The morning passed in a whirl. Adam stood at the front of the class, scribbling diagrams and graphs on the twin whiteboards with furious energy while he enthused about the gravitational properties of black holes and the theory of time dilation. Alice was surprised by how much she understood, and how much made sense now she had read most of the book. She even knew the answers to a few of the questions he threw out to the class, though she was still too shy to put up her hand to answer one.
After an hour they broke into groups for activities. A big black boy called Dan took the younger ones over to a table where they laid out boxes of plasticine and began modelling the diagrams Adam had been drawing; another group, all around Alice’s age, clustered around Adam at the front with pens and pencils and began to discuss what they had learned that morning.
Alice started to move towards this group, but Olivia intercepted her with a smile and an outstretched hand.
“This way,” she said.
Alice followed her out of the classroom to a room next door, which was smaller and a lot quieter. It was also empty, apart from a table, a cupboard, and a stack of chairs.
“Where is everyone?” Alice asked, looking around.
“Just you and me,” Olivia said brightly, pulling two chairs from the stack and placing them on either side of the table. “Take a seat.”
Alice sat, placing the book on the table between them. Olivia opened the cupboard with a key and rummaged around, then drew out a slim cardboard file which she brought over to the table and set down next to the book. Alice glanced down at it, and saw her name printed on a label on the front.
“So, how are you finding the school?” Olivia asked, sitting opposite her and folding her arms casually on the table. “Interesting?”
“It’s ok,” Alice replied. She wondered what was in the folder. It didn’t seem like much — just a few sheets of paper. The logo on the front looked familiar: two circles, one within the other, bisected by a straight line. She wondered where she had seen it before.
Alice shrugged. “Not really. It makes sense.”
“Good. That’s good.” Olivia opened the folder. A sheet of paper, some kind of report, was paperclipped to the front cover. Olivia scanned it. “Your test scores are good,” she said, sounding like a teacher or a doctor. “You excel in all your subjects at school, but you don’t attend any after-school clubs or special events. Not on the gifted and talented list … Not many friends …”
Alice sat and waited, curious to see where this was going. She wasn’t sure she was comfortable with Olivia rummaging through her life like this, or where she had gotten the information, but it didn’t really make her upset. There wasn’t anything to hide.
Olivia lifted the page. “It says here you had a sister?”
Ah. That was what upset felt like. Alice looked down.
“Yes,” she said.
Alice nodded, willing Olivia not to ask any more questions.
“Hmm.” Olivia did not press the subject, and to Alice’s relief after reading the rest of the second page she closed the file and set it aside.
“I just wanted us to have a few classes together,” she said. “We don’t usually do this, but Dr Harding — the doctor who saw you last week — she recommended it. She said you might need an extra challenge to help get your brain working the way it wants to.”
“Okay,” Alice said. “What kind of classes?”
“I thought we might go through what the others are doing next door, but in a bit more detail,” Olivia said. “Let’s start by recapping. Can you explain to me what a black hole is?”
Alice automatically reached for the book, but Olivia got there first and drew it away gently. “Let’s leave the book for a minute,” she said. “I want to know what you think first, before we see what Valeris has to say.”
“Okay.” Alice looked down, casting her mind back to what Adam had been saying that morning, and what she had read in the book. “A black hole isn’t a hole,” she said. “It’s a star — a star that’s become so old and big it’s collapsed in on itself. So it’s really small, but it has infinite mass. It’s like getting a block of lead the size of a house and squashing it down to the size of a pea — except worse. The black hole is so heavy it bends space around itself — like putting that metal pea on a big trampoline made out of rubber; it would stretch the trampoline so much that anything you put on the trampoline would just roll in towards it. That’s why black holes are black: even light gets drawn towards them.”
She stopped, surprised at how much she had just said. Olivia was looking at her, nodding and smiling.
“Excellent,” she said. “Really well done. That’s a brilliant explanation. You could be a teacher. So now we’re going to look into black holes in a bit more detail. Let’s start by going through some gravitational equations, then I can show you how Newtonian physics works around them. All right?”
Alice nodded. “All right.”
Olivia stood and began scribbling complex equations on the whiteboard. Alice leaned forward. The ache of excitement was glowing in her stomach again. She listened as Olivia began to talk, explaining what the numbers and symbols in the equations meant, and before very long she lost track of time altogether.
At one o’clock Olivia threw down her pen and announced it was time for lunch. Alice looked up at the clock in surprise; it felt like only ten minutes since they had started the session. She packed up her bag and emerged from the room, her brain buzzing, just as the others were filing out of the main classroom.
Once again she found herself falling in beside Ellie on their way down the white corridors to the cafeteria.
“Hi,” Ellie said. “How was your morning?”
“Good,” said Alice. “Hard, but good.”
Ellie peered at her. “You look exhausted.”
“Really?” Alice yawned, and suddenly she realised that she was exhausted, as if she hadn’t slept in days. “It was a long morning,” she said.
“What were you doing in there with Olivia?”
“Black hole stuff,” Alice said. She hesitated. She knew she should give something else, because Ellie was looking at her in a way that not many people did, like she was actually interested in what she had to say. She wished she had had more practice at this. “What about you?” she offered.
“The same,” Ellie said. “It’s the topic for this term. So why were you in your own class, then?”
“I thought everyone was for their first couple of weeks,” said Alice. “Weren’t you, when you started?”
Ellie shook her head. “No,” she said. “I haven’t seen anyone else having private lessons. Maybe you’re special!”
She said it with a laugh, and it was clearly a joke; but Alice did not laugh. Why should she be special? Why had she been singled out?
They followed the rest of the children down to the canteen, queued up for fish and chips, then took their trays to a table in the far corner. Alice was not entirely sure why she felt the need for privacy — maybe it was to do with what Ellie had said, and the corner made her feel safe.
Ellie continued talking, asking about the session with Olivia. Alice gave short answers and only half-listened to her. They were sitting on opposite sides of the table, Alice with her back to the wall and a clear view of the rest of the room. As before, the children were sitting in one group in one part of the canteen, and the adults were sitting in another part, ignoring the children as completely as if they were not there.
As she looked around she saw Olivia, sitting with a group of the younger ones and telling them jokes. She watched her for a minute, thinking back to the file Olivia had flicked through at the beginning of the lesson, and the way she had asked about Mekala.
“What do you think about Olivia?” she asked Ellie, cutting her off mid-sentence.
Ellie gave a little shrug. “She’s okay,” she said, changing tack instantly. “She can get a bit intense sometimes. She’s like her dad that way.”
Ellie nodded. “We just call him Adam, though. Olivia’s been here the longest out of all of us,” she added. “Her and Dan, the big guy. I think they were the first students here when Adam set this place up. Why? What did you think of her?”
“She was …” Alice thought about her answer. “Intense,” she agreed. “She had a file on me. Do they have one of those for everyone?”
Ellie did not seem bothered. “Probably,” she said. “It’s a school, isn’t it?” She looked around, bored with this line of conversation. “What do your parents think about this place?” she asked. “Was that your mum with you this morning?”
“Yes,” said Alice, squeezing lemon over her fish. She decided that there was something not quite right about Olivia, something that nagged. She seemed just that little bit too eager, too forward. “They’re ok with it,” she continued, filing away her thoughts about Olivia. “I think my mum’s more into it than my dad — but that’s what she’s like. She’s always looking for things for me to do. She says I don’t have enough friends.”
“Well, you’ve got friends here.” Ellie smiled at her, and Alice smiled hesitantly back. It was true. She was not quite sure how it had happened, but it had.
“Was that your dad with you and Chris?” she asked.
Ellie shook her head. “Nah. He’s my uncle. My parents are back in Somalia. They sent me and Chris here to go to school. We live with my uncle and aunty.”
“He seemed a bit …”
“Moody? Grumpy? Angry?” Ellie shrugged. “That’s just how he is. He never wants to bring us, but aunty makes him. He thinks they should be able to cure Chris here, and I keep trying to tell him that’s not going to happen, but he never listens.”
Alice looked around for Chris. He was sitting on a table with some of the other young ones, smiling contentedly as they chattered and laughed around him.
“How long has he been … like that?” she asked.
“Deaf? Since he was born,” Ellie said. “Back in Somalia. They thought it was a djinn inside him at first — like an evil spirit? At least, I don’t think they really did, but they tried all kinds of stuff to get it out anyway; maybe they were hoping it would work. Anyway, when it didn’t work, that’s when they decided to send us to England. They said the schools would be better, that he would have a better chance.”
“He seems to be doing all right,” Alice said, still watching him. “Can he hear anything at all?”
“No, nothing. But he doesn’t mind. We get on okay with the …” Ellie waved her hands in an imitation of sign language. “I took courses. I’m getting pretty good. He seems to understand most things, and I understand him. It works out.”
She smiled again, and Alice wondered how she could be so resilient in the face of so much difficulty. Not like you, a small voice said, in the back of her head. When trouble came you just broke down and ran away from it all.
“How long have you been in England?” she asked, drowning out the thought.
“Two years,” said Ellie. “We enrolled in the school pretty much as soon as we arrived. I think maybe mum and dad had been in touch with Dr Harding back in Somalia. This must be a pretty exclusive place. I think they might have paid to get us in.”
“So when you got here, did you do the usual — sightseeing, all of that?”
Ellie shook her head. “No,” she said. “Uncle says it’s a waste of our time. He either wants us at school or back at the house, doing homework. He says we should study now and have fun later.”
Alice frowned. “You don’t go out?”
“Not really. We go to mosque, and we go to see friends sometimes, but that’s pretty much it.”
Alice looked back at Chris, sitting and watching everything going on around him. She suspected it was the same look that could be found on her own face at times during the day: the look of someone who was used to being on the outskirts, watching, listening, keeping quiet. Maybe they weren’t so very different, then — except that her isolation was out of choice, and unlike her Chris would never be able to change his situation.
Alice and Ellie finished their meal with small talk about this and that, and Alice found that she began to relax. She forgot all about her worries about Olivia, losing herself in the pleasantness of conversation. She did not think to look around the room again, and so she did not see Olivia sitting silently in the middle of the younger ones, ignoring their chatter and watching her intently for the rest of lunchtime.
After lunch they reconvened in the main classroom. Alice sat beside Chris at the front of the class, watching Ellie as she interpreted everything Adam was saying into sign language. It was fascinating, watching her slender arms and hands gliding from sign to sign and her delicate features flowing through a myriad emotions as she expressed everything Adam was saying; not just his words, but the feeling behind them as well.
There was a lot to express. Adam strode up and down like a TV evangelist, his wild hair even wilder than usual, his hands straining to capture the essential truth of the universe as he explained to them the strange beauty and terrible power of a black hole.
“Imagine it!” he declared, raising his hands to the ceiling as if he could reach into space and bring one down for them to observe. “Matter so dense that nothing can escape its gravity — not even light itself, and not even, dare we say, something so fundamental and constant as time. Imagine the power such a thing exerts over its surroundings, bending all of space-time around itself — imagine the influence it has, reaching out through the cosmos until it touches even us, in some remote and intangible way. Can you imagine such a thing, such a force, exerting its influence over light-years, and even through time?”
And as Alice listened she thought that yes, she could imagine such a thing.
It was called death.
They finished the class with another impossible question — this week from a scrawny, blonde twelve-year-old boy called Tommy who stood with his hands rammed into his pockets and regarded them with shifty eyes as he spoke — then Adam clapped his hands and commanded them to look for their bags, and with that the day was over and they were shuffling down the corridor towards the exit.
Alice stuck close to Ellie and Chris, listening with half an ear as Ellie chatted about what she would be doing that week. She didn’t need to participate in the conversation — Ellie was happy to talk, and Alice was happy to listen, letting her words flow comfortingly around her.
As they trooped down the final corridor to the exit, however, another voice called sharply from an open doorway: “Alice Mensah!”
Alice stopped short and looked through the door. It was Clara’s office, where the tiny old lady sat hunched over her ancient computer just as before, glaring at the battered monitor.
“Here,” she snapped, holding out a sheaf of papers in one withered hand without looking at Alice. “I need these filled in by next week.”
The hand remained extended until Alice edged into the room and reached out to take the forms; as soon as she took them the hand snapped back to the keyboard as if on a piece of elastic. Clara continued to glare at the screen in stony silence, and after a minute Alice left quietly, wondering if everyone in the school was slightly out of their minds.
All of the parents were once again waiting for them as they poured out of the doors into the museum basement. Mum spotted Alice immediately and waved her over, grasping her in a tight hug.
“All right, love?” she said. “How was that?”
“Good,” said Alice. “I made a new friend — Ellie. She’s over there.”
She pointed to where she had just seen Ellie and Chris with their uncle, but they were already gone. She was surprised to feel a small tug of disappointment.
“She must have left already,” she said, trying to sound unconcerned. “Doesn’t matter. You can meet her next week.”
“I’m sure she’s lovely,” mum said. She put an arm round Alice’s shoulder as they headed for the exit. “So, tell me all about your day.”
As they left the basement and climbed the stairs they did not look back, otherwise they would have seen Olivia standing half in conversation with another parent. She was barely paying attention, because most of her focus was on Alice and her mum, watching them until they disappeared from sight.