Climbing Boy 5: Light
December 24, 1843
“‘ere!” The sound of his confined voice loud upon his
ears. “‘ere!” For now the soot-brushed, creosote-scraped
brick ended and all below was coated and blacker. “Master
Johnson!” his voice echoing up the flue, “Stop ‘ere!”
Forty-seven feet above, securing the rope, freezing, his
hands cramped from grasping and playing out the rope,
Johnson awaited the word from below to once again
The scarf bound over mouth and nostrils, a brush in one
small, blood-scraped filthy hand, the scraper in the other,
the boy began.
For leverage, his feet and back braced upon opposite
sides, working as quickly as possible, Zachariah corkscrewed
his body foot-by-foot as, scrapping, brushing, “Lower away!”
the man above lowered the boy below.
Reaching above his head, the brush hit a pocket of soot
that had built up over an indentation in the wall, and soot—
caustic, powdery soot—cascaded onto his head, over his
shoulders, through the weave of the scarf, into his eyes, ears,
and throat. It ran down his neck and onto his back. Dropping
from his hands, the scrapper and brush dangled from the
rope around his waist.
Yanking the scarf from his face, scrabbling at his burning
eyes with filthy knuckles, “Hhhuuu!” gasping, the boy,
“Hhhuuu!” tried to pull fresh air into his lungs, “Hhhuuu!”
till finally, after what seemed an eternity, Zachariah was
able to inhale… then exhale.
“Aye, Zachariah! What’s keepin’ ya? Get a move on! It’s
bloody cold up ‘ere ya know!” Johnson yelled down the flue.
“We’ve two more to get to today!” Tugging the rope, “Move
your arse!” and…
…Zachariah was jerked out of his braced position and
dangled for a moment or two before he slowly reseated his
position and, once again, started into brushing,
In the factory, now slightly less than one story below, the
huge double doors were opened allowing entry to a horse
The open door caused a draft of air to blow through the
factory, lifting eddies of dust along the floor. The change of
internal air pressure caused an updraft in the closed furnace
pushing dust and soot upward, catching the boy again, this
time from below.
Coughing again, dropping the tools again, Zachariah
scrabbled at his eyes again.
Above, hammered by rain, sleet, and wind, Christ! his feet on the third rung, hanging onto the support rung, the
upper portion of his torso bent across the flue, Christ! every few minutes, in an effort to get some portion of his body out of the wind and to straighten his aching back, stepping down to the sixth rung, entwining both arms through, Johnson hung on. But from there he can’t hear the call to lower away, so, climbing back to the third rung, “Come’on! Come’on!” he repeated over and over. “Come’on, can’t’ ch’ya?” yelling down the flue, “Can’t ‘old on ‘ere much longer! Come’on, can’t’ ch’ya!”
Working steadily, “Lower away!” Working quickly, “Lower
away!” his back and legs aching from the strain of bracing
himself, “Lower, away!” Zachariah had but one objective in
mind: to finish.
“Aye!” Listening for the boy’s call… “Aye!” At least now
the rain had stopped, but still, “Aye!” Stepping to the lower
rung to come out of the direct force of the wind, “Aye!”
Waiting, “‘urry up!”
Till, at last…
“All’s clear!” Unclipping the lantern, stepping out of his
rope harness, “I’m at the bottom!” Cupping his hands to his
mouth, Zachariah yelled up the echoing chimney, “I’m at
the bottom, an’ takin’ off the ‘arness!”
Above: Hearing the boy’s hollow voice echo up the flue,
“I’d’ a done it faster!” Johnson yelled back, then clambered
down the chimney rungs as fast as his cramped hands and
legs would allow.
Below: Straightening his back, “Thank ya!” Grateful to
be through with it, “Thank ya for bringin’ me down afore
gettin’ killed.” The boy spoke to his unknown God while
rotating his neck and stretching his arms as, standing on
the inside deck of the furnace, feeling… sensing the bars of
light that shone through the slats of the steel hatch as heat
upon his face, then, with one more “Thank ya,” pulling the
release rod, Zachariah pushed the hatch open.
Above: Back on the solid footing of the roof, pushing his
fists into the small of his back, flexing his arms and legs,
Johnson began to regain the feelings in his hands and feet.
Below: The opening of the furnace hatch from within
momentarily startling two workmen passing by, “What’s
this?” Each carrying the end of a large, wooden tray, one of
the men, almost dropping his end of the load asked, “What
the ‘ell’s this?”
Above: Johnson yanked on the rope. Finding no resistance
he pulled it through the flue and when it reached the top it
fell from the chimney into a heap on the deck..
Below: Anxious to be out of it, to breath fresh air, reaching
through the open hatch, a dust-covered arm set a lantern
on the floor, then a filthy head and shoulders appeared as…
Above: Johnson’s stiffened fingers did not want to
cooperate and it took longer than usual for him to coil the
length of rope as…
Below: Zachariah saw two sets of legs and, looking up,
saw the two men that towered above him.
The upper portion of the boy’s face was black as coal
and the lower part, the portion of his face that had been
partially protected by the scarf, just slightly lighter.
“‘ere there,” one of the workmen asked, “what’s this
“Blimey,” said the other. “Looks like a blinkin’ dust mop!”
The thought made Zachariah smile, and his eyes, dimples
and teeth shown as pure white in a field of black.
“Aye,” one of the men said to the other, “wha’d’ya do with
a blinkin’ dust mop?”
Looking at each other a thought passed between them,
and in unison the men put the tray down and, reaching under
the boy’s arms, pulling him fully out of the furnace, held
him between themselves two feet above the ground.
“Yeah, ya shakes a blinkin’ dust mop,” one of the men
said. “Ya shakes it good!”
Frightened a moment, Zachariah looked from one face
to other. Seeing the men smile, knowing that they were
playing with him and not going to hurt him, his smile turned
to a giggle.
The men began to laugh, and they did they swung the
boy, and as they did Zachariah’s giggle turned to laughter,
Above: The rope finally coiled, hoisting the toolbox onto
his shoulder, Johnson started down the stairs.
Laughter? On the dais, hearing an unusual sound above the din of the factory, Laughter? Lifting his eyes from the papers in front of him, John Archibald looked to see, Who’s laughin’? Seeing the two men swinging the boy between them, his face becoming red and smooth, standing angrily he started off the dais, but stopped when he realized that the boy was laughing too, and Archibald’s face crinkled and his anger turned to a smile and, pointing at the workman and the boy, the smile became bellowing laughter.
Laughter? Hearing laughter coming from two sides of
the factory, stopping work to look about, the other men saw
Archie, the boss, laughing, pointing toward the furnaces.
Curious, they left their places to go to the furnaces.
From the foundry to the loading platform all work
stopped as the workers went to the furnaces to watch the
swinging boy, and to join in the laughter because, as the
two men swung Zachariah, ashes dropped from his coat,
soot fell from his trousers, dust shook from his hair, and the
contagious sound of laughter spread throughout the factory.
Coming down the stairs, entering the factory, Laughter?Johnson heard the laughter, too, and, as the others, looking for its source saw the men swinging Zachariah, but didn’t realize that the reason they were laughing—the only reason they were laughing —was because the boy was laughing.
“Shame!” he said, pushing his way through the group of
workmen. “Shame on all’a’ya laughin’ at a poor workin’ lad!”
Reaching the two men he grabbed the boy from their hands.
“What’s’a matter with ya? Ain’t ya never been dirty?”
The laughter ebbed as the men of the factory looked
Johnson looked back… for a moment, then his stare
withered, his eyes dropped and, his Adam’s apple moving
up and down his throat. Looking downward, the chimney
sweep walked through the crowd.
Picking up the lantern and rope belt that he’d laid on the
floor with one last, weak smile at the two workmen,
Zachariah followed Johnson.
As though at a loss for what to do, the workmen looked
across the factory, to Archie, to the boss.
Looking back, with a movement of his arm, Archibald
motioned the men back to work, and within moments…
A hammer hammered.
A crate scraped across the floor.
Another hammer, and another.
The saw, the grinder, and within seconds the din of the
factory was back to its usual pitch.
“Wait ‘ere!” he told the boy when they reached the side
Going to the center of the factory, stepping onto the dais,
going to the foreman’s desk, “Me job’s done.” His hand
outstretched, “Me payment if ya don’t mind.”
Pulling the drawer to his desk open, reaching inside,
Archibald removed a stack of coins. “Bill, ya were a bit
misguided there,” nodding his head toward the furnaces.
“The men weren’t makin’ fun’a the lad; they were playin
with ‘im.” He handed the coins to Johnson, who, studying
them a moment, put them in his pocket, then turned away.
“Bill!” Johnson turned back. “Bill, it was nice’a ya comin’
to the boy’s defense that way. I know you ‘ave some feelin’s
for ‘im. Remember what I told ya. Stop back on your way
‘ome and let the lad pick a kitten for ‘isself.”
‘e’s right, but, “I don’t thinks so, Archie. The boy’ll ‘ave
what I gives him an’ not more. I don’t want ‘im to be ‘avin’
Starting to say something, “William…” but thinking better
of it, Archibald stared at Johnson a moment, then, turning
back to the work on his desk, dismissed him.
Standing in the doorway, Zachariah watched the two
men. Seeing Archibald turn from Johnson, feeling a tug in
his chest because he knew if he were to have the kitten,
Mister Archibald would have given him a sign of some sort.
Sighing, he placed the coiled rope and string of brushes
around his shoulders.
Pointing to the mound of drop cloths, “Take the
‘quipment!” Johnson grabbed the poles and the toolbox,
“Com’on!” Then jerking his thumb toward the door,
motioned for Zachariah to follow.
Looking up, he watched as Johnson approached
Zachariah, picked up the poles and the toolbox, and
motioned for him to follow.
Tis a shame, lad, Archibald thought as he saw the
overloaded boy obediently follow his “Master” out the door.
Closing his eyes, An’ I pray the Lord Jesus to ‘elp ya outt’a this kind’a poor life, m’boy. And he did; John Archibald did pray for Zachariah.
Outside, though the air was still cold and damp and the
sky deeply overcast, the rain had stopped.
His face black and marbled with sweat, heavy patches of
dirt had coagulated around his nose, mouth and eyes. The
shaking by the two workmen doing little, if anything, to clean
him, since stepping out of the factory furnace every fiber of
Zachariah’s clothing was permeated with soot, and as he
walked he left dusty footprints. Rushing to keep up, “Master
Johnson, might I shake myself off?”
Stopping, turning, “Make it fast, we’re late as it is.”
Dropping the drop clothes, shrugging the brushes and
rope off his shoulders, removing his scarf and long-coat,
taking a deep breath before starting, shaking both, Zachariah
became enveloped in a cloud of dust.
With the rope and brushes again around his neck and
shoulders, with the drop clothes in his arms, going towards
the second job of the day, “Bloody ‘ell!” Seeing them, having
run into them before, his stomach tightening because he
knew what was coming, muttering one of his master’s
favorite phrases, “Bloody ‘ell!”
The four boys had seen the two approaching figures also.
Frightened, but knowing their taunts, embarrassed by
his appearance as well, unable to use both hands so using
one only, Zachariah attempted to tighten the scarf around
his head but only succeeded in loosening it further and, as
he and Johnson came abreast, the four boys stepped into
the gutter making room for them.
“Mornin’, m’lords!” Doffing their caps as they’d done on
two other occasions, bowing low with exaggerated curtseys,
“Aye, m’lords!” one of the boys said as, following as closely
behind as they dared, another boy, being careful to stay out
of the reach of Johnson, “Ai, black boy! What’s ‘appened to
your ‘air, black boy?” taunted Zachariah.
Looking straight ahead, his stomach tightening,
Zachariah did his best to ignore the boys as, gaining courage,
coming closer, one of the boys grabbed the tail of Zachariah’s
scarf and yanked, causing him—the drop clothes flying from
his hands—to spin in a circle and slip and fall on the wet
Yelling to his friends, “‘e’s a bloody top, ‘e is!” forgetting,
the boy came within Johnson’s range and, wanting to in the
past, but never allowed close enough, “Whap,” swinging the
poles with all his force, Johnson hit the boy across his neck
and shoulders knocking him onto the street.
Standing above him, the poles forced onto his chest,
Johnson straddled the boy.
“Don’t ‘urt me,” covering his face, “We’s only funnin’,
don’t ‘urt me!”
Reaching down, grabbing him by the lapels of his coat,
“You bastard!” Hauling him to his feet, shaking him with
one hand, his other hand held the poles, menacingly, inches
from the boy’s whipping head…
“Don’t ‘urt me!”
Slapping the boy’s forehead with the poles, leaving a
wide, black smudge, Johnson flung him towards his friends,
causing the boy to slide, collide into a wall, and fall.
The three others running already, hauling himself up, the
fourth boy quickly followed.
“Go on…” calling after them, “ya bloody bastards! I’ll
‘urt ya next time! I’ll ‘urt ya good next time!” Turning back,
“‘ere, there.” offering his hand, Johnson helped Zachariah
to his feet, but did not help the boy gather the scattered