‘If you knew Time as well as I do,’ said the Hatter, ‘you wouldn’t talk of wasting Time. We quarrelled last March when I sang for the Queen and she bawled, “He’s murdering the time.” Now Time won’t do a thing I ask!’
Ali arrived fifteen minutes late for dinner. Waxstaff and Potts were seated at one end of the table with Mr Kepler, while her aunt and uncle sat side by side at the other. Ali felt Waxstaff’s cold eyes on her the moment she entered the room. She sat opposite her relatives and made no attempt to engage in the small talk that was underway. Mr Kepler was entertaining the room with an explanation of Einstein’s general theory of relativity. She listened for five painful minutes as he tried to explain the concept in kindergarten terms.
Despite their age, her relatives seemed a lot smarter than the two staff. Ali couldn’t believe how little Potts understood basic science. There was no way anyone, even her teacher, could explain cosmology to a person who thought a galaxy was like a solar system, only bigger. Waxstaff didn’t appear to know much more, but at least she was smart enough to keep quiet about it.
‘I don’t see the point of it,’ said Potts, ‘why would anyone study time? I mean, what for? When it’s gone, it’s gone. Can’t live in the past, can we.’
‘I can,’ laughed Lord Grey, ‘I do it every day.’
‘We all do,’ said Mr Kepler. ‘Everywhere we look, we’re looking back in time, even that wall across the room is a little further back in time than you are.’
‘Poppycock,’ said Lord Grey. ‘There’s a damn clock hanging on it. Same time as my watch. Ah, no! A bit behind actually. Rather spoils my counterpunch.’
‘It’s why relativity is hard to explain,’ said Mr Kepler. ‘Light takes a fraction of a moment to travel from the wall to your eye, so the wall you see was the wall of a moment ago. The further away an object is, the longer it takes for the light to reach your eye. When we look at distant galaxies, we see them as they used to be, millions of years ago.’
‘About when you were born, Bertie dear,’ said Lady Grey. ‘Quite so, my darling. Which is why I’ll sleep in the village tonight, watch you through a telescope, and see the pretty filly I fell for all those years ago.’
‘Bravo,’ said his wife, ‘and I dare say we shall both sleep the better for it, because sound, even snoring, travels a great deal slower. Does it not, Alice?’
‘It does, Lady Grey.’ Ali smiled at her aunt and held her gaze for a long moment. There was a lot going on behind those old eyes.
‘As for you, young lady, we have been given to understand that you have an excellent head for science.’
‘She does,’ said Mr Kepler. ‘My best student.’
‘Then tell us, my dear,’ said Lady Grey, ‘what’s hot at the moment? What has been exercising your scientific curiosity?’ ‘What’s your money paying for – is that the question?’ Even as she said it, Ali wanted to kick herself, to take the words back. Too late for that.
‘No, that wasn’t the question.’ Her aunt looked across the table and fixed Ali with an expression she couldn’t read. ‘But I’ll answer it, if it’s important to you. Would we have been better spending our limited finances on something a little more tangible, like a new roof? Is that your question?’
‘Maybe,’ said Ali. Waxstaff muttered something under her breath and exchanged a shake of the head with Nurse Potts.
‘Do you plan to be rude like that,’ asked Potts, ‘or does it come naturally?’
‘Just being honest, that’s all,’ said Ali. ‘They might get better value from fixing the house.’
‘There you are,’ laughed Lord Grey, ‘our niece agrees with me. Mend the damn roof! I’ve said it a hundred times. Does anyone listen?’
‘Gravity waves,’ said Ali. ‘Come again?’ said Potts.
‘That’s what’s I’m studying at the moment. Gravity waves and ideas that spin off it, like extra dimensions.’
‘Glad to hear it,’ Lord Grey waved his fork at her. ‘If you can beat the Times crossword, then it’s money well spent.’
‘Extra dimensions,’ Nurse Potts was shaking her head. ‘The nonsense they talk about these days. What happened to algebra?’
‘Not the fault of the kids,’ said Miss Waxstaff, ‘they’re easily impressed, they eat up any nonsense that catches their attention. I blame your profession, Mr Kepler, filling their heads with crackpot notions.’
‘Crackpot?’ Ali stopped eating and glared at the woman. ‘Yes, of course.’
‘I see,’ said Ali, ignoring the warning looks her teacher was throwing at her. ‘You have a solid grounding in theoretical physics, do you? You feel qualified to venture that opinion?’
‘No,’ Waxstaff glared back at her with her narrow bird eyes, ‘but I have a solid grounding in spotting bullshit when I see it.’ ‘I like this,’ beamed Lord Grey, and clapped his hands, ‘ladies fighting at the table, nothing better. Bullshit indeed. What do you say to that, Alice?’
‘Nothing,’ said Ali. Her teacher let out a long breath, clearly relieved.
‘Heh!’ snorted Miss Waxstaff.
‘I’ve nothing to say to Miss Waxstaff, it would be a waste of breath.’
‘And now she resorts to insults.’ Miss Waxstaff sighed and shook her head. ‘The last refuge of the ignorant mind. Lose the argument and stoop to insults. You warned us she had a temper, but vulgar too? That’s very disappointing.’
‘To be fair,’ said her teacher, ‘you did throw the first insult, you tried to diminish her field of interest, and the latest insights around gravitational waves are far from bullshit.’ He looked down the table at Ali, his eyes pleading with her.
Ali sighed, put down her knife and fork, and turned to Lord Grey. ‘But it’d be different if you are interested in hearing about it?’
‘I am, if I can keep up.’
‘Physicists like my dad want to know why gravity is so weak compared with the other forces. Some think it’s leaking off into other dimensions. And to explain how gravity and quantum effects work together, you’ve got to have extra dimensions for the maths to make sense. And now they’ve found gravitational waves, ripples in space-time caused by massive objects. It’s all very cool.’
‘It’s garbage,’ Nurse Potts said, shaking her head, ‘and the government wastes our taxes on this nonsense.’
‘Hardly nonsense, Miss Potts,’ said Mr Kepler, getting animated again, ‘it helps explain how everything works. Gravitational waves ripple through the universe, stretching and compressing space.’
‘Lost me already,’ said Lord Grey.
‘It’s simple.’ Ali tapped her plate. ‘Imagine there was a huge jelly on this plate. Tap the jelly with a spoon and the waves distort it as they jiggle through it. It’s the same with the universe and gravitational waves.’
‘Got it,’ beamed Lord Grey. ‘Good to know I’m not senile after all. And good to know you love science. Would it be irritating to suggest this is inherited from your talented father?’
‘It would. A girl likes to take credit where she can.’ ‘Eloquence too! Bravo, child. We shall get along splendidly.’
‘Just because I like science doesn’t mean I live in a nerdy bubble – I read Jane Austen as well as Stephen Hawking. I might split an atom, but I would never split an infinitive.’ Ali was astonished when her aunt applauded.
‘Delightful!’ Lady Grey was beaming at her. ‘It’s been years since our table was graced with anything resembling repartee. These next two weeks might feel like an imposition to you, but I suspect they will be a tonic to Bertie and myself.’ ‘Good to know,’ was all Ali could think to say. The house- keeper pursed her lips and said nothing, but Nurse Potts was bursting to express an opinion.
‘In my experience, if we tolerate bad manners – we encourage them.’
‘Duly noted,’ said Lord Grey, ‘and no more talk of gravity. Let’s talk sport . . . who followed the cricket on the radio today?’ He looked round the table, his hopeful smile quickly fading as it registered a complete lack of interest on every face. ‘Right, no cricket then.’
That night, Ali lay in brown and white linen in her brown and cream room and listened to the buzzing of her brain as it tried to crunch through all the new data. It was how she saw her brain, a complex computer that continued working in her sleep as it sorted the day’s experiences, sifting the critical from the dross.
‘Figure out the house,’ she said aloud, setting a mental search engine in motion that would spend the night playing detective, ‘then work out why Dad kept all this a secret. To stop me dwelling on Mum? Embarrassed that someone else was coughing up for my education? Or is it something darker – a skeleton?’
She gazed up at the cream ceiling and tried to disengage, tried to let her brain freewheel. It was something she’d practised for years after her dad had told her how Einstein liked to stare into a fire and let his mind drift.
Newt, the best ideas come when you stop thinking, she told herself now. Einstein would fill his head with the facts he thought important for some new idea, then he’d stare into his fire and disengage, let his brain drift off and do its thing while he watched the flickering flames.
Sometimes she could do it. But not tonight. The day had stirred up so many emotions, including the warmth she’d felt so unexpectedly over dinner – warmth for a couple of old wrinklies. How disconcerting was that?
And there was something else . . . Ali couldn’t put a finger on it, but another emotion was in the mix; a foreboding, as if she’d wandered from the path and was moving into a dark forest. She sat up and looked around at the oppressive room.
‘Colour. I need more colour.’ There was no relief from the endless cream and brown except from the painting of the bluebell woods. She went down to the dining room and grabbed one of the candlesticks that made up the centre piece of the long table.
‘Perfect, you’ll do.’ It had three candles. She used the embers of the fire to light all three, carried the candlestick up to her room and set it on a small side table below the picture so the bluebells were centred in the upward spill of light.
‘Better.’ She dropped back on the bed and lay on her side, staring at the picture. A draught from the window played across the flames, their wavering light giving the trees and bluebells the illusion of movement. And as she drifted off to sleep, it seemed to Ali that the scene in the picture was far more real than the bedroom around her.