‘I’ll see you safe to the end of the wood,’ said the White Knight, ‘and then I must go back, you know; that’s the end of my move.’

The apartment was a small second-storey affair overlooking a city park. Her teacher stayed out in his car while Ali went in to grab what she needed for the next two weeks.
 A few months ago, when Ali and her father had moved in, Ali had asked for the front bedroom, which looked straight out onto the park. From her bed, all she could see were the trees – London disappeared completely. Her father had given in without a fight; in fact, he preferred the back bedroom, it was quieter, no street traffic. She went to his room now, pulled a suitcase from his wardrobe, then sat down heavily on the bed. ‘Stupid fracking idiot.’ She smacked her face with one hand, then smacked again, harder. Her dad had worked so hard to get her into that college, even moving here, so she could bike in every day. The place must eat half his salary in rent, two bedrooms by a park in central London.
 Now she’d messed up, and he wasn’t even around to be angry about it, or to listen to her side of the story. He was down in his rabbit hole unlocking more secrets of the universe. Ali pulled out her phone and thumbed a text. At least he should hear it from her, an apology of sorts, when he surfaced.
 He would ring of course, he always did, the moment he was out of the cage. But at least a text showed she was thinking of him. Better than nothing.

‘Please don’t blow this. You’re the brightest student I’ve got.’ Mr Kepler said as he drove. Ali was sulking, and for the first fifty kilometres neither had spoken.
 ‘You’ve not been with us long, but you’ve changed the dynamic already. Made the others all sit up. You’ve got a real head for science, and I can see you love it too.’
 Ali continued to ignore him.
 ‘I’ve read your file. I know what you’ve been through.’ ‘Doubt it.’ Ali pulled her woollen beanie over her eyes and slid down in her seat. This was not a conversation she cared to engage in.
 ‘Look, Alice . . .’
 ‘Stick to science, Mr K, you don’t cut it as a counsellor.’
 They stopped for fuel. Mr Kepler bought a coffee and paced the courtyard while he drank it, a five-minute break from the intensity of his student’s brooding silence. It didn’t help, and he slammed the door when he got back in the car.
 ‘That’s the way, Mr K. Let it all out. Bang the car up a bit, makes you feel better. Always does it for me.’
 ‘Yes, so I’ve read. How many assault charges is it now?’
 ‘Stopped counting.’
 ‘The paperwork doesn’t. You do this when you hit sixteen and they’ll lock you up.’
 ‘Great! So I still have a few months to punch some idiot faces then.’
 ‘In what universe is that funny?’
 ‘Take your pick. The way Dad sees it there’s an infinite number of them.’
 Another ten kilometres of silence.
 ‘You’re like a black hole, Alice, you know that?’ ‘Ha!’
 ‘You think that staying silent makes you invisible. Doesn’t work. You’re one giant gravity well, affecting everything around you. More energy than you know what to do with.’
 ‘I see what you’re doing. Way too obvious.’ ‘Really, and what’s that?’
 ‘You think some geeky science talk will get me chatting up a storm. Sorry, not happening. I get more science talk on weekends with Dad than you can shake a quark at.’
 ‘Interesting.’ ‘Not really.’
 ‘I just got to you.’
 ‘If it makes you happy.’
 ‘It does. You threw quarks back at me, a little counter jab. Yes, I got to you. I think I’d make a pretty decent counsellor.’
 He grinned, and Ali grinned back. And then they were talking. Not student and teacher. Science nerds. Equals. It made the journey bearable for them both, a hundred miles of science talk.
 It ended abruptly when he explained the ground rules for her suspension.
 ‘No phone?! Are they serious? No fracking way!’
 ‘It won’t be seclusion if you can wall-to-wall chat, now would it? So there’s no phone, no internet. And no swearing.’
 ‘Fracking isn’t swearing. It should be - should be the worst fracking thing you can say given it’s such a gross fracking assault on the fracking planet.’ A few kilometres later they came to the small village near Cambridge where her relatives lived. Mr Kepler stopped to ask an elderly man for directions. He told them, then gave a description of the place, a large manor house invisible from the road behind broken gates. Then he complained about the building’s neglect.
 ‘Shameful, no other word for it. Amounts to vandalism, beautiful place like that going to rack and ruin.’
 ‘Yes, well, I’m sure you’re right,’ said Mr Kepler. “It must be a bottomless pit trying to maintain an old building these days.’ ‘Then they should move out and sell the place to those who can look after it properly. You expected?’
 ‘Yes, and we’re a little late, so if you’ll excuse me.’ ‘Not with the other folk, are you, those two women?’ ‘Two women?’
 ‘The ones looking after the old couple.’
 ‘No,’ said Mr Kepler. Ali listened with growing impatience as her teacher tried to disengage. But the local villager was relentless, his questions growing more and more intrusive.
 ‘So what business have you got there? Up from London, are you?’ Ali felt the familiar pumping of blood that came when her anger was triggered. She had to shut this man up before she lost it completely and jumped out to punch him. She leaned across to the open window.
 ‘Excuse me, could you step into the road, please?’ she gave the man her very best and brightest smile.
 ‘Step into the road. I need to run you over to stop all your stupid talking.’ Ali continued to smile her bright smile as the old man stared back at her, open-mouthed, unable to form a reply. Then he turned and marched off, grumbling under his breath.
 ‘The luxury of youth,’ sighed Mr Kepler, as they set off again. Neither of them noticed the blind woman step from the doorway of a small bookstore as they drove past. They didn’t see how she craned her head to peer into the car; how she fixed her blind eyes on them till they were lost from view around the next bend.
 The directions to the manor house proved accurate. The place was hidden from the road down a sweeping gravel drive where impressive wrought iron gates were rusted open. Weathered statues topped stone pillars on either side, their form and detail lost to erosion and moss.
 ‘Spooky shit,’ said Ali as drove through. Formal gardens with box hedges lined both sides of the driveway.
 ‘You sure this isn’t a film set?’
 ‘Feels like one,’ agreed her teacher, ‘especially that thing!’
 Up ahead a white lightening-tree stood centre stage at the head of the drive. The face of the building, three stories of ivy and red brick, was a dull backdrop to the dead tree.
 They parked the car, hauled out their bags and approached the house. The front door swung open and a large woman greeted them. She was at least a foot taller than Ali and twice as wide. She had a white uniform, small eyes, big teeth and a massive head.
 ‘Welcome to Grey Manor.’ The expression on the woman’s face suggested they were far from welcome. ‘Your rooms are ready,’ she said, taking their bags and lifting them as if they were feather pillows. ‘Tea in the parlour in fifteen minutes. Follow me.’
 Ali watched the woman’s huge back as they followed her up the staircase to the first floor. Her teacher raised an eyebrow and grinned. Ali grinned back, but it was forced. Mr Kepler wasn’t going to be stuck here with this weightlifting freak. The woman was a mass of solid muscle.
 ‘I’m Nurse Potts. People call me Potty – but only the once.
 You will refer to me as Nurse Potts. Yourself?’
 ‘Alice.’ Only friends called her Ali. And she wasn’t about to tell this woman her other nickname – Newt. Only her mother had used that. Ali had fallen down a set of steps and scraped her knees when she was three; between her tears she’d asked why everything fell down and never up?
 Her mother had smiled and called her Newton. In time it became Newt.
 ‘Promise me you will never stop asking such wonderful questions,’ she’d said.
 Ali never had.
 They were shown to their rooms. Mr Kepler thanked Nurse Potts and told Ali he would see her downstairs for tea. Her own room was a depressing blend of cream walls and brown furniture, and it perfectly matched her mood. The only relief came from an oil painting of bluebells; a woodland scene with slender birch trees and a carpet of flowers. Everything else was a triumph of boring.
 Ali flopped down on the bed and closed her eyes. It could have been worse – it could have been girl central, all frills and lace and pink ponies.
 ‘I’m NOT going to survive this shit hole.’ She lay back and began thrashing her legs up and down, her heels battering the mattress like hammers; a trick her mother had taught her for letting off steam.
 ‘Take it out on the bed darling. Like this.’ They had lain down together on her parents’ mattress and thrashed like a pair of amateur swimmers until Ali’s dark mood had been transformed by laughter.
 ‘It’s just energy in the end, Newt. Tears of rage or tears of laughter. So best we choose laughter.’ Ali did it now. Hammering her heels as the tears welled up and the frustra- tion washed out across her cheeks.

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