‘Oh, you can’t help that,’ said the Cat, ‘we’re all mad here.’
‘How do you know I’m mad?’ said Alice.
‘You must be,’ said the Cat, ‘or you wouldn’t have come here.’
‘Yes, but something must be outside the bubble. Got to be. If the universe is expanding like a bubble it must be expanding into somewhere.’ The boy was sitting two rows across from Ali; he had a chin like pink nougat and was getting all worked up. He seemed genuinely interested in the debate. And stupid.
‘Dickhead,’ sighed Ali. It was painful listening to feeble- minded crap from the other students, all locked in their Newtonian straitjackets. She turned her attention back to her forearm where she was inking a fake tattoo with a blue pen. The face of a cat, grinning.
‘There is no “somewhere” for the universe to expand into.’ The teacher had started to pace in front of his desk. ‘I know this is hard to picture, that’s why we need maths to describe it. The universe isn’t expanding into anything because the universe is everything. There’s nothing outside of it, so there’s nothing for it to expand into.’
‘So, it’s just making it up as it goes along?’ Nougat Chin again.
‘Not really.’ The teacher smiled as he tried to find the right words. Ali liked him, Mr Kepler. The poor fart meant well, and he was still enthusiastic; he still liked to teach. Not like the rest of the staff, sleepwalking to their retirement.
‘But if it’s an expanding bubble, sir, then it must have an edge, must have a border,’ said a second boy, no smarter than Nougat Chin. ‘And if there’s a border, there must be some- thing outside that border.’
Ali shook her pen – almost empty. Her cat needed one last eyebrow. She would draw it arched. Amused disbelief.
‘How about your border, newbie?’ A whispered challenge came from behind her. Ali didn’t turn. She knew it was the flathead with biceps for brains, the one who called himself ‘Beef.’ He’d been poking her in the back for a few minutes now, the courtship of a pre-schooler in a sandpit. ‘Cross your border anytime, just text me.’
Ali disengaged, letting the voices fade to a background buzz, like summer insects. A teacher at her last school had shown her how to do it – a way to keep calm and stop the anger from grabbing hold. She could focus on her breath- ing and withdraw into silence, letting the world drift along without her. Mostly.
Through the window she watched a rabbit nibbling a fringe of lawn by the tennis courts. It was a good school, so she would try to make it work, try to keep her anger at bay and give her dad a break. He deserved it.
‘Alice,’ Mr Kepler’s voice pulled her back.
‘Help me out here, any suggestions?’ Ali looked down at her tattoo. Why had she doodled a cat? She didn’t even like cats! Schrödinger’s Cat, maybe? Her subconscious having an emergent moment.
‘Like you said, Mr Kepler, you can’t explain it with words.
Just with maths.’ ‘Try.’
‘Okay. The big mistake is to picture space without thinking about time.’
‘And?’ Mr Kepler smiled encouragement.
‘Well, no one has a problem picturing tomorrow as empty space, do they? That’s because tomorrow hasn’t happened, so there’s nothing there. Right?’
‘Right,’ said Nougat Chin, nodding slowly as if pretending to understand.
Go on, Alice.’
‘Well, the universe isn’t an expanding bubble of space; it’s an expanding bubble of space AND time. So, there’s nothing beyond the edge, there can’t be, because it hasn’t happened yet. Out beyond the expanding edge of the universe it’s always tomorrow.’
‘Excellent.’ The teacher beamed at Ali. ‘Thank you.’ Faces turned to look at her, the new girl they’d been warned about, the one with the temper. Another jab in the back.
‘I like brains,’ Beef whispered behind her, ‘legs and brains. Real turn-on.’
‘Can I steal that explanation for future classes,’ said Mr Kepler, ‘use it and claim credit?’
‘Knock yourself out,’ said Ali, ‘just don’t ask me to explain String Theory anytime soon.’ Beef grabbed the moment to make a play for centre stage.
‘Sir. I have a string theory. I think newbie girl here can tug my strings any time she likes.’ He got his applause and stood to take a bow.
Ali stood as well, heating like a kettle towards the tipping point of her anger. ‘Mr Kepler, sir?’
‘Permission to teach the dipshit behind me one of Newton’s Laws?’ She turned and explained to Beef how a moving object keeps moving until it meets an opposing force. It was more a demonstration really. One moving fist coming to a stop when it met the opposing force of one grinning face. The face stopped grinning and started to bleed. Excellent.
‘Did you understand that okay?’
Suspended. Again. Ali sat in the principal’s office cursing her temper, and life in general. Her last councillor had called it Life Rage, rage in search of a new target because the old one was out of reach. She could kick and scream all she liked – her mother’s ghost wouldn’t hear.
‘I have no choice,’ the principal was saying. ‘Your teacher’s explained the provocation,’ she glanced at Mr Kepler, who was sitting beside Ali, ‘however that young man’s behaviour does not excuse violence. I have no wriggle room here, you see, not for a charge of assault. Suspension is mandatory.’ The woman seemed genuinely sympathetic, she even smiled when the school’s nurse came and confirmed that the victim’s nose was broken.
‘We’ve sent your father countless phone and text messages asking him to join us here, but apparently . . .’ She frowned at a scribbled note. ‘. . . he is working in a lead box some miles under Wales. Is that even possible?’
‘Sure,’ said Ali. ‘Always around when I need him.’
‘Ali’s father is on the UK HERT team,’ explained Mr Kepler, ‘a new facility at the bottom of a coal mine under Cardiff.’
‘In a lead box?’ The principal seemed to find this rather peculiar.
‘Don’t even go there,’ said Ali. ‘I’m sorry, go where?’
‘There’s nothing weird about Dad’s work.’ ‘I never said there was, Alice.’
‘You were joining dots. Weird work and poor parenting. And it’s not a lead box, it’s a Faraday Cage. He’s measuring cosmic radiation. It’s weak, so you have to screen out everything else. The equipment has to be shielded inside a Faraday Cage, named after the bloke who first built one, way back.’
‘Good to know,’ the principal looked down at her notes, ‘and presumably that explains why your father isn’t getting our calls?’
‘Bingo.’ Ali sighed. Her dad was going to be pissed off. She’d promised she’d make it work this time. Three schools in four years. Letting him down was all the punishment she needed. Ali reached up to a silver pendant hanging round her neck, a nervous gesture she did in moments of stress. The pendant had belonged to her mother, a Saint Christopher inscribed with a boy’s name, Jack. Her Dad wouldn’t tell her who Jack was. Maybe he didn’t know. A boy from her child- hood? An old flame?
‘I’m sorry, it won’t happen again. I’ll apologise to that dipshit.’
‘Good. But not today. Today you leave the college grounds.’ ‘He was assaulting me!’
‘Verbally. You punched him.’
‘But before all this, he was stabbing his stupid finger in my back. And that’s not just assault, that’s inappropriate contact.’ Ali glowered at the woman. ‘So, I stand up for myself and hit some bully because I won’t let people shit on me, and you side with him! That’s great girl power right there. Go figure!’
‘You’re not helping.’
‘You want me to roll over? Not going to happen. I want to press charges. Assault. So call the police.’
‘They were called, by his parents, he’s the one doing all the bleeding.’ The principal sat back in her chair. ‘You will be given a complaints form, and I encourage you to make whatever complaints you see fit. The boy is a spoilt brat with spoilt parents to match. But in the meantime, you must leave the premises and undertake your suspension back with your family.’
‘Bit tough, that. Right?’ Ali stared at the thick file on the desk. It was all in there, the story of what happened to her mother. It had made headlines, how she had died on a UNESCO mission negotiating the release of child hostages. Thanks, Mum. What about this child?
Ali focused on her breathing. She retreated and let the world drift into fog. She could see Beef’s grinning face, her fist connecting in slow-mo, she could feel the bruise on her knuckles – a good bruise, a bruise she could see and touch.
‘And then, if that fails, the next step is expulsion.’ ‘Expulsion?!’ That brought her back.
‘Yes Alice, the two-week suspension is a chance for serious reflection, a family intervention where . . .’
‘I don’t have family. Just my dad. That’s it. Me and Dad against the world.’ Ali almost laughed; did she really say that out loud? Embarrassing.
‘Not according to your enrolment papers. After your father, your next of kin are an aunt and uncle on your mother’s side.’
‘Never met them.’
‘Perhaps, but they are your sponsors, Alice – good people by all accounts, who’ve been funding your education. We couldn’t reach your father so we called them. They’ve agreed to host you for the two weeks of the suspension.’
‘I don’t believe this shit!’
‘That language isn’t helping your cause, Alice. They will host you and they will monitor your attitude. Their view will go a long way to informing the board’s final decision.’
‘Serious? I go and stay for two weeks with some oldies I’ve never met, and they get to decide if I get expelled?’
‘Good. You are listening. Any questions?’ ‘About a billion.’
‘We’ll keep calling your father.’ The principal closed the thick folder of papers, ‘Mr Kepler has kindly offered to drive you. He can fill you in on the details as you go.’
Ali followed her teacher from the office. ‘This is bullshit!’
‘Just grab your things, Alice, we’ll meet in the carpark.’
Ali headed down the corridor. Her locker was in a differ- ent wing on the far side of a garden courtyard. She marched outside, still seething with indignation, and there was Beef, yelling at a man in a dark suit. The man spotted Ali and ushered Beef away, manhandling him across the yard. Beef’s father?
‘See you in court!’ Beef turned and gave her the finger.
‘Or hospital,’ Ali yelled back as the man bustled the boy through a door and out of sight. Something fell from the lapel of the man’s dark suit. Ali crossed and picked it up.
It was a flower. A white rose.