‘Grandpa Ioan might not be with us for much longer.’ These words pounded in Peter’s mind as he struggled to get his train ticket to open the barrier gates. A wrinkly conductor watched him from under a pair of square spectacles.
‘Wait a minute, boy!’ he began gravely after Peter had snatched his violet ticket from the other side. ‘How old are you?’
‘Fourteen.’ Peter gulped and slowly raised on his toes.
‘Are you – really?’ the conductor squinted and shuffled slowly towards him as if wearing slippers.
Peter stood firm on his toes, trying to appear larger in his oversized wool coat. His chestnut hair curled as a steam engine puffed its way into Blue District station. Peter’s dark brown eyes turned towards the seven carriages that followed.
‘Let’s see your age card.’ the wrinkly conductor demanded and placed a heavy hand on the boy’s right shoulder.
Peter tapped and searched his pockets with the air of a businessman. Frantic crowds of well dressed grown ups surrounded the rusty entrances of the train. The green paint cracked as a round passenger opened the first carriage door. A dozen more grown ups, some with children, followed.
‘I don’t have it.’ Peter said in desperation. He watched the passengers swirl through the train doors like water in a sink.
‘You’re not allowed on this train, by the underage decree of Queen Avrig the Barren!’ the conductor coughed with content, as if finishing a speech. He then turned to a younger conductor who had just arrived for his morning shift.
‘Charlie’ he said, his hand tight on Peter’s shoulder, ‘take this boy back to his care house.’
Peter’s breath rose quickly, similar to the frantic ashes bursting out of the whistling chimney. He sprung from under the conductor’s grip. The wheels screeched, pushing the giant metal train forward. ‘Pedal faster!’ Peter’s mind bellowed as he ran across the platform. He remembered his grandfather teaching him how to cycle. ‘Pedal so you don’t lose your courage!’
Peter grasped the handle from the last carriage door and leapt inside. The two conductors were left waving furiously on the platform. The boy sighed heavily, but cautiously as he hoped no one had noticed his abrupt entrance.
The carriage seemed empty. It was padded with lacquered wood boards and smelt of pine. A small grey stove puffed slowly, in time with the train. Its zig zag funnel had colourful crystals hanging from it, on wool threads. Peter walked towards the stove, admiring the silk embroidered cushions on the seats. The chairs were made of solid oak, with curved handles and wave-like backrests. Golden plates with engraved names shone from their tops.
Peter’s heart jolted. In a far away corner of the carriage, he saw an old lady dressed in pink and white furs. She was knitting what looked like an old fashioned scarf with flower motifs. She gave Peter a quick glance as he quietly sat next to the fireplace. He suddenly remembered something and searched his pockets. The old lady croaked as Peter took out his violet train ticket.
‘That’s Lord Fagurash’s seat, my boy.’ she said calmly. ‘Come here, in Lord Petal’s seat. He won’t be travelling with us any time soon.’
Peter obeyed, fighting his anxiety in silence. As he sat facing the old lady, he noticed a golden ring with the word “Privilege” on her right hand. They were both quiet for an uncomfortably long time.
‘My name is Lady Daria Petal’ she began after a while, ‘daughter of Lord Rosemund Petal II, in whose place you are seated.’
‘I am Peter Arinis, ma’am, pleased to meet you.’
‘You must be one of the care home children.’ she said matter-of-factly.
Peter lowered his head, but said nothing. Lady Petal smiled and opened her purse. She took out an old letter with a golden wax seal on it. She opened it easily, as the seal had been torn, and took out a set of green and violet tickets, similar to the one Peter had.
‘You must be rich!’ the boy gasped in amazement, leaning towards Lady Petal.
‘My parents were.’ she sighed. ‘Now there is not much need for their money, I have my own.’
‘Did you get to spend a lot of time with your parents then?’ Peter asked with anticipation.
‘Too little time, my dear boy. You only realize what you had after you lose it. I see that you know the value of time well spent.’ she ended with a bittersweet smile.
‘My parents work very hard to send me a green ticket every now and then. I miss them most of the time, but when a ticket comes, I can go and see them and that is all that matters.’
‘You visit them, but you should let them come to you. I believe fourteen is the visiting age for the Green District? At least that is the impression the conductor gave me when he held you hostage just now?’
She gave a high pitched laugh which erupted as abruptly as it stopped a few seconds after. Peter paused for a few seconds and then replied. ‘I am ten and a half and my parents can scarcely spare any time. They are very busy in the Green District. I know my way around well enough by now!’ he concluded with the air of a well established grown up.
‘I need to get to the Violet District, though, by sunset.’ he then whispered in one long breath. ‘My father wrote that grandpa Ioan is very unwell.’ Lady Petal gave him a long stare and sighed.
‘You disapprove?’ he noticed.
‘No, but I do recall that children can’t visit the Violet District alone.’ she grinned. ‘I suspect your parents knew that when they sent you the ticket?’
‘They didn’t send me the ticket.’ Peter admitted bashfully. ‘My father’s salary isn’t due until the end of the month. That is usually when they send tickets to our child care house. Lady Footstool is good to us and gives us our tickets even if we are smaller than the legal age for visits.’ Peter sniffed a couple of times and then gave Lady Petal a quick glance.
‘You stole it!’ she rang.
‘I…borrowed it, from Henry Hayworth. He owned me one.’ Peter resolved with higher spirits. ‘I didn’t tell on him when he…well I can’t tell you. So now he’ll just tell his parents he lost his ticket. Now, we’re square.’
‘I see.’ Lady Petal stretched her legs and put her knitting aside.
‘Are you disappointed?’ Peter asked humbly.
‘No. I just wish I had had your courage a long time ago.’
‘Did you lose someone?’
‘Yes.’ she replied curtly, looking at the golden name shining above Peter’s head. ‘My grandfather actually. He was more like a father than a grandfather to me. I never knew my father, well not the real Rosemund Petal II, anyway. He was always too busy with his perfume business. He also didn’t let me see grandpapa before taking him to the Grey District.’
The train whistled wildly as it entered a deep valley covered with birch trees. Their golden and red leaves burnt brightly against the dark grey clouds. Soon they were replaced by a hill of stumps and waste. The train turned and out of the smoke stained windows Peter could see the tall metal buildings of the Green District. Dark green pipes encircled them, with their mouths pouring out white smoke and ash.
The train stopped in front of a large golden gate. Beyond it Peter could see a manor house shaped like a round bottle. Its roof was pointy and had a pink cloud hanging over it. A strong scent of rose and lemon came in through the carriage door as it was opened from the outside.
‘This is me!’ Lady Petal rang joyfully.
‘Wait!’ Peter cried. ‘What is the Grey District?’
‘You can just sit on that chair until the Violet district. Feel free to take one of my patron crystal rocks from the stove. That will be proof that you are under my protection today.’
‘Thank you ma’am. But what is it ma’am? The Grey District?’ he ran to the door to hear her answer.
Lady Petal was helped down the steps by two stern looking valets. Her frilly pink and white dress made wavelike patterns as she descended. She then turned towards Peter. ‘I hope you never find out.’ The door closed with a loud thud.