Cousin Marty’s letter about Vivian reached Joan Smith the same day that she heard the news about the explosion on Vivian’s train.
Joan had to work to hold her hands steady as she laid the two letters alongside one another on her kitchen table, Vivian’s usual chair looming empty across from her. Joan didn’t allow herself to look at the place where her daughter should be, focusing all her attention on the two contradictory letters instead.
The first letter, emblazoned with a stark government logo, had vague, boilerplate phrases that told her nothing and still too much.
“We regret to inform you that your daughter, Vivian Smith, was a passenger on train 489 in its recent tragic explosion.”
It went on about the unpredictability of radioactive fuel in uncertain conditions, the government’s deepest condolences, and other paltry phrases. Joan forced herself to read it through once entirely, even down to the stamped signature from some minor official.
Then she turned her attention to Cousin Marty’s letter, written in prim cursive as unrelentingly uniform as the printed letter. The indignation sizzled in the words, with all the fury Marty had always had for the young woman who had gone off to the big city with her handsome government husband.
“As if it wasn’t bad enough you badgered me into taking in your dirty Cockney hoodlum, you deliberately hid the wretched boy’s gender from me. Had you bothered to send a birth announcement I would have known, but seeing as you never contact me unless you want something…”
Marty went on in this vein for quite some time. Joan read it as thoroughly as the other, puzzling over the differences.
This boy could not have been Vivian, of course – there must have been some mistake there. But how on Earth had anyone from the train gone home with Cousin Marty if there had been an explosion? That letter didn’t mention the explosion at all, and surely it would have made enough of a sensation to break through even Marty’s considerable outrage.
It must have been some other train. They’d mixed up the numbers – the offices were all so busy now that the war had started – and these letters had been sent out automatically for the wrong passenger list.
But then why hadn’t Vivian ended up with Marty? Joan had repeated the instructions to her daughter over and over before sending her off, and Vivian had promised quite faithfully to follow them.
Joan tried not to think about that last moment, when she’d put her daughter on that train. Vivian had tried so hard not to look scared, and when she’d paused on the train door she’d tried to smile a brave goodbye. Joan had managed to blow her a kiss before Vivian had been hurried inside by the overworked train porter.
And now, despite Joan’s best efforts to keep her safely with family, Vivian had been swept away in the hordes of other lost children shipped blindly into the countryside. At best she would be lost and alone with too many other refugee children, and at worst –
Joan knocked the letters off the table with one sharp movement, and she fled the kitchen while the papers still fluttered to the floor.
I should never have sent her away, Joan thought. She didn’t want to leave, but she’s such a good girl. She went because I told her to go.
Desperate for some noise to distract her, Joan fumbled for the radio. It blared to life in a burst of static, and as one of the singers began crooning out a ballad, Joan could see Vivian laughing and twirling around the living room in her father’s arms.
Joan had always seen their family home as a sanctuary, but now she felt as though if she had to spend another moment there she would scream. She ran for the front door and wrenched it open –
And found herself face to face with a heavyset redheaded man with his fist raised to knock.
“Er – sorry,” the man said, looking rather taken aback at being confronted with a distraught woman. “Are you Mrs. Smith? That is, Joan Smith, Miss Vivian’s mother?”
Joan recognized the official air of someone with the government from all of her husband’s work, even if she couldn’t tell just what agency this man could possibly be from. Why would some government man want to talk to her? Why mention Vivian?
Perhaps it was all a mistake, and he was here to apologize and tell her where she could find her daughter. The hope was too much to bear. Almost as terrible came the dread, the possibility that he was here to confirm the worst.
“Yes,” Joan made herself say. “Yes, I’m Joan Smith.”
“Good,” the man said, looking relieved. “We thought we had the right place, but you wouldn’t believe how things have been shifting – well, not that it matters to you.” He shook his head. “I’m Abdul Donegal, and I’m here to take you to your daughter.”
“Vivian?” Joan went white. “She’s alive? But they said – the train – ”
“Oh, you’d heard about that already?” Abdul shook his head. “Of course they’d be quick about that part of it. There was an explosion, yes, but Vivian was safe. She’s been staying with some colleagues of mine while we got things organized. I can take you to her now.”
“Now?” Joan could hardly understand what he could mean. Vivian was alive, she was safe – but did he want to take Joan on a train to the country? All the trains had been sold out, tickets couldn’t be gotten for love or money now. Or did he mean Vivian was here in London?
Abdul was fiddling with some sort of device he had cupped in one palm, looking apologetic. “It really does have to be now, if you want to go.”
Joan didn’t have to think about that any further. “Yes. Yes, of course I want to go to her!”
Abdul smiled. “Good!”
And then the street behind Abdul shimmered away, turned to the inside of a strange metallic room full of complicated machines and busy people.
Joan would have stepped back inside and shut the door in the face of this bizarre occurrence – but then she heard the voice she most longed to hear, calling, “Mum! Mum!”
Joan ran forward through the door into whatever strange metal place it now led, towards the place where her daughter might be.