Short-Story Competition 2020
(Wells Cathedral School, Wells)
Away with Discontent
What on the BLT19.co.uk website inspired you?
The Victorian working-class uncomplainingly accepted their poor conditions of life and work. Death always loomed. My story was inspired by two articles in The British Workman magazine Vol 1 No 1 (1855). The first article ‘Our own cottage’ was a patronising story of a bricklayer who found the time and money to drink, whilst complaining that he had a hard life. His master encouraged him instead to save his money rather than drink alcohol, so after many years he could afford a cottage of his own. In reality, the only way some people could tolerate their bad living and working conditions was by drinking alcohol. Many working-class people could not afford to adequately feed or clothe their families let alone live long enough to save enough money to buy their own home. The second article, ‘The Two Weavers,’ starts “Away with discontent for it is mean, cowardly and ungrateful.” The working class were encouraged to put up with their lives the way it was, which suited the people that profited from their misery. I decided to write a story about a chimney sweep as sweeps had some of the worst working conditions which they could do nothing about.
Away with Discontent
Bert Smyth heaved his bony frame out of bed. He attempted to stretch, his joints creaking as he did so, and immediately regretted it as a sharp pain coursed down his spine. A torrent of swear words burst from his thin lips, creating a puff of steam in the freezing-cold room. ‘Juss once it’d be nice to get up when it’s light,’ he muttered to himself as he hobbled down the stairs to where the apprentices slept.
He was doing alright at the moment: he had six apprentices and all of them were pretty reliable. They were curled up on the coal sacks, their soot-covered hair and faces making them look like a litter of black Labrador puppies. It was many a year since he’d lost any of them to sickness or … well, some things were best not dwelt upon.
As if to banish the bad memories from his mind, he gave the boy nearest him a hefty nudge with his right foot,
“Up ya get, you lazy bunch. We ain’t got all day.”
Six pairs of reluctant eyes opened, shining like jewels amongst the gloom and filth of the cellar. Six pairs of legs trudged up the cellar steps amidst complaints of hunger and tiredness. Bert lost his temper, as he practically threw them each a piece of stale bread,
“You ungrateful lot,” he shouted, “What’ve you got to complain about, you’ve got a roof over yer head and reg’lar work. Plenty of people would give their eye teeth to ‘ave what you’ve got.”
The boys stared back at him in silence. It wasn’t that they agreed with him, but they knew they were in a dangerous position when Bert got angry, especially if he’d spent half the night at the Kings Arms as he had done last night. He might be getting on a bit, but he had a pretty strong right hook! Bert could not abide whinging. It just wasn’t the done thing. Some people were born with a silver spoon in their mouth, some weren’t. They definitely weren’t. No use complaining about it: you had to accept your lot and just get on with it.
The group of sweeps marched to the nicer side of London. The late September chill reminded the rich folk that they would need Bert’s services if they wanted a nice warm house. He had a good number of jobs lined up. It almost brought a smile to his face. The morning passed in a flash, the only inconvenience being a slight altercation with the Carters’ housekeeper who wanted to ‘negotiate’ the price after the job was done. Bert wasn’t the negotiating type, as the housekeeper eventually realised. He’d be steering clear of that house in the future: he’d wasted a good 15 minutes arguing and time was money after all.
The afternoon started off in a similar way. The boys had all been with him a while and knew what they were doing. He was just collecting a payment when young Ned charged down the street, eyes as big as saucers hollerin’ and shoutin’ that George was stuck. Panic struck Bert like a big fist around his throat. His heart thumped in his chest. He ran as fast as he could to Number 32, leaving a big sooty hand print on the gleaming white pillar as he swung round it towards the front door. He fell to his knees when he reached the fireplace and peered up the chimney. He could hear the stifled sobs.
“You alright George?” he shouted up.
Of course George wasn’t alright. Bert knew exactly the terror he must be feeling now ‑ how oppressive the bricks of the chimney felt when they were pressing into your back, stopping your lungs from filling with air ‑ how the blackness of the dark soot-caked chimney started to feel like it was swallowing you up. He knew how uncomfortable George would be feeling with his knees stuck under his chin. Years of crawling up a chimney in that position as a child had left Bert with permanently deformed bones. Not that he’d ever acknowledge that to anyone ‑ it was just how it was. The main thing now was that he had to keep George calm. The more you panicked, the faster you breathed and the more likely you were to pass out and then there was no hope for you. Bert had to keep George calm and get him out quick.
“It’s alright George,” Bert shouted with as much confidence as he could muster. I can see where you is. You ain’t stuck. We’ll ‘av you out in a jiffy.”
Bert could see nothing but blackness up the chimney and in reality he hadn’t got a clue how he’d get the boy out.
Just then the lady of the house came into the room. Her housekeeper had told her what had happened. She looked at the soot covered faces of Bert and Ned and didn’t even try to disguise her disgust.
She drew a deep breath and said, “Exactly how long is all this going to take? I am expecting the Vicar for tea in half an hour and this really is most inconvenient.”
“That just about sums it up,” Bert thought to himself. “Poor lad’s stuck up that chimney not knowin’ whether he’s gonna live or die and all you care about is that your tea is going to go cold. Lucky you for even ‘aving tea in the first place.” But of course he didn’t say that out loud.
“Apologies for the inconvenience madam,” Bert said, “We’ll be on our way very soon.”
“Yes, I should think so,” the lady replied, “and don’t expect any payment,” she continued as she flounced out of the room.
Bert went up the chimney as far as he could: it was lucky he was so skinny. He could just about reach George’s feet. He started to carefully pull at one foot and George yelped as the brick of the chimney skinned his knees. By a stroke of luck, some of the brick crumbled, giving a precious extra half-inch of space, which was just enough for George to get one leg and the other leg free. He was out. The boy emerged wide-eyed from the chimney, his deathly pale face hidden by the black soot. Bert himself felt shaky with relief. He patted George on the back, the most affection he’d shown anyone in 30 years, but then checked himself and brusquely said,
“Well come on then both of you…tidy up and let’s get out of here. We’ve got more jobs to do now that we ain’t being paid for this one.”
As they left Number 32, Bert recognised the face of the Vicar as they passed at the gate, the same Vicar that lectured him on the perils of drink as he staggered home from the pub. Bert would have loved to have told him that the reason he spent the night in the pub was to forget. Forget the little brother that he’d lost after their parents had sold them as apprentices when they were boys. The brother that had got stuck up the chimney, but had never got free. But Bert didn’t say anything at all. Well, you just don’t, do you? You just get on with it. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away, the Vicar would say. It’s just a shame he giveth to some but taketh away from others.