Possible Worlds

UNICORNWhen J99 opened the door to the headmaster’s study she was blinded by the light blazing in from the window behind his desk. She had to stand motionless for a while to let her eyes adjust to the glare; but she was damned if she was going to stand where he could watch her in her ugly new clothes, her raw new body. Shielded by the door, she screwed up her eyes and peered into the room to see if she could make out where he was lurking. Was that him, over by the shelves in the corner with a book in his hand? He had the ability to make himself almost transparent when he chose to, as if he was only ever partly present in any place where he happened to be.

‘Come in, J99, come in,’ he called in his quavering voice, and that too sounded somehow absent, as if the sound was coming from a great distance, from a place where he was terribly busy, though he could spare you a precious minute or two as long as you weren’t too demanding. ‘Won’t you take a seat? I’ve been looking forward to our little chat.’

J99 edged into the room and quickly sat in the huge leather armchair that faced the desk. Like everything else in the school it was worn almost to redundancy, and the deep impression in its seat had clearly been made by a backside much larger than hers; she had to sit forward on the hard ridge at the front of the chair to prevent herself sliding backwards into the smooth bowl in the middle.

The headmaster shut the book he had been studying and placed it carefully back on the shelf. Then he shuffled to the desk and sat behind it, so that it formed a protective barrier between himself and his pupil.

He was a tall, stooped man with a mass of white hair which caught the sunbeams and burned as if on fire. His small round glasses flashed too, and she was dazzled again as she tried to meet his eyes. ‘So, J99. I’ve been reading your plan for a project, and I have to say I’m impressed. Most unusual, my dear. We’ve not had a plan like this in all my years at the school; and I can tell you I have been here for a very long time. A very long time indeed.’

‘Of course,’ he went on, leaning back in his own chair until his head must be nearly touching the window pane, ‘of course it’s quite impossible. It simply can’t be done. But to have thought of it shows an inventiveness, a real originality which deserves some credit. Well done, J99. Well done.’

This was unexpected. When she had shown the plan to her class teacher, Q3, the prim little woman had almost had a fit. ‘Are you quite mad, J99?’ She’d cried. ‘If this is your idea of a joke it’s in very poor taste. Good God, girl: we’ve given you the biggest opportunity you could wish for – the biggest opportunity anyone could wish for – and you throw it back in our teeth like… like rubbish. The headmaster shall hear of this. Now go and stand in the corridor for the rest of the lesson. Use the time to think about what you’ve done.’

Standing in the dimness of the corridor, listening to the soft murmur from the classrooms and shifting her weight from foot to foot as each got tired of bearing her weight, J99 had had plenty of time to think about what she’d done. She also had time to think about her school uniform and how she hated it. A new hole had appeared in her shirt where she’d caught it on the corner of her desk as she left the class: the fabric of shirt and skirt seemed to tear as easily as paper. In fact, they were probably made from paper, since paper seemed to be the one thing they had plenty of in this threadbare institution, and the clothes didn’t need to last long – in most cases, just a few weeks, till the pupils had had their plans approved and moved on. She wondered how long it would take for her plan to be approved. And she wondered what would happen if it was not. Nobody had ever told her what happened then.

Putting her finger through the rent in her shirt, the tip of it brushed her stomach and she jumped as she always did when something unexpectedly touched her flesh. She remembered this feeling from adolescence: the feeling that all your nerves were acutely sensitive, that your skin had been stretched to breaking-point by a recent spurt of growth, that all the defensive layers of your body were peeling off one by one…

She had hated being a teenager, hated it with a passion. When she woke in the sick room and found herself young again – smooth skin, soft hands and stick-thin legs – she had screamed and hit out in rage and horror, and the matron and under-matron had had to hold her down till she was calmer. How dare they do this to her, she shrieked? After all those years of struggle, all the marches, all the verbal fighting and the censorship; after childbirth, divorce, grief, old age, cancer and death; to find the laughter-lines and frown-lines erased, the stretch-marks smoothed away, the scars wiped off – it was as if the School Board had contrived to censor the whole of her past, to remove all trace of who she was in one triumphantly dismissive gesture. And to be subjected once again to the contempt of adults – to have lost even that grudging respect her enemies had given her when they found she would not capitulate, would not be bought… and to return to the state of utter powerlessness, of unfocused desires and seemingly endless frustration… For the first few days after waking she had thought she would go mad every time she met her own eyes in the sick-room mirror, or met the gently condescending eyes of the under-matron. Her disgust with her new young body was even more intense, in fact, than her disgust with her paper clothes.

So why was she behaving like this, she wondered? Why make things difficult for herself? Why not simply do as she was told and escape from this hell-hole as soon as she could?

The headmaster had come round to the front of the desk and was leaning against it, looking down at her with a benevolent smile. People were always looking down at her here. ‘Yes, you have an imagination to die for,’ he observed, and there was perhaps a hint of menace in his words. ‘Think of what you could do with it if you chose! Don’t waste it, J99. Why don’t you use it to put together a workable plan?’

She looked up at him curiously, conscious of the awkwardness of her position, wondering if she should stand up too, put herself closer to his level. Yes, there was menace in his words; but wasn’t there also something else? What was it? Could it be respect? Could it be… fear? ‘Thank you, sir,’ she said, ‘but I think the plan I have is workable. Why shouldn’t it be?’

He frowned and folded his arms. In one of his hands he held a silver pen, and now he tapped his mouth with it as if warning himself not to blurt out something rash. ‘I’m sorry, J99, but it really isn’t. You’ll have to take my word for it; I’ve had years of experience with this sort of thing. The plans we approve involve possible worlds, not impossible ones. Take the world you knew, tweak it a bit, improve it in one or two tiny ways – just to make your own life a little more comfortable, a little more fulfilled – and be content with that. What you propose is simply too extreme. Too – how shall I say? – Utopian.’

‘I don’t see why,’ she said. ‘The changes I suggested didn’t involve anything physical at all; just a change of attitude. Why shouldn’t that work? It’s happened before, on my world. Or so the historians tell us.’

‘Not just a change of attitude,’ the headmaster said solemnly, wagging his finger at her so that the silver pen danced before her eyes. ‘What you describe as a change of attitude is in fact a change of heart; a fundamental alteration of the composition of the human body and mind. Let me tell you a story, J99.’ And he settled himself more securely on the desk, placing the pen at his side and folding his hands around one of his knees in a calculated display of relaxation.

‘Not long ago – no more than a hundred years or so – another young woman was sent to me; a girl very much like yourself. Much the same age, and now that I come to think of it, her hair was a lovely auburn just like yours… She came to me with a plan which you might think even simpler and easier to execute than your own. She wanted a world where unicorns exist. That’s all. All her life, she said, she’d dreamed of meeting a unicorn; and now that she’d come to this place and found out she could in theory have her wish, nothing anyone said could put her off. Of course, other girls had dreamed the same thing; every little girl loves the thought of a unicorn, and it’s sometimes taken us weeks to explain to our pupils about the consequences of putting one into your plan; the effect it would have on the ecosystem, on the structure of belief systems, on human culture generally. An intelligent, long-lived mammal with a single very valuable and deadly horn and a predilection for – well – for unmarried women: think of the repercussions such a creature would have on the way people thought and acted throughout the world? Every other girl allowed herself to give up the dream at last, persuaded that a unicorn was not worth the damage it would do to their overall plan, the disruption it would cause in the organization of reality itself. Every other girl who has passed through our hands has finally seen reason.

‘This girl though – J52, her name was: this girl was different. Nothing would do but a world with unicorns, and nothing we said would change her mind. I was not very well at the time – not very alert, not very present; brought low, perhaps, by a fit of ennui, a bout of mild depression, a touch of flu. In the end I let myself be persuaded to approve her plan. It really was quite an ingenious one – as fully conceived as yours – and I thought, fool that I was, that it might be worth trying. We processed it, we had it evaluated, costed and sketched in all its details, then we sent her down to the workshops and waited till the recommended germination period was over. A week after the project was set in motion I sent one of the teachers to see how it was getting on. Shall I tell you what she found?’

J99 shifted in her seat, trying to get comfortable. ‘Wonderland?’ she said rudely.

‘No, J99. Not Wonderland. Not any land at all, in fact, nor any world, nor any thing, but a young girl lying on the floor of the workshop, a little putrid – a little smelly – with a round hole in the middle of her chest, just there – ’ and he leaned forward to poke J99 in the sternum, tearing another small hole in her shirt as he did so and almost pushing her backwards into the pit of her chair. ‘A hole just the circumference of an animal’s horn; say the horn of a narwhal.’ He smiled again, and took off his spectacles to wipe them with his handkerchief.

‘We could never use Workshop 7 again,’ he went on. ‘It was permanently damaged. You see, her plan wasn’t viable; her world didn’t work; and the whole school system was thrown off kilter as a result. The generators were drastically overloaded, several fuses blew, and the bio-units in the science lab dipped below optimum temperature for the first time in the school’s history. We only managed to get things back on track after seven years’ hard labour, which involved all the teachers and pupils in the school as well as all the technicians. And the loss of Workshop 7; well, it’s been a disaster. Our production rate has never regained its former levels, and the volume of wastage has increased fivefold. We can’t let it happen again. That’s why we’re so very careful now about the projects we approve. We can’t afford over-ambition. We can’t afford irrationality or self-indulgence. Tried and tested formulae are all we’ll allow. After all, you know the old saying: better the world you know and love…’

‘I never loved the world I came from,’ said J99 sullenly. ‘At least, I loved some parts of it. The trees, you know, and the sunshine,’ and she gestured at the window, beyond which she could now make out the sunbeams streaming between branches. ‘But the way people treated each other; the injustice and the cruelty. I hated that. I hated it almost as much as I hate this place.’

The headmaster clucked his tongue reprovingly. ‘Such negativity!’ he said. ‘You hated your world, you hate this school… And yet you propose to construct your own new personal world on the model of this building, and populate it with the people you’ve met here. Why?’

‘Because this is the place that needs changing,’ said J99. ‘If I made a new world, a perfect one, it wouldn’t need anything doing to it. I’d be perfectly happy, always. But I’d also remember every day my unhappiness in this place, and in the other place I lived in. The other place is too big to change – too big for me to change by myself, I mean. But this place; this is just the right size. I can imagine changing it completely, every inch of it, every atom. And I can imagine the way the people in it could be if it were just a little different. How Q3 and the other teachers could be if they weren’t so utterly miserable, if they weren’t so resentful of the children in their classrooms, of the happiness they’re capable of, of the dreams they’re brave enough to dream of making real. I can even imagine how you could be, if there were no such thing as headmasters.’

This time it was the headmaster who shifted uncomfortably on the desk, trying to maintain his look of casual but kindly disdain. He cleared his throat. ‘J99, I’m frankly disappointed in you,’ he said. ‘I had hoped we could have a lengthy heart-to-heart, a free and open discussion of the things you’ve already discussed with your teacher. But I can see such a thing would be quite useless. You have entrenched yourself in your position, and nothing I or anyone else can say will ever alter that. So I have just one more thing to ask you. Will you draw up a new plan, along the lines recommended by the School Board? Or will you stick to your current plan, even if it risks not being approved? I should tell you in all confidence,’ he added, ‘that there is no chance on earth – this one or any other – that it will proceed to project status. And I think you can guess what the consequences will be if it does not.’

J99 drew her legs up under her and got to her feet. She felt as unsteady as she had when she first woke in the sick room. ‘No, sir,’ she said. ‘I don’t think I can guess what the consequences will be. Won’t you tell me?’

The headmaster sprung to his feet with surprising agility and placed his hand on her shoulder. Outwardly, he seemed as casual and courteous as ever. But there was a stiffness and awkwardness about his movements that suggested that he was in an acute state of inner turmoil.

‘I’m sorry, J99,’ he said. ‘The School Board forbids us to disclose that information. You will have to make up your mind without possessing it. Well, what’s it to be? A new world, a perfect one, an exclusive heaven all for yourself; or – disapproval, nullity, rejection? I think you’ve experienced rejection many times in your former life. Do you really want to suffer that again?’

This was J99’s cue to smile. When she smiled, although she didn’t know it, her face looked much older than when it was still. She brushed a stray strand of hair from her cheek and relaxed for the first time since entering the headmaster’s study.

‘I’m used to it,’ she said. ‘I’ll stick with the plan I’ve got.’

The headmaster gave a deep sigh and rubbed his eyes under his round glasses. ‘Very well,’ he said. ‘Don’t say I didn’t warn you.’

Leaning across his desk, he struck a brass bell with the palm of his hand. A clear, sweet sound rang out, the loveliest sound J99 had heard in this school full of muted voices and muffled yearnings.

The door opened and the energetic young teacher S26 put his head in. ‘Yes, headmaster?’

‘I’m sorry to say that J99 has made her decision. She will tell you what it is, and I would ask you to do the necessary for her. Well, J99,’ he concluded, holding out his hand for her to shake. ‘I’ve enjoyed our conversation, even if it hasn’t ended the way I’d hoped. I wish you all the best for the future, and if ever you find yourself in this part of the universe again, do look us up, won’t you? We like to stay in touch with our former pupils.’

To J99 it seemed that he had begun to disappear again, and when she put her hand in his she could hardly feel it: it might have been a gust of moist warm air brushing her fingers. As she turned to follow S26 she noticed that the headmaster was now between her and the window, and she fancied that she could see the windswept branches of the forest through the dusty folds of his scholar’s gown.

He stood looking out of the window for what seemed hours, until a sharp knock came at the study door and S26 put his head in again. ‘It’s done, headmaster,’ he chirped with his usual air of vacuous efficiency. ‘I’ve never known a pupil go under so quickly. Her heart seemed to have stopped before I’d pressed the plunger. Shame, I must say. She seemed like such a bright kid when she first woke up.’

‘Have T49 put her clothes in the incinerator,’ said the headmaster without turning round. ‘And her body had better go for recycling. It’s in excellent condition.’

He hardly heard the door close: he was concentrating too hard on controlling the pain he felt in his own throat, where a lump had formed as large and round as an apple. His vision, too, seemed to have gone all blurry; the sunlight really hurt his eyes. Once again he squeezed them under his glasses; squeezed them till coloured lights flashed in the retinas. When he took his fingers away he saw a white horse standing between the tree-trunks. It was hard to tell at this distance, but it looked as though there were something protruding from the middle of its forehead.

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