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Books by Mark M Lichterman
The ClimbingBoy13: Undertaker
By Mark M Lichterman
Posted: Monday, December 19, 2011
Last edited: Thursday, August 16, 2012
This short story is rated "G" by the Author.
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The Climbing Boy can now be purchased as a Kindle eBook @ $3.00

____________________________________________________________________

___________________________________________________

 The performance over, pulleys squeaked as once again

the chandeliers were lowered and the theater, once again

was lit.

Putting their hats and coats on, the people filed outside,

into the cold gloom of this waning, prematurely dark day.

 

__________________________________________________

Climbing Boy 13: Undertaker

London, England

December 24, 1843

                                          Christmas Eve

The coil of rope, brushes and the stack of drop clothes lying

at his feet, holding the collar of the long-coat pressed tightly

against his throat with one red, cold, chapped, scraped hand,

the boy held his other hand against his breast pocket, trying

to keep his friend the mouse inside warm also.

 

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.

 

“Mum, it’s me, Johnson, the sweep, ‘ere with me ‘prentice

to clean 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.

 

“You’re late!”

 

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 the cold out!”

 

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. But,

always frightened by the undertaker, hiding behind his

master, Zachariah was pressed between Johnson and

the wall.

 

“Mister ‘obbins, Sir,” reaching behind, grasping, trying

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, he dragged 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

closing 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 was still

squeezed 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, Sir?”

 

“If you want to do the work today 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 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!”

 

Holding his anger, Johnson replied softly, through his

teeth. “Don’t ya be worrin’, Sir. It’s only the best work for

ya, an we’ll be out’a your ‘stablishment well afore seven.”

 

“You better!”

 

“Aye, Sir.”

 

“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 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 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.

 


Web Site: mmlichterman.com  

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Reviewed by Jerry Bolton
Haha! What a fun trip this was. Took me back to the Dickens kind of stories. Thoroughly enjoyed it.

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