The pain of birth was unbearable, and it didn’t go away. It was a great, writhing monster inside you, constantly changing from one form into another. Some days, it was like white hot needles, other days it was an intense pressure on your bones. The only consistent thing was that it was always there. Every one of the babies in the nursery felt it, and they knew that the others felt it. And he was no exception.
At that point, he could not read the registration code printed above his head, or branded onto his back. It was only later that he would think of himself as the 1279th member of XXV division. At this particular moment all he really identified as was ‘very very hungry’. Sadly, it didn’t look as if the nurses were coming any time soon, so he had nothing to do but lie on his back and scream. It was essential that you kept screaming, that was made very clear. Occasionally one of them would stop, and they were plucked from their cots and never seen again. Once or twice he wondered if there might be more food wherever they went, but decided not to risk it.
Over time the pain became more bearable (or maybe he was just learning to tune it out). When it did, he started to take more notice of his surroundings. The bars of his cot were fascinating. It seemed that no matter how much you chewed them, they just wouldn’t budge. Everything in his world was filtered through them, apart from the black ceiling, but that wasn’t much fun to look at. In fact, it was a little bit frightening. So he kept his eyes on the bars. Eventually the nurses did come and he watched them walk up and down, busy with their mysterious duties.
Sometimes they stuck things into him, or turned him upside down and shone lights in his face, but he was happy to go along with it as long as there was a bottle or a clean nappy.
One day, to his surprise, he saw a most unusual sight through the bars. It was another baby, lying in its own cot and staring at him.
“If that’s what I look like,” they both thought. “Then how did I get so ugly? No wonder the big ones don’t like us.”
But despite that, they started looking out for each other. They couldn’t speak, of course, but their eyes and their screams did just as well. If they tasted anything particularly fantastic, they were sure to give the other one a nod. In the long, dark night when the black ceiling seemed to fall around them, having someone else nearby helped.
One day, it wasn’t as black as usual. The big ones seemed pretty excited: they fed and changed everybody in double-quick time, and for the first time they actually encouraged silence. Just when he was staring up above him, bracing himself for the blackness, he found himself dazzled. Millions of tiny lights began to flicker and burst into life.
Some twinkled alone, others arranged themselves into swirls and very occasionally one would soar from one side to the other. The whole sight was bewildering for young eyes. He looked through the bars, eager to see how his friend was reacting to the show. She was still staring in wonder, the lights reflecting in her eyes. Now there were two versions of the show to watch: a very hard decision.
He waited every night for the lights to return, but they didn’t. Still, the memory kept him going through the long long months until eventually he found he could almost stretch his toes to the end of the cot. On that day, the big ones came and found him. They picked him up and took him to get one side, where his arms and legs were pulled and squeezed, his head was tapped and shaken and his eyes were stared into.
It would have been a horribly uncomfortable experience, had he not got so used to ignoring the pain. Whatever it was they were looking for, it seems they were satisfied, and before he knew it he was whisked away to another room and dumped on the floor. Sitting up straight, he looked around him. It was like sitting in a house of mirrors: all around him were fellow toddlers. Their babbling noises were unsettling for someone only used to screams or silence. His eyes were beginning to brim with tears, when suddenly he felt something nudge against him. A pair of bright, shining eyes beamed at him and he realised it was his friend from across the nursery. She looked at his frightened face, laughed, and threw her arms around him.
Somewhat confused, but very happy, he blinked away his tears and followed her off to explore, and from that moment on the two were inseparable.