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Mark M Lichterman

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The Climbing Boy2:Dawn
By Mark M Lichterman
Posted: Wednesday, December 01, 2010
Last edited: Monday, August 27, 2012
This short story is rated "PG13" by the Author.
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A product of the times, during his period of apprenticeship he was treated in an extremely harsh manner by old man Thornton, but Johnson was one of three apprentices, so the duties—along with the punishments—were equally divided. The broken nose was not due to Thornton himself, but rather to one of his overly zealous sons.

The Climbing Boy can now also be purchased as a Kindle Ebook @ $3.00




Years before and during the Industrial Revolution, in orderto learn a trade, orphans and children of impoverished families might be apprenticed or even sold to a tradesman—sometimes for less than the price of a dog.

In many cases these children became little more than chattel and their apprenticeship often became a form of cruel slavery.

In order to clean a soot-coated chimney, the usual practice at that time was to tie a broom, homemade brush, or even a live duck or chicken—its flapping wings acting as movable brushes—to the middle of a rope and, with someone at either end, drag it up and down the dirty flue.

In the 1800s, however, London had thousands of zigzag chimneys, and in order to clean them properly—or so the British thought—it was necessary to send a “climbing boy” a small child armed with a brush and scrapper, directly into them.

Fire, undeniably, is one of the worst possible disasters that might befall any household, and, superstition often having a basis in fact, if a house were to burn and along with it all of the inhabitant’s worldly possessions, that, in fact, could definitely be considered bad luck. As flue fires were most often the cause of these disasters, it was then thought that once a chimney sweep entered a house and plied his trade that house would be immune from fire, thus it came to be believed that it was good luck to have a chimney sweep in the house. Even to this day, upon seeing a chimney sweep, some people will come to touch him, hoping that bit of luck might rub off on them.

Succumbing to consumption—tuberculosis—and the dreaded, deadly Chimney Sweep disease, sooty wart —cancer of the scrotum—luck had very little to do with the life of a climbing boy as few were fortunate enough to survive their apprenticeship.

The abuse and exploitation of these children became the basis for civilization’s first child labor laws.

The first of these laws was passed by Parliament in Great Britain in the mid-eighteen hundreds.



                  Climbing Boy 2:Dawn


December 24, 1843

London, England


William Johnson, besides being a drunkard, was a “Master

Sweep,” and Zachariah his apprentice.


The door pushed open suddenly, accompanied by a gust

of wind that caused the flame in the fireplace to sputter,

allowing a puff of dark smoke to roil above the mantel.

“Christ, but it’s cold in the crapper! Just ‘bout froze my

arse on the plank.” Coughing, beating his arms about his

chest, Johnson rushed to the fireplace. “Get on with ya! Do

ya business!” Coughing harder, becoming red in the face,

he added, “I’ll get the mush goin’.”


A tall, thin man in his mid-thirties, Johnson’s face was

pockmarked with scattering of deep blackheads across his

wide forehead, his cheeks and the bridge of his thick, broken

nose—a constant reminder of the years of his own youth

spent in the tutelage of “Thornton & Son, Chimney Sweeps.”

Although Zachariah now did most of the work, caked with

soot, all of Johnson’s visible flesh was filthy. As was the

custom, he too kept his hair closely cropped. William

Johnson had a firm, outstanding chin that was covered with

a dark, sparse, scraggly beard. His rheumy eyes closely set,

their irises were dark brown, almost black.


A life of subservience had caused Johnson—without being

aware of the habit—to never look directly into the eyes of

any person that might be on an equal social par with himself

and, most certainly, not at anyone on a higher social strata.

The few exceptions to this were when he became

exceptionally angry—or wanted to be presumed as being

exceptionally, rightfully angry—or extremely drunk, when

he became a toady to his cronies and obsequious to

his customers.


This behavior made him tolerable—barely tolerable—to

most of his drinking chums only because Johnson was

usually the butt of their practical jokes.


The social system—being what it was in nineteenth

century London—allowed Johnson’s customers to accept his

subservient conduct as proper, but he was totally disliked

by most of the butlers and head maids.


In a number of the larger households the contracting of

outside services, such as chimney sweeping, was ordered

by these same butlers and maids, and they seldom allowed

Johnson back for a second sweep; those that did, did so

because of their fondness for Zachariah and looked forward

to slipping “the poor child” a sweet or a jellied biscuit.


Because of this lack of repeat business, Johnson was

among the lowliest and poorest of his profession. Always on

the lookout for a new customer, he would often leave

Zachariah at the start of a job that was meant for the labor

of two as he went from door to door of the neighboring

houses soliciting future business. But no sooner would he

contract a future job, than he’d be off to the nearest pub for

“a few fast ones.”


Fortunately for Johnson, he’d avoided sooty wart. (cancer of

the scrotum) Unfortunately, though, the dust of a thousand

sweeps had settled in his lungs and he would often go into tearful,

gasping coughing spasms, which he knew was consumption,

but would not admit to—not even to himself.


A product of the times, during his period of apprenticeship he

was treated in an extremely harsh manner by old man Thornton,

but Johnson was one of three apprentices, so the duties—along

with the punishments—were equally divided. The broken nose

was not due to Thornton himself, but rather to one of his overly

zealous sons.


Johnson’s treatment of Zachariah and the life he’d forced

on the child were harder then he had ever endured. But ‘tis

the only way to treat a ‘prentice, he rationalized, taking his

frustrations out on Zachariah—the only person in the world

he thought was on a lower plane than himself. Occasionally,

though, he wondered, Why’d I do such a mean  thing to the lad?

‘e’s a good one. Why’d I say such a thing?


At those times the guilt would drop into his stomach as molten

lead and he would feel the pain of remorse, yet never would he

think of  saying, “Zachariah, I’m sorry!” Johnson did not

understand his feelings of guilt or remorse and they would quickly

be dispensed of and reversed by a trip to a pub, or a swig from

a bottle.


Removing a large bowl and a pewter jug from the wooden

box on the shelf outside the window, he went to the fireplace,

pulled the grate out, and ladled thick gruel from the bowl

into a crusted black saucepan, then poured barely usable

milk from the jug over it. He pushed the grate and the pot

back over the fire to heat, poured a splash of milk into two

mugs and set both on the table.


The door opening, shivering, blowing into his cupped

hands, saying, “Lordy, it ain’t much warmer in ‘ere!” and

rushing to the fireplace, Zachariah held his hands to the heat.


At the table, looking over some scribbled notes he’d taken

off the shelf, he said, “Archie, an’…” unable to read his

scratchings on the tattered scrap of paper, “the lady, an’ the

ol’ bastard…” Muttering to himself, trying to figure what

that day’s take should come to, Johnson began to cough.

Coughing harder, his face turning red with the effort, the

man forced himself to stop.


Taking two wooden bowls off the mantel, looking down,

Zachariah scowled, saying, “Damn bug!” Using his finger,

he flicked a large, brown cockroach out of one of the bowls.

Sailing through the air, landing on its back on the table,

the roach tried to right itself.


Seeing the movement from the corner of his eye, “Damn

bug!” reaching, nonchalantly smashing the roach with the

palm of his hand, Johnson brushed the corpse onto the floor

leaving a wet smear on the surface of the table.


“‘urry up!” Speaking in his usual harsh tone, “we ain’t

got all day, ya know!”


Pulling the grate out, using the ladle, the boy stirred the

semisolid stuff in the saucepan once, then plopped equal

portions of the lumpy gruel into each bowl. Serving Johnson

first, Zachariah was careful to give him the bowl that had

contained the cockroach.


The bowl on the table before him, eating quickly, noisily,

the boy brought spoonfuls of food to his mouth, while,

holding the bowl just under his lips, slurping even more

noisily, the man shoveled it directly into his mouth.


Waiting till the older man was almost through before

making up his mind to speak, he said, “Sir.” Speaking rapidly,

as though to forestall a negative answer, “You’ve seen the

ol’ gray cat at the wheel factory! Well, Sir, that cat just made

a box of baby cats an’ Mr. Archibald, Sir, uh… well, Sir, Mr.

Archibald, ‘e said iff’n it were with your ‘proval, ‘e’d let me

‘ave one of ‘em. Ya know’s, Sir, we got a powerful lots’a

mice runnin’ ‘bout, an’ Mr. Archibald, ‘e said that the mama

cat’s a real good mouser an’ ‘er babies should be real good

mousers, too. We do need one ever so much, an’ I’ll care for

it, Sir, an’ I’ll even be givin’ it some’a my food to eat. Can

we, Sir? Please, Sir!”


The boy rarely asked for anything, and now, his spoon to

his lips, a trickle of gruel ran down his master’s chin onto

his beard and a larger chunk fell onto the table with a soft

plop, because, amazement showing on Johnson’s face,

somebody had offered to give the boy something! Nobody

had ever offered to give Johnson anything! Oh, a drink now

and then, but nothing of consequence. Nothing for himself

to keep. Yes, a cat would be nice! Johnson thought. Yes, we

do ‘ave lots of mice about. The lad’s a good lad. ‘e works ‘ard

and ‘e don’t ask for nothin. Never gives me no trouble. Why

shouldn’t ‘e ‘ave a cat?


But instead he said, “Your Mister Archibald, ‘e said that

to ya, did ‘e? ‘e ‘ad no right to be talkin’ to ya afore talkin’

to me!”


Zachariah did not want Mr. Archibald’s kind gesture

returned to him in the form of Johnson’s anger. “Oh, Sir,

‘twas only ‘cause ‘e said I work so well an’ cause tomorrow’s

Christmas an’ all. An’ ‘e said t’would be a kindness for me to

be ‘avin’ somethin’ of me own to care for.”


e’s right, Johnson thought. Archie’s right and so’s the boy.


But instead, he said, “‘e said that to ya, did ‘e? That ‘you’re

a good worker,’ did ‘e?” Starting to cough, his neck and

face become red. “‘e ‘ad no right to be speakin’ to me

‘prentice a’fore speakin’ to me first!” Coughing, he gasped

for air… Catching his breath, “Get on with ya!” His tone

softening slightly, “An’ I’ll be thinkin’ on the cat,” he said,

then remembering that his authority over the boy should be

complete, “An’ I’ll be speakin’ to ya Mister Archibald!”

Standing suddenly, pushing away from the table, knocking

the chair over with a clatter, “We ‘ave a full day’s work

ahead!” Once again speaking angrily, “Get on with ya!” And

once again, Johnson began to cough.


Gulping the milk down, knowing full well that this might

be all the food he’ll have till that night, shoving the last

spoonful of gruel into his mouth, he licked the bowl clean

with his tongue. Then lifting the saucepan from the fireplace,

running his fingers inside, getting every last morsel,

Zachariah took the bowls, mugs and spoons outside,

returned for the wash basin and, going out again, rinsed

the utensils in the same water he’d washed his face in earlier.


Impatient to be gone, “Come on!” Johnson commanded.

“Come on, can’t ch’ya!”


Rushing into the shack, putting the pot on the grate, the

utensils on the mantle, the boy then finished dressing.


His filthy clothing threadbare, Zachariah wore oversized

britches held up by a rope belt tied around his waist, and a

patched and re-patched woolen shirt given to him by a

customer whose son had outgrown it. He wore no socks,

but on his feet were scuffed, badly worn shoes, one of which

had a buckle while the other was held closed by a piece of

twine. The boy had on a black long-coat that he’d found in

the trash behind the establishment of one of their only repeat

customers, “Hobbins’ Funeral Parlor.” The coat had hung

to his ankles and the sleeves to his knees until a kindly maid

made alterations while Zachariah worked on the chimney.

Once the odor of embalming fluid and the stains of the

undertaker’s trade had been washed away, the black coat

became the warmest article of clothing worn by Zachariah.

A long, ratty scarf was wrapped about his neck and over his

head, and was tucked into the collar of the long-coat. He

wore the scarf for three reasons: to keep his head and neck

warm, to hide his shaved head and filthy face, and to wrap

around his mouth and nose in an effort to keep as much

soot and dust as possible from entering his lungs

while working.


Watching as the boy dressed, waiting impatiently, Johnson

had a toolbox at his feet containing the tools of their trade,

a pile of drop cloths, a handful of poles, assorted brushes,

and a coil of rope.


Finally dressed, Johnson loaded up Zachariah.


The coil of rope was placed about the boy’s neck and

hung from his left shoulder. Four homemade flue brushes

of assorted sizes tied together with twine went around his

neck and right shoulder, and he carried some of the drop

clothes in his arms. The rest of the drop clothes held between

his arm and chest, the man easily held the toolbox in one

hand, with the poles, slung over his shoulder, in the other.


“Come on!” Prodding the boy with the bundle of poles,


Johnson followed Zachariah into the damp, cold day.





















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Reviewed by m j hollingshead
off to read more
Reviewed by Annabel Sheila
Amazing writing, Mark....very, very good story indeed!
Reviewed by Karen Lynn Vidra, The Texas Tornado

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The Climbing Boy by Mark Lichterman

Once optioned for a movie, now on Kindle also, "The Climbing Boy" is a magical Christmas tale that deserves to become a new Dickens like classic. The Climbing Boy can now..  
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