Home > The Girl with All the Gifts(3)

The Girl with All the Gifts(3)
M.R. Carey

And they lived together, for ever after, in great peace and prosperity.

The last sentence is stolen word for word from a story by the Brothers Grimm that Miss Justineau read to the class once, and some of the other bits are sort of borrowed from Miss Justineau’s Greek myths book, which is called Tales the Muses Told, or just from cool things she’s heard people say. But it’s still Melanie’s story, and she’s very happy when the other kids all say how good it is. Even Kenny, in the end, says he liked the part where the monster got chopped up.

Miss Mailer seems happy too. The whole time Melanie was reading the story out, she was scribbling in her notebook. And she recorded the reading on her little hand recorder machine. Melanie hopes she’ll play it back to Miss Justineau, so Miss Justineau will get to hear it too.

“That was really interesting, Melanie,” Miss Mailer says. She puts the recorder down on Melanie’s tray table, right in front of her, and asks her a lot of questions about the story. What did the monster look like? How did the girl feel about the monster when it was alive? How did she feel about it after it was dead? How did she feel about the woman? And lots of stuff like that, which is kind of fun because it feels almost like the people in the story are real somewhere.

Like she saved Miss Justineau from a monster, and Miss Justineau hugged her.

Which is better than a million Greek myths.

3

One day Miss Justineau talks to them about death. It’s because most of the men in the Light Brigade have just died, in a poem that Miss Justineau read to the class. The children want to know what it means to die, and what it’s like. Miss Justineau says it’s like all the lights going out, and everything going really quiet, the way it does at night – but for ever. No morning. The lights never come back on again.

“That sounds terrible,” says Lizzie in a voice like she’s about to cry. It sounds terrible to Melanie too; like sitting in the shower room on Sunday with the chemical smell in the air, and then even the smell goes away and there’s nothing at all for ever and ever.

Miss Justineau can see that she’s upset them, and she tries to make it okay again by talking about it more. “But maybe it’s not like that at all,” she says quickly. “Nobody really knows, because when you’re dead, you can’t come back to talk about it. And anyway, it would be different for you than it would be for most people because you’re—”

And then she stops herself, with the next word sort of frozen halfway out of her lips.

“We’re what?” Melanie asks.

It’s a moment or two before Miss Justineau says anything. It looks to Melanie like she’s thinking of something to say that won’t make them feel any worse than they do already. “You’re children. You can’t really imagine what death might be like, because for children it seems like everything has to go on for ever.”

That isn’t what she was going to say, Melanie is pretty sure. But it’s really interesting, just the same. There’s a silence while they think about it. It’s true, Melanie decides. She can’t remember a time when her life was any different than this, and she can’t imagine any other way that people could live. But there’s something that doesn’t make sense to her in the whole equation, and so she has to ask the question.

“Whose children are we, Miss Justineau?”

In most stories she knows, children have a mother and a father, like Iphigenia had Clytemnestra and Agamemnon, and Helen had Leda and Zeus. Sometimes they have teachers too, but not always, and they never seem to have sergeants. So this is a question that gets to the very roots of the world, and Melanie asks it with some trepidation.

Again Miss Justineau thinks about it for a long time, until Melanie is sure she won’t answer. Then she says, “Your mother is dead, Melanie. She died when you were very little. Probably your daddy’s dead too, although there isn’t really any way of knowing. So the army is looking after you now.”

“Is that just Melanie?” John asks. “Or is it all of us?”

Miss Justineau nods slowly. “All of you.”

“We’re in an orphanage,” Anne guesses. (The class heard the story of Oliver Twist once, on another Miss Justineau day.)

“No. You’re on an army base.”

“Is that what happens to kids whose mum and dad die?” This is Steven now.

“Sometimes.”

Melanie is thinking hard and putting all these facts together inside her head, like they’re pieces of a puzzle. “How old was I,” she asks, “when my mother died?” Because she must have been very young if she can’t remember her mother at all.

“It’s not easy to explain,” Miss Justineau says, and they can see from her face that she’s really not comfortable talking about this stuff.

“Was I still a baby?” Melanie asks.

“Not really. But almost. You were very young.”

“And did my mother give me to the army?”

Another long silence.

“No,” Miss Justineau says at last. “The army pretty much helped itself.”

It comes out quick and low and almost hard. Miss Justineau changes the subject then, and the children are happy to let her do it because nobody is very enthusiastic about death by this point.

So they do the periodic table of the elements, which is easy and fun. Starting with Miles in the front row at the very end, everyone takes turns to name an element. First time around they do it in straight number order. Then they reverse it. Then Miss Justineau shouts out challenges like “Has to start with the letter N!” or “Actinides only!”

Nobody drops out until the challenges get really hard, like “Can’t follow in group or period, and has to start with a letter that’s in your name!” Zoe complains that that means people with long names have more chances, and she’s right, obviously, but still she’s got zinc, zirconium, oxygen, osmium, einsteinium, erbium and europium to choose from, so she’s not doing too badly.

By the time Xanthi wins (with xenon), everyone is laughing and it looks as though all the death stuff is forgotten. It isn’t, of course. Melanie knows her classmates well enough to be sure that they’re turning Miss Justineau’s words over and over in their minds, the same way she is – shaking them and worrying at them, to see what insights might fall out. Because the one thing they never learn about, really, is themselves.

And by this time, Melanie has thought of the big exception to that rule about kids having mothers and fathers – Pandora, who didn’t have a mother or a father because Zeus just made her out of gloopy clay. Melanie thinks that would be better, in some ways, than having a mother and a father who you never even got to meet. The ghost of her parents’ absence hovers around her, makes her uneasy.

But she wants to know one more thing, and she wants it badly enough that she even takes the chance of upsetting Miss Justineau some more. At the end of the lesson, she waits until Miss Justineau is close to her and she asks her question really quietly.

“Miss Justineau, what will happen when we’re grown up? Will the army still want to keep us, or will we go home to Beacon? And if we go there, will all the teachers come with us?”

All the teachers! Yeah, right. Like she cares if she ever sees Mr Slippery-Voice-Whitaker again. Or boring Dr Selkirk, who looks at the ground the whole time like she’s scared of even seeing the class. She means you, Miss Justineau, you, you, you, and she wants to say it, but at the same time she’s scared to, like saying the wish out loud will make it not happen.

And she knows, again extrapolating from the stories she’s read or heard, that children don’t stay in school for ever. They don’t set up home with their teachers and live there and be there with them when school is finished. And although she doesn’t really know what those words mean, what school being finished could possibly be like, she accepts that it will someday happen and therefore that something else will start.

So she’s ready for Miss Justineau to say no. She’s hardened herself to let nothing show in her face, if that’s the answer. She really just wants the facts, so she can prepare herself for the grief of separation.

But Miss Justineau doesn’t answer at all. Unless the quick movement of her hand is an answer. She puts it up in front of her own face as though Melanie has thrown something at her (which Melanie never, ever would do in a million years!).

Then the siren whoops three times to signal the end of the day. And Miss Justineau ducks her head, pulling herself together after that imaginary blow. And it’s sort of a strange thing, but for the first time Melanie realises that Miss Justineau always wears red, somewhere on her. Her T-shirt, or her hairband, or her trousers, or her scarf. All the other teachers and Dr Caldwell and Dr Selkirk wear white, and Sergeant and Sergeant’s people wear green and brown and greeny-brown. Miss Justineau is red.

Like blood.

Like something about her is wounded, and not healing, and hurting her all the time.

That’s a stupid idea, Melanie thinks, because Miss Justineau always smiles and laughs and her voice is like a song. If something was hurting her, she wouldn’t be able to smile so much. But right then, Miss Justineau isn’t smiling at all. She’s staring down at the ground, and her face is all twisted up like she’s angry, sad, sick – like something bad is going to come out of her anyway, and it might be tears or words or vomit or all three.

“I’ll stay,” Melanie blurts. She’s desperate to make Miss Justineau feel okay again. “If you have to stay here, I’ll stay with you. I wouldn’t want to be in Beacon without you there.”

Miss Justineau lifts her head and looks at Melanie again. Her eyes are very shiny, and her mouth is like the line on Dr Caldwell’s EEG machine, changing all the time.

“I’m sorry,” Melanie says quickly. “Please don’t be sad, Miss Justineau. You can do whatever you want to do, of course you can. You can go or stay or…”

She doesn’t get another word out. She crashes into total, tongue-tied silence, because something completely unexpected and absolutely wonderful happens.

Miss Justineau puts out her hand and strokes Melanie’s hair.

She strokes Melanie’s hair with her hand, like it was just the most natural and normal thing in the world.

And lights are dancing behind Melanie’s eyes, and she can’t get her breath, and she can’t speak or hear or think about anything because apart from Sergeant’s people, maybe two or three times and always by accident, nobody has ever touched her before and this is Miss Justineau touching her and it’s almost too nice to be in the world at all.

Everybody in the class who can see is watching. Everybody’s eyes and mouths are big and wide. It’s so quiet, you can hear Miss Justineau draw a breath, with a little tremor at the end of it, as though she’s shivering from cold.

“Oh God!” she whispers.

“Here endeth the lesson,” says Sergeant.

Melanie can’t turn her head to look at him, because of the neck strap on her chair. Nobody else seems to have seen Sergeant come into the room either. They’re all just as surprised and scared as she is. Even Miss Justineau looks scared, which is another one of those things (like Sergeant having a name) that changes the architecture of the whole world.

Sergeant walks into Melanie’s line of sight, right behind Miss Justineau. Miss Justineau has already snatched her hand away from Melanie’s hair, as soon as Sergeant spoke. She ducks her head again, so Melanie can’t see her face.

“They go back now,” Sergeant says.

“Right.” Miss Justineau’s voice is very small.

“And you go on a charge.”

“Right.”

“And maybe you lose your job. Because every rule we got, you just broke.”

Miss Justineau brings her head up again. Both her eyes are wet with tears now. “Fuck you, Eddie,” she says, as quietly and calmly as if she was saying good morning.

She walks out of Melanie’s line of sight, very quickly. Melanie wants to call her back, wants to say something to make her stay: I love you, Miss Justineau. I’ll be a god or a Titan for you, and save you. But she can’t say anything, and then Sergeant’s people come and start to wheel the kids away one by one.

4

Why? Why did she do that?

Helen Justineau has no good answer, so she just keeps on asking herself the question. Stands forlorn in her room in the luxuriously appointed civilian block, a foot on every side bigger than a regular soldier’s room, and with an en suite chemical toilet. Leaning against the mirror on the wall, avoiding her own sick, accusing gaze.

She scrubbed her hands until they were raw, but she can still feel that cold flesh. So cold, as though blood never ran in it. As though she was touching something that had just been dredged up from the bottom of the sea.

Why did she do it? What happened in that laying on of hands?

Nice cop is just a role she plays – observing and measuring the children’s emotional responses to her so she can write mealy-mouthed reports for Caroline Caldwell about their capacity for normal affect.

Normal affect. That’s what Justineau is feeling now, presumably.

It’s like she dug a pit trap, nice and deep, squared off the edges, wiped her hands. Then walked right into it.

Except that it was test subject number one, really, who dug the pit. Melanie. It was her desperate, obvious, hero-worshipping crush that tripped Justineau up, or at least threw her far enough off balance that tripping became inevitable. Those big, trusting eyes, in that bone-white face. Death and the maiden, all wrapped up in one tiny package.

She didn’t turn the compassion off in time. She didn’t remind herself, the way she does at the start of every day, that when the programme wraps up, Beacon will airlift her out of here the same way they airlifted her in. Quick and easy, taking all her things with her, leaving no footprint. This isn’t life. It’s something that’s playing out in its own self-contained subroutine. She can walk out as clean as when she came in, if she just doesn’t let anything touch her.

That horse, however, may already have bolted.

5

Every once in a while in the block, there’s a day that doesn’t start right. A day when all the repeating patterns that Melanie uses as measuring sticks for her life fail to occur, one after another, and she feels like she’s bobbing around helplessly in the air – a Melanie-shaped balloon. The week after Miss Justineau told the class that their mothers were dead, there’s a day like that.

It’s a Friday, but when Sergeant and his people arrive they don’t bring a teacher with them and they don’t open the cell doors. Melanie already knows what’s going to happen next, but she still feels a prickle of unease when she hears the clacking of Dr Caldwell’s high-heeled shoes on the concrete floor. And then a moment or two later she hears the sound of Dr Caldwell’s pen, which Dr Caldwell will sometimes keep clicking on and off and on and off even when she doesn’t want to write anything.

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