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Headed North


March, 1941

Thirty dirty children are loaded on a tiny train. Some turn to wave a furtive goodbye to their mothers, but most look straight ahead, scrambling for the best seats with newfound friends.

Minutes later, the train lurches forward, slowly chugging towards a smoother rhythm. The children fall strangely silent as they leave the city.

The war has taken its toll on their voices, and even when they are chipper, they stay mute. Loud sounds are discouraged in the new Britannia, the better to hear a klaxon’s cry.

Miss Tate stands up from her place at the front of the train, raising two fingers in the air to draw the children’s attention.

“Come, my dears. Let’s have a song, shall we?”

The windows are rimed; cold frost used like canvas for a multitude of grubby hands. Initials are scrawled, tiny malformed animals brought to life, only to melt away as the sun rises higher.

The voices of the children rise higher, too. They chant a sing-song melody, warming their chilly hands under their equally chilly rumps.

“Five currant buns in a baker’s shop,

Round and fat with a cherry on the top.”

Miss Tate points to a child near the middle of the clump, and continues the song.

“Along came Enid with a penny one day

Bought a currant bun and took it away.”

From the back of the car comes another woman, Miss Marsh, carrying trays of day old bread. It’s a far cry from the plump buns the children have been singing about, but at least its something to fill their bellies on the trip north.

The children take them eagerly. All, except one older boy with lanky hair.

“Four currant buns in a baker’s shop,

Round and fat with a cherry on the top.”

Miss Tate points to the lanky-haired child who hasn’t been singing, hoping to goad a weak smile from his dour face.

“Along came Richard with a penny one day

Bought a currant bun and took it away.”

Richard closes his eyes and turns his head to one side, staring out a window as the rest of the children continue on with songs about buns and meadows and crocodiles.

He misses his mum, but he misses Da’ even more.

But his father is off fighting the Gerries, and mum wanted him out of the city. Away from the dust and the fear of falling buildings, away from her. She said it was for his own good, but he knew it was because he had accidentally broken a good china plate, a family piece that his mother fell to her knees and wept over when she saw what he had done.

The seat next to him, thankfully, is empty. Save for the hunk of bread Miss Marsh gave him.

He hates the way every other kid here is prattling on, excited about a train trip north, not understanding that some of them won’t get to go home. Not now, not ever.

His eyes blink into new focus, away from the passing scenery and to the blank, icy space before him. He raises the tip of his right pointer finger, hovering it above the surface of the hoary window. Ashamed, he drops it back to his side.

What could he have to say that would be worth writing down?

A girl with dirty blonde pigtails plops down on the seat next to him, scooping up his untouched bread.

“Oy,” she says, in a voice that is surprisingly soft-toned despite its grating accent. “What about this bread?”

“You can have it,” says Richard, still staring at the window.

“Ta’, mate,” she responds. Then, after a moment, she adds. “Truly, thanks. It’s not for me, y’know? It’s for me sister.”

“It’s fine,” Richard says, voice as cool as the pane of glass.

“Are you sure you don’t mind me takin’ it? Only, you en’t let me see your face yet, and you can’t ever be sure that a person’s true unless you can read their eyes, see.”

Richard snaps his whole body back to her, face red with suppressed emotion.

“Please. Just take it. And go.”

“Yeh’re all alone, en’t yeh?” the girl asks. “But yeh don’t have to be scared.”

“I’m not scared,” Richard hisses.

“No. No, of course you en’t. But if yeh were, like, yeh could come sit back with me and me sister.”

Richard stares blankly at her, moving his lips but unable to find the words.

“I ought to get back to her. But I’ll see yeh on the platform. And thanks for the bread.”

She smiles as she stands, a small gesture that Richard is unable to return. But he watches as she makes her way towards the back of the train, stale bread clutched tight against her chest.

The train continues north. Richard finds solace in the constant chugging rhythm that hums under his toes. Everything is changing around him, making the unvarying sound of the train at speed as comforting as the sound of his mother’s heartbeat.

When the train rolls into the station, Richard shuffles on to the platform. He looks left, then right. The girl with the pigtails is nowhere to be seen.

He lives through the war. His parents do not. Decades later, he takes the same train from London to the north for business. This time, he snacks on a packet of crisps, and a currant bun. When he steps onto the platform for the second time in his life, he looks left and right.

He still wishes that he had asked for her name.


Tucker Cummings is the author of “The Strange Adventures of Margery Jones”, a 365-part microfiction serial about parallel universes, which can be found at  Her work has won prizes in fiction contests and she is one of the contributors to “The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities” (HarperCollins, 2011). Her upcoming publications include the anthologies “Grim Fairy Tales” (Static Movement, 2012), “Future Lovecraft” (Innsmouth Free Press, 2011) and “Stories from the Ether” (Nevermet Press, 2012).


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