Home > The Girl with All the Gifts(2)

The Girl with All the Gifts(2)
M.R. Carey

In the shower room, which is white-tiled and empty, the children sit and wait until everybody has been wheeled in. Then Sergeant’s people bring chow bowls and spoons. They put a bowl on each child’s lap, the spoon already sticking into it.

In the bowl there are about a million grubs, all squirming and wriggling over each other.

The children eat.

In the stories that they read, children sometimes eat other things – cakes and chocolate and bangers and mash and crisps and sweets and spaghetti and meatballs. The children only eat grubs, and only once a week, because – as Dr Selkirk explains one time when Melanie asks – their bodies are spectacularly efficient at metabolising proteins. They don’t have to have any of those other things, not even water to drink. The grubs give them everything they need.

When they’ve finished eating, and the bowls have been taken away again, Sergeant’s people go out, close the doors and cycle the door seals. The shower room is completely dark now, because there aren’t any lights in there. Pipes behind the walls start to make a sound like someone trying not to laugh, and a chemical spray falls from the ceiling.

It’s the same chemical that’s on the teachers and Sergeant and Sergeant’s people, or at least it smells the same, but it’s a lot stronger. It stings a little, at first. Then it stings a lot. It leaves Melanie’s eyes puffy, reddened and half blind. But it evaporates quickly from clothes and skin, so after half an hour more of sitting in the still, dark room, there’s nothing left of it but the smell, and then finally the smell fades too, or at least they get used to it so it’s not so bad any more, and they just wait in silence for the door to be unlocked and Sergeant’s people to come and get them. This is how the children are washed, and for that reason, if for no other, Sunday is probably the worst day of the week.

The best day of the week is whichever day Miss Justineau teaches. It isn’t always the same day, and some weeks she doesn’t come at all, but whenever Melanie is wheeled into the classroom and sees Miss Justineau there, she feels a surge of pure happiness, like her heart flying up out of her into the sky.

Nobody gets bored on Miss Justineau days. It’s a thrill for Melanie even to look at her. She likes to guess what Miss Justineau will be wearing, and whether her hair will be up or down. It’s usually down, and it’s long and black and really crinkly so it looks like a waterfall. But sometimes she ties it up in a knot on the back of her head, really tight, and that’s good too, because it makes her face sort of stand out more, almost like she’s a statue on the side of a temple, holding up the ceiling. A caryatid. Although Miss Justineau’s face stands out anyway because it’s such a wonderful, wonderful colour. It’s dark brown, like the wood of the trees in Melanie’s rainforest picture whose seeds only grow out of the ashes of a bushfire, or like the coffee that Miss Justineau pours out of her flask into her cup at break time. Except it’s darker and richer than either of those things, with lots of other colours mixed in, so there isn’t anything you can really compare it to. All you can say is that it’s as dark as Melanie’s skin is light.

And sometimes Miss Justineau wears a scarf or something over her shirt, tied around her neck and shoulders. On those days Melanie thinks she looks either like a pirate or like one of the women of Hamelin when the Pied Piper came. But the women of Hamelin in the picture in Miss Justineau’s book were mostly old and bent over, and Miss Justineau is young and not bent over at all and very tall and very beautiful. So she’s more like a pirate really, except not with long boots and not with a sword.

When Miss Justineau teaches, the day is full of amazing things. Sometimes she’ll read poems aloud, or bring her flute and play it, or show the children pictures out of a book and tell them stories about the people in the pictures. That was how Melanie got to find out about Pandora and Epimetheus and the box full of all the evils of the world, because one day Miss J showed them a picture in the book. It was a picture of a woman opening a box and lots of really scary things coming out of it. “Who is that?” Anne asked Miss Justineau.

“That’s Pandora,” Miss Justineau said. “She was a really amazing woman. All the gods had blessed her and given her gifts. That’s what her name means – ‘the girl with all the gifts’. So she was clever, and brave, and beautiful, and funny, and everything else you’d want to be. But she just had the one tiny fault, which was that she was very – and I mean very – curious.”

She had the kids hooked by this point, and they were loving it and so was she, and in the end they got the whole story, which started with the war between the gods and the Titans and ended with Pandora opening up the box and letting all the terrible things out.

Melanie said she didn’t think it was right to blame Pandora for what happened, because it was a trap that Zeus had set for mortals and he made her be the way she was on purpose, just so the trap would get sprung.

“Say it loud, sister,” Miss Justineau said. “Men get the pleasure, women get the rap.” And she laughed. Melanie made Miss Justineau laugh! That was a really good day, even if she doesn’t know what she said that was funny.

The only problem with the days when Miss Justineau teaches is that the time goes by too quickly. Every second is so precious to Melanie that she doesn’t even blink; she just sits there wide-eyed, drinking in everything that Miss Justineau says, and memorising it so that she can play it back to herself later, in her cell. And whenever she can manage it, she asks Miss Justineau questions, because what she most likes to hear, and to remember, is Miss Justineau’s voice saying her name, Melanie, in that way that makes her feel like the most important person in the world.

2

One time, Sergeant comes into the classroom on a Miss Justineau day. Melanie doesn’t know he’s there until he speaks, because he’s standing right at the back of the class. When Miss Justineau says, “…and this time, Pooh and Piglet counted three sets of footprints in the snow,” Sergeant’s voice breaks in with, “What the hell is this?”

Miss Justineau stops and looks round. “I’m reading the children a story, Sergeant Parks,” she says.

“I can see that,” Sergeant’s voice says. “I thought the idea was to put them through their paces, not give them a cabaret.”

Miss Justineau tenses. If you didn’t know her as well as Melanie knows her, and if you didn’t watch her as closely as Melanie watches her, you’d most likely miss it. It’s gone again really quickly, and her voice when she speaks sounds just the same as it always does, not angry at all. “That’s exactly what we’re doing,” she says. “It’s important to see how they process information. But there has to be input, so there can be output.”

“Input?” Sergeant repeats. “You mean facts?”

“No. Not just facts. Ideas.”

“Oh yeah, plenty of world-class ideas in Winnie-the-Pooh.” Sergeant is using sarcasm. Melanie knows how sarcasm works; you say the opposite of what you really mean. “Seriously, you’re wasting your time. You want to tell them stories, tell them about Jack the Ripper and John Wayne Gacy.”

“They’re children,” Miss Justineau points out.

“No.”

“Psychologically speaking, yes. They’re children.”

“Well, then f*ck psychology,” Sergeant says, sounding kind of angry now. “That, what you said right there, that’s why you don’t want to read them Winnie-the-Pooh. You carry on that way, you’ll start thinking of them as real kids. And then you’ll slip up. And maybe you’ll untie one of them because he needs a cuddle or something. I don’t need to tell you what happens after that.”

Sergeant comes out to the front of the class then, and he does something really horrible. He rolls up his sleeve, all the way to the elbow, and he holds his bare forearm in front of Kenny’s face; right in front of Kenny, just an inch or so away from him. Nothing happens at first, but then Sergeant spits on his hand and rubs at his forearm, like he’s wiping something away.

“Don’t,” says Miss Justineau. “Don’t do that to him.” But Sergeant doesn’t answer her or look at her.

Melanie sits two rows behind Kenny, and two rows over, so she can see the whole thing. Kenny goes really stiff, and then his mouth gapes wide and he starts to snap at Sergeant’s arm, which of course he can’t reach. And drool starts to drip down from the corner of his mouth, but not much of it because nobody ever gives the children anything to drink, so it’s thick, half solid, and it hangs there on the end of Kenny’s chin, wobbling, while Kenny grunts and snaps at Sergeant’s arm, and makes kind of moaning, whimpering sounds.

And bad as that is, it gets worse – because the kids on either side of Kenny start doing it too, as though it’s something they’ve caught from Kenny, and the kids right behind twitch and shake as though someone is poking them really hard in the stomach.

“You see?” Sergeant says, and he turns to look at Miss Justineau’s face to make sure she gets his point. And then he blinks, all surprised, and maybe he wishes he hadn’t looked at her, because Miss Justineau is glaring at him like she wants to smack him in the face, and Sergeant lets his arm fall to his side and shrugs like none of this was ever important to him anyway.

“Not everyone who looks human is human,” he says.

“No,” Miss Justineau agrees. “I’m with you on that one.”

Kenny’s head sags a little sideways, which is as far as it can move because of the strap, and he makes a clicking sound in his throat.

“It’s all right, Kenny,” Miss Justineau says. “It will pass soon. Let’s go on with the story. Would you like that? Would you like to hear what happened to Pooh and Piglet? Sergeant Parks, if you’ll excuse us? Please?”

Sergeant looks at her, and shakes his head really hard. “You don’t want to get attached to them,” he says. “You know what they’re here for. Hell, you know better than—”

But Miss Justineau starts to read again, like she can’t hear him, like he’s not even there, and in the end he leaves. Or maybe he’s still standing at the back of the classroom, not speaking, but Melanie doesn’t think so because after a while Miss Justineau gets up and shuts the door, and Melanie thinks that she’d only do that right then if Sergeant was on the other side of it.

Melanie barely sleeps at all that night. She keeps thinking about what Sergeant said, that the children aren’t real children, and about how Miss Justineau looked at him when he was being so nasty to Kenny.

And she thinks about Kenny snarling and snapping at Sergeant’s arm like a dog. She wonders why he did it, and she thinks maybe she knows the answer because when Sergeant wiped his arm with spit and waved it under Kenny’s nose, it was as though under the bitter chemical smell Sergeant had a different smell altogether. And even though the smell was very faint where Melanie was, it made her head swim and her jaw muscles start to work by themselves. She can’t even figure out what it was she was feeling, because it’s not like anything that ever happened to her before or anything she heard about in a story, but it was like there was something she was supposed to do and it was so urgent, so important that her body was trying to take over her mind and do it without her.

But along with these scary thoughts, she also thinks: Sergeant has a name. The same way the teachers do. The same way the children do. Up until now, Sergeant has been more like a god or a Titan to Melanie; now she knows that he’s just like everyone else, even if he is scary. He’s not just Sergeant, he’s Sergeant Parks. The enormity of that change, more than anything else, is what keeps her awake until the doors unlock in the morning and the teachers come.

In a way, Melanie’s feelings about Miss Justineau have changed too, after that day. Or rather, they haven’t changed at all, but they’ve become about a hundred times stronger. There can’t be anyone better or kinder or lovelier than Miss Justineau anywhere in the world; Melanie wishes she was a god or a Titan or a Trojan warrior, so she could fight for Miss Justineau and save her from Heffalumps and Woozles. She knows that Heffalumps and Woozles are in Winnie-the-Pooh, not in a Greek myth, but she likes the words, and she likes the idea of saving Miss Justineau so much that it becomes her favourite thought. She thinks about it whenever she’s not thinking about anything else. It makes even Sundays bearable.

So one day when Miss Mailer unstraps everybody’s right arms from the elbow down, slots the tray tables on to their chairs and tells them to write a story, that’s the story that Melanie writes. Miss Mailer is only interested in their vocabulary, of course, and doesn’t care much at all what their stories are about. This is really obvious because she gives out a word list alongside the assignment and tells the class that every word from the word list they use correctly gets them an extra point in the assessment.

Melanie ignores the word list and cuts loose.

When Miss Mailer asks who would like to read their story aloud, she’s the first to wave – as far as you can wave with just your forearm free – and say “Me, Miss Mailer! Pick me!”

So she gets to read her story. Which goes like this.

Once upon a time there was a very beautiful woman. The most beautiful and kind and clever and amazing woman in all the world. She was tall and not bent over, with skin so dark she was like her own shadow, and long black hair that curled around so much it made you dizzy to look at her. And she lived in ancient Greece, after the war between the gods and the Titans, when the gods had already won.

And one day, as she was walking in a forest, she was attacked by a monster. It was a frigging abortion, and it wanted to kill her and eat her. The woman was really brave, and she fought and fought, but the monster was very big and very fierce and it didn’t matter how many times she wounded it, it just kept on coming.

The woman was afraid. She hugged her fear to her mortal soul.

The monster broke her sword, and her spear, and it was about to eat her.

But then a little girl came along. She was a special little girl, made by all the gods, like Pandora. And she was like Achilles too, because her mother (the beautiful, amazing woman) had dipped her in the water of the River Styx, so she was all invulnerable except for one little part of her (but it wasn’t her heel because that’s obvious; it was a place that she kept secret so the monster couldn’t find it).

And the little girl fought the monster and killed it and cut off its head and its arms and legs and all the other bits of it. And the beautiful woman hugged her to her mortal soul, and said, “You are my special girl. You will always be with me, and I will never let you go.”

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