstairs to the living room with the book under her arm. She sat under the corner lamp with the book open on her lap and read until mum was ready to get up. When she did Alice made her tea, then returned to the book until mum was dressed and ready to leave.
The train station was all but deserted in the frozen grey dawn. Alice and mum waited together in silence, stamping their feet and breathing great clouds of vapour. Alice kept her eyes on the departure board, watching the arrival time as it slowly counted down, then shifted her feet impatiently as it hovered at two minutes for what felt like half an hour until finally the rails began to whine and hum and the train appeared like a ghost out of the mist.
The journey seemed to take ten times as long as it had the previous week. Alice sat at the window, watching the sleeping city as it passed lazily by, punctuated by flashes of trees and telephone poles. Soon the junkyards and housing estates of the suburbs gave way to the towering glass and metal of the city, and as they did the excitement rose from Alice’s stomach to her chest again.
She was first off the train, mum hurrying after her as she strode through the station to the Underground entrance, and then she sat and fidgeted on the train all the way to South Kensington.
“I’ve never seen you this worked up about anything before,” mum said, looking for a reply. Alice didn’t give her one. She clutched the book to her chest and waited impatiently for their stop.
When it came she jumped up and dashed through the doors. Mum trailed behind, almost losing her at the automatic barriers and only catching up to her in the echoing foot tunnel.
“All right!” she said, grabbing Alice’s elbow. “Slow down, love! The school isn’t going anywhere!”
Alice slowed her pace from a dash to a walk. “Sorry,” she said. “I don’t know what it is. Just excited, I think.”
“I understand,” mum said. “It’s a new place, and the chance to make new friends. Just … slow down, all right? Take it easy. Don’t overwork yourself.” She reached out and linked her arm in Alice’s arm, pulling her close. “Come on. Let’s walk together the rest of the way. I don’t want to risk losing you.”
The museum was just opening when they emerged from the subway, but already a short queue had formed outside the doors. Alice recognised one or two faces from last week. She thought about waving, maybe even smiling, but for some reason her arm would not raise itself, and her face remained set. It was a moment before she remembered this particular feeling: she was shy. Not just worried about what people might say or do, but actually shy. Still, it was a step in the right direction, she told herself.
They shuffled forward with the queue; once inside everyone broke off into groups of two or three and spread out through the museum. Alice and mum followed the families she had recognised, through the galleries to the stairwell that led down to the basement, where the parents milled about and their children sat on the shallow steps, a couple of girls chatting to each other and a boy a bit younger than Alice playing on his phone.
Alice stood awkwardly to one side, near the door that led into the school. A few more families trickled down — some headed for the play area, others greeting the parents who were already there. Alice watched them silently as they passed, avoiding eye contact with anyone, until finally she heard a voice she recognised and looked up to see Ellie and Chris walking towards her with their dad in tow.
“Hi!” Ellie called, waving to her and beaming all over her slim face. Alice waved back, her heart jumping a little in her chest to her own surprise. Chris waved as well, his smile twice as broad as his sister’s, and he ran to clasp Alice in a crushing hug around her waist. Alice smiled and gently untangled herself, then she and Ellie faced each other awkwardly as they searched for the right words to begin a conversation.
“So, how was your week?” Ellie asked eventually.
“It was ok,” Alice said. “Couldn’t wait to come back here.”
“Did you start reading that book?”
Alice nodded “It was good. I’ve nearly finished it.”
“Really?” Ellie was surprised. “It took me six months. You must really be clever.”
“Really?” Alice shrugged and smiled shyly. She didn’t see how reading the book made her clever. It didn’t even all make sense to her, not yet.
“So …” Ellie smiled awkwardly and looked around, as if hoping a topic of conversation would present itself. “Do you have any brothers or sisters?”
Alice stared quickly down at the floor, feeling her cheeks begin to burn. This is what she had been afraid of; this was why she hadn’t wanted to make any new friends. Friends wanted to talk; friends asked questions. Maybe coming back here had not been such a good idea.
Ellie looked away, aware that she had said something wrong, and for a moment neither one of them said anything. Luckily they were saved from further conversation by a bleep from the school entrance door, which swung open, revealing Professor Adam Knight in a baggy tweed jacket and pair of faded jeans.
“Ahoy there!” he boomed, shading his eyes theatrically with one hand as he surveyed the group. “Are we all here? Yes? Good! Come on, then!”
Farewells were said, admonitions to good behaviour were given, and the children slowly trickled through the doorway. Adam shook everyone’s hand as they passed, even the younger children, who giggled at his mock-serious face.
Alice hung back, waiting for the others to go in. She was excited about what lay beyond that door — but she was nervous as well. It was the first time in a long time that she felt there was somewhere she could belong, and the first time she had felt this way without Mekala. That was what held her back: there was part of her that could not help thinking that this was a betrayal of some kind, that once she walked through that door she would be leaving Mekala behind with mum.
She turned and looked at mum, who smiled and motioned for her to go in.
“It’s ok, love,” she said. “I’ll be here when you come out. Go and enjoy yourself.”
“Come on.” Ellie tugged gently on Alice’s hand, and Alice allowed herself to be led away. She glanced back when they reached the door, and saw, to her very great surprise, that mum was smiling.
As they passed through the door Adam shook Ellie’s hand gravely, but when he took Alice’s hand he held on to it, stopping her in her tracks. The door swung closed, and the lock beeped.
“Ellie,” Adam said, “do you mind giving us a minute?”
Ellie nodded. “See you there,” she said to Alice, then turned and hurried down the bare white corridor after the others.
When she had reached the end and disappeared round the corner Adam turned to Alice. “How did you find the book?” he said.
The suddenness of the question caught Alice off guard. “It was … good,” she stammered.
“Did you enjoy it?”
“Yes, a lot,” she said. “I’m almost finished.”
“Marvellous!” He beamed widely, his eyebrows drooping even further than usual, and clasped his hands behind his back. “I don’t mind telling you I’m very pleased you’ve decided to join us, Alice. My daughter speaks very highly of you.”
“She does?” Alice was surprised. “We didn’t really talk much last week.”
“Oh, I’m sure it was enough. My Olive’s very good at reading people — if she likes someone, there’s a good chance I’ll like them too.”
He continued beaming, rocking gently on his heels. Alice looked down the corridor after Ellie, wondering if there was something she was supposed to say.
“Shouldn’t we …?” she hinted.
“What? Oh!” Adam clapped his hands together loudly. “Of course. The school. I’ll forget my own head one of these days!”
He turned sharply on his heel and marched off down the corridor. Alice hesitated, wondering if maybe she had made some kind of mistake after all — but the moment quickly passed, and she knew what she was doing was right. Adam was odd, but he wasn’t dangerous. He was just one of those semi-mad, harmless teachers. She hurried after him.
Adam walked at a brisk pace, like a major general on his way to parade, and they caught up to the others as they were filing through the door of the classroom. Once inside everyone fanned out, hanging up coats and throwing bags down around the edges of the room. Alice looked around for Ellie and hurried over to her.
“Everything all right?” Ellie asked, taking off her coat.
Alice nodded. “Fine,” she said. “He just wanted to say how happy he was that I was here.” She paused, then added, “It was a bit odd, to be honest.”
Ellie giggled. “Adam’s a bit odd full stop. One time he came in wearing his slippers and didn’t realise until it was time to leave. Then he made us all hunt for his shoes for the last five minutes until Olivia convinced him he’d left them at home.”
Alice looked over her shoulder at Adam, who was rummaging in a desk at the front of the room by the white board and showering loose sheets of paper down around him like enormous flakes of snow. Olivia stood by him, patiently snatching papers out of the air and piling them on the desk to be re-filed.
“He’s clever, though, right?” Alice said.
“Oh, yeah,” Ellie nodded emphatically. “I’m sure he’s a genius. I get most of what he says, but when he goes off on one it’s just baffling. You’ll get used to him.” She raised a cautionary finger. “Just be glad we haven’t got Valeris today.”
“Valeris? The guy who wrote the book?”
Ellie nodded. “Uh huh. You think Adam’s odd? Valeris is ten times worse. He’s probably even more of a genius than Adam, but I think he must have sold his soul somewhere along the way to get there. He teaches us sometimes, when Adam’s away on business. Everyone hates it when he does. He treats us all like idiots, and I think he tries to confuse us on purpose. He’ll like you, though.”
“Because you finished his book in a week.”
Before Alice could ask any more Adam’s voice boomed out around the room. “All right, everyone! Let’s get started, shall we?”
Ellie smiled at Alice. “I’m glad you came back,” she said, then hurried over to her brother, leaving Alice to find her way to a seat by herself.
* * *
A quick note to all my lovely readers: after the next couple of segments the releases might become slightly more spread out, as I am still in the midst of a re-write / re-structuring of this story. The skeleton is there, it just needs to be fleshed out. Thanks for everyone who has shown interest in this. I hope you’re all enjoying it.