“Come with us, we’ll take you to a doctor,” said the woman in the carriage, holding the door open. Limping badly, Karen was helped inside by the policeman. Apart from some arghs and ows, Karen was lost for words. She behaved as instructed, but this was no difficult decision, as jail seemed the likely alternative. Once inside, Karen flopped upon a vacant bench, whilst the woman gave one last wave to the people outside. They cheered in return, treating her like a celebrity, or princess. Her carriage and clothes were elegant enough for a princess, thought Karen. And she glowed. Karen finally tore her eyes away for long enough to notice the third passenger, a man slumped in the seat across from her. He had a blanket wrapped around his legs, and bandages wrapped around his head and hands. Karen glimpsed pink skin near his eyes and mouth, though his wide-brimmed hat left his face in shadow. The man never moved or looked up from his lap. Done with waving, the lady sat alongside the man, put her arms around his shoulders, straightened him in his seat, and then spoke to Karen.
“Take your boot off. Let’s see how bad it is.”
This woman liked to be in charge. Karen’s mum had liked to be in charge. Karen did as she was told. She undid her laces without looking at them. The woman was hypnotic, and so like the photos of Karen’s mother, apart from being older. Could it possibly be her? Karen’s mind alternated between yes, then no, every few seconds.
“You’re a quiet one. What’s your name?” asked the woman.
“My name is Karen.”
The woman slid out a large handbag from underneath her seat. “Are you hungry? I’ve only got these – have a mint,” she said, holding out a crumpled paper bag. Karen reached in and accidentally took two mint imperials instead of one. “Tut tut, no more than one – they’re really strong.”
Karen put one mint back, and popped the other in her mouth. The woman had exaggerated; it was not strong at all.
“Do you know who I am?” continued the woman.
Karen shook her head.
“I’m the Lady Emerald, though you may call me ‘Em’.”
Karen nodded. She tried to remember how her mother looked, not just from photographs but how she had looked to Karen’s eyes, when she was still living. That was a long time ago. Em was about the same age as her dad… the age her mum would be, if alive.
“Let me take a look at that.” Em gestured for Karen to lift up her foot, which she did, and Em placed it upon her lap. “That must hurt,” said Em. There was a hole in the sock, where the back of Karen’s ankle had rubbed against her boot. It was matted with blood; the sock stuck to Karen’s skin. Em gently rolled down the sock. Karen winced.
“I’ll put a bandage on it. I always have plenty of bandages,” said Em, glancing at the man beside her. Em thrust her hand into her handbag, smiling at Karen whilst she rummaged around.
Karen yawned. She had done a lot of walking, and had eaten little. Her mind wandered. Could Em be her mother? That might explain things. But Em did not act like she recognized Karen. Karen’s journey was something you might read in a fantasy story, like finding a new world in a wardrobe, or some kid being sent to a boarding school for wizards. Karen did not believe in magic, but this city was so peculiar, familiar in some ways, bizarre in other ways, that maybe there was a special connection between the two worlds. Karen yawned again. Maybe Karen was drawn here to join her mum. Maybe she had not died. Maybe she fell down a hole between one world and the other, like Alice falling down the rabbit hole, landing in Wonderland. And then she had lost her memory, or something like that. If that was true, then Karen’s job was to reunite the family, by bringing Mum back with her. Then the family would be together again, Mum, Dad, James and Karen…
“Gee…!” Stinging pain caught Karen by surprise. Em dabbed her wound with cotton wool doused in a colourless liquid. Karen gritted her teeth.
“It’s surgical spirit, so the graze is clean before I put the bandage on. We don’t want it getting infected,” explained Em, taking a new bandage from her bag. Karen was looking at the man wrapped in bandages. “Don’t worry,” said Em, “nothing disturbs him.” But it seemed to Karen that he heard that remark, because the wide-brimmed hat turned, as if he looked out of the window, and away from Em.
Em placed a clean white square pad over Karen’s graze, then started wrapping the bandage around both pad and foot. Karen always felt tired when the sun went down, and her thoughts were slowing, but she tried to stir herself. “Where are we going?”
“We’re taking you to see a doctor,” said Em.
“What about curfew?”
“Don’t worry about that. We’re going somewhere safe. And you can’t walk anywhere in those boots. Where did you get them? I can see they don’t belong to you.”
Karen wrinkled her brow. How did Em know that?
“You’ve not broken them in, and they don’t match your other clothes. But then, you don’t know who I am, do you? My factories make clothes, amongst other things. We’re working to ensure everybody is warm, dry, happy and decent. Your coat, trousers, and these socks weren’t made in Lundern. The materials are different, and the style’s too unusual. You’re from a long way away, aren’t you?”
Em cut the end of the bandage with scissors. “Don’t worry, I’m from a long way away too.”
Karen bit her lip.
“Tell me what you’ve been doing here. You’ve not been here long, have you? But you joined those horrible rioters…” Em put a safety pin through the bandage.
“Ow.” The pin pricked Karen.
Karen shook her head. “I didn’t want to be in a riot. I was walking through, to get to the river. But I got stuck, and the police wouldn’t let me leave.”
“That’s good,” said Em. “Not that you got stuck – that you don’t want anything to do with those troublemakers. They’re bad people. Life is about give and take. They want to take, and not to give.”
Karen was not interested in politics; she was lost in Em’s vivid green eyes, and her familiar face, and the shimmering light that surrounded her whole body. Em spoke, and Karen nodded, finding it hard to concentrate. Distracted by her own words, Em held Karen’s foot, perched on her lap, and played with her big toe. Karen did not mind. She enjoyed the feeling. It reminded her of playing with James’ feet during bathtime. This little piggy went to market. James had liked that rhyme. She yawned.
“They’re basically criminals,” said Em.
Karen nodded without really listening.
“They always talk about welfare. Welfare this, welfare that, like nobody ever worked to improve their welfare. Somebody has to make the things that make life better. They don’t make themselves. Making things is real welfare; it shows you care. Making a better pair of socks at a cheaper price,” Em said, holding up Karen’s sock, “is welfare for someone who doesn’t have any socks. But that lot don’t think like that. They want gifts of money, and they describe gifts as their ‘right’, as if anybody has the right to make somebody else work for them – and to work without reward! Imagine that? When they ask for welfare, all they want is money, to spend how they please. They want something for nothing, but nothing comes from nothing.”
Karen nodded again. She had no idea what her mum’s politics had been like, but this sounded pretty similar to things Dad sometimes said. Em continued to play with Karen’s toes. Karen liked that. This little piggy stayed home. Karen wanted to be home. Em continued to speak. Karen tried to listen, but found it hard.
“If I said to you that slavery is the same as murder, you’d know what I meant. If I take away your thought, your will, your personality, your freedom to make decisions, if I have the power of life and death, then you’re good as dead already. That’s why we ended slavery in Lundern, and nobody fought for that more than I did. What, then, is a handout from the government? Is it payment for existing? Is it right that a person can go to the shop and buy what they like, although they never gave anything, never made anything, for anyone else? People have the right to exchange, not to take. If slavery is the same as murder, then welfare benefits are the same as shoplifting.”
“Yes,” said Karen. She had never thought about it like that, but it sounded reasonable. Her eyelids felt droopy.
“Yes, you’re a smart girl, aren’t you?” said Em. “It’s a shame this sock is so bloody, but you’d better wear it again, to keep your foot warm” she said, rolling it up, then putting it on Karen’s foot. “But you shouldn’t wear those boots again…”
“That’s alright, I have some other shoes in my bag,” interjected Karen. She opened her backpack to pull out her Heelys. Except her Heelys were not there. Instead of her favourite shoes, there were two wooden blocks, shaped to put inside shoes. Winton must have switched them for her Heelys when he gave her the bag this morning. No wonder he was happy to let Karen keep the boots!
“Well?” asked Em.
“I had another pair of shoes in here,” said Karen, turning red from embarrassment, “but they’re gone.”
“Thieves? They’re all over. Anyway, don’t wear those boots any more.”
Karen nodded obediently.
“We’re not far from the Institute now,” said Em.
“There’s doctors there,” said Em. She still absent-mindedly wiggled Karen’s toes. This little piggy had roast beef.
Karen slouched and rested her head against her seat. “You’re beautiful,” said Karen, after a pause. “Where does the light come from, the light that surrounds you?”
“That’s something made by my factories,” explained Em. “It’s my personal glowshield. It protects me. It’s the best kind there is. There’s also a larger one around this carriage.”
“Is that what caused the explosion at the potato cart?” asked Karen.
“Very smart – yes, that’s right. That lad and his cart shouldn’t have got in our way. That’s why it glows – to give people warning.”
Suddenly nervous, Karen tugged her foot away from Em, but Em held on to it. “Don’t worry. Nothing happens when you’re gentle with a glowshield. It only reacts when you hit it suddenly.” Em opened the carriage window and pulled a white rosebud from the exterior decorations. She cupped it in one hand, then clapped her hands together. With a spark of light it was gone. Em spread her fingers and the rose’s perfume filled the air. “Good trick?”
Karen nodded but she had her doubts. The disintegrated rose made the carriage smell lovely, but she pulled her foot from Em’s lap and slid it into her boot. So tired. She struggled to get it in.
“You can’t put that boot on,” chided Em. “You’ll make your injury worse.”
“It’s much better. The bandage will protect me,” said Karen. She tried to loosen the laces. It was so difficult. Confusing. She yawned.
“I insist. We’re nearly there. Let the doctors take care of you.”
“It’s late. I’d better go, before curfew.”
“Nonsense. You’re staying with me.”
“I’m very grateful…” Karen never finished her sentence. She slid on to her side; the boot fell from her hands. Her eyelids were so heavy. This little piggy had none.
“Sleep, child, sleep.”