Preparations for Transport

The treatment was compulsory. And all the parents seemed to think it was necessary. Consent forms went home and came back duly signed.

Mum and Dad might’ve agreed why but they didn’t know what it was, of what the treatment consisted. It had cycles and phases.

Mr. Lord, our principal, explained at assembly that the first cycle of the treatment would only affect the middle school. So my little brother wouldn’t get it yet.

The junior school would be in the second cycle, when the programme was better resourced and we knew how it worked, he said. We laughed at Mr. Lord’s weak joke.

Phase one began with a physical examination. Booths were set up in each of the classrooms of the middle school. They had plastic curtains and cardboard walls.

We lined up, boys on one side, girls on the other. And when our turn came, we said: ‘See you on the other side!’ Because we hadn’t seen anyone come out.

In the booths there was nothing but a nurse who prepped you and a doctor who squeezed and prodded you and took a genetic sample. The sample was collected on a swab and the swab pushed into a plastic tube, sealed and labelled. The tube went into a battered suitcase at the doctor’s feet. And that was it.

You came out into the corridor where strangers in blue overalls ushered you to the school gym. In our school’s case, this was also the hall.

Here phase one proper started. The examination had been only a formality.

The hall swarmed with blue overalls. As soon as you entered you were presented with a set of them. You were supposed to strip off your clothes and wear these instead.

The leaders of phase one weren’t health professionals. They seemed to be dancers. They expected us to get our stuff off just like that in a crowd with strangers, as if the hall had become one big dressing room.

It had in fact. There were the mirrors and the tables. There was the same urgency and sense of expectancy.

I looked around. Girls and boys were stripping down to their underwear all over the hall.

The dancer assigned to me grabbed me by the shoulders, turned me around and got me started with taking my things off.

It was warm in the hall and the light was odd. As my legs were being guided into the overalls I looked up. Where the old fluoros had hung there were now racks of heatlamps.

After me, my dancer, Karim, tended to two others. He made them undress and put on the blue overalls.

It was all happening so fast there was no embarrassment. Some of the girls were crying but that was more about having their clothes taken away and the general strangeness of the situation.

Very soon we were a sea of blue. All of us were in groups of three or four to one of the dancers. They gave us padded mats and told us to find a space.

Stepping away from the walls, there were mirrors, like a ballet studio, and tables at regular intervals around the room. On each table was a first-aid kit in a tool-box.

We started with our feet. We were told to rotate each joint to its fullest extent.

If there was a giggle or a word the dancers would home in and physically manipulate the subject, making further contact impossible. They were gentle and forceful and very fast.

From our feet we moved on to our ankles, from our ankles to our knees, all the way to the tops of our heads. Our spines were given a special work-out. And where we were sore or stiff the dancers made us do it again.

Our teacher, Mrs. Moss, appeared in the afternoon with the other teachers from the middle school. There was a wave of relief at the familiar. There were chants of ‘Mrs. Moss!’ and shouting that went around the room.

The dancers stood back and let the teachers say their goodbyes. It seemed they were going on holiday. This news brought more desperate cries and shouts of ‘Don’t leave us!’

But they did leave us. And the dancers went back to work.

In phase one we limbered up. We were stretched out, every muscle lengthened. Our chests ached from the strain of breathing. We felt loose and jangly and left the hall taller.

We were given our clothes back at the end. Nobody had the energy to be embarrassed. We could barely talk about it we were so tired.

Mum and Dad asked me how it was. ‘It was OK,’ I said.

It hurt. And I thought it was going to end.

It was mat work everyday. They bent us and we stretched and twisted. And, as the dancers started really applying themselves, every bend, every stretch and twist got pushed and pushed. Day by day it got harder and harder, and hurt more and more.

The hall became noisier by degrees and we soon became accustomed to sounds of pain, both hearing them and making them.

When the weekend came we were told, ‘Well done!’ We were hoping that that was the end.

You thought it was. But on Monday morning there were notices up. We were back in the hall.

We had another whole week. And if we’d been thinking it was going to get easier, we’d have been wrong again.

If you showed any resistance your dancer would hold you and force you into the position and hold you there. And then do it again. It didn’t matter if you were crying.

It didn’t matter if you thought your arms were going to break or your legs or your neck. Nobody listened. They were like machines.

The first-aid kits were brought increasingly into service over the week, providing pressure bandages, compresses and straps and anaesthetising creams for strains and cramps. They fixed you and then it was like they wanted to break you again.

This was only phase one of the treatment. If we’d been wondering what phase two held in store, we got a taste of it. It was on Thursday or Friday.

The girl lay as if paralysed on the mat. Having exhausted the battery of temporary fixes from the first-aid kit, the dancer called in a woman in white. The woman gave her four injections, one in each of her limbs, at the joint, and went.

The girl’s dancer took her by the ankles and crunched her into a ball, then released her and did it again, and again, until the girl could do it on her own. My eyes might have been tricking me but I saw an unnatural bend in one of her legs.

At home for the weekend none of us spoke of the horrors of the week. You were happy to be there of course. And you didn’t want to bring it up at home where everybody was so nice to you. It might have made them angry. Anyway, we sort of knew phase one was over so we said nothing.

Nothing was said, nothing bad. And so our parents had no excuse, and were given none, not to sign the consents for phase two of the treatment.

On Monday morning assembly was held in the hall. The seniors usually had their assemblies separately but without the forms there was enough room for the whole school standing. The mats and tables had been cleared away.

Mr. Lord spoke to us from a small raised dais which hadn’t been there before. He was saying he’d been told that the middle school had made amazing progress, that the programme could move ahead as planned to phase two and that his school was being promoted as a model to all the other schools.

He said the seniors ought to be extremely proud of us and show their support at every opportunity. I was surprised to hear some applause at this point.

Mr. Lord said in response that he was pleased the seniors were taking seriously what was not only an important undertaking for the school, the whole school, that it would would reflect well on them, but which was also of the greatest importance for the welfare of the country, our international allies and, ultimately, mankind itself. I was again surprised to hear no laughter at this.

From in amongst his friends my little brother gave me a funny look. And he pointed me out to them and they all did something like a little bow.

As a result of this excellent progress,’ Mr. Lord went on, ‘we will be bumping forward both the programme for the middle school and the start date for the juniors.’

I felt a sudden pressure on my heart. It was one thing for them to give us the treatment but what about the littlies? What about my brother? They can’t do this! I thought.

Mr. Lord was in the process of excusing the senior and junior schools. He was bending down to the secretary who’d received our consents.

I rushed forward to my brother. I was going to warn him.

He brushed me off with, ‘See you on the other side!’ It had taken fortnight and already it was a catchphrase.

Mr. Lord made himself heard over the noise: ‘Your parents,’ he declared, ‘your parents in a show of outstanding cooperation and trust that together we can achieve our goals have consented to your at-school residency for the duration of phases two and three of the programme.

You will in effect be ‘on camp’ at school. The school has been assured you will be fully provided for, in terms of hygiene, nourishment and the rest that growing bodies need.’

The teachers from the junior and senior schools had gone with their pupils. Mr. Lord left the dais. On his way out he shook hands with the woman in white.

As before, we were very quickly turned into a sea of blue. This time, however, it was as if our sweated on, stretched in and, in some cases, actually blood-stained blue overalls had been put through the wash. They were now a light blue, presumably to mark our transition to the second phase of the treatment.

Onto the dais was lifted an odd piece of apparatus. It looked like you sat in it.

It looked like a giant egg-cup, except it had movable pieces, a curved headrest, stirrups and arm- and leg-rests, all on threaded rods which passed through the cup-stand of the egg-cup. The rods ended in adjustable tap-wheels.

There were gel pads where the apparatus met the different parts of the body. They too were light blue. The bulk of it was a surgical synthetic white. The rods were steel.

The blue exercise mats came out and in phase one groups we performed some of the more severe poses of the weeks before. Although we didn’t so much perform as were pushed and moulded into them by our assigned dancers.

While this warm-up was being inflicted upon us, the woman in white had been joined by four or five others, similarly dressed. They had trolleys.

I couldn’t be sure of their number because every time I tried to get a good look Karim, my dancer, would position my head to look the other way or put me face down.

The rubber wheels of the trolleys squeaked as they rolled between mats.

Phase two proper seemed about to begin.

The nurses would stop and while you stared at their white shoes with black soles you heard the clatter of instruments on the top tier of the trolley and the ripping open of plastic packaging. If you were unlucky enough to see what was going on before feeling the sting, you’d see a needle being prepared. And if you were especially unlucky, you’d see a whole series.

Our dancers held us down gently and forcefully. They exposed the appropriate muscle or joint. The nursed lunged in with a swab and then there came the sting. If it was a muscle the pain was slow to build. the joint and bone treatments hurt immediately. The hall rang with cries and the occasional full-throated scream.

The dancers’ main occupation through this process, apart from holding us still for the shots, seemed to be making sure our mats did not get wet and slippery. They had towels hung around their necks which they’d whip out for the tears, the sweat and involuntary snot.

They might give our faces a quick wipe first. But I learnt, after the first couple of encounters with the soggy flannel, it was better to staunch your own fluids than entrust them to the towel.

At lunch we ate little, as if we were on diets as well, and we were feeling groggy and ill. We ate in the hall under the heatlamps, which provided an added disincentive.

After lunch the nurses continued their rounds. The wheels squeaked. There were screams and cries, which as the afternoon progressed gradually wound down.

Our dancers now manipulated us into poses designed to test the effects of our treatment. And, like machines needing oil, where our movements stuck was bound to be the target for the next syringe. The trick was not to stick but to cooperate fully with the dancers’ prompts, to be eager to follow their directions.

The big clock at the end of the hall had not yet been removed. It was getting on to five when some of the middle school lay down on their mats and would not be moved again. We thought they were dead.

The woman in white conferred with her nurses. And with rattles and squeaks the trolleys withdrew.

Soon the dancers had gone too. The lamps were off and the standard heaters in the hall had come on to keep it at a constant temperature.

I must’ve slept. I woke to the sound of shuffling feet.

Old people were moving around the hall amongst us. I thought they were ghosts, that they’d succeeded in killing all of us and we were about to join these others who had clearly gone some time before.

I sat up and I made my escape to the toilets. The toilets were on the way in to the hall.

Even out here the fluoros had been exchanged for heatlamps. It was hot and bright.

I tried the main doors.

I could go home. I could tell Mum and Dad. They’d put a stop to this. And my little brother wouldn’t have to go through the treatment.

I found I was sliding down the glass, falling so slowly I might’ve weighed no more than a feather, until I lay on my side on the doormat.

I dreamt I was flying, like when you’re little and your parents carry you. I opened my eyes in the dream. An old man was carrying me.

I struggled. Either he had arms of steel or my efforts were puny.

He put me down amongst the other sleeping bodies in the hall, in the red glow of the heaters on the walls.

I tried to kick him in the face.

Don’t,’ he said. ‘It’s all right.’

Who are you?’ I asked.

A volunteer,’ he said.

He brought me a glass of water, pulled a light blue blanket over me and patted my arm. I closed my eyes.

The next days followed quickly and without major variation, except they got shorter. Tolerances to this phase of the treatment apparently decreased over time, our days ending earlier and earlier.

By three o’clock on the fourth day immobile figures on mats outnumbered those who were moving. There were squeaks and rattles and the trolleys departed.

The woman in white stopped a tall male dancer on his way out. He came back minutes later with a ladder and removed the clock. The woman in white no longer wanted us to measure the effects of the treatment by the clock.

After that first time I did not wake again in the night. But I had the impression of ghostly old people padding around me, the volunteers.

Your arms began to remember late at night and your legs and buttocks. And you might have fallen into a deep black well to start with but before morning you became restless, rolling from one side to the other.

Waking reality infected what dreams there were until you awoke at last exhausted and afraid.

On the fifth morning, or it might have been the sixth, the heatlamps came on and as usual the room went from a warm red to a brilliant white and the dancers hurried through collecting our blankets and mopping up whatever had spilled or seeped from our sleeping bodies. As usual they brought out bowls of thin sweet porridgey stuff and put them on the side tables.

There were the normal sounds of yawning and different ones like whimpers and small cries as we made our way to breakfast. But today only one trolley squeaked and rumbled into the hall.

The woman in white parked it up beside the odd piece of apparatus, which had become familiar enough to have almost disappeared.

Four nurses stood beside the apparatus. The woman in white consulted some papers and the nurses whispered amongst themselves.

The dancers variously mopped, wiped, shook out mats and repositioned them.

Breakfast took two or three mouthfuls and you felt sick. It tasted like condensed milk reinforced with baby’s formula.

By the time we’d finished everything was in order.

The half full bowls went into big plastic tubs and were whisked away. Our dancers guided us to our mats at a pre-arranged signal.

The dancers left us sitting or lying on our mats and joined the nurses around the giant egg-cup.

The woman in white seemed to be questioning them.

There were nods and some shaking of heads. Then the mood of the dancers rapidly lifted and became light as if they were relieved, as if the woman in white was pleased with their progress. There was even a bit of laughter and some gentle applause.

One of the dancers took a little bow. Her or his group, sometimes it was impossible to tell, comprised two of the smallest girls.

The dancers came away from the meeting with smiles. The one with the little girls went so far as to give them both a quick hug.

Karim smiled at our group. He patted me on the back.

It was impossible not to feel happy for them even if you didn’t know why.

Karim guided us through our movements.

You felt that the normal resistances of bones and muscles had gone. You saw into the small of your back, while your legs changed places with your arms and your neck stretched around. And even your skull seemed to be able to change its shape. And for all that you didn’t want to look too closely or consider how you looked from the outside.

If you did for an instant step out of yourself, it was sickening to see. It was like watching a snake swallow an egg.

Your limbs slithered over each other. You were jointless. You were all fibre, a single sinew.

The movement was continuous, until at some point you passed out again.

Waking, you would resume the exercises.

I’d gone for a few seconds into blackness. I came back out of it to the sound of clapping.

The hardest things were now things like sitting up, getting upright.

You could say I rested on my elbows, but equally my cheek rested on my knees. I tried to see what was going on.

Karim and other dancers were clapping. Most of the middle school were like I was.

A few attempted weakly, limply to join in with the applause. They slowly brought their arms together, like flippers.

One of the small girls had been lifted to shoulder height by the dancers. She wore a slack grin and was being paraded around the hall.

After a circuit, she was carried to the front, to the woman in white and the egg-cup.

They sat her in the egg-cup. She rested limp as a squid on the blue gel pads, which held her arms and legs and supported her buttocks and neck and followed the curve of her spine.

Adjustments were made. The tap-wheels turned.

Her legs met her chest. Her arms crossed in front of her. And her neck bent forward. It was taken further forward.

Then they seemed to compress her body.

As if they’d suddenly thrown a lever sucking all the air out of the egg-cup, there was a strange sort of hiccup from the girl.

Her body was vacuum-packed, yet still suspended on the pads.

The woman in white removed several syringes from their packets.

She took samples from all over the compressed form, sliding one under the thin skin of her scalp.

The small girl blinked. She didn’t, she couldn’t struggle.

Seeing all eyes in the hall on her, the woman in white gave a small bow. It was an acknowledgment of their accomplishment as much, now that we had all seen what we were working towards, as a sign to resume our work.

One by one we were hoisted, first onto the shoulders of two of the dancers.

There was some clapping, which as the day wore on became less and less. But there was a sense of celebration, of achievement and also a sense that our sufferings were not to be endless.

From the shoulders of the dancers you were deposited in the egg-cup.

The woman in white readied your limbs, torso and head, so that the gel pads could stick in position by suction, and this seemed to be the secret of the vacuum-packing of bodies, the snap compression and the hiccup your body made.

The pressure squeezed every atom of air out from between where parts met, until the body itself found its perfect form, its smallest possible volume, and snapped together into a single thing. It was like a puzzle, which is turned and turned until it finally clicks.

There were failures. In some cases, it was simply the fabric of the light blue overalls, which had fused and had to be cut away.

For a handful of us, four or five, the treatment had not been utterly successful. There was not enough bend in the bones or elasticity in the muscles to give that final satisfying hiccup.

For these, there was to be no phase three. They were removed, and, I hoped, I genuinely hoped, they’d find a place in the next cycle.

Your own session with the egg-cup was difficult to appreciate. Mine came on the second day of the trials.

By now I knew how light we’d all become. I flew on the shoulders of the dancers and landing in the egg-cup I nestled into the pads.

Karim had been a good teacher. I knew my form.

The woman in white said, ‘Breathe!’

I hadn’t noticed I wasn’t.

The steel rods turned and the pads pressed against me. And one second I was all over the outside of myself and felt every point of pressure. Then it was like a clap of thunder and I was deep inside myself.

I was a tiny spark and I was looking at the tiny spark I was. I was looking after it in a dark hollow. Nothing more.

I knew afterwards that tissue samples had been taken but I’d not been there to worry about them.

I had pins and needles all over. It was maybe the third day of trials.

While I’d been away, my body had unfurled. I was on my side. A dim gauzy light came through the sheet covering me. I could hear people clapping in the distance.

I scratched at the pins and needles. My overalls had gone.

Karim came. He fed me from a bottle. The mixture was sweet, as before. But now it tasted good. It tasted comforting.

I was aware of the change in lights. It was hot white. Then it was a warm red glow.

I heard the old volunteers padding round. There were no more cries of pain.

Then it was hot white again.

Karim lifted the sheet.

Folded white overalls were placed on the floor in front of me.

I spent minutes rolling back and forth on my side before rolling onto my front and pouring myself upright.

I was helped into my overalls and I stood there.

The egg-cup was gone.

The mats were wiped and taken away. The feed bottles were placed on the tables around the outside of the hall.

Mr. Lord, the principal came. He shook the hand of the woman in white, smiling.

He was followed by strangers. There was a mixture of ages and types of clothes.

Almost all of the women came in crying or burst into tears when they got into the hall.

The men paid their respects at the front of the hall before searching the faces of the middle school, all of whom were, as I was, standing in white overalls in space.

Dad found me. He hugged me.

Where’s Mum?’ I asked.

She couldn’t,’ he said and cried into my cheek.

Mr. Lord cleared his throat.

If I could just have your attention,’ he said. ‘I understand. Surprise and relief on both sides. We have come a long way. And I think we can be truly proud.

I would like to thank parents and pupils of the middle school. And I would like to thank Ms. Verhoeven for running an exemplary programme.’

The woman in white acknowledged the applause of the parents with a broad smile. Dad put his arm back over my shoulders. It was heavy.

We all now recognise it as being an exemplary programme and it will be so recognised and written up for a long time to come. A model programme.

Those parents with children in the junior school can look forward, in the knowledge that we keep our promises here, to an equally successful second cycle.

You have made us proud and you have given us hope. Thank you parents, for your cooperation. Thank you Ms. Verhoeven and her fellow workers. Thank you children. Thank you all.’

I shrugged off Dad’s arm and brought my long hands together. They made a slapping sound and not a clap.

My forearms were curved.

Karim stepped forward and introduced himself to Dad.

Dad looked at him a little strangely, then relaxed.

They chatted and laughed. About me.

The woman in white called the proceedings to a halt. She went around each of the family huddles in turn.

When seh came to us, she spoke so softly I couldn’t understand what she said.

There were more hugs and kisses and tears. And fathers helping the mothers to walk.

It looked like the dancer’s help might be needed when one of the mothers broke into a wail and collapsed.

This made it worse for the other mothers.

A great keening wave crashed around our ears. I was glad Mum hadn’t come.

Dad, of course, helped where he could. And his helping carried him away towards the door.

He turned at the last moment. He frowned and smiled at the same time.

He raised his right hand, as if swearing an oath, and he was gone from me.

It was a great relief to leave the world of the upright and most of us dropped down into a bent crouch when the parents left. The parents couldn’t see how our legs buckled in the loose overalls, how our hands twisted and our spines swayed.

To them it must’ve looked like we were fidgetting and couldn’t keep still.

To us they looked clumsy and unnatural moving their big alien bodies around on two feet and trying to make straight lines from the ground.

The dancers brought our mats out.

We did our forms, sliding in curves, no straight lines, low and compact and graceful.

We ate less and less. But it was out of choice now. It wasn’t from the heat and treatment putting us off.

Still, there were corrections to be made. The woman in white walked around the room. She checked our stats and I assumed she also had the results from our tissue samples.

Throughout that day there was peace.

We slept under the warm red glow of the heaters.

We hardly had to go to the toilet anymore. And, when we left the room, it was more like leaving a magic circle: what happened outside it was of no consequence, and we missed it as soon as we stepped outside and couldn’t wait to rejoin it.

On the third day there was disaster. We were practicing the hiccup.

Of course, we could not achieve full compression. Our white overalls weren’t made to do this and we didn’t have the egg-cup.

The smallest girl, the same one who was chose for the first trial, broke her arm or leg. I couldn’t tell before she was hidden by a circle of dancers and the woman in white.

I saw something spring from her compressed form, a stick of white with yellow and a growing red stain around it. Her dancer noticed. He or she squealed, which in the prevailing calm, immediately pulled our attention.

They had to carry her out without first unfurling her. She was crying now.

She was angry and she yelled, ‘Let me go!’

I want to go!’

After that, there was vigilance around this form. The woman in white walked around with a kit, ready to administer additional injections at the slightest show of strain.

The small girl who had sped things up for us had now slowed us down.

The injections tired us out and days once more grew shorter.

Karim corrected my posture.

I said, ‘Thank you.’

He was now the only one I used my voice to speak to. The rest of the middle school didn’t have much to say anyway, but when they did, you didn’t need to be looking at them. You sort of got it.

I sensed the frustration we’d come so far. And we’d been through so much.

Karim said, ‘Shh. Soon you won’t be needing me.’

When?’ I asked.

Could be tomorrow. Could be the next day, ‘ he answered.

And so I never gave up hope. And we all strove together.

In fact, it was four or five days later that there was a change.

The woman in white gradually weened us off the drug therapy. We were still sleeping a lot but now we ran through our forms almost automatically.

We could hold the hiccup, incomplete as it was, for long periods and, since our bodies were not fully locked, we could unfurl ourselves.

We were eating. We had our bottles.

When the dancers went around each member of their groups and said goodbye, Karim put his hands on either side of my face and he kissed me on the forehead. At least, I thought he was a he but I was never entirely sure.

Remember this.’ He patted my shoulder.

When I was tense my right shoulder-blade would pop out of the form. I’d had any number of injections but he was reminding me it was up to me to control.

He made a shrugging gesture and smiled.

It was only when they’d gone that you realised how much you needed them.

The day ended early.

The lights went out. The old volunteers brought our blankets out and tucked us in.

We were alone. And it sounded like the whole middle school was crying quietly.

Under my blanket I practiced the shrug.

We woke up and collected our bottles. The light was no different.

The heatlamps going on had woken us as usual. The hall was no different. But there was a buzz.

You could feel it. You could almost hear it in your head.

With no dancers to wipe down the mats and store our blankets, we went back to them.

Somebody had the idea of making a big group in the middle of the room. We did. And we touched each other’s hands and faces.

We were like puppies. We shut our eyes.

Later we pulled all the mats together and lay down.

It was like we’d been left behind and were the only ones still there. But it didn’t last.

A sort of disgust passed through the group. I grew stronger and several of us dragged our mats back to where we’d begun.

Anger passed between those who’d left and those who’d remained. But the group gradually diminished.

It slowly spun us part, like a galaxy.

What started with an uncomfortable feeling that we were somehow letting them down, the dancers, the teachers, ourselves, ended with each of us returning to our former positions and resuming the practice of the forms.

Now, without anybody to guide us, we regimented ourselves. We acted in unison.

Signals were no longer necessary. We stretched, twisted, strained and bent along the curves set down for us.

We stopped together as we’d begun.

We drank together, rolled and unrolled our blankets together. We strove in unison.

Another day or so passed.

The group was somehow able to contain and control its enthusiasm so that the weakest of us did not suffer, did not strain too hard, did not finish by puncturing themselves with their own bones.

Because our bones sprang. They bent and whipped back. Only in the full hiccup was there ultimately a balance, a click, without a violent unwinding.

And we’d been trained well, so we pursued the goal of that balance in unison. In order to achieve it, we lost our overalls.

There was no further embarrassment. There was no need. It was warm and we were one.

And the treatment had made us so alike, it was virtually impossible to tell girls from boys.

We were woken by the sound of machinery.

There was the graunch of the fire-doors opening. Then the daylight burst in.

A man stood silhouetted in the opening. He was directing a forklift back into the room’s warm red glow.

It barely fit. It backed in with a hair’s breadth of clearance.

The director scurried out of its way. He checked the load.

Right up against the wall of the building was a massive truck. Its tailgate was lowered. On it sat another three loads for the forklift to bring into the hall.

Down the inside walls of the truck similar loads were stacked. The truck was a giant egg-carton.

Because they were eggs.

The woman in white marched through the hall straight up to the director. She shouted at him, trying to be heard over the noise.

He shook his head.

The nurses, once more with their trolleys, followed the woman in white. They cleared a path for the forklift between the mats.

Soon the middle school was gathered at the front of the hall watching the forklift work.

The eggs stood at about three foot. They were set in square stands made of surgical plastic. They glowed pink in the light from the heaters.

We used our white overalls for pyjamas and were still draped in our sleeping blankets. But it was cold with the fire-doors open. We clutched together for warmth.

Several men in hard-hats stared at us.

The operation took very little time once bodies and mats had been removed from the forklift’s path. The director ensured that the eggs went where the mats had been.

The room now looked like a giant incubator.

The woman in white signed the director’s dispatch forms and as the tailgate rose on its hydraulics, the director pushed the fire-doors closed, cutting off the noise and shutting out the chill and the daylight.

The woman in white stormed down the room and out the main doors.

Minutes later, after locking the doors and turning on the heatlamps, she returned a little more composed. She gathered her nurses around her.

When we were warmer, we went out into the hall and crept amongst the eggs.

If you looked closely, you saw that between the surface of the eggs and the stands there were light blue gel pads. The shells were soft to the touch.

We were all really happy.

It was like feeling understood and being provided for before you yourself knew what you wanted or needed. It was wonderful.

The woman in white made us wait before we could enjoy what had happened to us. We each sat or crouched, curled up by our eggs.

The nurses squeaked amongst us on their rounds.

They put us on scales, where it was difficult for us to balance. They listened to our heart rates as well as taking our pulses. They made us breathe.

They noted it all down. There were no injections.

The woman in white came after the nurses.

She explained in simple words what the eggs were and what they could do. There was a whole laboratory in their thick soft shells.

It was much later by the time she’d been around all of us.

The nurses withdrew to the front. The woman in white joined them.

They stared at us.

We realised they were waiting too. They were waiting for the miracle.

As this realisation made its way through us, there were some chuckles. We stared back at the nurses and the woman in white.

And we laughed at them.

Mainly inside. But we laughed.

They might not know what to do next. We did.

They were lost. Not us.

I didn’t know how they finally got the message but they did.

The woman in white ushered her nurses with their trolleys from the hall.

The doors closed behind them.

We crawled out of our overalls.

We put our hands together like divers. In slow motion we dived into the warm surface of the eggs.

The shells were not smooth in consistency but were made of cells. It was like warm snow or suet pudding.

The skins parted and let us in.

We were free of gravity inside.

At last.

If anybody had entered the hall at that moment they would have seen row upon row of giant eggs, discarded white overalls on the floor beside them, but not one pupil from the middle school.

After a moment of stillness, they would have heard issue in unison from the rows of eggs one great hiccup. And nothing more.