The boy woke to the sound of a shrill scream.
It was the sort of exclamation one might produce when confronted with an unsavory pest–high in timber and volume and fuelled by both surprise and disgust. It drowned out the sound of the wheels clicking their way through rails, and he could no longer detect distant ever-present rumble of the engine. It was an outcry of such dismay and fear that the boy’s eyelids snapped open with adrenaline, what little energy left in him struggling to produce a fight-or-flight response. Two blue irises, both shrouded in repulsion, met his fuzzy gaze. When the woman spoke, her indignation was so strong that it choked her sentences and wheedled exclamation marks from every phrase.
“A hall urchin! Here! Why I never–!”
A cooler male voice interrupted “Ma’am, please remain calm. We will remove this pestilence immediately.”
“Oh, you’d bett’r see that you do! How dare these vermin invade our compartments—it’s bad enough we allowed them on the train as it is, and now they’re running amok! See I told my husband, I told him we shouldn’ve let that rabble on the train–” She broke off for a breath, the pearls at her neck stretching with each heave, and frantically waved a man in expensive fabrics over: “Tell’em, Frank, didn’t I say to you before that we should’n let them on the train? I was right, I reckon! Complet—”
“Thank you, ma’am, we’ll take it from here.” The cooler voice again, this time with irritated undertones. The boy barely registered the hand fastening on to his collar before he was dragged roughly along the floor, through and past an iron curtain of a barricade which divided the Urchins from the Posh. The minute they’ve crossed into an empty car on the urchins’ side of the train, the man–a conductor, by the feel of his white gloves—immediately tossed the boy like a sack of potatoes against the opposing wall.
Eyes flashing with distaste, the red uniform-clad man opened his mouth, but the boy spoke first.
“Please sir.” His voice shook. “I only wanted a warm place to sleep. We don’t have heaters, and I figured, well, there was plenty of floor nobody over there was using–”
“You dared think you could encroach upon the better side of the train, dirtying the floors of upstanding men and women. You dared pass a night in their compartment.” Incredulousness trickled through every word. This was not mere spite. It was spite and disbelief and total abhorrence.
“I was cold sir, so cold and so hungry–”
The conductor gave no sign of hearing any of the boy’s pleas. “A wee Urchin who fancies himself good enough to be Posh, to interact with the Posh, to share the same air as the Posh! Ha!” He strode forwards and jerked the boy’s collar again. “Tell me, what made you think you could? What kind of revolting little mind must you have to think you, a mere urchin, deserve anything belonging to us?”
The boy’s voice had lost all its simper. His eyes which had widened with fury when the conductor first spoke, now glittered hard as diamonds. “I didn’t fancy myself anything, you utter pig, least of all something as despicable as a Posh. I’m sorry I ever considered you lot human.”
For a moment, the man was utterly still. When he spoke, his tone had a poisonous softness. His fingers tightened on the collar of the boy’s shirt in a vice-like grip.
“Often on this train, there comes a time when there’s simply not enough room for certain passengers. Those passengers have committed serious offences, and make very poor travelling companions besides.”
The conductor raked his eyes over the boy’s stoic face. The man’s voice lowered almost reverently as he continues:
“And do you know what happens when there’s no more space for them? You see, they get off the train.”
There was a flash of red uniform, and a sudden column of icy wind blasted the boy straight in the face, making his eyes water. With incredible celerity, the conductor’s other hand had darted to the right and pressed a button. From his position on the ground, the boy could glimpse blurry flashes of verdure through the now open train door, and panic crawled into his vocal cords as the hand on his collar tightened.
“I can’t get off now!” The boy shrieked with abject horror and hysteria. “My station isn’t here yet! You can’t–you can’t, you monster!”
For a second, the conductor’s grip faltered, and the boy launched himself past the man towards the door to the next compartment. His hands twisted and wrenched at the handles with knuckles as white as his blanched face. His bony fingers tugged. His bony fingers tugged some more. But the doors would not open and then there was wind and cold and pain pain pain—-
The external compartment door slid shut. The wheels turned, the engines clanked and rattled, and the smoke stack spewed its thick white fumes. The train rounded a bend, and forgot the boy who, like many others, disembarked too soon.