Tuesday, 8 January 2019

Chapter 23: A Rash Decision


Prescott: This is taking too long. 
Boyd:  Didn’t you read her report, about her hopes to visit the school? 
Prescott: She still believes this is simply a matter of gaining trust.
Boyd: Whatever keeps her busy; looking around, meeting more people.  She will be investigating, I can assure you of that.
Prescott: Why?  I know why I recommended her, but why are you so sure she’s the right one for this job?
Boyd: Because she’s just like me.  And I would be looking.


#

Neith started weeding the garden bed even earlier than usual.   It looked like it might rain soon. Neith hoped she could get a head start on pulling some weeds before she was joined by her sitter.  That’s what she had come to think of Ruthie as – her minder, or watch-keeper.  The after school gardening arrangement allowed Neith to get out of the house but it came with supervision.  Neith didn’t mind, she enjoyed Ruthie’s company and her willingness to answer questions.  Today was different.  Neith hoped for some solitude.  As an only child, quiet had been the norm, and today she craved some – to aid thinking. 

The need for more opinions about MinSci tugged at her.

She pulled up small green volunteers in amongst the orderly rows of sprouts.  She smiled to think of how much she had learned in the time she had been there.  It was Spring!  She smiled larger still to recall her uncertainty as to what should be pulled and what should be left to grow when she had first been shown the area of garden she was to help tend.

Pulling the weeds reminded Neith of visiting The Green back home.  Not the garden aspect, but that she was at the quiet heart of so many people.  Here though, she was contributing.  At home, she had always sought refuge to carve out something for herself.  Here she found that even today, when taking some time to herself, she was giving back to the whole.  Nydia was like that.  Neith wished she could tell her parents or Grace how that felt.  Instead her emails consisted of vague references to how much she was learning and changing.

Neith had brought her jacket with her.  She wondered if Ruthie had.  She looked up at the gathering clouds, then towards the parting in the buildings where Ruthie appeared after school.  She knew Ruthie wouldn’t be approaching yet – there must be at least a half-hour more of school. 

Had Mr Flynn read Neith’s note yet?  She hadn’t heard anything from him.  It had been a week.  Perhaps he didn’t check the little house and its notepad.  Or maybe she should have left the note in view.

Looking at her jacket slung over some fencing nearby, Neith came to a decision.  She scooped up the coat and made her way for the parting in the buildings.  She knew the school wasn’t far because she could always hear when it was out for the day.  Whoops, hollers and shouted names – those sounds helped her know to look for Ruthie’s approach.

Every step took Neith deeper into an area of Nydia she had not yet seen.  She couldn’t squash the rising breathlessness of thrill she felt to be expanding her known perimeter.  She was going to the school.

She had asked, after all.

And she was only bringing Ruthie a jacket.  It was weak, but it was all she could come up with.  She needed to see the school – both to satisfy her curiosity, and learn more about Nydia and its needs.  She’d see a little more of Nydia, hopefully advance progress with Mr Flynn’s response a little, and then she and Ruthie would go to the garden…if it wasn’t raining by then.  This was only a slight change from the norm.  Wasn’t it? 

Neith knew the schoolhouse immediately.  It was twice as high as the surrounding structures with rows of long windows.  Outside there was play equipment and a large slab of concrete featuring painted out markings for games.  Neith saw what must be four-square.  She’d heard plenty about that.  Neith felt her breath catch in her throat to know all of this looked worn for having been well-used, not for being abandoned. 

She approached the windows slowly.  Every other one was open.  As soon as she could see students inside, she stopped, angling herself so those half-facing her position could not see her, but so that she might watch those looking elsewhere. 

Neith quickly spotted Ruthie on a tattered couch in the corner reading by a bookshelf of tomes. Two other students were also engrossed in texts in the same appealing nook.  So many more books!  She then located the computer Elle had mentioned.  It was a relic from the AD era.   Pre-isolation.

Her attention was immediately diverted.  Someone broadcast a question, “Have you ever wondered about heat? Why we try so desperately to catch it and why it refuses to stay put?!”

Neith found the speaker easily – he was moving around a circular table of objects, highly animated.  A group of children perched on an encircling ring of stools. She located Davey – his head of curls unmistakable.  His back was to her, seated on one of the stools. He was the most still she had ever seen him.

One of the children said something Neith couldn't hear.  The group shook a little with laughter and looked around at each other. That really was Davey! He returned to a stationary, focused posture now that the reaction to the comment was subsiding.

“You're right, Ulysses, we won’t be talking about superstition today,” the teacher smiled, enunciating the word "superstition" in a way that suggested he was modelling its correct pronunciation in response to the student's comment.  His smile sent lines along his tan jaw up to meet at his eyes.  His eyes were shiny and alert, although dark in colour. “Although I wouldn't call the legends of Maui trying to catch and slow the sun superstitious!  I think those old stories tell us about the people who came before us – about what they valued and thought was important to teach their children.”

“C’mon! Tell the Ra story!” Davey’s voice was clearly audible. He sang out “Please!” There was a hint of tune to it. A few other stool-perchers lent their voice to the pleading chorus.

But Neith wasn't watching them. She was watching the teacher.  Miles Flynn.  Whose warmth and manner felt like a catching thing.  His skin and hair seemed to glow with the same warmth – shades of remembered summers on the skin.

“Davey, your manners are spot on. We will have to have the story of Maui and the sun again soon, but right now, I am pretty excited to tell you about other kinds of heat.  Allow me?” Miles Flynn was moving around the table slowly, looking at each of the clearly-engaged listeners. He paused and exaggerated a thinking pose.  “Which of these objects shall we use to learn about heat then, Davey?” 

Neith sincerely wanted to attend this school as a pupil, not deliver rain protection.  She stiffened considering her next report to MinSci.  Stealing this visit without receiving permission was more Prescott’s style.  Why hadn’t she waited?  She was curious.  What was she thinking?  Well, today would help her at least know more about the general consensus on visiting interns – it would tell her things her isolation at Elle’s cabin wasn’t; she was expanding her sample. 

Back to Davey.  The boy had assumed a thinking pose so much like his teacher's that it became clear to Neith the man's enthusiasm was catching.  Davey then stretched out an arm to point at something obscured from Neith's view by a neighbouring child's back.

“An astute choice, David, although of course these are all good choices – someone very clever must have prepared the visual aids for this lesson.”  Most of the children showed signs of laughing.  Neith got the self-adulation a second later.  How very Grace.  Mr Flynn retrieved the item Davey chose from close to the centre of the display, again making a show of his actions, including a groan of effort as he strained slightly to reach it.

He was holding what looked like a rectangular, rubber canteen. Neith knew what it was from Elle’s family rituals.  What did they call it again? 

Not only was Davey still sitting in one spot, he was not at all injured by having his earlier request for a story rejected; he had been given an opportunity to choose something and it had affected how things developed for the entire group. Well-played, teacher man.  

“What would you call this, Ulysses?” There he goes again, giving those he semi-shut-down a chance to contribute again.

“I would call it that too.”  Dang it, Neith missed his answer – she still hadn’t remembered the name for the thing, and had quickly become a student here.  What was it called?

Teacher-man continued, “What about you, Nola?  What would you call this?” And there sat the red-haired beauty, her smile mischievous. “I call it a ‘Warm Water Bag’” she answered.

“Thank you, Nola.”  Mr Flynn gave a tender smile to the young lady.  She was hidden from Neith's view when a brawny lad beside her repositioned himself – ah – that explained why her gardening ally had seemed to materialise.  Neith had decided Nola was Ally Status since the little wave she’d given.  Surely they were.

“Nola thinks ‘hot water bottle’ is an inaccurate name, so she gave it another.”   That was it!  Hot water bottle!

“Well you don't want it too hot or it burns you and it hardly looks like a bottle, does it?” Nola spoke fast, with a similar energy to her teacher's. Neith noted her reply wasn't for the teacher, however.  Nola's eyes were for the encircled group members as she took in nods of agreement and the odd whisper of what Neith imagined was "she's right".

“So, whatever you call it at your place, these wondrous things can hold heat for a while and give us heat. Now remember that – it is important; they give us heat,” Mr Flynn repeated. “Now tell me: when you find your hot water bottle, or warm water bag, in the morning, how does it feel?” Again, the man was prone to pantomime. He was now screwing up his face in revulsion and holding the item far away from his body. The group laughed and called out in unison, “Cold!”

“And then it is a cold water bag!” Nola called over the giggles.

Neith realised then she was attuning to voices within the group.  Her eyes remained fixed – like the students – on the teacher.

“Right! The heat has left the bag.” Mr Flynn winked in Nola's direction as he used her term. “This is because heat transfers from hot to cold. Now this bottle,” he looked now at Ulysses, “is still pretty hot. That clever person who set up for this lesson is also really, really organised!” Another brief ripple of laughter. “So I'm going to lay this fairly hot water bottle slash bag on the table here,” he stretched to return the item near to the table's middle without much fuss this time, belying the show of his earlier fetching of the prop. “Now tell me: if I pick that up again and you place your hand on the table where it was resting, what will you feel?”

The group all called out words, Neith picked out heat! and warmth! amongst them.

“Shall we see if you're right?”  Mr Flynn lifted the bag-bottle and put his hand on the spot where it had just been. “Go ahead, you check!” He nodded to his audience. The ring of children stepped forward or leaned on their knees to outstretch palms of curiosity or confirmation.  They touched the same spot, exchanging smiles with each other.

“You guys are too good!”  That warmth and the infectious energy again. Neith could feel it washing over her too.  She consciously shifted her angle to make sure she wasn’t visible to teacher-man. “But you knew most of this already, right?”  He paused briefly for some murmurs of assent. “So what other clues do we have that this heat transfer is happening, from hot to cold?”  Mr Flynn had raised his hand while he asked this question.

Hands suddenly shot up towards the ceiling. Neith looked to see what they were all pointing at. Mr Flynn began calling on students by name, each lowered his or her hand after being called upon.  They’d been raising their hands to contribute, not pointing at something. Of course.  Neith shook her head at herself.  She lacked familiarity with classroom etiquette. They offered suggestions (The sun on the bench outside! My mum's spot in the bed is warm!) Mr Flynn nodded and bathed each in grinning affirmation.

“All good examples of times when you have felt some warmth left behind when something else has been moved.  But what about when it isn't so obvious?  What if you think about your cool-box, at home?”  Neith thought of Elle’s cheese-haven, with fondness.  “If you accidentally left that open, or if you’ve stood very close to it when you were getting something out – what would you feel?” 

His hand wasn't up this time and Neith noted the cue.  Now the group called out their answer in unison, “Cold!”

“So is the cold transferring – moving – from cold to hot then?  Have I been telling you lies all afternoon?!”  He feigned a mixture of anger and shock.  “Because I know it has felt that way to me before! When I was your age, I would stand beside that cool-box and imagine these wispy tendrils of cold air coming out at me, tickling any skin I had exposed!”

It was then Mr Flynn saw he had an adult student.

He had been walking as he described those wispy tendrils, snaking his hands through the air in a way that would have transfixed anyone into forgetting to be discreet (or so Neith told herself). That was how he came to see her. She felt like a stowaway rather than an unannounced guest.  She made her best apologetic face before looking away from the open window.

Mr Flynn coughed before resuming speaking. Neith was blushing again. Or still, she couldn't tell which.

“Well, I can tell you now, those tendrils were only in my mind!  What I could feel, was transfer taking place!  Air was shifting around me.  And that tickled the hairs on my arms and legs, and sometimes the back of my neck!  And that air was shifting because I had opened the cool box.  I was letting the warm air from inside our house leak into that cool box.  Remember that, won't you?  If one of your parents tells you you're letting the cold in from outside, or letting all the cold out of your cool store; you tell them politely, ‘I believe you're mistaken, heat transfers from hot to cold.’” The group laughed at their teacher's suggestion. Neith suspected something about his delivery had been comical. It was killing her not to be looking at him anymore.

“So: I challenge you!  Sometime soon, sit by the window or door at home, put your fingers on the space between the door and outside – those little gaps around the edges, especially near the floor – and report to me which way the air was moving.  And then, oh my, I can tell you why you felt transfer more easily at floor level!  See you then, Juniors!”


Within a few seconds, gaggles of children began to ooze out of the schoolhouse, chatting, hanging off of each other, or racing to swings across the grass.

Neith decided it was time to make her way to the door – like most guests would – and explain herself.  She was tempted to fall back, fall back(!) and call off the entire objective of today's spontaneous mission. Her cheeks were only now cooling down.  She smirked as she imagined tiny particles of warmth transferring away from her embarrassment zone; hot to cold.

Time to talk to the teacher-man. The incredibly electric, mesmerising teacher-man. It appeared heat transfer was now taking place at a new site.  Neith’s hands now became slick and unsure of how to regulate their own temperature.

Neith had been an actual student once.  Her teachers had always checked themselves so often when they spoke, careful not to say the wrong thing.  The Republic recorded every lesson.  One or two had been very eager – namely her physics and robotics teachers.  They’d somehow made it through the highly regimented screening process to be near her regularly, and they didn’t mind the fact their chosen career offered little in the way of future prospects.  Teaching was a short-term gig.   None had ignited her interest like this man out in the bush. For a start, most had spoke at her, with little interest in her thoughts – unlike what she had just observed here.  Maybe that had something to do with the fact that Neith asked questions they couldn’t answer.  She often went off topic.  She could still remember her first science teacher saying she wasn’t sure how warp speed was relevant to Neith’s education.  It had made Neith want to say, “How is any of this relevant?  Why bother with any of it, if we’re all going to die anyway?”  By some miracle, the next year her physics teacher also watched archived film.  So did his friend – next year’s robotics teacher.  Neith couldn’t believe her luck.  Accepting almost nothing about her life was in her control was easier if what you could learn was interesting.  Why not talk about warp speed?   Neith found kindred spirits who got it for two consecutive years; it changed school enough that she found her major.  If only those two kindred spirits weren’t in love with each other and over 60 – one might’ve been her Match. She found mutual respect, at least, and it accounted for much of her later pursuits; she’d found support and encouragement in her chosen field.   That pair had helped her see she could control some problems and solutions.  When she couldn’t, she could laugh about the problematic notion of the ability to “beam someone up.”  Those tutors made a difference.   But she’d never seen them perform like this; she’d never been hungry for their every word.  They were great to be around, explained things well, and had tireless patience with her questions off- and eventually on-topic.  But they were never…captivating.  She wondered if it was hard to have the same charisma and performing air for an audience of one.  It must be.  The tutors weren’t all bad.  Times were bad. 

Thinking of time spent with Grace in a derelict playground reminded Neith how much she didn't belong here. But it was too late; teacher-man knew she was here.

Neith moved to the door and leaned on its frame, then stood up again.  What was she doing?  Making herself at home?  She saw Mr Flynn in the reading nook, crouching to say something to the group nestled there.  They now had eyes only for him.  As he finished, the group who must be seniors got up from their various nests and made their way out.

They saw her then.  So had a few junior stragglers playing close by – she’d heard whispers.  The seniors passed with a range of expressions – fear, curiosity, and a mask of nonchalance from one, even.

Ruthie saw Neith.  She wore a look of surprise and anxiety. “Did he know you were coming?  He didn’t, did he? You were what…well who… was out the window when he lost his steam earlier!” Ruthie looked up at Neith and smiled.  She now stood right by her. Their difference in height seemed marginal to Neith, just now.

“I tried to tell him.”  Neith thrust her pockety jacket out towards Ruthie.  “Here, it looks like rain.”

Ruthie “mmm-hmmed” and kept walking, books and jacket in arms crossed over herself, her satchel hanging across herself diagonally.   Neith watched her go.  She toyed with the idea of following her.  No.  She wasn’t done here; she had come to talk to the teacher and see the school, because the note hadn’t worked…and apparently the teacher man was sort of mesmerising.  Ruthie was almost out of sight.  Neith again considered literally rain-checking on the face-time with Mr Flynn.  She turned back to find where he was exactly.  She found him standing before her, as though he had been waiting for her to turn.  Neith felt like she was back with one of her tutors.  She braced herself for a scolding and gulped like a fearful child.  Then she reminded herself this guy was different; mesmerising.  Funny.  It didn’t help.

“You must be Neith.”

“Yes.  I did try to come by.  I left a note.  In your house.  In your little house.  I mean the notebox-house.   I meant to check first it was okay, that I was at the school, I mean.”  The blush-fest resumed.

“You shouldn’t be here.”

“I’m sorry.”  Well, that was what Neith meant to say, except that she hiccupped partway through “sorry” so that it sounded more like “saw-ee.”  What was going on?  First malfunctioning palms, now this.  She realised Mr Flynn seemed to be waiting for further explanation from her.  Neith guessed that made sense – she was still standing there. Was it time to supply the jacket delivery excuse?   She really didn’t want to try another sentence when she could feel another hiccup rising.  No self-respecting adult should have the hiccups.

Neith yelped, “I’ll be going then,” capping the sentence off with another hiccup.  She turned to escape but paused when Miles Flynn spoke again.  She kept her back to him.

The teacher-man she had seen earlier seemed to be absent.  He was replaced by a man of sombre tone, who said, “I mean you shouldn’t be here yet.  I can go to the council on your behalf and lobby for your right to come to the school, but until the parents have consented to having you around, you really shouldn’t be here.”  The last words came out through his teeth.

“Got it.”  And with that, Neith happily left. 

The rain came.  She stalked past the empty garden, jacketless, hugging herself. 

It had been a bad idea.