Keeping one step behind her godmother, Esmeralda stared at her red shoes as she entered the train station. She loved the way they clicked on the cobblestone under the grey morning sky.
“Esmeralda?” Her godmother spoke into the air as they walked into the building. She was a tall lanky woman who never let her chin drop below her jawline.
The girl lifted her gaze away from her shoes and looked up. The lights were giant stars hanging in tight clusters high in the decorative iron works of the station ceiling. Giant stars, but small in the dark station air.
“Yes, godmother?” Esmeralda answered dropping her head back down to watch the red of her shoes. Her fingers were interlaced in front of her. Both hands bounced a little. She liked her hands. They were perfect. Pale, yes, but not so much that they were offsetting, and certainly not malnourished. There were lines running across the knuckle of her top thumb, but they were small.
Bounce, bounce, bounce. She liked that.
“Do not hesitate when I call you, girl. You must answer at once. ‘Here, godmother.’ Say it crisply and smartly.” The woman looked back over her shoulder to see the red of the girl’s new traveling dress. She still kept a suitable pace. “We’re nearly there.”
“Yes, godmother,” Esmeralda responded quickly. Her eyes rose from her bouncing hands and watched the woman as she walked. When people see you in the world, you should look as though you don’t mind being seen, she had told Esmeralda often enough. The woman’s dress was formal, a deep elegant white, almost creamy. It wrapped her body so tightly, the veins bulged across her forearms until they found escape at the wrists. Complementing the outfit was a hat – the smallest Esmeralda had ever seen. Matching the owner’s dress, it could have fit comfortably in the hollow of her own bouncing palms. She didn’t know how it stayed in the woman’s hair all pulled tightly to the back and greying as it was, but there it stood, as if gripped to her scalp for fear of falling to the ground.
Before today, Esmeralda had counted the number of times she had been to the station. Nine. Not that she travelled anywhere, of course; she just went to look. The place nearly always made her giddy with wonder. The first time was before her parents left and she had to stay with her godmother. From the outside, it was another grey factory – bland brick on all sides.
She remembered wanting to walk around it; naturally her father allowed it. The walls around the building all moulded together into a solid stone covering, tapering as it climbed into the air. Greyed windows around a large iron-framed entrance open to the Penrith public. As drab as every building she had seen in the town before.
The inside however – another world completely, one she fell in love with. The dark on the inside of the iron gates certainly changed the way she felt about the day, but that wasn’t what kept bringing her back. it wasn’t the people either. In as magnificently interesting as she found them, all their different voices and glances. Some of them shouted, some listened. Young, old, boys and girls, The unhurried had just as much a destination as those who rushed. It wasn’t the beautiful clicks on the floor either, as happy to be there as they all were. For Esmeralda, it was always the color – the vibrance of the shoes, the gloves, and the travel hats and scarves which sprinkled her vision. She could stand there, right in the entrance, wherever, and watch them all. Teeming as they rushed in and out in a flurry of sounds and a wash of colors. Travelers, workers, and train staff alike strutted across the polished cobblestone with a symphony of clicks and taps, each with their own decidedly appropriate way to dress to meet the day most suitably. She remembered walking to the middle of the station, being surrounded by it all, and gaping, tickled to be afloat in a rainbow of human energy.
“We must be sure of our pace, Esmeralda.” Her godmother’s voice snapped her out of another daydream. “Do we remember our train’s departure?” the woman asked, still looking ahead. With each militant step the woman took, the miniature hat shook on her tight hair with jagged flits.
“Five thirty sharp, ma’am,” Esmeralda said. She stopped her hands bouncing briefly; she had to be careful about what she said next.
“And what time is it now?” asked her godmother, looking off to the side.
But again she was drawn away.
From a prominent wall near the center of the station, the glow of a pearly moon-sized clock face wrapping itself around her. As far as Esmeralda knew, it was the only moon on earth, the guardian of Penrith, guardian of the whole station, guardian of her. One of her favorite things. In the shower of the clock’s moonlight, Esmeralda closed her eyes, craned her neck and opened her arms wide. The warmth of the guardian held her. I’m at the center of the world, she thought.
“Esmeralda, the time!” Her godmother had turned and stopped, her creamy dress drab now as she stationed her feet just outside the light of guardian’s embrace.
Inhaling and allowing her eyes to open just enough to see the clock the way others saw the clock. The numbers against the glow of the pale backdrop were a pretty swirl of dark bronze and teal. She could stare at them the whole afternoon if she were allowed. The long hands were heavy sticks of woven iron twirling from the clock’s center to pointy arrowed tips.
“Five seventeen, ma’am,” said Esmeralda.
“Move, girl,” the woman snapped again. “We musn’t get lost in things that are not part of our destination.”
Behind her a billowing cloud of white topped the large iron mass of a train at the far end of the station, slowing before it’s final puff of a stop. The girl’s eyes twinkled. What a gorgeous hunk of black metal. The smoke above looked likea marshmallow hat; the front of the train seemed to have a big metal face. It was very happy to see her coming.
“Well, well! If it isn’t the prettiest girl in the station!” A squat elderly man with a puffy white mustache waddled up to the duo with bright eyes and a worn smile. He had on the familiar grey and white uniform of the train station staff. Doffing his conductor hat, he approached Esmeralda in the light of the moon.
“Good morning, Mr. Gibbons,” the woman sighed from the shadow, a feigned smile straining her lips, “so nice to see you.” Her eyes never met his. Instead they darted about the station awkwardly, blinking with every switch of direction.
“Good morning, Mr. Gibbons!” Esmeralda smiled.
“And a good morning to you, Your Highness,” he said removing his hat and tucking it under his arm. He made a slight bow. His head dipped over his protruding belly allowing several wisps of white hair to unfurl and fall languidly away. He straightened and knelt at her front. “And what brings you to my fine station today?”
“I’m going on a trip!” Esmeralda said.
“A trip?” the man’s eyes widened into saucers of concern. “But, but…who will lead the nation in your absence, my Queen?”
Esmeralda placed her hands on his shoulders, her forehead and nose touched his own. “I’m placing you in charge, Sir Gibbons.” The touch warmed the old man’s soul.
“Count on me, Your Grace,” he said, lowering his head
“Come, child,” cleared the woman still standing and looking away, “it’s time to go!” Her head was up and the learning of her throat was forced . “Say good-bye to Mr. Gibbons.”
Mr. Gibbons straightened up at the shake of the woman’s voice. “Very well, Your Majesty. Duty calls. Here.” He reached into an inside breast pocket of his coat. “For the journey,” he said filling Esmeralda’s hands with a small trove of chocolates, each individually wrapped red.
Her big eyes shone on him with a grand-daughterly love. She opened her mouth to speak.
“Come girl!,” snapped her godmother. “You will not miss this train. Now, thank the man and we move.” She reached down and grabbed Esmeralda’s hand and pulled into movement. Esmeralda shoved the chocolates into the open pocket of her red dress as she was lifted into motion. She liked that she had pockets. When she bounced, things could stay with her.
“Thank you, Mr. Gibbons!” she had to speak it while being hastily turned and rushed into motion.
“Thank you, Mr. Gibbons,” the woman sighed sharply as she kept her head up and away, hauling the girl along.
“Ah, of course, ma’am!” the conductor said, standing and waving his grey hat. “Be safe, child. Enjoy your tr~”
“For nothing,” she continued, her voice low as she cleared her throat. She continued toward the terminal, her head straight, nose up. Esmeralda missed the end of his words as the raucous animation of the train station enveloped her again. The bold colors of it whirred by her as she and her godmother strolled along the central red-bricked center of the walkway. Passengers, restaurant workers, booksellers, and ticket agents all played a part; whether standing in line or racing from one wall to the next, they formed a wave of colors in the tapestry of the moment. Passing by the forest green of the empty or half-empty benches, or waiting in line at the striped black-and-white newspaper kiosks, and the blue food stands, the colors of the people painted their own masterwork in front of her. Esmeralda sighed in a wish to walk more slowly. It was dark – the train station. But it was her own personal cave of colors, her very favorite place.
Her free hand dashed to her pocket. At least I have these. She allowed her fingers to count each wrapping as they jumbled in their quiet compartment. Bouncing in their own way, the chocolates kept pace with her.
Two loud whistle calls piped out of an already-steaming locomotive up ahead. Its roll was slow at first – almost unnoticeable upon the well-kept orange of the iron tracks beneath it. Small puffs of cloud sprung from the stack of the lead car.
Each bloom of smoke a bit larger than the one before.
A slender man in a perfectly-pressed blue uniform stepped out from the shadow of a nearby pillar, cupped his hands around his mouth, and hollered into the crowd.
“449, All Aboard! — second call!”
The low guttural grumble from the woman came then from a wan wrinkled throat. “No! No! Move girl, this is your train! I will not have you here one second longer than need be.” She tightened her grip on the girl’s arm and hauled her closer as the train’s goliath body began to pick up pace. Ahead of them, several passengers were showing their papers and jaunting up the steps into the iron body.
The whirr of the station had become a collage of colors on both sides and Esmeralda’s head swiveled. There were creams, lavenders, blues, whites, and easy yellows.
And then a purple.
So odd was it to see such a neon hue of purple that Esmeralda stopped mid-stride, ripping her wrist from her godmother’s grip to fully allow the observation. She heard the woman’s yell, but the strain of the noise swept by her.
The rich glow in the middle of the train station drifted playfully amid the hustle of the crowd a dancing light of a broach on the soft lapel of an elderly woman. Her curly white hair matched her jacket and shoes. Her figure moved slowly as she maneuvered a thin cane at her front to make her way across the vast train-station floor. A younger woman stood at her side, her hands around the woman’s arm to help her along. With her the filigree-cushioned stone passed by Esmeralda and out of sight.
How pretty, she thought.
“…here right this minute, young lady! This train will not wait for you!” Her godmother’s voice descended on her, sonorous, scolding, snapping her back to the forced quick pace of dull necessity. Esmeralda spun in time to see the green coat of another man walking headlong into her. He was checking his watch and did not see the girl before he barreled into her. Together they tumbled to the unforgiving cobblestone of the station floor, green and red mixed in a downward fall.
She winced in pain and let out a cry as she rolled onto her back. A scattering of ticking pattered across the floor around her, and through teary eyes, she found the chocolates Mr. Gibbons had given her. strewn about in a spray of red dots on the cobblestone.
“You get up this instant, you wretched thing! Dawdle along is all you do! I’ll not waste one more moment looking after you and your nonsense. GET UP!”
She was just rising into a seated position when she felt the woman’s icy wrist on one of her own. The man in green had already hurried back into the crowd.
“No!” She shouted then, flipping back over, waving the woman’s hand away from her. “No, wait, my candies!” Behind her the steam billowed, the body of the iron beast picking up pace.
puff-PUFF-puff, puff-PUFF-puff, puff-PUFF-puff
“449 – last call. All aboard!”
On hands and knees, Esmeralda crawled about in a panic rushing to pick up wrapper after wrapper, her knees rubbing the lower edge of her red dress into the well-worn concrete of the train-station floor. “My candies,” she continued to yell. “They match my dress. No, please, ma’am. One more minute!”
She had five collected when her godmother’s claws snatched the back of her dress and clasped her around the front of her neck, lurching her up onto her feet. “Now!”
Esmeralda’s eyes quivered behind watery gates. She sniffled and tucked in her lips before feeling herself ripped toward the train. “Wait!” Her godmother shouted at the moving iron wagon. Her white-gloved hand clutching a paper ticket and waving it wildly in the air.
“Wait, please. Oh, please wait! One more.” Behind her, the grip she held on Esmeralda’s wrist began to pool with small droplets of blood on the underside. Esmeralda grimaced and bit her lip as her red shoes fumbled to rush along.
“I’m sorry, madam,” said the man looking down to mark notes on a ticketing pad. “You’ve missed this one, I’m afraid. Next train to London runs in three days’ time, same hour.” He jotted two more quick strokes in his book, tipped his hat without eye contact, and walked off.
Her godmother turned on Esmeralda with bitter rage.
“This is your fault!” she growled. She shot a gloved hand high in the quiet station air, palm open, eyes wide.
Esmeralda’s eyes squinted and she dipped her head into her shoulder and waited.
In the span of several hard breaths, whispers began to flutter into the air around them. The woman’s eyes darted from one side of her powdered gaunt face to another. Reluctantly, she slowed her breathing and lowered her forearm to her hair. The other hand came up to assist with the ruse. She straightened as she checked the stability of the small hat.. It remained rigid; it knew its place.
As a slender man in a grey traveling suit, and matching bowler approached, her face immediately regained composure. He offered a nod a smirked a greeting before holding out a palmful of wrapped chocolates. “I believe these belong to your daughter?”
The woman’s eyes moved only, falling to the red scattering in his hand. Then to him, to Esmeralda, and back to the candies before she gave a lugubrious sigh.
“No,” she said clearing her throat. “No, I’m afraid you’re mistaken. I don’t have a daughter.” Her eyes rolled obligatorily to Esmeralda. “I came to the station alone today.”
The man’s face slacked as his eyes slid from her to Esmeralda.
“You’re speaking of this, I presume.” she gestured to Esmeralda open handed. “No, this one’s homeless. A vagrant. Do you see the red dress?” She sighed. “There are so many ways to beg these days; awful.” Esmeralda’s furrowed brows seemed to go with the scratches at her wrist and scuffs on her knees. “Let’s hand these to a deserving child, shall we?” She grabbed the candies from the man and shuffled past him. The woman strutted through the busy station crowd then, mixing herself in with the kaleidoscope of hurried hues. Esmeralda followed her hat until she couldn’t see it anymore.
Esmeralda turned her head from the colorful confusion back to the man at her side.
“Miss, are you traveling today? Do you have somewhere to go?”
She thought for a moment, looking back to the bustle of passers-by. She looked for the tight white dress, the thin gaunt face, unbending velvet hat. She even took two steps to be sure. May she just needed a couple of steps. Seconds later she shook her head and turned back to the man “No,” she said.
“Come…umm, ..why don’t you come with me. I’ll see you to the Conductor’s Office.”
She nodded and stepped past him, following his gesture.
Through the colors she walked, one step behind the nice man with the grey suit. His socks were the perfect type of yellow. It made it easy to follow. The other colors passed her by as they made their way to Mr. Gibbons’s office. In the middle of the station, Esmeralda slowed her steps again as they came upon the moonlight of the station clock.
From her periphery, the colors of the station drifted and she opened her arms as she walked into the light. The face of the pearly moon covered her completely, her smile grew with the light’s embrace.
When her red shoes stopped then, Esmeralda closed her eyes and opened her arms wide as her neck craned back. At the center of the world the warmth of the guardian held her.