[Content Warning: Claustrophobia]
East Side, London, 1889.
Charlie sobs into the dark. He doesn’t want to be one of the abandoned boys.
When Patch got stuck, Master Smith left him in there for a week until the landlord complained. They had to break the wall with a hammer to get him out. Charlie hadn’t seen it, but the other apprentices said they found him curled up like he was asleep, but all stiff-like. Patch didn’t sweep any more after that.
Charlie’s knees are level with his chin, his head presses against sweltering bricks, and the brush he was holding is wedged against his backside.
Wiggling around will only make it worse, so he stays still, thinking. How to get out?
Little Johnny got stuck once, and he said you just had to suck in your belly real small and push off with your feet. But Johnny isn’t called little for nothing, and besides, he was only five-and-a-half when it happened. It’s usually the older boys who get stuck.
And most of the time, a stuck chimney sweep is a dead chimney sweep.
His thighs are already cramping up. His left arm is free, so he uses it to push down on one knee, trying to unfold his leg. It won’t budge. His right arm is still pinned above his head, right where it was when he dropped the brush. Somehow it landed behind him, and the bristles poke into his back painfully.
He reaches upward, feeling for a loose brick to pull himself up with. The chimney is so dark he can’t tell the difference if his eyes are open or closed. His fingers brush a soft clump of soot, and it falls onto his face. Already mid-breath, he pulls some into his lungs, and the coughing fit that follows reverberates up and down the shaft. The effort leaves him gasping for air.
“What’re ye doing up there? Faster, or I’ll burn yer backside raw,” Master Smith hollers from below.
“Help,” Charlie chokes out, but the gloom dampens his words to a whisper.
Acrid smoke singes his nostrils, and heat licks his bare feet. The fire is meant to make him work faster, but since he can’t move, all it does is scorch the bricks around him. His neck is already blistering from being pressed against the chimney shaft behind. He squirms in panic, but only gets himself wedged deeper.
“Help,” he screams. “I’m stuck. Master Smith, I’m stuck, sir. Please help.”
The echoes sound like a hundred ghosts are with him inside the chimney. The thought makes Charlie’s stomach churn. What if he isn’t the first sweep to get stuck in here? It’s so dark he would never see a ghost coming.
It takes him a minute to notice that the bricks have cooled.
“Stuck, are yer?” Master Smith shouts.
“Yes, sir. Please, send help,” Charlie shouts back.
There is no reply at first. In his mind Charlie sees the Master contemplating; a fingertip running through his soot-stained beard as he leans on his bundle of sweep brushes. Thinking about how much he’d have to pay to train another chimney sweep.
“Try and get out,” the Master says.
“I can’t. I’m really stuck, sir. Can someone pull me out?”
“You out of yer mind? Can’t risk losing another one. And yer not even my best sweep. Try and get out, boy.”
Cramps and coughing forgotten, every inch of Charlie’s skin prickles with fear.
He doesn’t want to be one of the abandoned boys.
“Please, sir. Anybody. Little Johnny, he’ll help me. He will, sir. Please,” Charlie cries.
But the Master is already gone.
Tears run stark lines through the soot on his face. Snot dribbles out of his nose and into the back of his mouth until he spits it down the shaft. He wipes his face with his free hand, but it only gets gritty specks into his eyes. Blinking really fast just makes it worse.
Charlie cries until he’s sure all the water in his body is gone. His tongue is dry, and his throat makes a rough scratching sound whenever he swallows. Whatever came out of his nose has dried all crusty-like. It pinches his skin whenever he sniffs, which is often. His legs are numb, the bristles in his back feel sharper, and his toes feel like hot pins are poking them. The cramps have spread to his pinned right arm and the back of his neck.
It was evening when he first scrambled up the chimney; Master Smith said it would be a quick job before Christmas supper. Now, tummy rumbling, Charlie is sure he’s missed all the fun. Christmas is the only day of the year the costermongers give out apples and oranges for free. Carol singers roam the streets and, for once, everyone is smiling.
He strains his ears, hoping to catch a stray note of music, or any hint of the world outside. All he can hear is his heartbeat and the ragged breaths keeping him alive. But how much longer? He needs food and some water. And he needs to piss.
“Help,” he screams, once, twice, a dozen times more. The chimney shaft magnifies his voice and his fear with it. The echoes are louder now, as if the ghosts are closing in. The bricks are freezing cold. He thrashes about, free hand scrabbling against the walls, but he is no less stuck than before. The walls close in around him, suffocating.
A warm heaviness fills his trousers, spreading to wet his belly and drip down from his toes. Shame smothers Charlie even worse than the soot. If he ever gets out, the others will never forget he pissed himself. Somehow it’s worse than the idea of dying here.
Charlie sobs again as he drifts away. He’s just like Patch.
He’s one of the abandoned boys.
O little town of Bethlehem
how still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
the silent stars go by;
yet in thy dark streets shineth
the everlasting light.
The hopes and fears of all the years
are met in thee tonight.
Charlie wakes to pain, but he blinks, confused. It is not the pain he expects. He is still stuck, unable to move anything except his left arm, but the cramps throughout his body have faded away to numbness. The brush still pokes him from behind.
The pain that woke him is from his head. Something hard had fallen from the shaft above, bouncing off his head before nestling neatly on his knees.
He feels for it in the darkness. His fingers brush something firm and rubbery. When he lifts it to his nose, his stomach growls in response.
A whoosh echoes from above, like a breath of air, followed by a dull sliding sound. The thing sounds big, but, expecting it this time, Charlie sticks out his arm to block its path. He sets it in between his knees and his chin, feeling all over for the shape.
"Help," he screams, tilting his head back. "You up there, help me get out!"
Only silence responds, darker than soot.
He calls up the shaft again and again. No response. A sob escapes through dry lips as he looks back to the heavy package on his knees.
The cloth wrapped around the outside is thick and all soft-like. It might be wool. He’s seen it before, worn by the fancy rich people. Charlie’s first thought is that he’s not the biggest apprentice, or the oldest, or even the best, so one of the others is bound to take it from him.
Then he remembers he’s abandoned.
He pulls the cloth across to cover himself. It sits awkwardly, but warms him all the same.
The bottle is big and heavy and has a cork in the top. Charlie rips it out with his teeth, sniffs the liquid inside. It has no smell at all.
Without a second thought, he gulps down so much water that the bottle isn’t heavy anymore. Worried, he shakes it, but the sloshing sound makes him feel better. The bread follows, gobbled up in seconds.
Despite himself, he feels better. His body begins to hurt again, as if it now has the energy to remind him that he’s stuck. The weight of the bottle on his knees is a comfort.
He waits for something else to fall down the shaft. Hours pass. He stays awake as long as he can, but knowing he’ll fall asleep eventually, he folds his left arm over his head for protection. Time and space lose their meaning, since neither of them seem to change.
The next time bread arrives from above, Charlie is awake and waiting. He plucks it out of the air and wolfs it down with the last of the water. A second of regret comes and goes, then, to his surprise, another chunk of bread lands on his knees.
As he chews, Charlie tries moving again. Still stuck. Worry gnaws at him. How long can someone live all squished-like? What if the food makes him fat and even more stuck?
He shudders. What if the ghosts are sending food to fatten him up for their supper?
He doesn't scream for help again.
Over what must be days, food and water come through the shaft three more times, but Charlie’s hunger overcomes his fear. He scoffs bread and chugs water until his tummy rumbles again, this time for another reason. He whimpers in shame, unable to hold his night soil any longer. It smears into his trousers and the watery parts trickle down his ankles. The smell has him wrinkling his nose in disgust.
The pain in his limbs is unbearable now, a deep ache that makes him weak all over. He bows his head, tears falling again, as he thinks about living the rest of his life in his own muck.
When they find his body, the other apprentices will laugh and point, saying Charlie pissed and soiled himself to the tune of Ring a Ring o’ Roses.
Master Smith will shake his head, muttering that he was good for nothing anyway. He’ll find another chimney sweep.
Charlie will be forgotten, and that’ll be that.
A soft thud wakes Charlie, so soft he thinks it’s his own heartbeat at first. But it’s not inside his chest. It’s coming from somewhere else, all muffled-like.
It’s louder. He’s awake now, looking about in panic, even though there is nothing to see.
The entire chimney shakes. He cries out in fear, and fear turns to anguish when the half-full bottle of water topples over before he can grab it. Since he hasn’t replaced the cork, all the water pours onto his already-sodden trousers.
Charlie buries his finger in his ear, terrified. He shakes his head over and over. When he imagined the ghosts coming for him, he thought it would be all quiet-like, sneaking through the dark. He never thought they would break the whole chimney down and rip him to pieces.
The next one is even louder. Fine powder spills from the wall to his left, tickling his nose. He wriggles around and something sharp bites his backside.
Something cracks. He shuts his eyes tight and waits for the pain. Which bone did they break? Which part of him will they eat first?
He screams and screams and screams and screams.
THUD! THUD! THUD! THUD!
The bricks to his left shatter, and all Charlie sees is blinding light.