My earliest memories were from the nursery. I might have been four or five years old at the time. Guards had come into the building. They were men, big tall men, I don’t remember ever seeing a man before in my life. They came for Mariam, one of the nursemaids. I remember them dragging her kicking and screaming out of the building. Then one of the guards punched her in the face. Her slender frame crumpled to the floor started jerking convulsively. She was silent from that point one. They just dragged her out. I wouldn’t see her again until my first thorning years later.
The other nursemaids gathered us together in the main play room. They gave us children a lecture about the dangers of favouritism. Mariam had been guilty of treating some children better than others. I don’t remember feeling any guilt at the time. Years later though I felt horribly guilty when I realised that I was definitely one of Mariam’s favourites. She used to sneak me in extra biscuits and cuddles at night through the bars of my crib. I would eventually conclude that I was the reason why the guard had punched her. That it was my fault she was gone.
Head nursemaid Gallan’s warning to us that day rang in my ears for years to come, “remember children: unequal love leads to unequal outcomes. If you see a nursemaid treating any friend unequally then report her to me.”
The other children were all our “friends”. Even the children who hit me, stole my food, and called me names. At the age of six I still wasn’t aware of how meaningless it was to call everyone my friend. By the age of seven I understood this perfectly. Two events happen at the age of seven in a young Delforian’s life. One of these things was exciting, the other was frightening: At age seven Delforian children could leave the nursery for the first time in their lives, but first we must receive our first thorn.
None of us had ever seen the world outside before. We had lived our lives inside the nursery. The few windows in the building only opened up to show other buildings around us. There were no gardens or trees that we could see. Just gravel, concrete, steel furniture, and statues of famous Kelites. Kelites were the leaders of our society. People born without a social debt nor the physical weaknesses of the Delforians, like myself, and so they could walk freely outside our society. Because I and the other children were Delforians we had to be kept inside the nursery where it was sterile and we weren’t likely to be infected by the plague outside that killed Delforians if they ever went outside.
The plague, however, was not a life sentence in prison for us all. The Kelites long ago had discovered a cure: the thorns. They came from a tree the Kelites grew and took with them everywhere they went. If a thorn from this tree was pushed into the flesh of a Delforian it gave us immunity against the plague. At seven years of age all Delforian children were given their first thorn. Once the thorn was firmly in place the child was allowed to leave the nursery and see the rest of the world. We were all told to see our thorning day as a happy occasion for when we may leave the nursery and start school. In reality most children lived in fear of the pain from having a sharp piece of wood worked deep into their soft flesh.
One day when I was almost seven years old, I was curious about one of the broom cupboards in the nursery. Unlike the others, this one had no ceiling. There were pipes and vents running all the way up the insides of the building; maybe 3 or 4 stories high. On one occasion a boy named Albert beckoned me and a girl called Juliet to follow him inside. Once the three of us were inside he closed the door. In the darkness we instantly realised what he wanted to show us: there was clearly light somewhere high up above us.
“Help me to climb up there friends!” He said to us, with what I imagined must have been a grin on his face. Helping him in retrospect simply meant to keep him company so he would have the courage to keep climbing up. It is often comforting for children to have someone else with them as they do something they vaguely know will get them into trouble if found out.
Juliet was scared, but agreed to come, I was keen to explore. The three of us climbed up the water pipes. It would have been impossible for an adult to climb up through those gaps. But being so small we easily worked our way up to the top level. There we found a ventilation grill that had been broken. I guessed later it had been done by a careless maintenance man, but it could easily have just been corrosion as the building was so old. There was only enough room for one of us to reach the grill. This was Albert. He fearlessly perched on the small bend of pipe and looked out the grill.
Albert gasped with astonishment, “A tree! I can see a tree!”
None of us had ever seen a real tree with our own eyes before. I wanted to look, but Juliet grabbed my ankle and begged me not to look. She started crying saying that we were all going to die from the plague now because we had breathed unfiltered air. Albert and I urged her to calm down and stop crying. Eventually we had to agree to all come down so she would stop crying. Once back on the ground Albert told her there was actually glass on the other side of the grill so we could not have breathed plague contaminated air. He promised her three times that this was the truth before she finally let it go and left us. After Juliet was gone he told me there was no glass, and that the air outside tasted delicious.
A week later Albert was gone. He turned seven, was thorned, and left the nursery forever. I lay awake that night he left locked inside my crib, with all the other children locked in theirs. I was thinking about how close I had been to contaminated air, I hadn’t ever heard of “fresh air” before then, inside the nursery the air was called “uncontaminated air” because it was supposed to be filtered to protect us from the plague. Thus all air outside the nursery was supposed to be contaminated air. The first doubts were starting to creep into my mind at that point. Why hadn’t we gotten sick from the plague? I put it down to the idea that the plague only was in the air close to the ground, not high up. However, that was the first time I recall feeling concerned that the nursemaids hadn’t been telling us the truth.