Climbing Boy

1. Climbing Boy
by John Malam

A piece of creative writing commissioned in 2005 by The Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle, County Durham, as part of their ‘Listen and You'll See’ outreach project for schools. The Bowes Museum is a magnificent French-style chateau containing the greatest collection of European fine and decorative art in the north of England. Authors and artists visited the museum, and each selected an object through which a story could be told. The end result was a printed booklet for use by County Durham schools.

The object I selected was a small porcelain figure, made in Denmark in about 1750. It shows a boy dressed as a chimney sweep, or climbing boy. His clothes were black, his skin was white – the contrast couldn't have been greater. In one hand he held a chimney brush, in the other a piece of coal.

This delicate little figure appealed to me the moment I spotted it in the museum cabinet. It grabbed my attention because I knew that boys like this really had existed – not just in Denmark, but in Britain, too. It was their job to climb inside chimneys and sweep them clean. But, there was something else. Something that made this figure stranger and more interesting the more I looked at it. On the boy's back were wings. And it was these that made me want to tell you his story ...

Am I flying? I'm not sure. I think I might be. This is so strange, so unreal, so exciting. I must go back over the events of yesterday. Maybe they didn't happen. Maybe I am locked in a dream.

He came for the smallest boy he could find. He took me. The man with the dirty, wrinkled face and missing front teeth promised me a new life. He offered me food and shelter, and for these great rewards he expected me to do his work. It was better than staying on the street, begging for my living with the other orphans and runaways.

I walked a few steps behind him, all the time wondering where he was taking me. Colliers were heading home from their shift at the pit, the whites of their eyes staring out from coal-black faces. Ahead, I could see a lamplighter turning gaslights on; slowly, carefully, one at a time.

We turned into a narrow side street lined with the walls of factories. There were no gaslights here. Dusk drifted into night, and an envelope of blackness swallowed us up.

In the darkness I lost my footing, falling at his feet as he pushed open the door to a cellar.

"Inside!" he said.

He lit candles and their flickering half-light cast grim shadows around the room. This was the shelter he had promised me. Then he gave me food.

"Got to fill you up," he said, the words falling from his mouth with drops of spit that his teeth once held back. “Can't work with hunger inside you.”

I ate his bread and drank his water. Believe me, I was glad of it. And then I slept. Not in a draughty doorway or under a noisy railway arch, nor beneath a tree in a storm or in a roofless wreck of a building. That night I lay on a mattress stuffed with horsehair and straw, and I slept. Oh, how I slept.

Climbing Boy

It was the kick that woke me in the morning, as he drove his foot hard into the mattress.

"Get up!" he said. "Put these on."

He pointed to a bundle of poor-looking clothes. They were as black as the night that had passed. I picked them up and soot sprinkled from them. I coughed. He coughed louder. I wondered what had happened to the boy who had worn them before me. He must have been even smaller than I was. The tunic barely came down to my knees. The hat was so tight it pinched my head. The belt barely reached around my waist, and the thin strip of cloth to stop me choking on chimney dust pressed my nose to my face. Against these pitiful rags my pale skin seemed to shine.

"What happened to your last boy?" I asked.

He paused before answering. The wrinkles on his brow grew deeper as he said: "Gone. Vanished. The clothes are all that was found of him."

He handed me a broom, pushed open the door, and led me into the new light of day.

We came to a big house. I waited in the street while he spoke to the owner, and then he took me inside to a room filled with smoke.

"Blocked chimney," he explained. "Climb it and sweep it clean. My last boy didn't."

The fire in the hearth was cold, but its smoke lingered and my eyes began to water. Tears rolled down my face, streaking the soot that had blackened my skin. I reached out for places to grip with my fingers and toes, slowly, ever so slowly, inching my way up the narrow chimney. I swept my brush around the walls, sweeping off lumps of soot that made dull crumping sounds as they exploded in the hearth below.

I knew that somewhere above me was daylight, but through the rain of filthy soot I saw nothing. I climbed to a point where several chimneys came together, each connected to a different hearth. A sudden blast of hot air roared upwards, scorching my feet and legs. Somewhere in the house a fire was burning.

The chimney walls became hot and I climbed faster to escape the heat. Then I stopped and thought I should go back, but a terrible fear came to me. What if I took a wrong turning and climbed down a chimney with a fire at the bottom?

It was then that I knew I did not want to be a climbing boy – perhaps like the boy before me. Master said the boy had vanished. I wondered if such a thing was possible, and I envied him. And that was when I heard it. A whisper at first, then louder until I heard a boy's voice that seemed to be all around me and inside my head at the same time.

Listen and You'll See cover

"Anything is possible if you want it to happen enough," the voice said. "Come into the light."

With one last effort I was at the top of the chimney and in a light so bright it hurt my eyes.

"Safe now," said the voice. "Spread your wings and fly with me."

On my shoulders were a pair of pure white wings. As I opened them the sweep's clothes were shed from my body. My master stared in disbelief at my discarded outer layer as it fell into the hearth.

And now I am flying, and I have decided this is not a dream at all. This is the start of the rest of my life.

Text © John Malam 2006. Photographs © The Bowes Museum. All Rights Reserved.