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Historical Fiction Speculative

London was a cold and dreary place, and its inhabitants could do little more than pray for an ounce of warmth. It was a time of great hardship; death and disease were rife, and for those who survived life promised its own brand of suffering.


Gathered under the awning of a tall, bleak building - the roof of which was caked in an ever-thickening layer of fresh snow that seemed the very antithesis of the dark slate beneath it - a group of young children dressed in tattered rags and moth-bitten coats sat huddled together like penguins to conserve warmth. They blew wisps of lukewarm air into their cupped hands for the brief moment of feeling that returned when they did and watched as it swirled through the gaps between their fingers and into the biting evening wind with forlorn countenances.


The school had been closed that day due to the almost relentless snowfall, and on any other day they would have rejoiced at their escape from the monotony of writing lines and dodging the ruler the schoolmistress wielded like the battle-axes her Viking ancestors favoured, but even the least enthusiastic of students and those with the poorest of penmanship would choose the way routine numbed their minds over the frost that seemed to numb their very bodies that night.


One of the children, a boy of 13 or so whose scrawny frame gave him the look of a child two years younger - notorious for his ability to devolve even the most miserable of situations into yet another laughing matter - adjusted the woollen hat sat atop his head and opened his mouth to offer a witty remark, but the words froze in his throat before he could think of anything particularly meaningful and he masked the squeak that escaped him with a cough.


One of the others looked over at him anyway, a girl so small and swaddled in cloth that she could easily have been mistaken for a bundle of linen. In fact, were it not for the wide brown eyes that seemed to be staring straight through him and the insistent tug of her fist on his trouser leg, he probably wouldn't have noticed her himself. 


She lifted her hands towards him, bare fingers chubby in that youthful way of theirs and pink from the cold, and huffed when he didn't react, gesturing more insistently to be picked up.


A quick glance at the rest of the group confirmed that they were still preoccupied with warming themselves up as best they could, the endeavour made exponentially more difficult by the fact that they were yet to find a route out of the cold that was affecting them in the first place, and he hesitated for only a second longer before reaching down beneath the girl's arms and lifting her up and onto his hip, supporting her back with one hand and steadying her with the other.


She giggled at the newfound height, head twisting this way and that like a baby owl testing out its field of view and legs kicking excitedly. The novelty of being picked up understandably wore off, and she buried her face into the scratchy felt of his coat with a wide yawn when it did.


The whistling of the wind certainly made hearing more difficult, but her proximity helped him to realise that her sleepy mumbles weren't the product of a dozing mind but one word in particular.


"Cold," she would mutter periodically, shivering in his arms as she shifted about to make herself more comfortable, and he had to clear his throat against the sudden lump that seemed to have formed there before he could reply.


"It's okay," he whispered, heart clenching when she merely whimpered in response, holding her closer and hoping against hope that they'd find a way out of the cold sooner rather than later. "We're going to be fine." 


He wasn't sure why the words felt like a lie leaving his mouth.


The leader of the group, a tall lanky boy sporting a five o'clock shadow that had gone a considerable way to cementing his position as the eldest, called the rest over from where they had wandered off slightly in small groups of two or three. It seemed that somebody knew of an abandoned station not too far from where they were now that often acted as refuge to those without, and he suggested that they make their way there.


It had become clear fairly early on that the wealthy owner of the manor they were assembled under to shield themselves from the worst of the weather was not going to offer them a place to warm up or a drink to sip on, only a disapproving glare and the swooshing closed of the curtains, so there were no arguments against the idea, and after collecting the little they had in terms of personal belongings they were soon on their way to their shelter for the night.


The station itself was dark and damp, lit only by the oil lamps some of the people who called it home were carefully tending to. One had to be mindful of the belongings strewn across the floor and the sometimes frightfully still bodies of the people they belonged to when walking through in order to avoid tripping and coming face to face with someone who was unlikely to ever wake up again.


The onlookers who were conscious didn't seem much more affable so he kept his gaze down, focusing on the worn soles of the boy walking ahead to avoid meeting any of their eye. A sudden loud and drunken-sounding laugh made him flinch and tighten his hold on the girl he was holding, so concerned with keeping his head down and counting his steps - left, right, left, right - that he very nearly bumped into the boy in front of him when he came to a stop.


It seemed that a small and forgotten alcove that had been carved into the station's walls near the entrance (and promptly bricked over) could be reached if one side-stepped through the crumbling divide, and it had been decided that staying away from the other occupants of the area would be prudent.


The gap wasn't very big - it stretched from the dripping ceiling to the floor where the droplets were congregating, but its width was roughly a third of that of a normal doorframe - and anyone wanting to go through would have to risk bruising themselves on the bricks that jutted out at uneven intervals in order to do so. 


With a hand on the back of the little girl's head to stop her from banging it against the wall or being jostled too much, he manoeuvred his way into the nook and placed her down on the floor so she could choose where to stay before taking a seat, thighs pressed tightly against those of the people on either side of him in the confined space. The girl looked around the small area searchingly, eyes landing on him almost immediately and hands reaching out for him.


He gestured for her to come nearer and she toddled over to him, toppling over next to him, half in his lap and half in the lap of the boy next to him, who just turned his head to smile at them both before turning back to the conversation he was having.


With a look that spoke of pure determination, she clambered closer to him, reaching up towards his head for balance and grabbing his hat instead. Too big, it slid off and into her hands with relative ease, and he reached a hand up to his flatten his hair.


They had all stopped shivering before they'd even reached the station and he felt far warmer than he had that entire day, so when she offered it to him with an almost apologetic look he simply took it and fixed it on her head instead, tapping her nose when she grinned toothily up at him.


The sound of some of the older children speaking in low tones amongst themselves over in one of the corners and the snoring of those who had dozed off slowly lulled them both into a dreamless, deep sleep.


The next morning, the constable strolled through the station in his pressed royal blue coat, nudging loiterers with the tip of a polished boot as he passed and sending those that woke up away with a stern look. When his patrol had almost come to a close and he was ready to leave the chill of the underground area for the sunlight of the surface, he noticed a small gap (which was really little more than a hole in the wall of the station itself) that he hadn't come across on his way in. It seemed to lead away from the beaten track of the main station, and after only a moment of contemplation he grumbled, resigned, and squeezed through with a cough when he winded himself against the wall.


Even in the relative warmth of daybreak there was a slight draught in the area, and he pulled his shoulders up to his ears once he was through in an attempt to fend it off.


There at the end of the tunnel he found a group of children, practically lying on top of one another to fit together as close as possible in the confined space.


They were all in various stages of hypothermia, some dying, most already dead, lips blue and purple like blooms of irises in a spring field. He had to blink away tears at the sight of a small girl, younger than the daughter he had kissed goodbye to that very morning, curled up in the lap of a boy, too-large hat on her head and frozen fist clenched around his index finger like a failed lifeline.


He shook them all and checked for a pulse, helping the few that responded to their feet so he could guide them outside to safety. 

With one final glance back at those he was too late for, and a brief thought to who it was that they were leaving behind, if anyone, he turned back to the children still waiting for him and walked out into the morning sunshine.


A warmer world is what each of those children wished for that night, and though none of them would live to see it, their wish would indeed be granted one day.


From the chimney of a distant factory, almost as if on cue, the first of the smoke began to rise.

September 16, 2021 17:39

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7 comments

Marion Ryleigh
10:35 Sep 17, 2021

Thoughtful portray of poverty/reality that captured and held my attention. There is tenderness to be found between the entirely believable and relatable characters, driving humanity in the story. Loved the subtle yet thought-provoking hint to the industrial revolution at the end.

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Michelle A.A.
16:02 Sep 17, 2021

Thank you so much for the kind words! I'm glad you found the story engaging and the characters likeable; I wanted to explore some of the wider issues in society without losing focus on the individuals within the story so it's a relief that it came across well, as is the fact that the reference to the industrial revolution and climate change wasn't too obscure. Thanks again for commenting!

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Ananya Voss
22:24 Sep 23, 2021

I loved your prose, and you capture the profound sadness of child poverty and the unpalatable mix with the cold really well. So sad

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Michelle A.A.
15:18 Sep 24, 2021

Thank you for commenting, Ananya! Prose is something I get a bit nervous about from time to time - I don't want things to seem too dense or anything - so it's really encouraging that you picked it out as something you liked. Glad you enjoyed the story!

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Ananya Voss
17:24 Sep 24, 2021

I did! If you get time, please look at mine. Thks x

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Amanda Fox
18:01 Sep 20, 2021

This was very well-written - very sad and human.

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Michelle A.A.
16:33 Sep 23, 2021

I'm glad you thought so. Thank you for reading, and commenting too!

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