We are told: these are not children. So we treat them accordingly.
We don’t wave to them, or smile or ask them to join in with our games. Of course they don’t ask us to join in with their games either, but we wouldn’t even if they did. They only play marching games, or waiting games, or sometimes they play this funny game where one of them pretends to fall down and the others have to rush to pull them up quick as they can. Not-children have odd ideas of fun.
Our parents don’t like to talk much about the not-children except to remind us they are not, real actual, children. It’s hard to find out more. If we mention them around the dinner table, they change the subject. It’s hard to tell if they are mad these not-children have come to our town or if they just don’t care and have more importantly things to worry about.
We talk about them sometimes though, while walking home from school, on the way to the sweet shop or waiting in the varnished hall for our piano lessons.
Some of us think they were so bad their mothers gave them away; most of us think they never had mothers to start with. It’s hard to imagine not-children being babies. Most likely they just arrived one day, just the way they are now.
Twice a day we see them, on the grueling march between the bad place and the factory gates, they shuffle along the icy pavements barefoot, bare head, dressed in threadbare stripes. The not-children don’t feel cold as we do. They do not get tired. We know this because we watch them and they don’t complain or cry, just inch their way through the town like grey smudges imitating life.
We take dares to offer them a stone wrapped up in bright candy paper, prodding each other forward. They accept the gift mutely, all large eyes and sharp cheekbones. When they see our trick, they do not laugh or howl or turn to fight us, they simply let the stone fall back to the ground as if our joke is inconsequential.
The only good thing is the soldiers. They have been stationed here to make sure the not-children do not steal or get out at night or go crazy. So you see what a bad bunch they must be, if we need soldiers to protect us from them. The soldiers are smart and handsome though and if you wave or giggle at them, they will snap their boots together in a funny salute just for you.
Before they came there was a green up on the hill, where we could go to catch frogs or picnic, but they built the bad place instead. It’s an ugly place, I don’t know why they decided to build it like that. I’d have put in tiny round castles and beds of flowers between but they just like mud and wooden huts. They are strange, the not-children.
We do not know where they came from or why they are here but we wish they’d go away. Their straggling column spreads its way through our town like a patch of oil smeared from house to house or a great black writhing snake, circling us, as it eats its own tail.
Our only solace is that fewer and fewer of them come out of the bad place. What they do in there I wouldn’t like to think; all I know is that it must be warm inside the grim fortress they have erected because the chimney puffs black smoke from dawn to dusk. Sometimes the smell is so bad our mothers make us stay indoors and bring in their washing in case they make it stink.
On the days the smell isn’t too bad, we go out. We play in the falling ash, twirling in it like it’s falling snow. Writing our name on the pavement with the smeary soot. Even when we play other games, our skin gets lined with the grey ash. It works its way into our crevices.
Then sometimes we play that we are grey not-children, wandering mutely around with our shoulders hunched and our coats shucked off and puddled on the pavement, pretending we aren’t freezing half to death. Until we turn numb.
Until our mothers call us inside for a nice hot bath and sighing at the mess, once again, begin to scrub us clean.
Lisa Strong is a former teacher and full time mother, who currently residences in the UK.