I didn’t go straight to her: Meade had designed his world with better manners than that. When I opened my eyes I was outside a door. I knocked.
‘Yes?’ said a voice from behind it.
‘Mrs Meade? I’m Connor. I was wondering if…’
‘Come in. Don’t mind the mess.’
The door opened on an artist’s studio. There were sketches all over the walls – shapes scored in charcoal lines on paper. I saw stacks of books on the floor. In the centre of the room, silhouetted against the twilight sky outside the window, a woman with long red hair was sitting with her back to me.
‘I hope you won’t think it rude if I don’t get up?’ said Mrs Meade. ‘The clay’s just perfect right now. Please: come around where we can see eachother.’
Stepping carefully between the book-stacks I did as she asked.
Mrs Meade’s denim dungarees were spattered with pale grey splodges. There were more grey marks on the scarf she’d used to tie her hair back. There was another grey splodge on her cheek. I liked the way she smiled at me.
‘Pottery,’ she said, indicating with her eyes the wheel that was spinning between her knees and, on it, the grey blob she was moulding there. ‘Ever tried it?’
‘Never,’ I said.
‘It’s harder than it looks. But I think I’m getting the hang of it.’
I watched her work. Her fingers were moving with amazing speed and delicacy. The shape she was making was unusual. From what little I knew of potter’s wheels, what was made on them was normally supposed to be rounded: what Mrs Meade was making had corners. With deft, precise, coaxing movements she shaped the clay into a four-sided pyramid from the apex of which, as I watched, another pyramid rose and spread. The second pyramid was upside-down. The two pyramids balanced on top of each other, spinning. They looked like one was a reflection of the other. The place where their tips touched was so small that it seemed the second pyramid couldn’t possibly balance there – but somehow the spin of the wheel and the skill of Mrs Meade’s fingers were keeping them upright.
As she noticed my mesmerised expression Mrs Meade’s smile became a proud grin. She sat back and pressed a switch on the floor with her foot. The wheel slowed and stopped and the pyramids sank back into each other, becoming again the grey blob from which they’d started.
‘Call me Alice,’ she said.
I swallowed and asked: ‘Do you know why I’m here, Alice?’
Her grin faded.
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘I’m afraid I do.’
‘All right then. Maybe the best way for me to start to try to understand what’s going on here,’ I said, ‘would be to ask why you are.’
‘How did you come to this place, Alice?’ I asked. ‘What made you decide to live here?’
She looked surprised.
‘We took the deal,’ she said, ‘obviously.’
‘Was it an easy decision for you?’
She stared at me.
‘Easy?’ she echoed. ‘Leaving behind the real world and everything we’d ever known? Taking that decision on Gemma’s behalf? No. I wouldn’t say that was easy.‘
I watched her.
‘But what kind of life,’ she asked, ‘would we have had if we’d stayed? Who wants to queue for food and water rations every day – and risk getting robbed of them every time on the way home? Who wants “home” to be a stinking tent you share with another family beside the latrine you share with six other families in your compound? Who wants to scrape out a life on a dirty, crowded, ruined “real” world when you can live in a place like this, with everything you want? Do you?‘
I said nothing, just waited.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said after a moment. ‘We don’t get visitors, and with the strangeness lately I’m a little on edge. Please excuse me.’
‘That’s OK,’ I told her. ‘I understand.’
I did: Mrs Meade’s reactions to my questions were giving me more information than she realised.
‘How about you?’ she asked. ‘When did you leave the real world? Recently? Because I’ve been wanting to know: When all the people like us took the deal and left their bodies behind, did that do any good? Is there more room now? Is life there better? Or is everything just as bad as it was?’
‘Honestly,’ I said, ‘I can’t even remember myself.’
There was a pause.
‘Would you say you’re happy here?’ I asked.
‘I’ve got Tony and Gem. I’ve got my art.’ She sighed then shrugged. ‘I think so. We’ve certainly been happy.’
‘So how do you explain the problems this world is having?’
Mrs Meade looked at me.
‘I don’t explain them,’ she said. ‘I can’t.’ She looked down. ‘I just wish that they would stop.’
We talked a little more but it was just for politeness. I already had everything Mrs Meade could give me.
Outside the room I took a deep, imaginary breath and thought through what I’d learned so far. I’d found one answer, I supposed, but it was more like an extra mystery on top of the first, balancing there, ready to fall.
I put my thumbs on the hearts at the corners of Gemma’s card.
THE FAIL by Sam Enthoven (c) 2015. All rights reserved.