The following Dickensian tale is (loosely) based on a true story.
As Elias Collier tightened his scarf and made his way out of the shack, the crisp, cutting air hit the back of his nostrils with the frigidness of a narwhal’s ejaculate. Dusty-white flakes had already begun to spiral and pirouette around him; his eyes followed as they frolicked and twirled like ballroom dancers, albeit ones with severe pituitary defects composed entirely of crystalline particles of ice.
The world was enveloped in a calming shroud. The clouds looked fit to burst, and Elias’ footsteps crunched and creaked atop the carpet of snow that was rapidly building upon the cobbles beneath. The distant toot of the steam train’s flute reverberated around the nooks and outhouses of the terrace.
“Take care, young Elias”.
At the foot of the hill, next to the church gates where that kid was hit by a truck once, the haggard sexton Josiah Trenchfoot was bumbling about his business, spraying the commemorative bouquets with WD40.
“I sure will”, Elias squawked.
“And where be ye off to this glistenin’ day?”
Elias didn’t really understand the question, and, feeling slightly threatened, ignored Josiah, carrying on towards the big city.
“You wouldn’t want to slip and hurt yourself. Follow me inside, and I’ll give you something hot and steamy”.
“Look”, Elias snapped. “I appreciate the concern and all, but your gross invasion of privacy is hindering my progress toward the workhouse. My mother and siblings have all been taken ill, and I’m the only one whose lungs are stable enough to survive the journey and collect our hand-outs. So, if you don’t mind, I must be on my way!”
Josiah was taken aback by this tirade, but admired the boy’s courage nonetheless.
“One day”, Josiah spat. “One day”.
As he rounded the corner by the railway cutting, Elias caught his first glimpse of the city in the distance. The hitherto sharp and jagged skyline was dulled and skewed by the dense, dandruffian detritus now cascading from above. A familiar rumble emanated from the heart of the gloomy chasm. Elias calculated (he was borderline autistic) that the reduction in speed facilitated by the perilously icy tracks, coupled with the train’s approach in to the tunnel, should be enough to allow him to jump aboard the mail carriage and hitch a ride into town. Shimmying part-way up the stem of a signal light, he prepared to jump.
The tracks began to quiver and moan; as did Elias, whose legs were wrapped too firmly around the sub-zero metal pole. After removing his eyes from the back of his head, his attention was caught by a squirrel bounding along the rails from sleeper to sleeper. Occasionally it stopped, digging a test pit (like on Time Team) to hunt for nuts it had previously buried. Forgetful squirrel, Elias thought.
TOOT! Elias looked up. He saw the unmistakable heaven-bound excrement of the locomotive’s smoke-stack towering over the far side of the hill, merging with the icy fog high above. A poetic image, Elias mused. TOOOOT! The whistle was deafening now, and the roar of the approaching engine grew louder and louder as it readied to be born from the bricken archway.
There was no time to save the squirrel. Wiping tiny, bloodied entrails from his cheek, Elias leapt from his platform into the open side-door of the carriage. He rolled in, coming to settle upon a pile of jiffy-bags emblazoned with the HMV logo. Topical, Elias meditated, as he thought about all the online-customer accounts soon to be made void by another high-street casualty. Bloody recessions.
As the train wound through the hills, cottages gave way to cul-de-sacs, which in turn gave way to dual-carriageways, thoroughfares and ring-roads. The train shunted to a stop, letting out a final satisfied sigh as it blew out the contents of its boiler. It’s a miracle the iron framework doesn’t buckle under the immense pressure, Elias pondered as he admired the handy-work of the industrial pioneers.
Being too poor for an Oyster card, Elias jumped the barrier and darted up the high street, weaving through crowds of stupidly-hatted people, snotty children, and pensioners who kept falling over, which was as funny as it was tragic, Elias guffawed.
The workhouse loomed. Its Victorian façade was grand and imposing; smoke-tainted brickwork was perforated by iron-barred windows, and Elias fancied he could hear the wails of centuries-old tortured-invalid inmates ricocheting around its inner labyrinths. He stopped the Antony & The Johnsons album playing on his iPhone (yet you can’t afford an Oyster card?) and ambled up to the door leading to the oppressive foyer. There was a sign:
“We are closed today due to adverse weather conditions”.
Elias coiled up in a frozen drift, dying a slow and miserable death. His family perished, and their bloodline ceased to progress that very day. Not that they could really do anything with £52 a week anyway. The government might as well be handing out free snow.
P.S: Elias is me, the workhouse is the Job Centre (Plus), and Mr. Trenchfoot is a well-known name on the local register.