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Milo - Jennifer Bassett

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A letter to Lola

1st January 2060 My dear Lola,

It feels strange for me to write this letter to you, because you will not read it until many years after my death. I am now an old woman of seventy-seven years, but you are only ten, and still a child. While I'm writing this, I can see you outside in the garden. You are playing in the snow with my brother Michael's grandchildren. There is a lot of laughing and shouting… and there are some very wet clothes! It's a wonderful way for children to spend a bright winter's day.

So do not be sad, my dear granddaughter, when you read this. You are my only grandchild, and your fife will continue a long time after mine has finished. Because of this, I want you to read the story in this notebook. I wrote it a long time before you were born. It is about something that happened fifty-two years ago, in the summer of 2008.

I know that I don't have a long time to live — my heart is not strong — but you are too young now to listen to this story. So you will get this letter and my notebook when you are twenty-five.

It's not a long story, Lola, so please read it carefully. Every word of it is true.


Meeting Milo

My name is Sally Gardiner. I live and work in the small town of Moreton in Devonshire — a quiet, sleepy town on Dartmoor. All my family live in or near Moreton. I have four younger brothers and about fifteen cousins, and I enjoy being part of a large and noisy family.

But it is sometimes too noisy, so I live by myself, in a small cottage outside the town. People are always coming and going from my parents' house or my uncle's farm. No one can be lonely in a family like mine.

I first met Milo in June, in the summer of 2008. My youngest brother, Tom, was staying with me at the time. He was fourteen and was studying for a special exam. But Tom didn't like studying, and he spent most of his time out on his bicycle or fishing with friends.

That Saturday I woke up early, and heard voices outside my window. It was my brother Tom and old Bill Hayes, the farm worker who lived in the cottage next to mine.

'Good morning, young Tom. Are you going fishing?' Bill was seventy-six years old, but his voice was still loud and clear.

I didn't hear my brother's answer, but old Bill laughed.

'Go on!' he said. Your sister doesn't want you to study on a lovely morning like this, does she?'

My brother said something, and old Bill laughed again.

'All right. I won't tell Sally.'

I heard Tom's bicycle when it went down the road, and then I got out of bed and looked out of the window.

'Good morning, Bill.' I called down to him. Tom'll never pass his exam, you know.'

Old Bill looked up at my window. 'Ah, come on,' he said. The boy wants to go fishing. It's Saturday, isn't it? There's no school today. And look at the weather. We don't get many days like this.'

I looked up. The sky was a bright, clear blue. Bill was right. It was too good to stay inside. I dressed quickly, and ran out of the cottage, up onto the path to the open moor.

People say that Dartmoor is the last wild place in England. You can walk for hours and never see a house or a village. In winter it is a terrible place, when the cold winds scream across the empty hills, and the snow falls. Sometimes it is two metres deep or more. But in summer the moor is beautiful, with its bright flowers and the clear brown water of its rivers and streams.

I was going to one of those streams now. It was in a very small valley, which was only about ten metres wide. The stream ran over some rocks and fell down into a small pool in the valley. Around the pool there were a few small trees and many bright green water plants. It was a secret, magic place.

When I got there, I sat beside the pool and put my hands down into the cool water. The sun was still low in the sky, and the only sound was of the water on the rocks.

And then I saw the boy, under a tree on the other side of the pool. He was sitting quite still, and watching me.

I sat up. 'Oh!' I said. 'You frightened me! I didn't see you there.'

'I'm sorry,' the boy said. 'I didn't want to frighten you.'

'That's all right,' I said cheerfully. I've never seen anybody else at this pool. How did you find it?'

'I just… found it,' he said.

'Well, you must keep the secret now,' I said, and smiled at him. 'Don't tell anybody else about it.'

'Oh no,' he said, very seriously. 'I won't do that.' He got up and came and sat by the pool.

I looked at him with interest. He was about ten years old, with straight brown hair and very blue eyes.

'I don't think I know you,' I said. 'I know most of the children here because I teach at Moreton School. Are you on holiday in Devonshire?'

He looked at me, and suddenly smiled. You don't look like a teacher,' he said. 'You look too young.'

I laughed. I have short red hair and am not very tall. My brother Michael always tells me that I look about sixteen.

'I'm twenty-five,' I said, 'and I've been a teacher for three years.'

'What do you teach?' the boy asked. His hair fell over his eyes and he pushed it back.

'French. English. A bit of maths.'

He looked interested. 'What kind of maths?'

I was surprised. Most boys of his age did not want to talk about school lessons. Football, or the latest video game, yes. But not maths. Anyway, I told him about my maths lessons with the ten-year-olds at the school.

He stared at me. 'Is that all?' he asked.

I did not understand him. 'It's a lot of work in a year,' I said. 'And it's very difficult for some of the children.'

The boy said nothing, and seemed sad. He was a strange boy, and when he spoke, he seemed older than he was.

'Where do you go to school?' I asked.

He did not reply, and stared down at the pool. The sun was higher in the sky now and it was beginning to get hot.

I tried again. Perhaps he was one of those very clever children with brains like computers, who liked talking about things like maths.

'What do you do in your maths lessons, then?' I asked.

He told me, and talked for several minutes. I was astonished. This was maths for people like Einstein, not for ten-year-old children.

'What else do you learn at your school?' I asked.

He described all his lessons, and I became more and more astonished. Ten hours of lessons a day, six days a week. I thought of my brother Tom — two hours' work a day was too much for him.

I told the boy this, and he became very interested. So I told him all about my brothers. About Michael, who wanted to be a doctor. About Roger, who played in a rock group. About Colin, who wanted to be a farmer. And about Tom, who didn't want to be anything, because he didn't like work. The boy smiled at this, and asked a lot of questions about me and my family.

Then suddenly he looked at his watch and stood up. 'I have to go,' he said. 'Lessons begin in half an hour.'

'So where is your school?' I asked in surprise. 'Is it near here?'

For a second or two he did not reply. Then he said slowly, 'It's at Batworthy, on the moor.'

'I've never heard of it.' I stood up and smiled at him. 'I'll probably come here again tomorrow. Will you be here?'

'I don't know.' His face was still and serious.

This place is our secret,' I said. 'I won't tell anyone. And I'm Sally. What's your name?'

'Milo,' he said slowly. Then he climbed quickly up the rocks out of the little valley.


The school at Batworthy

Sunday was another beautiful morning. When I got up, Tom was still in bed. I put my head round his door.

'I'll do some studying today, Sally,' he said. 'I promise. Please don't tell Mum and Dad that I went fishing yesterday.'

'Oh, all right,' I said. 'But work hard today, OK?'

On my way up to the moor, I thought about Milo. He was a strange boy. I wanted to learn more about him.

He was already there when I arrived, and he watched me while I climbed down the rocks to the pool.

'Hello,' he said. He looked quite pleased. Perhaps he was lonely at his school, and needed friends.

I sat down on the rocks and took my shoes off. The water was cool on my hot feet.

'It's going to be hot again,' I said. 'Is Sunday your free day? Why don't you come home with me and meet my brother Tom?'

'Oh no,' he said quickly. 'I can't do that. I have to be back at school at nine o'clock.' He sounded afraid. But why?

'Oh well,' I said calmly. 'It was only an idea.'

We watched the fish at the bottom of the pool, and then I asked him about his family. 'Where do your parents live?'

He looked down at his feet in the pool, and moved them slowly from side to side.

'I don't have any parents,' he said.

'Oh, Milo,' I said quickly. 'I'm really sorry. I didn't know...'

'No,' he replied. 'How could you know? I don't have any brothers or sisters either. So I like hearing about your family.'

I did not want to ask him about his parents. Were they both dead? He did not seem unhappy, but he was very interested in my family.

Tell me some more about Roger,' he said. 'And Tom.'

We sat on the rocks in that quiet little valley, and talked, with only the empty wild hills of the moor around us. Milo listened, and laughed, and wanted to hear more and more about my family. But he still seemed much older than he was, and he told me nothing about himself.

After a time he stood up to go. 'Will you be here next weekend?' he asked. He watched my face carefully. He was looking for something, but I didn't know what. 'I can only get out at weekends,' he said.

'OK,' I said. 'Saturday. Seven o'clock. I'll be here.'

During that week I tried to find out about Milo's school, but it wasn't easy. Mrs Martin, the head teacher at my own school, did not know anything about it.

'It's probably a small private school, Sally,' she said. There's a big old house just outside Batworthy. It's a strange place for a school. It's a very lonely house.'

After a lot of telephone calls to different offices in the town, I found a man who knew something about the house, and I went to see him.

'Some people have rented the house for two years,' he told me. They're paying a lot of money for it because they want to be private. But I don't know who they are, or what they're doing there.'

On Wednesday my brother Michael came to see me. I told him about Milo's strange school.

'Nobody seems to know anything about it,' I said.

'Why don't you ask old Bill next door?' Michael said. 'He knows everything that happens in Moreton.'

It was a good idea. News often travels in strange ways with country people, and on Friday evening old Bill knocked on my door.

'I spoke to old Jean Nuttall,' he said. 'Strange woman. She often goes out on the moor at night. Anyway, she says it's a very small, special school for children with — what was it? -learning difficulties.' Bill touched his head with his finger. 'You know, not quite right in the head. She says that the gates are always locked, and that a helicopter sometimes lands there at night.' Bill laughed. 'Helicopters! The woman's a bit mad, if you ask me.'

I thought about all this while I walked to the valley the next morning. Milo was certainly not a child with 'learning difficulties'. He was a very intelligent boy. What exactly was this school, and who was Milo? It was all very strange.

I liked Milo, and wanted to know more about him. I wanted to visit his school, but when I asked him, he became very frightened.

'You mustn't,' he said quickly. 'Please. Don't come to the school or tell anyone about this valley. Promise me.'

'All right,' I said calmly. 'I promise. I won't go to your school, and I won't tell anyone about our valley.'

After that we talked of other things, until the sun climbed higher in the sky and Milo had to go.


Milo is afraid

June became July, and then August. The weather continued very hot and dry. Up on the moor the earth was as hard as rock, and the pool in our valley got smaller and smaller.

I met Milo in our secret valley nearly every weekend, very early, before most people were awake. He could not get out of school at any other time, he told me. Most of the time we talked about my family. Milo wanted to know all about me and my brothers — our life at home, our schools, our games, our friends. He was interested in everything.

We became good friends. Sometimes we were like mother and son, sometimes sister and brother. Some days Milo was cheerful and laughed a lot; other days he was sad and quiet. I did not really understand him. But I knew one thing about him — he was lonely. I seemed to be his only friend.

One Sunday morning I was drinking coffee in my kitchen when Tom and Michael appeared at my back door.

'We're going fishing,' Tom said. 'But we need some more breakfast first.'

'Well, I've got some cake,' I said. 'You can have some of that. What about you, Michael?'

'Coffee, please,' said Michael. 'Where are you going, Sal? Are you going to meet Milo up on the moor?'

'Sally's got a secret boyfriend,' said Tom, with his mouth full of cake. 'He's not a schoolboy. He's about thirty years old. He's tall, dark, good-looking and...'

'Don't be silly, Tom,' I said. Michael laughed.

Tom took another piece of cake before I could stop him. 'I'm going to tell William,' he said. William was my boyfriend. He was an engineer and was working in Scotland that year, so we did not see each other very often.

'The man on the moor is called Damien,' Tom continued. 'He's got lots of money. And he's...'

'Oh, be quiet!' I said. 'And stop eating my cake. Go away! Go and fall in a river!'

Tom laughed, took the last piece of my cake, and ran to the door. Michael followed him. Thanks for the coffee,' he called. 'I'll push Tom in the river, shall I?'

'Yes, please!' I replied.

When I got to the valley, Milo was already there. He seemed worried about something. We talked for a few minutes, but he was not really listening.

'I must go back now, Sally,' he said suddenly. 'I think… I think someone saw me this morning when I was leaving.'

'But it's Sunday,' I said. 'Can't you come out on a Sunday?' Suddenly I was very angry. 'Your school is a terrible place. It's like a prison!'

'Yes,' said Milo, very quietly. 'Perhaps it is a prison.'

'Milo,' I said quickly. 'We must do something. Can't I...?'

He stood up. 'No. I must go.' He turned and climbed up the rocks. Then he looked back at me.

'Will you be here next Saturday, Sally?'

'Yes, of course,' I called after him. 'And you can come to my cottage at any time — you know that, don't you?'

But he was already at the top of the rocks. I climbed up and watched him while he ran quickly over the moor. I was worried. What, or who, was Milo afraid of?

Two days later I went to Milo's school. I had a plan and prepared a good story. Oh, hello. I'm a teacher at Moreton School, and we'd like to invite some of your children to some sports afternoons at our school.

I knew that I must not talk about Milo, of course. Perhaps he was in trouble, and I didn't want to make things worse for him.

The school was not easy to find. There was no name on the tall metal gates, and there was a high wall all round the large gardens. The gates were locked, and I could not see the house because it was behind some trees.

I called through the gates, 'Hello? Is anybody there?' but nothing happened and nobody came. I called again, more loudly. Still nothing. I shook the gates angrily. The place seemed more and more like a prison.

Then I had a strange feeling. 'Someone's watching me,' I thought. I stared into the trees, but there was nobody there.

I called and waited and watched for about half an hour. Then I went home. 'I'll talk to Milo again on Saturday,' I thought. 'I want to know what he's afraid of.'


Milo tells his story

That Saturday, while I waited by the pool in the early morning half-light, I thought about Milo. Perhaps I was worrying about nothing. But there seemed to be a mystery about Milo's school, and I did not like mysteries.

I heard a noise behind me and turned to look. 'Milo!' I called cheerfully. 'Hi! How are you?' He came and sat down beside me. 'I haven't much time, Sally,' he began in a hurry. 'I have to get back. But I had to come and tell you. I can't come again. This is the last time.'

'But why, Milo? What's the matter? What's happened?'

'You came to the school, Sally. I asked you not to. And the video cameras saw you at the gates. The teachers showed us the video film and watched our faces. I don't think my face showed anything, but I'm not sure. And they're watching me very carefully now. It'll be too dangerous for me to come out again.'

'But Milo,' I began, 'why...?'

'We can't go outside the gates,' Milo said. 'It's a school rule. Computers control the gates and the video cameras. But I can go in and out secretly because I learned how to change the computer programs. It's quite easy to do.'

'Yes,' I said weakly, 'yes, I'm sure it is. But why can't you go out? Why is your school so secret, like a prison?'

'I'll tell you, but you won't believe me,' said Milo slowly. His blue eyes watched me sadly, and I suddenly felt very sorry for him.

'Try,' I said, and smiled at him. 'I can believe two impossible things before breakfast.'

A quick smile came and went on his face. He looked down at the pool, then turned to me, and began:

'You think I'm different from other children, and it's true, I am different. I'm part of a — a scientific experiment in genetic engineering. I have no parents because I was «made» by scientists, in a glass bottle in a laboratory. There are quite a lot of laboratory babies like me, and the scientists chose our genes very carefully because they wanted to make us more intelligent than ordinary children. We have to study very hard and make the best use of our special brains. And we have the best teachers in the world, who are famous people from all the sciences. We will become the leaders of tomorrow's world, the men and women of power.'

He stopped for a moment, and pushed the hair out of his eyes. Then he continued.

The experiment began ten years ago. We are the first of the «new world» children, and our teachers tell us that we must never, never talk to ordinary people. Well, I've broken that rule. I've told you. And you don't believe me.'

'Well,' I said carefully, 'it's certainly a surprising story.' Milo turned and looked at me. He was quite calm, and very serious. 'It's true, Sally. Every word of it.'

'I don't really understand,' I said. 'I mean, who...?'

'It's a group of scientists from all over the world. They began the experiment, and it's very, very secret. They're afraid that people won't like it, and will try to stop it. So they keep us in small groups and they move us from country to country. There are, or were, twenty in my group, and we've lived in six different countries. We don't belong anywhere, and our schools are always like prisons.'

'But don't the children want to escape?' I asked.

'No. Why should they? They know they're different, and special. They know that they will have a life of success and power, and they don't want to be with boring, ordinary people.'

They're not going to be very nice people, are they?'

'No, probably not. But that's not important to them.'

'But what about you, Milo? You're not like that.'

'No, I'm not. I think they made a mistake with my genes. I ask the wrong kind of questions. I break rules. And I want to be ordinary. I'd like to live in a family like yours, and go fishing with Tom in the mornings.' He stared into the pool, and his face looked very sad. 'But why can't you?

There's nothing wrong with that!'

'Oh, there is, Sally. I have to behave like the others, or I'll be a danger to them. Perhaps I'll talk to people like you.' He gave me a quick smile. There was a girl in our group — Evalina. She could draw the most wonderful pictures. She was a very clever girl, but sometimes she was a bit mad. She used to shout and scream, and throw herself about. Nobody could stop her, and she got worse and worse. Then one day last year she disappeared. I think they killed her.'

I stared at him. 'But Milo, that's murder! It's not… They can't do that!'

'Can't they? She was part of an experiment that went wrong. And who's going to stop them? Her parents?'

Milo's intelligent eyes looked at me calmly. Suddenly I felt terribly afraid.

'Milo,' I said quickly. 'I'm… Listen. You must come home with me now. Immediately.'

'No, Sally,' Milo said, in his quiet little voice. 'I know you want to help me, but you can't. Please don't come to the school again, or try to see me. I don't belong to your world. I can never belong to it now. I shall always be… different. So I have to go back. But I'm going to be careful now, very careful. They won't catch me. I'm just as clever as they are.'

'Oh, Milo,' I cried. 'I know you are. But you're only a boy. You can't fight the world alone!'

His eyes were too bright. I put out my hand to him, but suddenly he got up. Before I could stop him, he was climbing quickly up the rocks out of our valley.

I jumped up. 'Milo! Wait!' I called, but when I got to the top, he was away. He was running like the wind across the empty moor — running too fast for me to catch him.

At home I tried to think calmly. What should I do? Go to the school and try to take Milo away? But did I really believe his story? Children who were made in glass bottles in laboratories… it was impossible, unreal, mad.

Suddenly I remembered an old school friend, Angela. She was a scientist, and worked in a famous laboratory in London. 'She'll know about genetic engineering,' I thought. 'And I must learn more about it before I see Milo again.'

I drove to London and went to see Angela. She was very helpful, and I learned a lot about genetic engineering. New kinds of plants were 'made' every year, and there were successful experiments with farm animals. It was scientifically possible to 'make' people, but of course no country in the world did it.

When I got home on Sunday, it was already dark and old Bill Hayes was waiting by my front door. 'Ah, there you are,' he said. 'I've got a bit of news for you. That school up on the moor, at Batworthy.'

'What about it?' I said quickly.

'They've gone,' Bill said. 'They've taken everything and gone. They went last night. Jean Nuttall told me.'

I stared at him. 'But… that's impossible!'

'No, it isn't,' said Bill. There's nobody left in the place. They've gone. Disappeared.'

I turned round and got back in my car. I drove as fast as I could up to Batworthy. But Bill was right. The gates were open and there were no lights anywhere. In the moonlight I walked through the trees, and stood and stared up at the house. The windows, dead and empty, seemed to stare back at me.

I never saw or heard of Milo again.


The end of the letter

And why — perhaps you are asking, my dear Lola — does my story stop there? What happened next?

The answer is 'nothing', I telephoned people, I wrote letters, I asked questions, but nobody could tell me anything about Milo or the school at Batworthy. I asked the police to look for Milo, but they didn't, because he wasn't a 'real' person. He had no name, no family; there was no record of his birth.

And perhaps I didn't really believe Milo's story. Perhaps he was mad — just a sad little boy who lived in his own strange dream world.

But now, at the end of my long life, I am not so sure. I look around me, and listen and think. And I begin to see a new kind of people In the world, people who are hard and clever, and always successful.

Computers control most of our lives now, but these are the people who control the computers. They make the computers, write the programs, and control the information that goes into and comes out of the computers. They have more and more power. They all look the same, too; they are always tall and good looking, and you never hear anything about their families. Who are they? Where do they come from?

I think Milo's story was true. Lola. I think these are the 'new world' people, who are made in laboratories and who are trained to use their brains, but never to listen to their hearts. And in fifteen years' time, when you read this, Lola, there will be more and more of these 'new world' people. I think the world will become a dangerous and frightening place. When you begin things like this, where do you stop?

Take great care, Lola… great care.

Your loving grandmother


Lola and Sim

Lola closed her grandmother's old notebook. She walked to the window and looked out at the evening sky. An air taxi flew quietly past to an air station on the next roof.

'What a strange story,' she thought. She remembered her grandmother quite clearly, and that Christmas holiday fifteen years ago. The house was full of cousins, who were all rushing in and out, and throwing snowballs everywhere. 'Happy days,' Lola thought. But it was a long time ago. And her grandmother's story about Milo and the school on the moor for 'new world' children… well, it was silly. Ridiculous.

Later that evening Lola gave Sim her grandmother's notebook to read. Sim was Lola's husband, and she watched him while he read. He read much faster than she did. But then he did everything better than she did. Lola was a computer engineer, and a good one, but Sim wrote computer programs. He was very clever, and his programs were always better than other people's.

Sim put the notebook down and laughed. 'Well, well,' he said. 'So your grandmother knew all about it sixty- seven years ago.'

'Knew about it? But it's not true, is it?'

'Of course it's true, Lola! You're married to one! Didn't you know?' He laughed again.

Lola stared at him. 'You mean you're...'

Sim came and sat beside her. 'Yes, Lola. Like Milo, I was made in a laboratory, not born. They can do it much better now, you know. They made quite a lot of mistakes in the early days.'

'But...' Lola began. 'Why didn't you tell me?'

'I thought you knew,' said Sim, smiling. 'It was a big secret in your grandmother's day, but it isn't now.'

Lola looked at her grandmother's notebook. 'But it isn't… natural,' she said.

'Don't be silly,' said Sim. 'Of course your grandmother was afraid of the idea, but we're modern people — we're living in 2075. There's nothing unnatural about it. The scientists are just helping a little, that's all. Why fill the world with fools when you can make clever people? People like me. I'll control half the computer networks in the country before I'm thirty.'

'And what happens,' said Lola slowly, 'when the world is full of these… clever people?'

'Of course we don't want a world full of clever people,' said Sim. 'No, genetic engineering is only for the top people, who can use power well, and who can control the lives of ordinary people.'

'But perhaps,' said Lola, 'ordinary people would like to control their own lives.'

'Don't be ridiculous, Lola. Life today is much too difficult. Ordinary people live in a prison of their own mistakes. We want to make their lives better. And they, of course, can have children in the usual way.'

Lola looked at him. 'Aren't we going to have children? We haven't talked about it yet, but...'

'Of course not.' Sim smiled. 'We'll be too busy. I don't want noisy children under my feet. And neither do you. You want to be successful in your work, don't you?'

It was true, Lola thought. Her work was very important to her. But… She remembered again her grandmother's house, full of children all the time. There was always a warm feeling in that house. A family feeling. Natural.

She got up and walked to the window, then turned and looked at Sim. 'But families are… are the natural way...' She could not find the right words.

'What's the matter with you, Lola?' Sim said. He sounded bored now. The world has changed. You're a modern girl. You must live in today's world. A good brain is the most important thing today — the only important thing.'

Lola stared at him. Sim's voice sounded harder, colder. How well did she really know him? And how many of these 'new world' people were there? Did they all think like Sim? When you begin things like this, where do you stop? Her grandmother's words danced before her eyes, and she began to feel afraid.

Sim stood up and walked over to the window. He put his arm around Lola and smiled. 'Stop worrying,' he said. 'Come on. Let's go and watch the river sports from an air taxi.'

While they waited on the roof for the air taxi, Lola watched her husband's thin, intelligent face. She loved him. And of course Sim loved her. She shouldn't be afraid. It was ridiculous. Sim was right. Of course things were different now. Life was always changing, and there were new ideas and new ways to do things. Her grandmother's words about a dangerous and frightening world were silly. It was all quite natural really. There was nothing to worry about.


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