Before You Were Born – Toby Wallis [Fiction]

Before You Were Born

Before you were born you were taken into a small room with a writing desk. You were told to write a letter to yourself. Most people write about their fears and expectations, the things they want to achieve, the things they want to avoid. You didn’t have to write these things. You could write whatever you wanted. When you were finished you sealed the envelope and they filed it away in their archive. When you return they will give the letter back to you. You won’t be graded or scored on how you did. You just get to sit and read it again.


There were aptitude tests that had to be completed. They told you it didn’t matter how you did on them. It was just for information. When you finished they took the tests away without telling you your scores. You might have asked how you did. A lot of people do. It seems important at the time, but really it isn’t.

One of the tests had questions that seem impossible. Questions like ‘You come across an old man and a baby drowning but you only have time to rescue one. Which do you save?’ The questions probably annoyed you. They seemed unfair. You spent a long time trying to figure out the best answers, but eventually just wrote down whatever felt right.


Following the assessments there was still a lot that had to be completed. You had to choose your name. Most people spend a long time coming up with something. A lot of people never find one they like and their name forever sounds wrong when they say it. Some people think they have found a good one but realise years later that it never suited them at all.

You drew your talents from a hat. You were allowed as many goes as you wanted. One by one you pulled out the cards, accumulating your own personal cocktail of predispositions and abilities. Each card had a talent printed on it in an ornate typeface. They said things like alto singing voice or calm temperament or hand/eye coordination.

When you were finished they took the cards and retrospectively added character flaws to you based on these random talents. Perhaps if you got the artistic talent they might have also given you a reduced sense of self-worth. If you got the logical talent they might have given you solipsism. The genius card is generally regarded as the most dangerous you can draw.

When this process was complete they took your talents, mixed them up, then removed one at random. They won’t have showed you which one.


Your secret fears were compiled from a gigantic encyclopedia that lists all the things people might be frightened of. They are remarkably specific. It has entries like;

Being heard chewing

Small pieces of paper

Being watched by birds

There are millions of them in the encyclopedia. They seemed to choose them at random, giving no thought to which ones they applied to you. When they read them out these fears seemed silly but later, when you were alone, they began to play on your mind.

Your dreams were scripted by a team of writers. They came up with the recurring elements and wove them into all the different dreams so that they might seem significant and symbolic, but were careful to add enough randomness that the true significance of them will be obscured. 

They made your nightmares subtle so you won’t be able to explain why they are terrifying. They told you not to let them get to you too much, but you will let them get to you. Everyone does.


You got to meet all the important people that will feature in your life. They put on a buffet and drinks and left you all to mingle. They didn’t tell you who you will be to each other. Somewhere among this crowd were your parents, your siblings, your friends and your enemies. Everyone wonders who they will get to have sex with and who they might marry.

Most people don’t really know what to say at these events. You would have found the conversation to be stilted and awkward. It was hard work. You probably said some things you shouldn’t have. You likely didn’t make a good impression, but the others won’t have made a good impression on you either. Don’t be hard on them. No one knows how to handle this situation, and you all felt the weight of the relationships that had yet to be forged.

At the end of the evening you all parted company and said the typical things, like ‘see you soon’ and ‘until next time’.


Once all of the formalities were taken care of you were given a final meal. You were allowed to choose a starter, main and dessert from the menu. They told you to choose whatever you wanted but seemed interested in what you selected. They made a note of them in your file. After the meal you were presented with a tray of fortune cookies. Inside each fortune cookie was a small slip of paper that said something like;


The circle never completes, it spirals downward.


You stand still; each step you take propels the earth beneath your feet.


Choose your destination, or choose your direction. You can’t have both.


You selected one, opened it, read the slip of paper and ate the cookie. You won’t have understood what the fortune meant. Not yet.


When the day finally came you were led into a waiting room and told to take a number. There were thousands of people milling around in the waiting room. Up on a big screen a number much lower than yours flashed up indicating whose turn it was next. There is always a long wait. You might have tried to strike up a conversation with someone but you will have found that no one wants to talk. Everyone is always pensive and nervous. You were too. 

Eventually it was your turn. They led you away from the waiting room toward a door and told you to go through. You hesitated – most people do – and they reassured you that it was safe. They didn’t hurry you. One of them held the door open and waited patiently for you to be ready.

Behind the door you found a long, dark corridor. You walked along and after a while they closed the door behind you. You put one hand on the wall to feel your way along in the darkness but you didn’t need to. The corridor had no turns or corners and all you needed to do was keep walking in a straight line. You began to get tired and you would have started to get confused. Perhaps you forgot where you were or where you were going. You might have become scared that you had accidentally turned around and were heading back to the start. The memories of everything up to this point would have started to unravel. You probably panicked a little. It’s understandable.

At the end of the corridor was a small room with a bed in the centre. By this time you will have been exhausted and laid down to rest. The crisp sheets and the soft mattress would have felt like such a relief and your heavy eyes would have closed. Even if you tried you wouldn’t have been able to keep them open. You slept for a while and when you woke up you discovered that you were under water. The whole room had become filled from floor to ceiling, but you didn’t panic or thrash about. You just bobbed around a few feet above the bed, feeling peaceful and warm.

Your mind emptied, everything you knew and everything you had learned slipped away. You lost track of time. You forgot where you were. You forgot who you were. You forgot that you were.

Eventually someone opened the door and light flooded in. It hurt your eyes. Your fists clenched and your heart thumped. As the water drained away you felt cold and exposed. You didn’t understand what was happening. In the moment, no one understands what is happening. You breathed in and the cold air struck your lungs. Everything was raw and harsh. The sounds and the smells overwhelmed your senses. The light was blinding and all you wanted was to get back under the water again. You were terrified and without intending to you screamed as loud as you could. It is too much for a person to cope with. They know that.

But then, after all that time and all that preparation, you were born.


By Toby Wallis


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