I never stopped reading them.
But perhaps Lewis’s words only apply to those who actually grow up. (And a sign of growing up is stopping reading fairy tales.)
Either way, one of my favourite fairy tales has always been The Water Babies, and it is the world of that story which I would visit. (Yes, I’m back on Trading Places, continuing from here and here.)
When I was a child, I had a friend named Denny who lived a few doors down the road from us. She was a year older than me and although she was skinny like I was, she was much taller. But despite the difference in our ages and heights, we became friends when I first moved to Alton Sands and I saw her with her guinea-pigs and asked if I could stroke one.
At first my mother didn’t mind me being friends with Denny. I used to go to Denny’s garden to play, and that got me out of the way for a few hours. She would have minded though if she’d known that Denny’s favourite game was dressing me up as a girl and calling me Millie. After Denny’d been to the beach with me a few times (my mother thought I was in Denny’s garden, Denny’s mother didn’t mind us going) and she’d seen how much I loved swimming and how at home I was in the water, she gave me the name Millie the Mermaid from the title of a book she had which I loved – and also gave me the book.
My mother had a strict rule that I was only to read books about boys and she made me give it back to Denny, but I already knew the story by heart, and drooled over the pictures whenever I was at Denny’s house. And as my sister got older and started reading for herself – though younger, she was much quicker than me – I was able to read her books when no one was looking. All right, sometimes I got caught and was punished, but I didn’t mind, it was worth it, she had such lovely books.
Much of my time then, when I was eight or so, was spent outside because I was always “in the way” when I was indoors. Mum was teaching me how to help with the gardening, and I had to look after my guinea-pigs and my sister’s rabbits – she had a big male one, Bobbie, which frightened me! – and an angry plucked chicken Denny had rescued and given me to look after. It always pecked at me and attacked me with its claws as if I was the one who’d plucked it! Mum said it looked ready for the oven, I said it looked better like that without all those dirty scruffy feathers, my sister said it must have hurt the poor thing being plucked and told me to be kind to it.
Sitting in the shed with the animals or up at the end of the garden where I couldn’t be seen from the house, I started reading The Water Babies, which Mum let me have because it’s about a boy called Tom. It was a children’s edition with big pages and big beautiful pictures and it soon became my favourite book – better even than Millie the Mermaid.
When I show it to Denny, she is less than impressed. But when I say, ‘I wish I was a chimney-sweep!’ that does make her sit up.
‘I said I wish I was a chimney-sweep.’
‘I heard you. And they’re not called chimney-sweeps. That’s the men. The masters. The boys who went up the chimneys were called climbing-boys.
In my book, Tom is called a chimney-sweep, but I’ve learnt not to argue with Denny. She isn’t a bully and she never really hurts me like Stephanie from across the road does, but she has bony fingers and sharp nails and a pinch from her leaves a nasty bruise and two little crescent-shaped cuts. I settle for, ‘How do you know?’
‘Because my grandfather and great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather and great-great-great-great-great all the way back were chimney-sweeps and they had lots of climbing boys. Some of them had been climbing-boys themselves when they were kids, that’s how they learnt the trade.’
‘And the others?’
‘Boys who are naturally big don’t make good climbing boys. They used to start boys off when they were five or so. Big boys are already too big at that age. They took boys who were still tiny when they were between four and six – often the boys didn’t know how old they were – and kept them the size of a six or seven-year-old for as long as possible.’
She ran to the back door. ‘Mum! Mum!! … How much did a climbing-boy weigh?’
‘Thirty-five, forty pounds. Fifty pounds, they’re too big, get rid of ’em quick before they get stuck somewhere and you have to tear down a wall to get the body out.’
Denny was still standing at the door, looking back at me and talking to her invisible mum. ‘You remember that?’
‘Lived with climbing-boys when I was a kid, didn’t I. Course it was already against the law here in England by then, before the First War, that was, had been for some time. But the toffs turn a blind eye, don’t they – it’s their chimneys in them big houses they need boys to clean!’
Denny came back to me where I sat nursing one of her beautiful Abyssinian guinea-pigs. ‘You heard that. Any idea how much you weigh? You look about the right size to me.’
‘I know, cos I’m changing school, going to Thorpe Park, and they measured and weighed us.’
‘I can’t remember.’
She laughed. ‘Oh, you’re so stupid. I don’t know why I bother with you. Listen, I’ll find out some more from my mum as you’re interested, like why people thought it was such a horrible job – she doesn’t agree, she says that was all nonsense. She’s got some pictures, too – old postcards and that – and you find out your height and weight. Are you going to the beach in the morning?’
‘I think so.’
‘Well, come round the back way any time, see if I’m here. Okay?’
* * *
I found Denny next morning and she took me into her house. This was unusual, because her mum didn’t like me, and her dad boxed my ears for me every time he saw me, even when I wasn’t wearing a frock, which made my ears ring and my eyes go all funny and gave me a headache. When I asked Denny why, she just rolled her eyes and said ‘Must think you need it. And ’cause you’re a sissy. No one likes sissies.’
Anyway, now they were both out, thank goodness.
‘My mum says I mustn’t take these pictures out to the garden, so let’s look at them here.
[These pictures are not of course the actual pictures Denny showed me that day, they are ones I’ve found on the internet, but they are very similar and I think a couple are actually the same. Naturally I only remember the gist of the conversation, so I am improvising – as always with these memories of my early years back in the 1940s.]
‘This first one,’ Denny was saying, ‘is a picture of a chimney-sweep and his climbing-boy taken not long ago. Mum saw it in a magazine and cut it out. Can you tell me what’s strange about it?’
I studied it.
‘The boy looks happy.’
‘Why shouldn’t he look happy?’
‘I don’t know. I just thought – ‘
‘The ladder’s really small. What use is that?’
‘It’s the boy’s ladder, and that’s why he’s carrying it. If you’re a climbing-boy, you have your own little ladder. It’s to get up into the flues. You stand it in the fireplace – those big old ones we’re talking about – and climb up into the chimney, the flue. They all have one. Look at this New Years Card.
‘Mum says they put pictures of climbing-boys on greetings cards ’cause they’re lucky. Really! There’s things wrong with this card – he’s a bit too clean and pink and that brush he’s carrying is ridiculous, but he’s got his little ladder, you see? Dad was there and saw this card and he said it was Christmas so the boy wasn’t cleaning chimneys, he was delivering birch-rods for Christmas presents for naughty boys. He’d been collecting them in the wood and that’s how he made a bit of extra money. Then Mum said if they’re birch-twigs for making birch-rods, then probably his master had sent him to collect them and they were for using on the poor boy himself. Only she didn’t say poor, she thought it was a very good idea. What do you think?’
‘I don’t know. Did climbing-boys get a lot of beating?’
‘Some boys needed more than others, I imagine. If you were a climbing-boy you’d need a lot, at least till you got used to the job. Now look back at the first picture. What’s strange about it is not that the boy is happy, it’s that he’s not hidden away out of sight. Here in this country climbing-boys are banned, so no sweep can walk around openly and happily with one like in that picture. Mum thinks this picture was taken in Poland or Germany or one of those countries where they don’t have that stupid law. Course it’s a dirty job, and sometimes dangerous, and in the old days many master-sweeps didn’t look after their boys properly, but that was no reason to ban it completely. I remember my granny talking about that. She said all they had to do was make a few rules to improve things for the boys. Anyway, here’s another card, a Christmas one.
They’re never allowed inside a house, of course, even at Christmas, they’re far too dirty for that – always black and filthy – but they sang Christmas Carols outside and people threw them coins or scraps of food.’
‘They’ve all got their brush and their ladder, too, look.’ I liked that.
‘Here’s another real one of a master-sweep with his boy. Mum thinks this picture was probably taken somewhere like Poland, too.’
I didn’t like that one so much. The man was holding the little boy by the ear and he seemed to be angry with him.
‘Mum says he shouldn’t be wearing clothes. All the best masters made their boys buff it – that means work naked. It was much better for the boy, she says. You slither up and down the chimney more easily, and – most important – garments can snag on something and in a very narrow flue you won’t be able to get your arms down to release yourself. You’ll be jammed in the chimney. But at least he’s got bare feet. Now one more picture. This is my favourite. This one belonged to my granny. Just look at their faces! And the big boy’s been greedy – look at his fat tummy – and now, though he desperately wants to stay, his master’s telling him to bugger off.’
‘Why is he carrying the little ones like that? And why don’t they have brushes and ladders and – ‘
‘This is an old cartoon, from – I dunno – a hundred years ago or whatever, when they first began making these laws, and they said climbing-boys had to be at least fourteen. Which was just stupid. Climbing-boys started at four to six and finished when they got too big. A few might last till twelve, even thirteen if their masters were hard enough on them – only a tiny amount of food every day, and absolutely no handouts from kind people or other children who felt sorry for them. Ordinary children thought there was something magical about them. They couldn’t ever play with a climbing-boy or invite one into their home – they shouldn’t even speak to them! – but because they were such outsiders other children considered them like something out of a fairy tale. You can see a bit of that in this picture here.’ She turned to another page in what was obviously her mother’s scrapbook.
‘Look, it’s winter and snowy and the other children are inside in the warm, and they’ve just had a nice dinner, and later they’ll have jelly and sweets, but the little climbing-boy has to go to work in the snow and he’s had no breakfast, and won’t get anything till he gets home – well, not home, the master’s house – where he’ll get a cup of cold broth and a crust of bread if he’s lucky. And they’ll sleep in their beautiful beds and he’ll sleep among the soot-bags out in a shed in the cold.’
‘Wow . . . Just like Tom, in The Water Babies. And he’s got his ladder and brush and rope.’
‘Yes, but look, he’s wearing blue socks and has long blond hair sticking out from under his hat. It was never like that. It was like in the other picture, this one, where the master is carrying the four little ones. Aren’t they sweet? And they’re the real thing. But they’re supposed to be hidden in the sacking because he’s not meant to have them, but they’re peeping out – falling out! Their ladders and things will be coming separately on a cart, Mum says. They’re probably going to a big house house with lots of chimneys and the boys will all be sent up different flues and be sweeping at the same time.’
‘In that other picture, the one where he’s holding the boy by the ear – yes, that one – it looks like he uses his ladder to get up onto the chimney.’
‘Yes, sometimes they go down from the top, from the roof, not up from the fireplace at the bottom. That’s what the rope’s for. You saw they all carry a long rope, too? Hey! Someone’s coming in the front door! You want to escape out the back way?’
I scamper out out into their garden, leaving her laughing at my terror of her father, and over the fence and across an allotment and over another fence and along a narrow path between rows of back gardens then over our fence into our garden. The “back way” in and out.
It must be about midday, but there’s no one around. Then I remember they all went shopping this morning – that was why we didn’t go to the beach – and maybe Mum decided to have some lunch out.
I sit in the shed with the pets. Denny’s plucked chicken glares at me but doesn’t attack me. It isn’t kept caged like the rabbits and guinea-pigs, and usually it darts at me as soon as it sees me. It may have no feathers but there’s nothing wrong with its claws or its beak.
I take out Blackie, my favourite guinea-pig and sit down on a box with her on my lap and stroke her. She makes that guinea-pig brrr-brrr-brrr happiness noise, which always made me feel happy too.
* * *
That night, when Mum came up to tuck me in, as always she checked what I was reading. I made sure now I was never caught reading a girl’s book or comic. Did she realise? Looking back, I’m sure she must have.
‘You like that story, don’t you.’
‘I love it! I wish I was a climbing-boy!’
She laughed. ‘Really? I’m sure you wouldn’t if you knew more about them. It’s a horrible job. Don’t tell me Tom likes being a – what did you call him? Climbing-boy? I always thought they were called chimney-sweeps.’
‘It says chimney-sweep in the book but Denny says they’re called climbing-boys. And Tom doesn’t mind being one.’
‘What does Denny know about it?’
‘Her mum’s family are sweeps – her grandfather, great-grandfather, great-great – ‘
‘That doesn’t mean Denny knows about it.’
‘Her mum does. When she was a girl she lived with climbing-boys.’
‘But using boys to clean chimneys was made illegal long before Denny’s mum was born.’
‘They still did it, she says.’
‘Hmm. Actually, that doesn’t surprise me.’
‘She’s got lots of pictures. Some of them are New Year Cards, thing like that. The boys seem quite happy. Just different from all the other children.’
‘I know, yes. They considered chimney-sweeps lucky. But you didn’t answer me about Tom in your book. Well, you said he didn’t mind. But I thought the whole story was about how he ran away because his master beat him too much and the job was so hard and so awful.’
‘No, he ran away because he came down the wrong flue by accident and found himself in the bedroom of the most beautiful girl in the world. Look – here, in this picture:
‘She woke up and saw him, and she screamed! Well, of course! So he ran! And everyone ran after him thinking he was a thief or worse. But up to then he’d been quite happy in his job, really he had. He was used to his master, he was at home up chimneys, he – ‘
‘Listen, I have to go now. You can dream about being a – a climbing-boy.’ She laughed. ‘And about the most beautiful girl in the world. Goodnight.’
* * *
It was Denny who brought the subject up again, some weeks later. She was chattering away about dressing up for the Carnival Parade, what she might go as this year when she suddenly shrieked ‘A climbing-boy!’
I hadn’t said a word. As usual when Denny was talking I sat on the ground in front of her nursing one of her guinea-pigs and gazing up at her. Now, though, I repeated, ‘A climbing-boy? You?’
‘No, you, stupid! I’ll be Ellie, of course. The girl in the bedroom. Why? You want to be Ellie? Well, of course you do, but you can’t. I’m Ellie. you’re Tom.’
And there it was. Not difficult to organise for people like Denny and her mum, and although we didn’t win a prize everyone said how beautiful Denny was and what a cute little chimney-sweep I made and a few people laughed and said what a pity it was they didn’t have real chimney-sweeps any more, it was the perfect job for unwanted brats and gutter-snipes and the only way to get the chimneys in some of these old houses really clean . . . Then Mr Poshrat, the local chimney-sweep, who lived in our road just a few doors up from Denny, spotted us and came over. ‘You want a job, boy? Come and see me – but quickly now, while you’re still small.’
He was joking, of course, as Mum said – using small boys as chimney-sweeps had been illegal for years. But what if it hadn’t been? What if he hadn’t been?
Yes, I would love to spend a day as Tom – but, please, let it be that day: the day Tom meets the old Irish tinker-woman and talks to her on the road, then gets lost in the maze of chimneys in the Manor House, then comes down in Ellie’s bedroom and she screams and he runs for his life across the fields and through the woods pursued by men and dogs and just when they are going to catch him he reaches the river and dives in and – becomes a water-baby.
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