Friday, September 19, 2008

Silver Screen by Justina Robson


We were good friends.

No. That’s not true. I’m saying that because I’m sentimental. I needed a friend too much to actually make any. But we were in the same classes together. Sometimes we shared a workbench. Roy made a lot of jokes with me as the butt, and I sat aloof and lonely in his room or Jane’s, watching them work and trying to get inside their heads to see how it was that they saw things I didn’t. There was never any doubt in my mind that I was the outsider, tolerated because I supplied chocolate and cappuccino on demand and could always remember the details they forgot to record. I guess I could be funny, too, in a dry, self-deprecating kind of way. I spoke like a critical encyclopedia, and still do under stress, as you’ve probably noticed. I was pitiable, but fortunately nobody had time to pity me.

The school at which I first met Roy and Jane Croft was called the Berwick School, for no reason I have ever discovered. It was in Derbyshire and owned by the Massey Foundation, an organization funded by large corporates and used specifically for the hothousing of children who were exceptionally gifted in one of the Foundation’s areas of interest. Broadly speaking, these areas were math and anything applicable to the fields of technology and science. Since by that time it was possible to turn almost any kind of ability to the service of these studies, Berwick had a very diverse population of children. They lived there in splendid isolation with their teachers, a nurse, and a small number of animals who were chosen to provide us with some vague sense of our link to the natural world. Considering recent days, I have to say that this last intention failed 100 percent.

At the time of my arrival the only thing which struck me as unusual was the range of places from which the other children had come. All races and many subdivisions were represented in a relatively small number of pupils. In total there were fewer than 500 of us, including the senior years and the “thick kids” who had to stay on until they were sixteen before being allowed to leave for university. A lot of them didn’t even come from Europe, I learnt later, but by then I’d forgotten that there were any differences between people except the level and style of their intelligence and the scope of their memories.

The thing about Roy and Jane was their strangeness in a sea of strange people. At ordinary school I had learnt to pretend a combination of lower intelligence and complete invisibility. Coming to Berwick it was at once obvious that most of the kids had the same self-preserving routine off pat. As the first weeks passed, these habits wore off. It was only Roy and Jane who remained constant, but they had stood out from the first.

We met in the playground—the scrub field inside the athletic track. I was slow to leave the classroom that day and emerged into the scratchy spring heat at a docile pace, ready to flee from anybody who seemed suspicious or aggressive, but curious to watch the goings-on. My spectacle was already waiting. A large group of children from my year were gathered in a loose circle. I was short and couldn’t see past them, so I tagged on into the edges of the formation and slowly worked my way forwards, pushing taller ones aside. They didn’t mind or even notice, so riveted were they by the action at the centre. A few rows from the front, I got a good position.

Roy and Jane Croft were standing with three kids from the older years. I knew them instantly. Roy’s white-blond crewcut and brilliant turquoise fleece marked him out like a parakeet, and Jane’s corresponding blackness—topped with dirty blonde aggression—was almost as visible. They were outstripped in just about every way by the older children, who were looking down on them with incredulous loathing as Roy’s voice became high and reedy in his anger. They were arguing about Artificial Intelligence, and I soon gathered that it was the smaller pair who had infringed on a private discussion the other three had been conducting as part of some homework.

“Of course 898 can’t be more intelligent than a human being, you little cretin,” one of the big girls said, her fists on her hips in readiness—even though none of us were used to physical fighting. “It’s not possible to create a thing more intelligent than you are. You wouldn’t know how to do it.”

“The creating bit of 898 stopped hundreds of generations ago,” Jane pointed out.

I wondered how they knew so much about OptiNet’s giant AI.

“But the source materials are the same as they were,” the older boy retorted. “They’re what it’s made of.”

“What?” Roy exploded. He literally was one moment standing and staring, the next his hair was puffed out, what there was of it, his arms and legs shot wide in all directions and his entire body quivered with glee and contempt. It was a frightening sight and as one mass the front row leant back. “Can you listen to yourself?” he peeped, his unbroken voice squeaking and cracking. “Didn’t you ever hear of evolution? How do you think you got here—by magic? Once this planet was nothing but a lot of hot rocks and gas. Don’t you think we’ve come on a bit since then? There wasn’t even any us.” His head looked this way and that, as if searching for strength to cap his astonishment. “Who organized that lot?”

“God did,” said the other girl, who hadn’t yet spoken.

Roy turned to her slowly, incredulously, his shoulders hunched up to protect his ears from her words. “God did,” he repeated quietly, looking at her and nodding. “Well, thanks for telling me. God did it, Jane.” He looked over his shoulder towards his sister, who was standing like a statue, watching the proceedings with her sharp, pale eyes. “And of course—” he walked up to the boy and patted his chest in a familiar way “—we are as smart compared to God as old Fergus here is to a hot rock.”

“Hey,” said Fergus in a low, menacing tone. He smacked Roy’s arm away, but Roy just let it fly with the blow and it swung back to his side.

“Maybe God took my missing pen case, too,” Roy suggested, his face angelic, blue eyes looking up at the girl. “Maybe He is responsible for everything that’s gone missing or hasn’t got an explanation. What a great idea. But wait a second.” He held his arm out to forestall a step forwards by the first girl who had spoken. “If God created us from a hot rock, maybe he created 898 as well, and maybe it has quite a long way to go before it starts beating old God at chess, huh? Maybe we aren’t the end of the line.”

“We are God’s image,” the religious girl said, holding her ground.

“Ah, human supervenience,” Roy said, appearing to lapse into a whimsical introspection. “What a charming idea. How very Victorian.” He walked up to her and, instead of lifting his head up, spoke directly to her neck. “How very fucking stupid. How did they let you in here? Did you walk in following the dog when the gate was open?” Sky-blue eyes measured them all, one by one, with excruciating and passionate hatred. The contrast of his pure features and the emotion was shocking, and made the force of it double. They all took a step away from him, even as their own faces twisted into ugly expressions.

Jane didn’t move from her original position. Only her eyes flicked back and forth, coolly assessive. There was a time of stillness and silence as we all waited to see what would happen next.

“Well, if it is smarter than us . . . why does it do everything we say?” the first girl demanded.

All eyes stared at Roy.

“Ah, a mote of intelligence at last,” he said, unable to keep himself from sneering, but apparently pleased. “Could it be because we have it completely cornered for the time being and it knows that if it stops, then we can destroy it and that, being such great and worthy and Godlike beings, we wouldn’t hesitate? That’s how smart and generous we are as a race, you see. Kill anything that doesn’t comply. I bet . . . I bet you even have nightmares about AIs deciding that the human race is a needless plague upon the face of the deep—um, don’t you?” He began to walk, pacing rapidly back and forth around the corral we had created so that we had to twist and turn to keep him in view. “Pow!” He made two guns with his hands and shot each of the three silently. “You’re dead for being stupid enough to create me! Hahaha! Pow! Pow!” And he ran in a tiny circle laughing, jiggling his guns at shoulder height and suddenly shooting an arm out here or there to randomly murder one of the audience. Someone behind me gave a nervous giggle.

“Oooh, look!” he exclaimed, running faster, tighter, looking at the bewildered faces of the taller ones with an animal light, raw and hungry. “Who am I? Who am I? Pow! Pow! Don’t you recognize me by my merciful acts? Blam! You’re dead. Oh, sorry, you’re a waste of time. Pow! It’s me. It’s God Himself. Take that!” He dropped his six-guns and grabbed an invisible machine gun to plough us all down into the dust. “Ny-ahah-ahahah!”

Everyone, including the three he was attacking, was so bemused that nobody moved.

“See, that’s your fantasy of God the destroying, jealous creator. Only it’s you. That’s me. I’m you. You stupid, fuckwit idiots with your aggravated fear response. Nothing but a bunch of cheap endocrines desperate to make any case at all for saving your worthless, shitty little lives. See, it’s you who know you’re a plague and a menace. That’s how you’d deal with yourselves if only you had the guns and the guts.” During this speech he slowed down, halted, and his voice returned to normal, his automatic fire reduced to a single forefinger barrel. He put it to his own head. “Pop,” he said and let his arm fall, forgotten. Tired and panting he stood in the middle of them and then a beatific smile spread across his face, making his red cheeks into tiny apples and showing his new, white teeth. He began to laugh as if the entire thing was hysterically funny.

The boy Fergus found his central nervous system was still operative at this point and lunged forwards suddenly, shoving Roy backwards, hands balling up and ready for trouble. Behind Roy, as he fell, the crowd parted nervously, but our side rushed forwards, eager for violence in one part, horrified and hoping someone would intervene in another. But we were not quick enough.

Jane Croft, ice maiden, took four rapid strides forward and rabbit-punched the assailing boy square on his nose with her bare knuckles. “Leave it,” she said, cramming her hand into her armpit and clenching her jaw with the pain, which otherwise didn’t show.

The boy staggered, hands to his face. One girl began to go to help him whilst the religious one made a grab for Jane’s hair. Jane pivoted on her hip and pushed her out of the way with her free foot, a kick-boxing move slowed right down so as to just get rid of the threat, not intended to do any real harm. Obviously she had had a lot of practice at being her brother’s protector. I stared at her in admiration and fear.

There was no more to see. Jane stood next to Roy, who was lying on his back in the dusty clumps of grass, catatonic. The three slouched off towards the basketball hoop after making a few face-saving noises. Little by little, our classmates trickled away in ones and twos. I was the last one left, staring down at Roy, his eyes closed, breathing lax. I looked up to find Jane giving me her impersonal once-over. We both looked at Roy on the ground, a fallen prophet, and I couldn’t decide then if he was mad or gifted or simply strange, but I knew he was more interesting than anyone else I had ever met. Him and his sister. I had some sherbets in my pocket. I took the bag out and held it towards Jane.

“Want one?”

She seemed tempted but shook her head, unwilling to draw out her injured hand. “No thanks.”

“Get me one, Jane,” Roy said, without opening his eyes.

“Get it yourself.” She gave a twisting sort of shrug and slouched away, scuffing the grass with her feet as she went.

I felt crushed by her response, but tried not to let it show. Roy got up. He picked a lemon sweet out of the bag and stuck it in his cheek. “Ignore her,” he said. “She’s cross because she had to hit him. I should have wound it up better.”

“It was great,” I said, instantly sorry I’d said anything so utterly contemptible, and hung my head.

“It was rubbish,” he answered, as I expected he would, but his sentence carried on regardless. “I’m going to my room to play Planet-buster,” he added, naming the latest and most difficult space shoot’em-up. “Want to come?”

From then on we formed a kind of alliance, although it was never an easy enough relationship on either side to be a typical friendship. Roy was too much of an individual, mercurial in mood; a kid one minute and a haughty professor the next. Jane was simply abrasive when she came into contact with anyone at any level, smoothing occasionally when she forgot herself, but these moments never lasted. Neither of them needed me. I was the one doing all the work, and I knew it. I felt disgusted that I had to scrape for friendship this way, but not so disgusted I could stop. On that afternoon I decided that these would be my friends, and I shut myself off from the chance of making others. I had found them.

Ask me now why I felt that kind of decision was necessary and I still can’t tell you. Maybe it was just a sixth sense that tying myself to them would make it impossible to keep other friendships—they required all my energy to keep up. Or, to be honest, maybe it was that they had that star quality, and I couldn’t resist the chance to let some of their kook glamour fall on me by association. I didn’t so much want to be their friend as I wanted to be them. I used to want to be cool and witty—Mae West, Bette Davis—and in this day and age a great brain is almost as much of a status symbol as a sharp tongue and the satin curves of a starlet. But I wasn’t at this school because of my intellect— I knew that if no one else did yet—and one day that would become apparent, so somehow I had to find another path into the limelight.

That afternoon we sat in Roy’s dorm room with the blinds shut and I asked him questions while he played the game, feet on his desk, screen magnified onto the undecorated wall opposite the bed.

“How do you know so much about 898?”

“We talk,” he said, watching the wall, his hands moving like a jazz pianist’s in their black motion-tracking gloves. I believed him. It didn’t occur to me not to. We were forbidden to hack and were told we wouldn’t get contact with the bigger AIs (those of us on the AI stream) until much later. I always obeyed rules. My eyes grew large and round.

“You hack?” I said, shocked out of my little puritan shoes.

“We wouldn’t get to it if it didn’t want to talk to us,” he said, and shot me a glance away from the silent screen. His gaze said that it was only idiots who got caught. “Don’t you?”

“I don’t know how,” I said, sitting on my hands on the bed. I felt clumsy. I was about the only kid in the AI stream who had not started out in life as some kind of wizard programmer or manipulator. My key skill wasn’t even a skill. But he had gone back to concentrating on his low-flying attack plane. He didn’t ask me about it any more or offer to tell me what I should do, even though I wished he would.

One thing Roy did have was a shelf full of books. Actual paper books, each one wrapped in a coat of smart plastic, and about the only thing in there which wasn’t broken, discarded, or scattered in a mess where it had fallen. I alternated looks between the game—which he was very good at—and the shelf. Some of the titles were just visible in the dim light from the screen. Wildcats, The Silver Surfer, Rogue Centurion, Lotus Explosion, Thunder Road: comic books. They looked old. All books looked old to me.

I thought about asking to read them, but felt he would say no, so I didn’t. I wanted a sweet from my pocket, but then I would have had to offer him one, too, and he had the gloves on and all, so maybe I would have had to put it in his mouth and I didn’t want that intimacy, so I didn’t do that either. I waited.

Jane came in a short time later, her hand strapped up with white webbing. She gave me an incredulous look as she strode in, but no more. “Haven’t you finished that yet?” she demanded of Roy, going to his desk and sitting down without looking out for anything which might get crushed.

He didn’t reply, but kept playing, jabbing the invisible gun control, curving the plane around in a spiral with his other hand. Jane turned her head and looked at the wall. “You haven’t got enough fuel to get out of the labyrinth,” she said in a deadpan voice, “so you might as well quit now.”

He kept on playing.

“Hello?” Jane said in disgust. “I said you haven’t—”

“I heard you,” he said. “But isn’t it beautiful? The doomed fiight to certain death?” The maze in which he was ?ying curled around his wings smoothly.

Jane snorted her opinion.

Roy turned the machine into a slow spiral around its short axis and let go of it. We all watched as it slammed into the wall and exploded in a brilliant burst of blue and white. Play Again? the screen asked, typing the question over the scorchmark. Instant resurrection.

“Want a go?” He stripped the gloves off and held them out to me. .

“No. No thanks,” I said quickly, terrified in case they were going to make me play it and I would show myself up.

“Well, I will,” he said and put them back on.

Jane made a noise of irritation and, finding nothing else to do, walked out, not even awarding me a second look.

Things stayed pretty much the same all through school. Jane alternated between slightly puzzled efforts to become friendly and bleak periods of excessive introversion, the timing of which was erratic and unpredictable and unchanged by puberty or adulthood. Roy was the other beat of the pulsar. Manic and frequently disruptive in classes, they eventually gave him private tuition in separate rooms. In private he remained closeted, but in a different way from Jane. Roy was mostly alone because he was sufficient to himself. He was happy to see me, and if we didn’t quite have a conventional friendship then we had something like it, so close you couldn’t make the call. Somewhere in the wider world kids in their teens loitered in shop doorways late at night, smoked a pooled ten gaspers and crammed their mouths with pay-byweight sweets. They engaged in friendly bouts of scuffiing and sat on damp curbs and felt estranged. We sat in the dorm and talked big technology. The feelings were much the same, deep and loyal and illogical, and absolutely and utterly beyond any kind of comment.

That was one of the beginnings.

Life there was regimented up to a point. Each of us had a room with sink and mirror, a wardrobe, a bed, and a workstation. Lucky ones got a little window, which might look out east towards the farmhouse or west onto the playing fields overgrown with couch grass and dandelions, where seldom a ball was kicked except to prove some point about vectors or gravity. There was a swimming pool shaped like the joined kidneys of Siamese twins to the rear of the farmhouse and there was a cinder running track of distinctly unambitious proportions alongside a tangled apple orchard. We were made to go out for exercise each day for half an hour, but this was the one place where only token effort was ever required by the staff. However, competition among some kids was so relentlessly fierce that it couldn’t rest for a moment, and a large contingent of the school was—as well as being studious and clever— fighting fit. On the announcement boards outside my room there was a constantly updated list of the best mile times, to thousandths of a second. The bottom of the list was somewhere in the eight-minute league. I had the time, but Anjuli O’Connell, my name, did not appear on it at all. Ever. Only Jane sometimes deigned to carve out the odd six-minuter as part of the regular assertion of her natural superiority.

The reason my name never appeared on the mile board and the reason I had been estranged at my first school, and needed someone so badly at this one, were one and the same. All of Berwick competed in the skills of intelligence and memory from the day they arrived to long after they had left. Most were entirely driven by the anxious frustration of bubbling away in the top half of one or other of these scales, rising and falling like gases boiling out of a liquid.

But on one of those scales my name was permanently at the top, as untouchable as the divine—because some errant gift of the Almighty had cursed me with a perfect memory.

Memory comes in different ways, labelled according to its primary trigger: kinaesthetic, the memory of the body and its movements; eidetic, the perfect recall of spoken words, of actions; photographic, the retention of what is seen as it was seen; olfactory, the instant recognition of a particular smell which brings with it emotion, the flavour of a moment, a symbolic picture, a complex meaning often elusive to an ordinary mnemonic. Not to me; I have all those memories. I remember everything without effort and recall it at will. You’d never see me gnawing a pencil or twirling my hair as I pored over some exam question, trying to suck that final dreg of understanding from it that would clue me in to the answer. And there lies my weakness, ever indulged to ruinous proportions: I can remember it all, but I don’t need to understand it. The ability to paraphrase has many times proved invaluable. I’d simply recall a text or two, or a teacher’s recitation, and arrange it in some different words and be pronounced clever. The technique was so immediately successful and produced such a worthwhile envy in others that it was impossible to explain, even to the most sympathetic supervisor, that such an ability filled me with terror.

As I told Roy Croft late one night, it’s like being a kind of conduit. The messages pass through me, the information perfect, yet all undifferentiated so that everything seems of equal importance, nothing stands out. Questions and answers come and go, accurately responded to, as if someone else inhabited my head, someone much smarter, who knew the answers and told them to me. I never knew how things worked. I could do high-level math with ease, simply by following the rules, but I couldn’t attach any meaning to the equations or feel their relationship to the real world. I was a human file server. As I said this aloud one day, fat and wretched on the edge of his bunk, Roy frowned and became uncharacteristically still with the effort of imagining the situation.

“I see everything,” he said. “I see it and I feel it. I know it as a surface or an object or a movement. I can do it as numbers or just shapes. It’s like reading music. I hear the tune of the equation as soon as I look at it. I always know how the pieces fit together, and how they don’t.”

“I only know that they don’t, but I couldn’t prove it or say why, only that I’ve heard the teacher say why. I couldn’t think of a thing on my own.” I twisted the corner of the bedsheet, feeling slightly unwelcome but too miserable to leave. “Can’t you show me how? How does it mean anything?”

But he couldn’t, and I couldn’t say what I meant by mean anyway. I thought that understanding was like a lightbulb in people’s heads, which came on with every new idea and remained forever sure, a beacon in the darkness. My head was lit by candles which the faintest breeze of doubt extinguished.

Jane was of even less help. Thin and pale and exuding hostility, like a triffid’s etiolated shoot, she swung her foot back and forth and stared at her workstation. “Why does it matter?” she said directly when I had tried to explain. She didn’t look at me, just talked to the screen. “If you can do the work without mistakes and you have the answers, surely you must be able to put the question and the answer together. So why do you want anything else? What the hell else is there?”

“But I can’t,” I said. “I don’t even know what the question means. Why is it asked? Why is it important? How did whoever figured it out figure it out? What put them onto it? I can’t apply this stuff.”

“Just don’t worry about it.” She sounded dismissive, already more interested in her work than talking to me. I felt shamed and resentful and that was the last time I went into her room, or talked to her except in passing. It never occurred to me then that she might be frightened by what I said, or envious.

Left alone with my fear I soon became lethargic and sullen, and it was shortly afterwards that I threw myself into a new and more rewarding relationship with something I did fully understand. Food. That was another factor adding to my absence on the mile board. Over time I became quite the gastronaut and a terrorizer of the kitchens. In my spare time I memorized cookbooks, compared recipes, made fifteen different versions of mashed potato one night when I couldn’t sleep— and ate them all one by one, bloated like a giant, tearful pumpkin.

I had good days, too. My walls were decorated with beautifully arranged shots of raw ingredients, all labelled. There were chillies and leaves on the ceiling, fruit above the basin, fish on the window wall, meats above the cupboard, every kind of potato beside the bed. My atomizer gave off the scent of pecan pie. In my pockets small silver packages of chocolate nestled safely in case of emergency. There were many emergencies. A counsellor once came to see me about what she called “your embryonic weight problem,” but she ended up eating a whole bar of Swiss 70% and pumping me for information on the Crofts. I was glad to give her what she wanted, having successfully diverted all attention from myself.

“You’re one of their best friends,” she said at first, obviously hoping it to be true.

I didn’t want to disappoint her so early on. I said yes. Perhaps it was true, I wasn’t sure. Did friends have to talk all the time or share things? If not, such a thing was possible.

“We’re very worried about Jane.”

“Oh,” I said, licking my finger and dabbing up slivers of chocolate from the empty foil.

“She has said she won’t go home for the holidays. Has she mentioned this to you?”

“No.” I was dopey with sugar, feeling slightly sick. I imagined myself in Jane’s position, sending this message to my mother, and what a ferocious row would ensue. She would cry and exclaim and talk a mile a minute and eventually I’d agree to what she wanted. Jane’s daring impressed me, but I felt a twinge of anxiety. “They never talk about home.”

“And do you—to them, I mean?” she pleaded.

“No,” I had to say. It had never occurred to me. I thought she was being stupid not to recognize that none of us talked about home. Home was full of possible defects and weaknesses, information that would be used against you. Home was also too ordinary to be worth a conversation. Only juniors who missed their mothers sniffied about it now and again in little huddles at the far edge of the orchard. .

“Oh.” She put her last piece of chocolate into her mouth. I seemed to be paying a high price for her so-called help. I should have given her something cheaper, with more cocoa butter in it. Or not. She could lose a few pounds herself: she was built like a big Welsh pony. “We wondered if there were any . . . troubles. Are the parents putting a lot of pressure on them? Well, parent. Their mother died some time ago of Hodgkin’s, and I think the father is having some trouble of his own. Religious, you know. Setting up some kind of order out in the wilds. Christian, I believe. One of the sillier sects of that faith ...”

I shook my head and vowed never to confide in this woman.

After a time of fruitless prying, she made a note about my diet and went away. “You might try more exercise,” she said as a parting shot, a guilty afterthought. I exercised my fingers at her back when she had gone.

Jane did stay at school that summer, and Roy stayed with her. As far as I know, neither of them ever went home again. But it was not something I dwelt on. In a short space of time I had forgotten about it. I had my own problems.

The following term began with exam results and a private visit to the school’s newly appointed psychotherapist. My marks were high, as usual. In math, geography, history, classics, and the sciences I was top of the year. In English I was second best. So, too, in programming, engineering, and environmental studies. Art was counted as a leisure pursuit for science students and was fortunately not examined. When, this time, the results were announced to me in class I did not however display my usual meek acceptance.

A strange feeling came over me as Miss Thelthorp, our class head, slotted my answer disk into my desk. Her dark hand with its pretty manicure was gentle, almost reverent, as she pressed her fingertips down and clipped it into the driver. At once the desk’s small screen popped up behind the pencil tray and began to display my work, neatly marked with red ticks, its value scrolling like an inverse national debt in a column at the right. Ever on into the black, numbers clicking in the strange stock exchange in which our minds were future trades. Up and up. Anjuli, said the numbers as they rose, look how much you have fooled them with your worthless options. Are you worth this much, this much ... or THIS much? And finally there was the mark: two plump nines for math. It even beat Roy and Jane into second place with their paltry ninety-eight and ninety-six. (This was before we started modular functions I hasten to add. I would never have beaten them then.) I stared at the numbers. A glance round the classroom confirmed the usual: resentment was in the faces of my peers. Roy looked rueful. Jane scowled like a malevolent gargoyle. Twenty other looks were either envy, disappointment, or resignation. All for nothing. For something I hadn’t even done. Again.

Slowly, a coldness crept up my arms and animated them. I shut the screen down and popped the disk into my hand. Around me the other children were looking at their answers, sighing or making noises of irritation at their mistakes. A miserable rage welled up inside me. I stood up. My chair scraped backwards, and the grating noise made Miss Thelthorp turn. Her startled face told me I must’ve looked bad. Her mouth opened slightly and her eyes widened in a moment’s unjudged fear.

“This is not me!” I shouted at her, shaking the disk. “I didn’t do this! It isn’t fair! It doesn’t mean anything!” I felt suddenly very silly. I didn’t know what I meant, only that it felt true.

There was a stunned silence. Every face was turned to look at me. .

I wrestled with the hard plastic of the disk for a moment and then, unable to break it, flung it like a frisbee at Miss Thelthorp’s head. She ducked so violently that she lost her balance. The disk clattered feebly against the window behind her, as if trying to escape. Then it tumbled to the floor, where the rest of the class results were lying, thrown from her hands as she had broken her fall. So it was that I was sent immediately to Dr. Singh.

Dr. Singh was in her fifties. She wore blue jeans and white shirts to work, and put her feet up on the coffee table whether they had shoes on or not. Her hair was greyed to white and pinned up in a fat bun which made her head look like a cottage loaf. She greeted me warmly and offered me coffee and a jam doughnut. When I said no thanks, she ate it herself. I watched her in an appalled and pleased silence as she dusted the sugar carelessly onto the sofa next to her and smiled. “Well,” she said, “at last.”

I looked at her. She did not seem to be making fun. Her hazel eyes gleamed without hidden depth. Still, I was not sure whether she was referring to my refusal of the doughnut or my outburst in class. I said nothing.

“Come on,” she said, “don’t say that’s all there was. I’ve heard a lot about your complaints in the staffroom,” and she winked, still smiling.

“They don’t listen,” I said. “They don’t believe me when I tell them that I don’t understand.”

“What don’t you understand?”

We sipped our coffee. “I don’t understand how things work. I don’t know why numbers add up the way they do. I don’t see how combining two atoms of hydrogen and one of oxygen makes water. They’re gases. I know things that. I don’t know why.”

Dr. Singh nodded. “What would it be like if you did know why? What difference would that make?”

Her question stopped me cold. I had never thought of this and immediately felt a blush of embarrassment. I closed my eyes and tried to imagine what that must be like. Everyone else, even if they didn’t remember perfectly, seemed to have no trouble with why. I imagined being Jane Croft, confident at her terminal. “Then I’d have control. I’d know,” I said. “I’d know what I was thinking and doing was right.”

A piercing sadness at my lack of this insight cut me to the core and I blinked rapidly to try and hide the tears that were forming in my eyes. I longed for the vanished doughnut, sweet and real and solid in my mouth.

“And how would that feel?” asked Dr. Singh gently. I looked into her face and saw compassion. It was more than I could stand.

“Safe!” I cried, shocked at the gush of words that came out, lanced, from my heart. “Powerful. Untouchable. People would like me, then. I’d know what to say and do. I’d know how to make them like me, and if they didn’t then I wouldn’t care and they’d be sorry in the end! I could say something that would change their minds and they’d know I was right!” .

Salty water filled my mouth and I buried my face in my hands. I was crying so hard I couldn’t talk any more. Deep inside a small bit of me was very surprised that I was this miserable. I had thought I was only averagely miserable. Then it occurred to me that maybe I was just averagely miserable and, considering that everyone felt this way and of what a wet lettuce I was being in comparison to their bravery, I cried even harder.

Dr. Singh waited patiently and gave me a handkerchief. It was soft and smelled of lavender. Later I found out she had a drawerful of these, layered with dried flowers in her desk, but I didn’t know it then and it seemed especially kind. I dried my face.

“What do you want to do about it?” she asked me when I had regained control of myself.

“I can’t do anything,” I ventured, thinking this was obvious.

“But if you could, what would you do?”

I thought for a while, staring out of her window at the weedy running track where a long-shanked cocoa-coloured boy from the year below was pattering around and around, all elbows and knees and determination. Through the slight drizzle his face looked dreamy and contented, focused on its simple purpose. “I’d give up all those classes and never study them again,” I said. “I’d only want to work on things that don’t already have all the facts. Something with no facts, only theories that you have to think about but you can’t know. Where I won’t be able to cheat. Where I can be in the same boat as everyone else.”

“Why don’t you study psychology, then?” she said. “Or psychiatry—although that involves learning medicine first, and the things you don’t want. Or sociology? But . . .” She paused and looked at me over the rim of her cup. “How does that solve the why?”

“Because there everyone has the why,” I said. “Not just me.”

And that was another of the beginnings, which combined with the last factor to assure my place in what was to come.

The three of us—Jane, Roy, and I—stuck together doggedly all the way until university, when Jane made her break for freedom.

At the time I believed she’d burnt out and run, the official line. Now I see it was a neat move. Its real neatness I never suspected in a million years, until very recently, but it was only a week or two after the fact when I realized she had successfully dumped Roy on me. She had used to be necessary as his protector. Now I could do the job. He rarely got into fights by then, but most of the trouble was far less controllable. He got into anarchism, green politics, machine liberation— and she got out. I was almost grateful when she went. I had never felt her equal, and now I had my friend all to myself. Until I met Augustine, whom Roy brought home one wet and windy night in the first term. Then, he and I shared the burden of keeping Roy safe. And when Roy was dying alone and unsuspected in his room far above the earth, we should have been freed. But it wasn’t to work out that way. At all.

Silver Screen © Justina Robson


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