No bit of warmth nor a vestige of sunshine remained as this day’s late afternoon winter grayness began its ebb into early evening.
Standing, waiting at the rear door of Hobbins’ Funeral Parlor, thinking, Where’s the ol’ bastard? Johnson brought his fist back to the black, blistered, and cracked door to knock once again when he saw a shadow through the frosted window. There ya are, ya ol’ bastard! and heard the shuffling footsteps coming from within. Glancing at the boy, “The ol’ bastard’s comin’.” Shivering, he shoved both hands deeply into his trouser pockets.
Parted slightly, the thinly opened door throwing a sliver of light across Johnson’s face, “Yes?”
Recognizing the voice that came from behind the door, “Eh, Mizz’s Hobbins, Mum!”
The door opened wider.
Climbing Boy: 13; London, England; December 24, 1843
“Mum, it’s me, Johnson, the sweep, ‘ere with me ‘prentice to do the chimney.” Looking through the crack onto the dour face of the undertaker’s wife, then, dropping his gaze, Johnson looked downward.
The door opened wider, revealing a stringent faced, big boned, middle-aged woman. “You’re late!” Glaring at Johnson, her thin, upper lip curling with obvious dislike. “We’d given up on you today!”
“I knows, Mum,” he whined “We was unavoidably ‘eld back at the first two jobs. Sorry, Mum.”
“Humph!” the undertaker’s wife snorted. “Wait here.” Slamming the door, she bolted it behind her.
Staring at the closed door, listening to the receding footsteps, “Bloody, damn witch!” Johnson said as, stamping his feet and blowing warm air into his cupped hands, he began to cough.
Within a few moments they heard returning footsteps.
The door opened.
Wearing a crusted, filthy, red streaked, hardly distinguishable-as-white apron, his head bowed to keep from touching the upper doorframe, a tall, thin figure stood just inside the doorway.
“I knows, Sir, an’ I’m sorry, Sir, but…”
Unwilling to be touched by either of these two, standing aside, “Come in!” Hobbins commanded. “Come inside so’s least we can keep out the cold!”
Picking up the equipment, thankful to be invited out of the cold, they quickly entered the comparative warmth of the rear foyer.
Not wanting to be touched by the gore-splattered undertaker, Johnson and the boy also walked well to the side.
Tall, coming to near six feet, six inches, with the exception of a prominently protruding potbelly, the undertaker was reed thin. In his early fifties, a sullen, dour faced man, Hobbins’ appearance was well in keeping with his frightful profession.
Rattling the frosted glass, slamming the door shut, “You’re late!” Hobbins repeated angrily. “We’ve family, too, you know!” Purposely bending forward, speaking closely into Johnson’s face, “It’s Christmas Eve and we’re near closing.”
Tall, but not nearly as tall as Hobbins, intimidated by all, but more so this man, Johnson attempted to back away. Always frightened by the undertaker, hiding behind his master, Zachariah was pressed between Johnson and the wall.
“Mister ‘obbins, Sir,” reaching behind, grasping and attempting to pull the boy out from between himself and the wall behind so he might have room to move further from Hobbins. “We tried ‘ard to be ‘ere on time, but…” grabbing hold of his shoulder, partially dragging the boy out from behind by the sleeve of his coat, “‘e made a mess an’ I ‘ad’a stop an’ clean it, an’ we rushed ‘ere as best we could, Sir!”
Even in the dimly lit foyer, Hobbins was able to see Johnson’s drooping lids and blood-shot eyes. Bending forward, coming even closer, forcing Johnson to arch his head backward, “Johnson,” smelling his breath a second time, “you’re a despicable liar! I know your tricks. You leave the boy,” glaring at Zachariah—who shrunk behind his master again—then looking back at Johnson, “and you go off and get drunk. Humph! ‘You had to clean the mess he made’! More’s the likely you forgot where you left the boy and he had to wait for you to remember and find your way back.”
The back of Johnson’s head kept from touching the wall only because Zachariah was hiding behind him; the two men stood near nose to nose.
The undertaker being one of his few repeating customers, not daring to answer for fear of losing his patronage, trying his best to back away from Hobbins, Johnson remembered—the ol’ bastard—the undertaker was a teetotaler and he silently berated himself for coming to this establishment with liquor on his breath and now, attempting to hold his breath, Johnson started to cough, and his coughing finally caused Hobbins to back away.
Catching his breath, “Sir, ‘tis true , I did stop for a wee nip.” Holding his thumb and forefinger together. “But t’were only one or two. I’m sorry, bein’ late an’ all, but we’s ‘ere now.” Pleading, “So’s can’t we be started gettin’ on with the work?”
“No! I told you we’d be closing early!”
“But Mister ‘obbins, Sir, it’s barely evenin’, an’ ya don’t never close afore nightfall!”
“Johnson,” becoming angry again, “I told you, today’s the night before Christmas and Mrs. Hobbins and me are shutting early!”
“Mister ‘obbins, meanin’ no disrespect, Sir, but don’t people die on the night afore Christmas?”
Trying to see if he’s making a jest at his expense, the undertaker looked closely at Johnson, but concluded he wouldn’t have the courage. Contemptuously, “Yes, people do ‘die on the night afore Christmas,’” Hobbins said. “But we’ve nothing left to do at this time that can’t wait till after Christmas… Boy!” Yelling at Zachariah, who had squeezed back between Johnson and the wall. “You’re not leaning on my wall with your filthy coat?”
Startled, Zachariah pushed into Johnson, who grimaced as he brushed against Hobbins’ blood- and chemical-stained apron, whom, at the same time, quickly backed away from Johnson while brushing soot off his disgusting apron.
“Me, Sir?” the boy asked meekly, poking his head from behind Johnson’s hip.
“Yes! ‘You, Sir’! You’re not dirtying my wall are you?”
He was, but, “Oh, no, Sir!”
“Humph!” Thinking, Hobbins stroked his chin. “Johnson, so long as the two of you are here, I’ll tell you what I’ll do. I’ll let you do the chimney now… but not for the usual fee.”
“Mister ‘obbins, you’d not be do’in’ a workin’ man outta his livin’ now, would ya? On the night afore the birth of, uh, your Lord Jesus, Sir?”
“If you want to do the work now and not have to come all this way back another time… if, if I allow you back!”
The implied threat was not lost on Johnson.
“Then, if you do, because of your lateness today, and causing such great inconvenience to myself and Mrs. Hobbins, if you want to be doing the work, then it’ll be for…” thinking a moment, “four pence less!”
Hobbins’ dark eyes bored into Johnson’s. Johnson looked back angrily… for but a moment… then, defeated, looked away.
“Four pence less today, or I’ll be finding another sweep to be doing my work!”
Looking at the floor, thinking, Ya ol’ bastard! Johnson agreed to the amount of payment by a feeble nod of his head.
“All right, now, that’s settled. Get to work! And remember, the lowered price is agreed on! I’ll not be allowing any careless work because I’m paying less than you want. I expect the job well finished! And I want you out of here afore seven!”
Covering his anger, Johnson replied softly, through his teeth. “Don’t ya be worrin’, Sir. It’s only the best work forya, an we’ll be out’a your ‘stablishment well afore seven.”
“Get on with you!” Turning away, followed by the two, walking down the hall, Hobbins opened a door leading into a long, dark corridor and, taking quick, purposeful strides, led them into the main condolence parlor that was immediately adjacent the front door.
Clearing his throat, as though to impress Johnson and Zachariah with his meaning, “I tell you again,” looking at both man and boy, “my parlor furniture is expensive. I will tolerate no dirt! Not a smidgen!” With one last, hard look from face to face, turning, the undertaker walked from the room.
Being sure that Hobbins was well out of hearing, waiting till he heard the door to the downstairs workroom slam shut, dropping the toolbox onto the carpeted floor, “Tis a dirty, rotten, skinflint bastard ‘e is!” Johnson said vehemently. “Damned ol’ tightwad, bastard, skinflint!” Looking about the room, “You!” pointing at the boy, “Get your arse to work!” Shaking his fist at him, “Or do ya want me ta give ya what for?”
Sighing, “No, Sir.” Taking his coat off, the boy laid it on the hardwood floor to the right of the hearth.
Zachariah and Johnson moved the tables and chairs. They rolled the carpets and draped drop cloths over the heavier nearby furniture.
His anger still seething, muttering, “Damned ol’ skinflint!”
Hearing him, thinking he’s being spoken to, “Ehh, what’s that, Sir?”
“Nothin’, ya little twit!” Taking some small part of his rage at Hobbins out on the hapless boy, reaching to him, Johnson slapped Zachariah on the side of his head.
Working rapidly, but well remembering Hobbins’ warning, both were extremely careful in the covering of furniture as they prepared for the sweep in this richly furnished condolence parlor.
The rows of chairs had fabric seats of a dark plum color. The room had scattered, highly polished dark walnut tables and three gold, brocade settees.
Pointing to an uncovered settee arm, “Ya be careful there!” Johnson said. “Ya ‘eard what the ol’…” glancing over his shoulder, “bastard said!”
“Yes, Sir,” Zachariah answered softly.
Not quite hearing the boy, turning angrily, leaving a gray smudge of soot where the leg of his trousers brushed against the light colored, gold material of one of the settees, “What ya say, boy? Best be speakin’ up when I be talkin’ to ya!”
“Yes, Sir. I said, ‘Yes, Sir’!” Zachariah repeated in a louder tone.
Drop cloths in place, leaving the building through a side door, climbing to the roof, Johnson dropped the rope through the flue.
Below, Zachariah pulled it partially through, tied the green twig brush onto the middle, placed the screening clothes over the front of the fireplace, and tugged on the rope.
Johnson pulled up.
Zachariah pulled it back.
Back and forth, as soot and ash rained into the fireplace.
His foot, slipping off the rail, slapped onto the sawdust covered floor. The head of flowing white hair dropping from the palm of his hand, rested on his shoulder a moment, then rolled, his chin coming to rest on his chest.
Bleary eyes flickered open, closed, and opened again. Straightening his body, pushing the small of his back inward and his shoulders outward, looking about a moment, “Barkeep!” Spotting who he was looking for, “Barkeep!” he called down the length of the bar.
“Ah, my good man,” he called, “another gin and bitters for me and…” glancing to the right, where another man stood with his foot on the brass rail and his head in his hands, poking the man in the ribs with his elbow, “one more for my friend here.”
“Eh, whazzat?” Jostled by the elbow, lifting his head, trying to focus his eyes, “Whazzat?” he repeated.
“Matthew, my good friend!” Urpp! belching loudly, “Me thinks you might be getting thirsty, standing here, doing all that hard labor.”
“Aye, I am that, Eric, I am that!” shaking his head, trying to clear some of the cobwebs. “Tis hard work holding this bar down.” Making a fluttering motion with his hands. “To keep it from just floooating away.”
The bartender poured a generous amount of the clear liquor into a short, heavy glass, added a dash of bitters and, “Aye, Sir!” he called as he sent the glass slithering down the length of the highly polished, oak bar.
At the far end of the bar, plucking the glass from the slick surface, Garibaldi brought it to his mouth in one fluid motion.
Taking flight, the second glass was caught as neatly as the first by Matthew Flizzer, whom, looking at the bartender, nodding his head, held two fingers upward.
“So, Eric,” downing his drink, “you been following the articles in the Chronicle by that new chap? Uh, what’s it called? Oh, yes! ‘Sketches by Boz.’”
Catching the flying drink, Garibaldi took a swallow, then, turning his head, looked at his longtime friend and drinking companion Matthew Flizzer of “Flizzer & Flizzer, Jugglers Extraordinary,” “Yes, Matt, I been reading them.”
To be continued