‘Grandpa Ioan might not be with us for much longer.’ These words pounded in Peter’s mind as he struggled to open the barrier gates with his train ticket. A wrinkly conductor watched him from under a pair of square spectacles.
Peter smiled as he caught a glimpse of the steam train just stopping at Blue District station. Frantic crowds of well dressed grown-ups gathered around its rusty frame. The green paint cracked as a round passenger opened the first carriage door. A dozen more people, some carrying children followed.
‘Wait a minute boy!’ the conductor erupted as he saw the violet ticket in the boy’s hand. Peter was now on the other side of the barrier. ‘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 the silver engine puffed with anticipation. His dark brown eyes watched the passengers swirl through the train doors, like water in a whirlpool.
‘Let’s see your age card!’ the wrinkly conductor demanded and placed a heavy hand on the boy’s right shoulder. Peter looked up at the conductor’s hairy nostrils and tapped his pockets with the air of a businessman. His nose twisted as a scent of engine oil and musk reached him.
‘I don’t have it!’ he finally said. ‘I need to get on this train, sir. My grandfather is very ill. I know my way around very well.’
Peter’s heart throbbed and his fingers tingled with anticipation. The engine whistled, flaring up dark clouds of ash and flame.
‘You’re not allowed on this train, by the underage decree of Queen Avrig the Barren!’
The conductor coughed, as if finishing a speech. He then turned to a younger colleague, who had just arrived for the morning shift.
‘Charlie’, he ordered, his hand tight on Peter’s shoulder, ‘take this boy back to his care house.’
Peter’s breath rose like the frantic ashes, bursting out of the train chimney. The last warning signal bellowed. The boy sprang from under the conductor’s grip. The train wheels screeched, like the grinding teeth of a metal giant. ‘Pedal faster.’ Peter’s mind echoed 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 of the last carriage door and leapt inside. Charlie was left running after the train, confused whether to be frustrated or relieved. His older colleague was shuffling energetically after him, thrusting a tight fist above his head every now and then.
The boy breathed out heavily, but cautiously as he hoped no one had noticed his abrupt entrance. He watched the sandstone walls of the station pass by, with their blue ceramic plates, halfway along the walls and red dome shaped roof. The seal of Queen Avrig shone brightly above the station entrance. On a black marble plate Peter saw the three consecutive golden arcs, with a blue, green and violet disk under each one. He shuddered and turned after the last sign saying ‘Blue District’ slipped away.
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 zigzag funnel had colourful crystals swaying from it, on thick 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 wavelike 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 a scarf. She gave Peter a quick glance as he quietly took a seat next to the fireplace. He suddenly remembered something and searched his pockets. The old lady croaked as the boy 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 anytime soon.’
Peter obeyed, fighting his anxiety in silence. As he sat facing the old lady, he noticed a golden ring with the queen’s three arch seal on her right hand. This was a symbol of privilege and not many people from Queen Avrig’s kingdom could win her favour in this manner. The two were silent for an uncomfortably long time.
‘My name is Lady Daria Petal.’ she began after a while, ‘daughter or Lord Rosemund Petal II, in whose place you are seated. The seat on your left belonged to my grandfather, Lord Rosemund Petal I.’
‘I am Peter Arinis, ma’am, pleased to meet you!’
Lady Petal put her knitting aside. Peter noticed that her silver hair, tied in a laborious plaited bun, looked like the yarn ball she had given up on. She took out a flowery fan from one of her sleeves.
‘You must be one of the care home children.’ she started fanning herself, her lips pursed as if trying to trap a thought that was about to escape. ‘I was part of the Royal committee that designed the children’s Blue District. I trust you have everything you need – Peter was it?’
Peter lowered his head and gave a short sharp nod, 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 shook a batch of green and violet tickets into her lap, similar to the one Peter had.
‘You must be rich!’ the boy gasped in amazement, leaning towards Lady Petal.
‘My parents were. Now I’ve inherited their perfume business, along with all its riches.’
‘Did you get to spend a lot of time with your parents then?’ Peter’s eyes widened in a naive stare.
‘Too little time my dear boy. You only realize what you had after you’ve lost it. I see you know the value of spending time with your family.’ 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 visit them and that is all that matters.’
‘You visit them but you should let them come to you. I believe fourteen is the legal visiting age for the Green District? At least that is the impression the conductor gave me when he held you hostage on the platform just now?’
Peter paused for a few seconds, wondering why Lady Petal, a law abiding grown up was so tranquill on the matter.
‘I am ten and a half and my parents can scarcely spare any time. They are very busy in the Green District, but barely get enough money to live there. I know my way around well enough by now.’ he concluded as his back straightened in a confident stance. ‘I need to get to the Violet District though, by sunset.’ he whispered in one long breath. ‘My father wrote that grandpa Ioan is unwell.’ Lady Petal gave him a long stare and sighed.
‘Do you think it’s a bad idea?’
‘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?’
Peter blushed and looked at his toes. ‘They didn’t send me the ticket. My father’s salary isn’t due until the end of the month. That is usually when they send me 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.’ the boy sniffed and gave Lady Petal a quick glance.
‘You stole it!’ she rang.
‘I – borrowed it, from Henry Hayworth. He owned me one.’ Peter resolved in 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 under her enormous flowery dress. She then started fanning herself contemplatively.
‘Are you disappointed?’ Peter asked lowering his shoulders. ‘You won’t tell on Lady Footstool, will you?’ he suddenly realized with a start.
‘I won’t tell.’ she said, staring blankly above Peter’s head. ‘I just wish I had your courage a long time ago.’
‘I lost someone.’ The fan stopped abruptly and she turned her gaze to the seat next to Peter. She then looked at the boy, with an expression struggling between sadness and amusement.
‘I lost my grandfather actually. He was more like a father to me than a grandfather. I never really knew my father, well not the real Rosemund Petal II, anyway. He was always busy with his perfume business. Papa used to go away on trips to exotic places to find new fragrances for his perfumes. He, of course, never bothered to ask me or mama if we wanted to join him. That did not bother me terribly, as he could be quite malleable after a few glasses of cherry. But I preferred to stay home and listen to grandpapa tell me stories from the war or how he met grandmama.’ she giggled but then her face darkened and her lip unfurled in disgust.
‘But the greatest sin that my father ever did was to send grandfather away to the Grey District when he got sick.’
The train whistled wildly as it approached an arched stone bridge. This was the crossing between the children’s Blue District and the adult’s Green District. The bridge had Queen Avrig’s seal in gold on a dark marble plate, cemented in one of the stone walls. The tracks stretched over a valley between two rocky hills, filled with birch trees. Their golden and red leaves burnt brightly all the way up to the dark grey clouds. Soon their crowns began to diminish, as stumps gradually took their place. Speckles of scrap metal and piles of ash splotched the once green grass.
The train took a right turn a couple of minutes after crossing the bridge. Peter peered through the smoke stained windows to see the ochre brick, glass and metal buildings of the Green District. It resembled Lady Petal’s tangled ball of yarn as a cluster of dark green pipes, shooting out of the ground, encircled the buildings of various heights. The taller buildings were manufacturing centers for furniture, appliances and vehicles. They seemed to spiral all the way to the sky with their tops pouring out white smoke and ash. Alit cinder fell like snow over the smaller bungalows all around the soaring buildings. This was the grown ups’ shared accomodation, with sometimes up to eight people under the same roof.
The train stopped suddenly in front of a large golden gate. The wheels screeched wildly, the crystals hanging from the stove shook back and forth. Beyond the gate Peter could see a white marble manor house, shaped like a round bottle. Its roof looked like a cork with puffs of pink cloud seeping from its pores. A strong scent of roses and lemons came in through the carriage door as it opened from the outside.
‘This is me!’ Lady Petal said and stuffed her knitting, envelope and fan into her tiny purse with lightning speed.
‘Wait!’ Peter cried. ‘What is the Grey District?’
‘You can just sit in that chair until the Violet District. Feel free to take one of my patron crystals from the stove. I use them for various charity causes.’ she laughed sharply. ‘ It will be your 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. Their expressions contrasted with their white cheeks, powdered with pink hues. They were dresses in pointy shouldered white coats, with golden buttons and dark pink leggings. Their shoes were golden, with small tassel sprays around the ankles. The shoes had a spraying mechanism that would squeeze the tassel with every step, so that Lady Petal could walk on a ‘carpet of perfume’, as she liked to call it. Lady Petal’s 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.
The train whistled, its sound echoing nostalgically through the hills. A haunting reply came from the heart of the Green District. It felt like a wounded cry to Peter, like the cry he once gave after falling from his grandfather’s apple tree. Grandma was there too, with her soothing embrace comforting him until the ambulance steam carriage eventually arrived to their house in the Violet District.
Peter grabbed one of the crystals from the stove. It was lilac, with thin cracks all around. He put it in his trouser pocket and went to sit on Lord Petal I’s seat instead of his son’s. He grabbed one of the cushions, placed his head on it, heavy with questions, and dosed off for a while.
Peter was awakened by a guttural laugh. The carriage was now almost full of well dressed, weary looking people in their late sixties. A gentleman wearing a brown felt coat sighed occasionally while reading the newspaper. The headline said “Adults Protest in the Green District while Demands for More Visiting Hours Are Ignored.”
Another, rather large, man next to him was grunting and sharing opinions with an amiable looking lady on the opposite seat.
‘I don’t know Martha,’ he said, ‘the Violet District is oversaturated and the “Privileged” class still don’t have a place to call their own. We should have more comfort! Compartmentalization by efficiency is a great theory to live by, but some have more needs than others!’
‘I understand my good Sir George! My concern, however, is more to do with the separated families. What is the purpose of separating children from their parents like this? ’ she asked feebly.
‘Parents work better without distractions.’ he snorted as he noticed Peter shrinking into his seat, on the other side of the carriage. He then added, apparently taking no notice of the boy, ‘The privileged should have more than just travel rights between the districts.’
‘I agree!’ added the felt coated gentleman. ‘Harry Hayworth, at your service. I fervently believe the privileged citizens of this country should have their own district.’
‘My thoughts exactly, sir! George Brittlestone, a pleasure to meet you.’
‘I don’t have anything against the underprivileged, of course.’ added Mr. Hayworth cajolingly, ‘It’s just so difficult to find like minded, well read people. People who appreciate high society, theatre, opera, you know what I mean.’
‘I suspect they have little time or money for that.’ mumbled Martha.
‘Nevertheless, one should seek high standard company if one is to progress in any social endeavour.’ Mr. Brittlestone was ruffling uneasily in his seat.
‘I will go today!’ he spat ‘to Her Majesty’s Violet District Advisory Department, to file a petition for a new privilege district. Let’s call it the Gold District!’ and gave a crass chortle.
‘I’m with you my good sir!’ jubilated Mr. Hayworth. ‘Finally, I can give my grandson, Henry, the future he deserves. He’s wasting his time in that care home. I have no idea why my son had the indignation of refusing my proposal to set him up in a private tutoring house.’
‘That truly is a shame.’ said Martha.
Mr. George Brittlestone gasped as he noticed the boy had left his seat. He rose heavily and surveyed the compartment with an implacable look. ‘Where is he?’ he roared. A sudden heated cough emerged from his voluminous chest, as if choking on his words.
‘Are you all right Sir George?’ Martha enquired in a gentle tone.
‘Ahem, hem, yes, quite alright.’ he replied briefly, still searching the room as he reclined back into his seat. He then added in a subdued voice. ‘There is a stowaway on this train, mark my words. And he’s a boy, without adult supervision. How they let them on these trains I cannot fathom.’
‘Surely we can tell the conductors at our next stop.’ said Mr. Hayworth while fixing his tie. ‘They’ll take care of it…well, of him.’ He then resumed to read his newspaper and the compartment became quiet again.
Peter was hiding under one of the seats, waiting for the train to come to a complete stop. The conductor yelled ‘Violet District!’, but the boy snuck out only after everyone had left. The crowd of elderly people outside was a convenient camouflage for a ten and a half year old. There were a few other people dragging their grandchildren along for the routine grandparents – grandchildren visits.
It’s been months since Peter had seen his grandfather. The old man had been battling heart problems for a long time and, from what he could tell from his father’s letter, was on his last page. Death is a strange thing for a boy who has hardly seen more in life than overactive children and tired adults. It’s not talked about much and neither should it be, lest it should make the little ones too nostalgic to focus on school. They were only told that grandparents disappear after a while, like a misplaced toy or a glove.
‘Watch it, boy.’ Peter jumped as a cane pushed him out of the way. He rushed to get to the little alleyways where people keep the trash. He hoped no one would follow him there.
The conductors patrolled the streets a few times, without much luck in finding him. They had been promptly informed by George Brittlestone as soon as the train had stopped. Peter curled up behind a fence, hiding from the shadows of the officials. Suddenly he got a tap on the shoulder.
‘Hey there friend!’ Peter gasped at seeing the stretched out, crooked smile of a pair of freckled cheeks. A pair of sparkly green eyes and messy, curly red hair followed. ‘My name is Lindy,’ she said and crouched next to Peter. ‘Are you here to see your grandpa?’
‘Y-yes, hi! I’m Peter. I don’t really know how to get to him though. Are you seeing your grandmother?’
‘Grandpa as well, actually. Me and my little brother Bernie.’ she pointed towards a small garbage bag on the side of the alleyway. A large pairs of eyes appeared behind it, gleaming with a complicit smile.
‘This way inspector Norton! I’m positive I heard tiny feet pattering this way.’ Sir George and an apathetic looking officer were rushing towards the alley where Peter and his newly found friends were now hiding.
‘Sir George, you are a respectable gentleman and I have always taken your word seriously,’ the inspector began, ‘I do not see the reasoning, however, behind raising our blood pressure like this.’
‘Inspector, you are the most capable out of all our senior officers. The young recruits brought in from the Green District are too hot headed and superficial.’ Mr. Brittlestone got flustered, snorting heavily.
‘I agree, my good Sir George.’ The inspector turned his stern face into a self pleased smile.
Inspector Norton got out his baton and extended it to a cane. He then began to poke each garbage bag on either side of the alley. His countenance betrayed subdued disgust.
Meanwhile Lindy had dragged Peter through a hole in the wall, along with her brother.
‘There is nothing here, let’s call it a day. We shall wait for reports given by our good senior citizens. They have a tendency to people watch from their gardens, while drinking tea.’
‘A shoe!’ Sir George gasped, foaming with enthusiasm. He ran to the place where he had spotted the little shoe, but it had already disappeared. ‘It was just here! How is this possible?’
‘Please contain yourself my good sir. Patience is the crown of our old age!’
‘Very well said!’ mumbled Mr. Brittlestone, still looking back as he trotted further away from his point of frustration.
Lindy, Peter and Bernie waited for a few more minutes and then slowly crawled out of the wall. Peter saw a few two storey buildings along the alleyway. They were made of sandstone, with large windows and violet curtains.
‘Welcome Peter!’ Lindy whispered. ‘What house do you come from?’
‘Oakwood house, ran by Mrs. Footstool.’ the boy said in one breath.
‘Aaaa, the nice Mrs. Footstool. We got her nasty sister at Willowpond.’ giggled Lindy.
‘She has a nose like a potatoh.’ Bernie hissed through the gap between his teeth.
‘This is Bernie, my brother. He’s four and a bit of a pain. But he loves his grandad.’
‘Pleased to meet you!’ Peter smiled, slightly disappointed that his plan wasn’t original.
‘We’re here to reshcue grandpa Joe!’ spat Bernie, jumping on the spot with glee.
‘Rescue him? From what?’
‘From what they do to grandparents when they’re no longer needed.’ his sister added gravely.
‘Do you mean…the Grey District?’ asked Peter as if not expecting an answer.
‘You know about that?’
‘Someone mentioned it on the train.’
‘It’s a nasty place, where old grandparents are sent to die. It’s said the “death”, as they call it, makes them disappear forever!’ Lindy’s eyes teared up. ‘My grandpa Joe is so old, I’m afraid I might have missed him. He was being sent there when our mother sent us the news.’
‘Oh no, Lindy, I sure hope not!’ Peter sprang with renewed forces. ‘I will help you find grandpa Joe and find my grandfather along the way. Father said he’s no longer home, where we used to visit him. Grandpa Ioan used to live alone, you see, but he could no longer take care of himself.’ Peter froze with terror at a realization. ‘Father said they’ve taken him to a special place where he can receive extra care. You don’t think -.’ Lindy lowered her head and gave a short nod.
The Violed District was a cluster of two storey houses, like the ones Peter had seen when hiding from the inspector and Sir George. It was speckled here and there with square parks with neatly cut grass, decorative trees and benches. In the middle of the district, a large, circular pavilion was the meeting point for the elderly. They would come there in the mornings, to drink tea, croche, knit, paint, discuss the kingdom’s politics and talk to each other about their successful children, all grown up and busy in the Green District.
A great river surrounded the Violet District, with a stone bridge separating it from the rest of the world. What not many people knew, however, was that another bridge existed, hidden from inquisitive eyes. Lindy, Peter and Bernie were hoping to find it, as their little feet carried them along the river. Their hopes were only based on rumours, but it was the only possible passage to the notorious Grey District. They moved quietly, hiding as often as they could behind gnarly oaks and darksome willows, listening for any danger. Twilight soon rested over the three children, who were exhausted and hungry after a long and fruitless walk.
‘I’m tired!’ Bernie sat down with a thump.
‘Let’s take a break behind that log by the bank.’ Lindy said, taking out a ham sandwich out of her backpack. ‘Are you hungry, Peter?’ she noticed Peter had no bag with him.
‘A little, but don’t worry about me. I thought we would find them by now.’ His stomach rumbled noisily. He scooped out some water from the river to silence it.
‘Here, have half of my sandwich. Bernie here’s yours. I also have an apple and a banana…oh and some toffees.’ she ended, smiling at her brother.
The stars soon appeared like white paint splotches onto a dark canvas. Time seemed to have stopped for a moment. The wind blew gently through their hair, whispering promises into their ears. The soft rustling of willows, the bubbling brook and the children’s munching were the only sounds that could be heard.
‘Look, a light!’ Bernie jumped, dropping his apple as he pointed at a dimly flickering light in the distance. It seemed to be coming from the river and was slowly moving towards them. A scent of smoked oak soon reached their noses.
‘Be quiet and stay still.’ Lindy whispered.
The light soon faded away and darkness encircled them in deep silence. The river purred softly in the dim moonlight, while the trees kept watch in quiet stillness.
‘I think it’s gone, whatever it was.’ Peter murmured.
‘Time to go! We’re not safe here.’ Lindy said with authority.
A bright light suddenly flooded the place where they stood. A croaking voice laughed with mischief. ‘Well look what the river brought in!’ the voice rang through broken teeth.
The figure stepped into the light, revealing a lean, crouched man, limping slowly towards them.
‘Grandpa Joe?’ Lindy burst out.
‘Crumpets, it’s ginger kitten!’ the old man gasped, ‘and butterball Bernie.’ he added affectionately.
‘I thought they took you away!’ Lindy sniggered and hugged her grandfather. Bernie just stared at his grandfather in amazement, while picking his nose.
‘They wanted to, but I found a good hiding place.’ Joe chuckled. ‘I was on my way there, actually, to get a few more sorry folk onto my boat.’
A siren broke the joyful atmosphere and lights from neighbouring houses scattered like fire.
‘Quick, in my boat!’ the old man urged.
The children clambered in grandpa Joe’s boat. He then turned off his lights and threw a leafy net over the boat. He pushed the boat away from the bank with a long stick and they drifted quietly downstream. A group of marching officers trotted reluctantly towards the bank. The windows of the side houses lay awake like giant orange eyes. The pupils were dark protruding heads, uttering half witted comments.
‘What’s all that racket?’ spat one long head.
‘We need to sleep.’ grunted another square one.
‘I saw some light coming from the river!’ shouted a round head.
‘Tea anyone?’ asked a short one.
‘No thank you!’ a few heads refused politely.
‘Everything is under control!’ one of the officers shouted as the siren stopped, leaving him awkwardly louder than necessary. ‘One of your good neighbours,’ he continued in a softer voice, ‘spotted some suspicious activity in the area.’
‘It was me, I do apologize for the commotion.’ snorted the round head.
‘Ah, Mrs. Brittlestone, it’s the middle of the night!’ croaked the heads on either side of her window.
‘I’ve got chamomile tea! Any takers?’
‘NO THANK YOU!’
They then proceeded to turn off their lights.
‘I am positive you will find some ruffians by the bank, officers.’ Mrs. Brittlestone insisted.
‘Thank you, madam, we’ll take it from here.’ said inspector Norton, who had just joined the group of officers.
‘Oh, I insist to be part of the investigation!’ she rang. Her light turned off before the officers could object.
‘She’s coming, inspector.’ one of the younger officers observed with apprehension.
‘Let her come, she’s just like her husband Sir George.’
‘Thirsty for justice, sir?’
‘Self-justice.’ inspector Norton corrected with a flicker of his brushlike moustache. ‘Gentlemen,’ he then proceeded in an authoritative voice, ‘several witnesses have confirmed spotting a small group of children roaming freely through town today. We must find them swiftly and discretely, without alarming.. ’, he softened his tone ‘too many senior residents.’
‘Yes, sir!’ they all shouted in unison.
‘Quiet!’ sir Norton grunted.
‘Sorry, sir.’ the officers whispered together.
‘Spread around and look for any signs of camping!’
A deep throated breathing noise came from behind inspector Norton. ‘Yes, Mrs. Brittlestone?’ he smiled diplomatically without turning.
‘You won’t find them here.’ she said, suspiciously calm.
‘The boatman has them.’
‘What boatman, my dear madam?’
‘The kind that floats under your nose, while you’re asleep. Is the deportation tomorrow?’
‘Yes, in the morning.’ he finally turned towards her with increased curiosity.
‘I’ve got a good feeling where you might find them.’ she ended, revealing a crooked grin.
Grandpa Joe was puffing his pipe contemplatively on the side of the boat. His eyes glimmered with starlight as he stared at the sky. ‘Please God’, he whispered, ‘let us not be too late.’ The little ones were huddled up on large cushions in the hull of the narrow boat. They had revealed all their grand plans to the old man and had fallen into the arms of slumber. He had smiled and laughed conspiratorially at their enthusiasm. It reminded him of a time when he was too young to believe some quests were too hard to accomplish. These children were a reflection of his lost hopes and strengths. Joe began to feel that some of these hopes were clinging onto him once more. He watched the sky until the sun stretched its brush to paint the horizon with gold and pink hues.
‘Grandpa?’ Lindy trudged next to her grandfather, her frizzy hair reaching epic proportions.
‘What’s the matter kitten?’ he wiped the tears from his ancient eyes.
‘I’m glad I found you!’ she smiled and hugged him. ‘But I wish to find Peter’s grandpa too.’
‘I know kitten, we’ll find him together.’
‘Do you know where he is?’ Lindy’s eyes opened up with a bright shine.
‘I have a good idea where he might be. Is everybody up?’
‘Yes, they’re ready for breakfast.’
Peter was still rubbing his eyes when grandpa Joe walked in and poured a giant pot of fishy gruel into a few bowls.
‘Ewww, what’s that shmell?’ Bernie said as she finally got up.
‘Breakfast dear, eat up and then we’re going to the departure pit in the Grey District.’ he added as if describing a field trip.
‘Pit like under pits?’ Bernie giggled.
‘It sure smells like it there Bernie.’ Grandpa Joe forced an encouraging smile. ‘I should know.’
After breakfast the children followed Joe along the river bank. They had hidden the boat under a couple of willows. Peter felt anxious, but couldn’t understand why. He understood that grandparents can disappear when they’re too frail to be of use any longer. It’s what grown ups call death. He understood from grandpa Joe that the departure pit was a cruel, smelly place. Is death really as bad as his friends made it out to be? Why do people die?
‘Grandpa Joe?’ Peter began, running to catch up with the long legged old man.
‘Yes ma boy? Don’t be too eager, you’d be amazed at how many coffee drinking, cat stroking, window peering old roosters there are around these parts.’ He gave a toothless crackle of a laugh, his eyes twinkling with conspiracy.
They were now on the outskirts of the Violet District. The river ran through a small thicket of trees. Painted wood houses could be seen seeping through the trees. Some of them had streaks of smoke puffing gently in the morning light.
‘Are we really going to the place where grandpas disappear?’
‘Right you are, in the middle of it all! Some of you might still find them there if you haven’t heard from your pa’s and ma’s in a while. I know Lindy would have found me there if it wasn’t for my escape.’ He gave a bittersweet smile as Lindy leapt to grab his hand.
‘So grandpas can still be found? They don’t go forever?’ Peter asked with hope.
Grandpa Joe patted Peter on the back, but could not answer him.
‘How did you escape? Did you fight all the officers with your strong fists?’ Lindy smiled.
‘Did you burp really loudly and scared all the birds to fly into the bad men?’ Bernie added trotting behind his sister.
‘There are no bad men, children, only misunderstood ones.’
Grandpa Joe became very quiet and contemplative for a while. His walk became heavier and his frown deeper as he shrank lower and lower behind a tree. The children followed like pebbles tumbling in a brook.
‘Listen to what I’m telling you, oddballs. We’re here to look for your ma’s and pa’s. We’re not leaping like hungry caterpillars at a giant leaf. If you see them, I’ll go and turn myself in. I’m the only one who knows the way out.’ His moustache bristled with determination.
‘Grandpa you can’t leave us!’ Lindy’s eyes swelled up with tears.
‘Ginger kitten, I’m not leaving you. I’ll show those old bats the way out and come right back at you. Once I give you the all’s clear, you can come and greet them.’
They stopped on the cusp of a bleak, misty valley. A dark, heavy smell of firewood and wet dog entered their nostrils. Smog had covered the ground with grey ashes. The wind stood still, the air thick and warm with despair. At the feet of a wandering old man and three children stood the place where hope goes to its deathbed, the departure pit.
After waiting for the morning mist to lift, the children could see a tall fence surrounding a group of small brick huts. In the middle of the fenced area a giant pit fumed slowly. A thick grey moat surrounded the fence, with only one bridge connecting the recluse island to the mainland. A small blue bus drove slowly over it and waited for two heavy iron gates to open. A deep, melancholic screeching noise echoed through the valley. The bus drove through the gates and stopped in front of the fuming pit. A stout driver stepped out with a grave walk, his uniform tight around his belly. He opened the bus door with a jerk.
‘Everybody out, deportation time!’ he groaned with a deep voice.
Pairs of half bent, half limping elders stepped out with the help of three softly spoken nurses. They were saying things like ‘ Alright dearies’, ‘Here we go’, ‘We’ll soon have a cup of tea.’ or ‘How do you feel about watching some telly?’ Responses were retorted with feeble moans or forgetful laughs or the odd ‘How is Bessie dear, did she pack her bags?’
These lonely souls, either with indifferent relatives or dissipating minds were, as the districts called them, inefficient to society. Their minds could no longer count numbers, their hands could not lift items heavier than a spoon and their voices had little sense left. Here was the place where they went to be forgotten or to forget the world they left behind.
One lanky middle aged man pushed a cart filled with luggage through the mud. He stopped when reaching the pit and reluctantly started lifting and throwing the contents onto the ground. The three nurses took each suitcase in turn and rummaged through meticulously. They were all wearing pastel coloured clothing with white aprons and had neatly combed hair.
‘You won’t be needing this, Mrs. Matthews.’ said a plump looking nurse as she took out an alarm clock with flowers encrusted on the sides. She then flung it smiling into the pit.
‘Families are no longer needed now, I’m afraid, they will only increase suffering.’ said another nurse, with a rather large nose, and threw a framed photograph into the pit.
‘Sir, you don’t seem to have a name tag, what is your name? ’ asked a third, bulky nurse, with the arms of a man, as she took out a toy train from an old man’s suitcase.
‘Ioan Arinis.’ said the old man reluctantly. ‘I wasn’t given time to get a name tag.’ he added.
‘Well, yes, these procedures can be quite rapid and the inessentials get lost along the way.’ she then turned to throw the train into the pit.
‘No!’ Ioan burst ‘l-l-leave the train.’ he stuttered.
‘I’m sorry Mr. Arinis, but you won’t be needing this. You have all the comforts in your forget-me-not-house.’
‘I-I don’t want to forget.’ he pleaded and grabbed onto the nurse’s arm.
‘Mr. Arinis please keep still!’ she demanded and signaled to the other nurses with a raised chin and tight lips. They immediately took hold of him.
‘What is it that you don’t want to forget?’ she now asked with visibly reduced anxiety.
Ioan bowed his head under the strain of tears.
‘Or…should I say..who is it that you don’t want to forget?’ the nurse added with a sugar coated tone.
‘Grandpa!’ a voice bellowed from the gates. Peter was running wildly towards his grandfather.
‘Firecrackers in my pyjamas!’ grandpa Joe exclaimed, still on top of the hill. He had lost track of the boy as he had snuck down the hill quietly.
‘Stop that boy!’ the three nurses hissed.
The round driver stretched out his arms to grab him, but Peter dove under and stopped into his grandfather’s arms.
‘Quick, oddballs,’ grandpa Joe urged, ‘we don’t have much time! After me!’
The children and grandpa Joe ran clumsily down the hill as the gates were shutting with an eerie echo. Peter and his grandfather were separated by two of the nurses.
‘There are no visiting hours here, young man.’ the manly nurse spat, clasping his arm like a boa constrictor.
‘Peter, my boy, you shouldn’t have come.’ grandpa Ioan said in a feeble voice.
The gates opened once more and in the middle of their frame stood Mr. and Mrs. Brittlestone, with inspector Norton and a dozen officers. Grandpa Joe and the rest of the children were being pushed forward with sharp canes. George Brittlestone rubbed his hands and licked his lips with satisfaction.
‘Ah, here we are.’ he snorted, a few stowaways forgetting their place. ‘To the pit!’ he demanded with menacing eyes.
The officers did as they were instructed.
‘No more children in the Grey District and those that call themselves children should be no more.’ Mrs. Brittlestone uttered prophetically.
Peter looked at Lindy and Bernie who were holding grandpa Joe’s hands. Lindy’s gaze was downwards, the blush had lifted from her cheeks. The group was now at the brink of the pit. The strong armed nurse grabbed grandpa Joe and turned him towards her with force. ‘You look familiar’, she smiled with contempt.
‘Throw them in.’ rang Mrs. Alma Brittlestone, wringing her hands maliciously.
‘Madam, I’m not sure that is within the protocol.’ protested inspector Norton, surprised at her outburst.
‘The lines are grey here, my good sir Norton.’ Mr. Brittlestone laughed stupidly at his own pun.
One of the brick houses started descending into the ground, similar to a lift.
‘Who ordered that?’ demanded the plump nurse, trying to look taller than she was.
Three of the officers, led by inspector Norton walked towards what was now a submerged roof. A moment of silence followed, as the view reminded the senior looker-ons of a tombstone.
‘Was someone inside?’ asked Peter, breaking the silence with a crude realization.
‘Not yet, my boy.’ whispered grandpa Ioan with a sigh.
‘Quiet you two!’ grunted the large armed nurse. ‘If you’re up to something, mark my words, you’ll be in for bitter tears.’ Her fingers were now digging into Peter’s shoulders.
Silence settled once more and it seemed heavy and long. Lindy could hear Bernie’s heart beating. Peter looked at his grandad who seemed to be praying under his breath. ‘All will be well!’ he finally said.
A clunking sound soon emerged from the gravelike structure as it slowly lifted to its original place. Bustling, breaking and mumbling noises could be heard from inside. A familiar sudden laughter soon emerged as the door sprung open.
A few dozen children came racing outside, their eager eyes searching for their beloved grandparents. Their shouting and cheering filled the valley with the joyful sounds of childhood. Behind them, fanning herself vigorously, lady Daria Petal advanced with a cheeky smile.
‘What is this nonsense?’ the Brittlestones shrieked with indignation.
‘Lady Petal!’ inspector Norton greeted her, taking his hat off with respect. ‘What brings your ladyship here…in such a fashion?’
‘Ah, I was hoping to find you here inspector.’ she smiled with a shrew look. ‘As adviser to Her Majesty, I managed to finalize the plans for dissolving the Grey District.’
‘WHAT?’ George Brittlestone foamed with anger. ‘What do you mean, DISSOLVE? Where are the inefficient old hags to go?’
‘I believe this official document,’ lady Petal continued unsinged, ‘will attest the proposal of having grandchildren look after their grandparents and…erm, old hags as you call them.’ She then handed a sealed letter to inspector Norton.
‘But this is absurd!’ Mrs. Alma Brittlestone clenched her teeth. ‘Children are incompetent – little – rodents.’ she erupted and rushed to grab Bernie from his grandfather’s grasp.
‘Contain yourself madam.’ Sir Norton removed Mrs. Brittlestone from her prey with one arm, while reviewing the document. ‘It seems legitimate.’
He cleared his throat and gave a minuscule smile. ‘Officers, please escort our young and elderly folk to the Blue District and make sure they are taken care of properly.’
The children rejoiced with confusion and gratitude, while The Brittlestones were circling around the group like a couple of hungry vultures. Everyone was slowly walking towards the gates, trying to make sense of their newly found freedom.
‘Lady Petal!’ Peter finally burst out, ‘Thank you, thank you so much!’
‘Ah, it is you Peter that I should thank. You reminded me of the one person that I truly cared about.’ she then shook Peter’s hand and he noticed her golden ring had disappeared.
‘Did you get in trouble because of me?’ he continued humbly.
‘I pulled a few strings…and broke some of them.’ she laughed and gave him a hug. ‘Let’s just say this is the dawn of a new era, to make it sound dramatic.’ Lady Petal flung her head back, then lifted her pink dress slightly as she stepped over a puddle, towards grandpa Ioan. ‘You must be the lost grandfather!’ she smiled and raised her right hand to his lips.
‘Ioan Arinis, ma’am, the pleasure is all mine.’ he bowed to kiss Lady Petal’s white fingers.
Lady Petal gave him a wink, which soon turned into a squint as the small blue bus splashed her with muddy water. The bus raced past them, with the apathetic faces of the three nurses in the back. Lady Petal used her fan to shake the moment and the water off and then quickly turned to Peter.
‘Now, how would you and your friends feel about some nice rose tea and honey?’
‘Oh yes pleashe!’ Bernie shouted from a few feet in front. ‘And then all the pa’s and ma’s can come to our houshe and live there forever!’ he jumped with glee. Everyone became silent.
‘That’s a story for another time, ma boy.’ grandpa Joe ended with a smile, as they stepped over the bridge and out of the Grey District.