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Climbing Boys

By Carly Brown

The Master Sweep

I find them young. Short-limbed boys with sleeves still dangling past their wrists and bodies narrow enough to fit up the flue. Six is a good age. If you get them at six, they won’t remember much of life before. Climbing will be in their bones, and they will always dream of sooty boots and narrow shafts. They won’t know any different.

I make the same promises every time: feed them, give them a second set of clothes and a proper bed, take them to church, clean them once a week. I promise not to send them up any chimneys that are on fire. That sort of thing. Then a Poor House worker or clergymen or their own mother shoves a handful of shillings into my waiting palm. And I take them away.

We don’t bathe them once a week. Anyone is a fool for believing that. Thrice a year, if they’re lucky.

They sleep in a pile on the floor like puppies, wriggling on the wood. The boys are covered in soot so sometimes they look like shadows come to life.

We do feed them though. There is gruel in tin bowls for breakfast and hard crackers for supper. Otherwise they won’t be strong enough to climb.

In the mornings, we press bristles into their backs to wake them and then out we go into London’s streets. Loose cobbled alleyways agitated with rats. As the sun begins to lighten the city, the climbing boys scatter and start to call out, as far as their little voices can go: ‘Sweep! Sweep!’

Today there is a lot of fog and my boys are shouting into it, their voices hoarse from yesterday’s ash. ‘Sweep! Sweep!’ A woman comes out of her house. She wears a nice blue dress with lace on the collar like baby teeth. I tip my top hat to her.

‘How do you do, madam? Do you know the dangerous of an un-swept chimney?’

My price agreed, we go to her house. My boots scuff the rug and she shudders at the sight of one of my boys. Then I fix a cloth over her fireplace and say that our work will be done in no time at all.

I nod to the boy. It’s time to go up.

The Mistress of the House

The only thing not covered in soot are the poor boy’s eyes, which are red. He takes off his battered boots and puts them in a neat row beside the fireplace. Then he takes off his jacket, covered in ashy handprints, and piles that up by the boots. His little vest next and I turn away, worried this urchin will shimmy up the chimney flue naked as Adam and Eve!

But he stops at the trousers and a rough cotton shirt, pulling his cap down lower over his face. Carrying a broom, he goes behind the flap that his master has hung on our fireplace. The hearth where last night a fire blazed as we played charades and cut into a soggy fruitcake, the windows fogging with our laughter. Hard to think it is the very same fireplace the little boy climbs up now in the empty gray of early morning.

The master tells me that the brush will dislodge any extra soot and the boy will scrape the chimney clean. ‘Clean chimneys are safe chimneys and all that,’ he says.

I suppose he is right. But I do wonder for the safety of that poor creature crawling through our flue, like the intestines of some enormous beast. I wince every time soot falls into the fireplace like dark snow.

The master pulls aside the cloth, lays down a handful of hay in the fireplace and begins to light it with a match. The hay curls in on itself, darkening. ‘For extra encouragement,’ he says to me and winks.

I leave the room, sick to my stomach.

The Climbing Boy

This is the first flue of the day and it won’t be the last. Four a day, says the master sweep. We have to toughen up that skin of yours, he says. I’m eight, but my skin is still soft as milk and he has me stand in front of the fireplace at night to make it rougher. Climbing boys can’t be soft, he says.

I have a name, but, if I told you, you wouldn’t remember it.

This house’s flue isn’t straight up, but they never are. They’ve got bends and you’ve got to crawl on your back to get through them. Brick against your back and brick against your nose and knees. Imagine you are a hair plucked from a little girl’s head. Imagine you are the string of a fiddle. Imagine you are anything narrow enough to make it out alive. Master says if you get caught with your knees stuck against your chin don’t struggle, that’ll only make the flue grip you tighter. Don’t panic when you see no light above or below. And if you feel heat, as I do now, it means that you’re taking too much time. Go faster.

I hit a clump of soot with my broom and it rains down across my face. Master says that’s how most climbing boys die, blanketed in soot so they can’t breathe.

But it trickles past me and I go higher. Suddenly the shaft is bright and I squint. I see a clear passage to the top of the chimney: a square of blue sky. Sometimes I want to climb up and out, but I don’t know anything about London rooftops. I don’t know what’s on top of houses, only what’s inside of them.

Someday I’ll get too big and I can stop climbing. I don’t know what I’ll do after that. Something else. But when I close my eyes and try to imagine what that thing would be – my mind is clouded with soot.

The master sweep screams at me to hurry and I snake down, away from the sun, fast as I can out of there and hope, by now, he’s put out the fire below.

The Master Sweep

After seven years work, we send the boys away. They can go where they like, after that. Journeymen to another master or stay on here. Soon they’ll be too big to fit inside the flues and they’ll start going into the parishes and orphanages, looking for boys small enough to take their place.

They give their old coats and hats to the little ones. Their faces are starting to smear together like years.

Often, I have the same dream. I dream of how my master sweep would send up another boy behind me to prick my bare feet with needles. So I would climb faster. How the chimneys shook with my crying and I thought all the bricks would collapse around me. I wake up shouting for a mother I can’t rightly remember.

When I can’t sleep, I get out of bed and pile a few coals up behind the grate of my own fireplace. I light them. The coals glitter in their pile, the ones in the center glowing hottest of all. I watch the orange flames twist, sending smoke and embers up into the dark.

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Originally from Austin, Texas, Carly Brown is a writer, performer and PhD student based in Scotland. She is the author of a children’s picture book, I Love St Andrews, and a poetry chapbook. In 2013, she was Scotland’s National Champion of Slam Poetry and 4th at the World Series of Slam Poetry in Paris. She is currently working on a historical fiction novel set during America’s Revolutionary War. Her website is: carlyjbrown.com

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