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Law of Averages

Richard Salsbury

Fri 4 May 2057

     I know I shouldn't tell anyone about my secret, but I think dad has a right to know. I feel guilty about keeping it from him. So this morning, over breakfast, I told him. I was expecting a bad reaction, so I said it as if it was any other piece of conversation. As if it meant nothing to me.
     "Dad, I'm getting extra lessons from Mrs. Jeffries."
     His spoon stopped just below his beard.
     "You're doing what?" he said. "In secret, you mean?"
     "We've got it all worked out: because I'm a library monitor, Mrs. Jeffries can ask me to come in during break to sort things out, and instead she gives me extra lessons. We're very careful about it."
     "Are you insane? Hannah, you've got to stop. It's too dangerous."
     I hate it when he just makes up his mind on the spot. No argument, no thought - he just makes a decision and sticks with it.
     "Well, I won't," I said.
     "What did you say?"
     "I said I won't stop. It's not fair for people to tell me what I'm allowed to learn."
     "Fair? Of course it's fair, that's the whole point - how are other kids supposed to cope if they think you're above Average?"
     "I am above Average."
     And it's true - I am. I know more than the others at school. It's not a boast, it's a simple fact. For example, I can remember every word of a conversation that happened days ago, which is how I can record everything accurately in this diary. If someone taped one of those conversations and compared it to what I've written, they'd find the two exactly the same. Eidetic memory, Mrs. Jeffries calls it.
     I'm proud of my memory. I'm proud of all my gifts - they're as much a part of me as my arms and legs. I just wish I could make dad understand that.
     "Honey, think about this: what are you going to do if you score too highly in a knowledge test?"
     "Well I haven't so far, have I? It's easy to fool them. I know how much the others know and I just answer the questions as if I were one of them."
     "That's not going to work forever. These tests are designed to catch you out. You have to realise that one slip means we'll both be in prison."
     "But it's not right!
     "Hannah, it's the law!"
     The law, always the law. What we're all supposed to do to be good little citizens.
     In a calmer voice he said, "You must be dangerously close to the knowledge limit."
     "I'm already way above the limit, dad - there are tons of things I know that I'm not supposed to. I've kept them all hidden, even from you. I just want you to understand that -"
     "Things like what?"
     "Things like ... I know what you do at the births hospital. I know that when a couple want children they come to you and you grow a baby for them in the birthing tanks, which are supposed to make sure everyone is born Average, except that -"
     "Enough!" he shouted, but I could tell that he wasn't angry. It was something else - fear. Was he afraid I knew more about his work than he did?
     "And Mrs. Jeffries told you all this?" he asked.
     "No - I found out for myself. It wasn't difficult."
     "Hannah, how can you know so much and still not understand that you can't learn anything you're not taught? If there's something you want to specialise in, we can talk to the school. They'll give us advice about what you can do without going over the knowledge limit."
     "I don't want to specialise - I want to know everything!"
     "You can't do that. It's too risky."
     "So I'm supposed to be like Lois, am I?"
     "Lois Durrell. She's that one I told you about last week, the one who's below Average."
     "People aren't born below Average any more, Hannah. I should know."
     "Yes they are - it's simple statistics. Out of all the people born every year there are bound to be some."
     "I don't believe that," he muttered.
     "Only because the government says you shouldn't believe it."
     I expected him to explode after saying that, but, infuriatingly, he changed the subject. "The point is, Hannah, that people feel bad if someone else knows more than they do."
     "That's rubbish, dad!"
     "Well you're certainly making me feel bad. That should be enough proof for you."
     That stopped me in my tracks. Although we don't agree on very much these days, I still hate to see him unhappy and that's exactly how he looked. I wanted to tell him that if people are jealous of others then it's their problem - that's what I believe. But I felt selfish for upsetting him and didn't have the heart to keep arguing.
     He looked at the clock. "I have to go," he said, taking his overalls off the peg. "But you've got to think seriously about what you're doing, young lady. Will you promise me that, at least?"
     He stopped in the middle of shrugging on his overall, and waited for me to reply.
     I nodded. But it still won't change anything.

Mon 7 May 2057

     Mrs. Jeffries took assembly this morning.
     "What should you do if you see someone learning things outside school?" She looked around for someone to answer. "Hannah Waters," she said, pointing at me.
     "Go to your teacher as soon as possible and tell them about it," I replied, parrot-fashion.
     I was near the back of the assembly and not a single head turned to look at me, because I had said it just right.
     "And why should you do this?" Mrs. Jeffries prompted us.
     "Everyone must be Average," the class droned.
     "And why must everyone be Average?"
     "Average is good, Average is right, Average is fair." I move my mouth along with the rest of them, but I never say the words.
     I wish dad could have seen this. Perhaps it would have convinced him that Mrs. Jeffries and I can learn as much as we want and still conceal our nature. If nobody realises how much we know, how can they resent us? Mrs. Jeffries told me that it pains her to do these assemblies because she has to say so much she doesn't believe. But does anyone suspect her? Of course not.
     I know what he would have said if he'd been there: "It's all very well for her to hide it, but that doesn't mean you can."
     Which is rubbish. She's been doing this for years and she's taught me everything she knows. In the first private lesson she ever gave me, she said, "If you are ever less than convincing I will have you punished."
     That made me realise how serious she was, and how trusting - I could have reported her for threatening me. But I agreed, and she opened my eyes to an entirely new world: the pleasures of literature, the elegant symmetry of science, and above all, the desire to learn everything I didn't already know. I've never regretted it, and never looked back.
     Of course, she's never punished me. I'm like a professional actress - not perfect, perhaps, but always good enough to convince. And we act as each other's safety nets. We can see each other's tiniest mistakes long before they get bad enough for anyone else to notice.
     Dad thinks I'm complacent, but it isn't true. Some nights I wake up in the small hours of the morning, convinced I could hear their footsteps on the stairs. That isn't complacency - it's good, honest fear. But if I told dad, he'd see it as proof that he's right to be so paranoid. So I show him my confident side.
     The fact remains that Mrs. Jeffries and I are too clever to be caught. I believe that. I really do.

Wed 9 May 2057

     Today, Lois had another outburst. Mrs. Jeffries was teaching us history, about leaders in the twentieth century who had abused their power. Lois was busy scrawling on that little pad of hers again. This time I was at just the right angle to see that she was drawing Mrs. Jeffries.
     The question came. "Who was the last Prime Minister before positions of authority were banned? Lois?"
     Lois looked up and muttered that she didn't know.
     "We learned this only five minutes ago."
     Lois surreptitiously tore the sheet off her pad and screwed it up into a ball. "You think I'm stupid, don't you?" she said.
     There was an intake of breath from the class. They weren't used to hearing language like that.
     "No, Lois," Mrs. Jeffries said, "you're Average, like everyone else here."
     "Then how come I can never answer any of your questions?"
     "Perhaps if you paid more attention -"
     "I do pay attention. Do you think I want to be worse than everyone else?"
     "No, of course you don't. It's like this, Lois: some questions you can answer, and others you can't. It all averages out in the end."
     "Then tell me when I last got one right."
     Mrs. Jeffries paused. She licked her lips.
     "Go on."
     I never thought I'd see the day when Lois had Mrs. Jeffries on the defensive.
     "You can't tell me, can you? Even I can remember when Philip or Hannah last got one right. But I never know anything."
     "Lois -"
     "You're all more clever than I am," she muttered.
     Mrs. Jeffries saw her chance, and replied thunderously. "I will not have language like that in my class, do you understand?"
     It was difficult to believe that only a few moments ago she had been struggling to find a reply. This was the old Mrs. Jeffries we knew and loved - although she's not a tall woman she has a presence that's impossible to ignore. She stood at the front of the room with her hands on her hips, commanding our attention. She seemed as solid as a block of granite.
     "Lois, listen to me. Your last score in the knowledge test was Average. No matter what else happens, that's what matters. You're no different from anyone else."
     Lois folded her arms and looked down into her lap, thoroughly cowed.
     "The test says you're Average. Is that okay? Do you want to be anything other than Average?"
     The class settled back down to work. At the end of the lesson, we filed out and I saw Lois toss the ball of paper into the bin. Probably the best place for it.

* * *

     Later, when I was having my extra lesson in Mrs. Jeffries' office, I said to her, "She really is below Average, isn't she?"
     She looked up at the ceiling and let out a deep breath. "Yes, she is."
     "Then how did she score Average in the test?"
     "I changed her marks."
     "Yes, I did, and I don't regret it, Hannah. She needs all the help she can get."
     I suppose that's true.
     "Mr. Weisz nearly caught me."
     I was horrified. It wasn't just the words, it was the way she said them. She sounded small and fearful; like a completely different person.
     "Listen, Hannah. If she fails a knowledge test then she'll be made to sit two more, and if her score is low on all three they'll take ... some very drastic measures."
     "How drastic?"
     "They can't make Lois any more intelligent, so they'll lower the standard across the country; they'll make Lois' level of ability the new Average. They think it's fair to do that. A computer will automatically rewrite the curriculum and ... young people will be even more stupid." She started chewing her lip. "You can see now why I changed her marks."
     "But ... there must be other children below Average."
     She nodded. "I think most of them skip school altogether - they can't face the shame. But Lois' parents think she's Average. They insist she attends."
     "What will you do when we get the next test? You can't risk changing her marks again."
     She didn't answer, she just looked at me, and I could see the tears beginning to pool in her eyes. I felt a sudden urge to grab her by the shoulders, shake her and tell her to pull herself together. I needed her to be strong. She was the foundation of my confidence.
     "It's been so difficult since Peter died," she said suddenly. "You know he ... he died from a disease that used to be curable."
     How could I remain angry with her? I was being unfair. I had thought she was superhuman, that she would always know the best thing to do, that she could outwit anybody. It had never been true. She's just as scared as I am.
     I put my arms around her and drew her into a hug. I think she needed it.
     And I didn't have to see her crying.

* * *

     Dad confided in me tonight, as well. He came home late, looking exhausted, and sat down at the kitchen table without taking his overall off.
     "What's up?" I asked.
     "An accident at work."
     "Was anyone hurt?"
     "No. Well... An alarm started on one of the birthing tanks and nobody knew what to do about it."
     "But the tanks are computer-controlled aren't they? Surely the computer could tell you how to fix it."
     "That's what I thought, but it didn't. We had to decant the foetuses by hand and put them in new tanks - the mixture was completely wrong."
     I opened my mouth, then shut it again when I realised I was about to start another argument.
     I was going to suggest that there was a bug in the program. Then he was going to tell me not to be ridiculous, and I would say that if there was a bug, no-one would be clever enough to fix it. I had the whole thing charted out in my mind: what to say, how he would react, how I would win the argument. When had I started plotting like this, against my own father?
     The babies would be affected by this accident. I'd read about the birthing process, and how carefully it had to be controlled in order to produce Average people. It seemed obvious to me that this batch would be born below Average.
     I wanted to tell him all of this, to prove what I said last Friday was right. But he looked pale and shrunken, and I couldn't bring myself to argue.
     "It'll be okay, dad." I moved to put my arm round his shoulders, but he recoiled from my touch. I don't understand why.
     "Sorry, honey," he said. "It's ... it's been a pretty terrible day all round." He stood up and walked to the foot of the stairs. "I'm going to bed."

Thu 10 May 2057

     I don't know if I can write this.
     It happened at break today, when Mrs. Jeffries was giving me my private lesson. She was telling me about a woman called Aung San Suu Kyi and her struggle against the military dictatorship that ruled her country. The words filled the echoing emptiness of the classroom with magic - as always, I was transfixed by her story and the hypnotic quality of her voice.
     She came to a sudden stop, and I saw her looking over my shoulder.
     "Get in the cupboard," she said urgently.
     "What? Who is it?" I tried to look behind, but my view of the corridor was blocked by a bookshelf. Normally, if someone interrupted our lesson, I would just start rearranging the books. I was supposed to be the library monitor, after all.
     "Hide yourself! Now!" she hissed.
     I jumped up and jammed myself into a cupboard half full of books, shutting the doors awkwardly by pulling on the screws that secured the handles. Through the crack between the doors I saw two men in grey uniforms come into the room - policemen.
     I could see the face of the man in front. He had a black moustache and eyes that made me wonder if he had ever smiled.
     "Mrs. Jeffries," he said, "I'm glad we caught you alone. I think you know what we're here for."
     "Enlighten me."
     "Not here. We'll make formal charges when we reach the station."
     I knew she must be terrified. After what happened yesterday, I was expecting her to break down. I don't think I could have taken that. But Mrs. Jeffries folded her arms and stood her ground - just how I imagined Joan of Arc before the stake. She raised her chin and glared at the two men, both of them a head taller.
     "I'm not going anywhere. I have a class to teach in ten minutes."
     "Please. This doesn't have to be difficult." He gestured towards the door.
     "Gentlemen, you must be hard of hearing. I said I have a class to teach."
     It was everything I loved about her. My eyes stung with pride.
     The man with the moustache glanced behind to make sure no-one else was nearby, then nodded to his partner. They moved forward, grabbed her by the arms, and began to drag her towards the door. Her dignity gave way to a flare of anger so strong and sudden that they lost their grip on her.
     "God damn you! All I want to do is teach!" She lashed out at them with her knees and fists. One of the inspectors tried to clamp a hand over her mouth, but his fingers could only tangle in her hair. Clumps of it came away in his hands.
     I wanted to leave the cupboard and scratch out their eyes, but I was terrified by the violence. And more than that - I didn't want Mrs. Jeffries to see me breaking every rule she'd taught - it would be a betrayal of her faith and trust in me.
     But how could I let them do this to her?
     "They have a right to be themselves! Do you hear me?"
     "Grab her arms - her arms!"
     "They have a right to achieve whatever they can. You can't stop them. Screw fairness! Screw equality!"
     The decision was made for me. I slipped, knocking my head against one of the cupboard doors, and it swung slowly outward. I tried to grasp hold of the screw to pull it back, but only succeeded in pushing it further open. The struggle stopped and three pairs of eyes were looking in at me.
     "Who the hell is that?" the other policeman said. "What's she doing in there?"
     No-one said anything. No-one even moved. I looked to Mrs. Jeffries to rescue me, but she just stared, dumbfounded.
     The policeman with the moustache was about to speak when Mrs. Jeffries shattered the silence. "She's being punished. She was misbehaving in class and I made her stay in there until she cooled off. But you don't believe in punishment, do you? You think discipline damages people."
     "For the sake of the child, please come peacefully." He offered her his hand in truce.
     My eyes met Mrs. Jeffries'. There was the slightest smile on her lips. She spat in his face and they tried to restrain her again.
     I sat and watched them win: she couldn't hope to beat two strong men. Once they had the gag between her teeth all the strength went out of her. But they were both bruised, and the one with the moustache had a fresh cut on his face from Mrs. Jeffries' wedding ring. I felt a fierce pride that she had caused them so much difficulty.
     They called a trauma counsellor for me. She said it must have been a terrible shock to be punished for misbehaving and to witness a violent incident in the same day. I nodded and said I would be all right. Eventually she went away.
     In the afternoon the class was introduced to our new teacher - Mrs. Curzon. I hate her. Even before she had spoken a word, I hated her.

* * *

     When dad came home from work I said, "In case you're wondering, my day was shit."
     I knew he'd have a go at me for bad language, but I didn't care if I started an argument. And anyway, it was the truth.
     He didn't say anything - didn't even ask me what had made me so upset.
     I stopped on the way to my room and a horrible suspicion washed over me.
     "You did it," I said quietly.
     "Did what?" I could hear the guilt in his voice. He had never been able to keep anything from me.
     "You did! You told them about her."
     "It was the right thing to do, Hannah. She was going to get us into a lot of trouble."
     "Like hell she was!"
     "Hannah, listen. You've got nothing to be afraid of. I didn't tell them anything about you. I told them she was hiding someone below Average."
     "Lois? You had her dragged away to prison on account of Lois?"
     "Yes, I did! That clever bitch was going to ruin our lives, so, yes, I had her sent to prison. I did it to protect you."
     "I don't need protecting - I was never in any danger!"
     "Hannah, I don't think -"
     But I wasn't listening. I was already leaving for my room.
     "Young lady, I haven't finished with you yet."
     "Well I've finished with you."
     I haven't spoken to him since.

Fri 11 May 2057

     Mrs. Jeffries was right. I saw it on the news this evening, tucked away at the end of the program. The presenter cheerfully called it "a set of improvements to the education system, designed to make it more fair."
     What he meant to say was: "They tested Lois Durrell and found out she was stupid, so to make sure she doesn't feel bad about it, everyone else from now on will be stupid too."
     I can see how it all works very clearly now. That accident with the birthing tanks that dad saw - those babies will be tomorrow's Lois Durrells. And this won't be the last time: the birthing tanks will go wrong again. The whole thing is a repeating pattern: every few years a new batch of babies will be born below Average, and as they go through school the knowledge limit will have to drop to accommodate them. Eventually, no-one will know anything. We'll be a nation of idiots.
     I want to shout this fact out to someone, because it proves the whole system is a shambles. If we have a lower knowledge limit now, then what about the adults? They got a better education than us, which means they're cleverer. So who's Average: us or them?

Sat 12 May 2057

     Dad's given up trying to 'talk it over'. I won't let him get a word out of me. Now he just leaves me in my room and goes to the pub.
     It's best for both of us.

Mon 14 May 2057

     Our class had a knowledge test today. Maybe they want to find out if Mrs. Jeffries was harbouring anyone above Average.
     Well, soon they'll know, because this time I did my best. I even answered things we haven't been taught yet.
     Why did I do it? Because it was the only thing I could do. It's against everything Mrs. Jeffries taught me, but she can't have realised how empty my life would be without her. She said it would be a waste to give myself up, but who else is there to share my knowledge with? Mrs. Jeffries was the only one I could truly talk to.
     I wish I'd scratched their eyes out when they came for her.
     I haven't told dad what I've done. I want to see his face when they arrive at the door for me. They'll come in the early hours of the morning, like the Nazis used to. I wonder if I'll get any sleep before then.
     Wherever I'm taken, and whatever they do to me, I can't be more miserable than I am now. I'm terrified of what's going to happen to me, but at least I know it's illegal for them to put me to death or artificially lower my intelligence.
     What I'm counting on is the others - the thousands of people that have already been caught. People with ideas and knowledge and endless curiosity. I want to speak with them; get to know them.
     I belong with them.
     Perhaps I'm fooling myself. Perhaps prison will be worse than I can imagine. But if I can find just one other person who thinks and feels the way I do, all the risk will have been worth it.

* * *


     If Mrs. Jeffries had never been caught, I'd be giving this diary to her. But impossible now, and I don't know anyone else above Average. Somehow, though, it's easy to decide what to do with it. I'm going to slip out of my window in a few minutes and post it to Lois Durrell.
     I don't know what you'll make of this, Lois. I've written a lot of things about you that aren't very nice. I hope you'll forgive me. In the last couple of days I've come to realise that I don't really hate you at all. I know you were never comfortable in class; you never felt like one of the normal kids. Well, neither did I.
     There's something I neglected to write in here last Wednesday. When I saw that sketch you were doing of Mrs. Jeffries I felt jealous. That's why I said it was rubbish - to cover up for the fact that the exact opposite was true. I always wanted to be able to draw like that. I rescued that piece of paper from the bin and it's become my most treasured possession. I know it wasn't meant for me, but thank you for it anyway.
     I want you to keep this diary. I want you to write your thoughts in it. I want you to fill it with beautiful drawings. And if you get caught, hand it on to someone else like us - another misfit.
     You may not have been my friend, Lois, but I really don't think that matters now. You're not Average, and that's enough.


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