The oldest memory that I care to remember, is meeting Connie. I think I was seven at the time. Most of us were in the common room, with its white-washed walls and blue trim, entertaining ourselves. Playing pool, playing cards; poker, snap, old maid, go fish. Drawing. Writing. Some people were out in the tiny courtyard, sitting in the sun, watching the sky and clouds go by. Others inside; playing games, watching television, reading books. Adults and children alike, we were all glad to escape our small cells for just a little while.
I was playing cards with Nora. Nora, with her long grey hair; and little wrinkles in the corners of her eyes. Her shrewd look. I had known Nora for as long as I can remember. Anything earlier than that gave me a curious ache in my heart that I didn’t want to acknowledge. Parents? No. Nora had taken everybody under her wing at one stage. She had just split the deck of cards, and we were about to start playing snap when a burly security guard opened the door and hustled in a little girl.
She was small, about my age, with narrow, hunched shoulders. She had a thin, pinched look on her face, and her eyes were red and puffy from crying. She had on the regulation white tunic, and it went all the way down to her ankles, like a dress. The front gaped, showing her white chest. Her head was also shaved, just like the regulations said. There were red welts where she had been accidently cut; people didn’t care if they did a bad job.
You could tell how long a person has been in Fletcher’s by the length of their hair. When you are first brought in, your head is shaved, but after that, there seems to be some unspoken pact that nobody cut their hair. My hair was halfway down my back, thick and red and curly. Nora’s hair was past her ankles, pooling on the floor if it wasn’t done up in a braid.
The security guard spoke a few words to the little girl; then disappeared out the door. The girl began to cry, standing the in doorway, the tears just dripping down her face. She didn’t even bother to wipe them away. Some people stared at her, but most just went on with what they were doing. A newcomer among us wasn’t that uncommon anymore.
I looked around. Some people watched Nora, waiting for her to make her move. I wondered if Nora could feel the weight of so many hazel gazes. I looked at the girl again. She seemed so tiny.
I looked at Nora. Her back was resting against the wall, eyes closed, head drooping. To some she appeared as if she was dozing, like any other old woman, but I knew better. I touched her arm gently. “Nora?”
She opened her eyes and stared at me. Her eyes used to be green, but the hazel had almost taken over. They were more hazel than green now. My eyes, blue, had a considerable amount of hazel flecks in them for my age. Nora nodded to me and put down her cards. With the help of the pale wall, she stood up and moved slowly over to the girl. I saw people relax. Then problem was being taken care of. Nora was doing her job.
Nora said something to the girl, and, minutely, the girl shook her head. Nora gently took a hold of her hand and started to shuffle over to where I was sitting.
Nora sat down, slouching against the wall. But the girl just stood there. I looked to Nora for guidance, but she had her eyes closed again. Looking at the girl for a reaction, I inched over and tugged on her hand. She sat. Her skinny legs were all angles and I wondered if she was comfortable.
The tears were still flowing down her face. I wondered how she could cry so much, and so silently. She showed no signs of stopping, so I grasped the hem of her overlong tunic and used it to dab at her face. At some point she realised what I was doing, and took over. She was much rougher, leaving red splotches from where she’d rubbed at the soft skin of her face.
I glanced at Nora again. Her wrinkles had shifted into a smile.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“I’m Lexia; and this is Nora.”
“Hello.” Her voice sounded so tinny compared to mine.
“Look at me, child.”
I glanced up. These were the first words Nora had spoken. She smiled briefly at me; then turned her attention to Connie. “Look at me.”
Connie shook her head violently. If she had had hair, it would have flown all over the place.
Nora’s arm snaked out of her wrinkled tunic and gripped her chin firmly, tilting her face up. Connie blinked. She had bright, clear hazel eyes.
Nora nodded and let go. Connie immediately slouched again.
“Most likely a mistake,” Nora said to me.
“I don’t understand,” said Connie quietly. “Why am I here?”
So Nora explained.
That Connie was most likely here because of a foolish blunder; and her beautiful hazel eyes. Here at Fletcher’s Home for Loons, we all have hazel in our eyes. Because we are all Loons. It’s really that simple. That the hazel appears because a chemical in our brains is being over-produced; the chemical that also causes the Looniness. That not all Loons are bad, that we just see the world in a different way. That Connie will have to stay here for a long while, until things can be explained, and if they can’t, she’ll have to stay for the rest of her life. That she’ll have to live in a small, cramped cell and only come out for a few hours a day.
What she didn’t say was that even if Connie could get out of here, society would spurn her. Once you are labelled a Loon, it takes a long, long time to get rid of such scorn.
Connie took it all in, eyes dry.
When the guards came to put us back in our cells, Connie didn’t fight it. She was led off quietly and calmly to her new home.
But we could hear her sobs echoing, rebounding off of the stark halls for hours afterwards.
After a few weeks, Connie slipped into the Fletcher’s routine. Wake up. Breakfast is delivered. Entertain yourself until lunchtime. If you were good, you got some books or paper and pens, but most of us had nothing, only to listen to the laughs of those more Loony than us. Eat lunch; then wait for the guard that comes to deliver you to the common room. You stay in the common room until dinnertime. Then you go back to your cell, eat dinner and go to sleep on your hard, narrow bed. Then the cycle begins again.
Connie and I became good friends. It was forbidden to whisper down the halls, but in the common room, we could chatter all we liked. We talked about getting new tunics, how we could braid our differently, the beautiful flowers in the courtyard.
The bright spots of colour in our grey lives.
But when Nora told us a story, we were both quiet. We both enjoyed listening to Nora’s stories. Sometimes others would come and listen, but it was mostly just the two of us. We both felt special. Being addressed like that. Like we were some sort of royalty.
Nora’s stories were mainly from her memories; from before. She told us about the world outside Fletcher’s. How the air is always filled with the clanking of working machinery and the smoke from the coal fires. About the layer of soot and coal dust everything. The trains that rattle through the city at alarming speeds, and the people that scrabble around behind them on the huge tracks, looking for leftover coal. The mines that feel like they’re a bottomless pit, darker than the depths of hell and just as humid, but are actually only a few hundred meters deep. The houses that can transform from ramshackle sheds to towering mansions in just a few streets. And how even the posh toff manors have little golden charms in the shape of cogs above their doors to keep away the dust sprites.
And the people.
C, S, C. Clanks, Sweeps and Cops. Clanks were the ones who fixed everything, anything that was broken. They were the nomads of the city, wandering around with the tools of their trade, looking for work. A mark of a good Clank is not how many tools they have, but how well they know how to use them, Nora told us. Most Clanks were kindly people, always willing to help. She told also about the Sweeps. They cleaned the machinery that the Clanks fixed. It was either one trade or the other, Clank or Sweep, so most travel in pairs. And Cops. Law enforcers and Loon detainers. Working as a Cop can be a blessing or a curse. You could be praised for keeping the city clean and the people safe, or spat upon for locking up innocents. Whatever the case, the Cops did their jobs well, not just finding Loons. They locked up other people as well, the criminals. The killers. Most of them stayed in Cop Homes for the rest of their lives.
About the people who didn’t work for a living, and survived off of their money. The posh toffs, who always stayed in favour with people up high, the Region and Area Managers. If you had the favour of an Area Manager, anything could happen for you. Nora explained to us, how the city was divided into Regions; a coal mine in each one. It was commanded by a Region Manager. Five Regions made an Area. Area Managers were the highest of the high. Their word is law.
Nora also told us stories about the forbidden. Electrics. Electricity is a dangerous and unstable element, not to be taken lightly or fooled about with. Electrics are scientists who specialise in that field. They are revered, but spoken about behind closed doors with hushed voices. The only legal laboratory an Electric can work in is one overseen by an Area Manager. But unless you want to be stuck making new machinery for ‘the greater good’…most Electrics preferred to work under the radar. Prohibited labs were scattered everywhere, in abandoned buildings, disused mines. Mostly underground. Electrics were often mistaken for Loons because of their eccentric ideas, and there was more than one Electric locked away in Fletcher’s, screaming their purity. They didn’t understand that yelling only made it worse.
These were the sorts of stories Nora told us. Connie and I lived for the time in the common room, in hope that Nora would open her mouth, and the magic would come out.
We lived like that for ten years.
Slowly, the well-known faces of Fletcher’s disappeared and others took their places. Connie’s hair grew long and blonde; shining like it had its own source of light. It hung just past her bottom, while mine fell to the backs of my knees in a big crimson frizz. We braided our hair in different styles every day. We got new tunics. Then new ones again when the others got too threadbare.
As time passed, Nora seemed to grow old before our eyes. Her wrinkles deepened and her grey hair grew through a silvery white. When Connie and I combed our fingers through it, in preparation for braiding, Nora dozed, no longer pretending. Her shrewdness and knowing never disappeared, it just became…dimmer.
Connie and I shared fleeting glances when Nora wasn’t looking.
Lexia, she’s getting older.
I know, Connie.
When we came into the common room now, we didn’t hope for Nora’s stories, we hoped Nora herself would still be there. Alive and with us.
We lived like that for ten years.