At first he was grateful for the heat. It crackled up from the hearth, warming his stiff legs and arms. His whole body was numb with cold and fatigue. How many chimneys had he clambered up over the course of this long week? His sister always told him how good he was at his numbers but he had lost count somewhere in the middle of this bitterly cold Saturday afternoon.
It was hours since he had last eaten and his belly ached with hunger. He tried once more to free his right foot, trapped by an awkward bend where one of the many chimneys in this grand house joined into the main shaft. Pain shot up his leg. Then, like a hundred jagged needles, it exploded into every corner of his skinny frame.
His master roared up at him. ‘Get a move on, laddie! Or I’ll put more coal on the fire!’
The boy had to wait for the spasms of agony to subside before he could speak.
‘Ma foot’s stuck!’ he sobbed. ‘I cannae move it!’
‘Ye’ll hae tae move it! Unless it’s a roastit erse ye’re wanting! Get on with it, ye wee bugger!’
The child tilted his head back, whimpering as the rough stone penetrated his hair and scraped his tender scalp. All he could see was a small rectangle of inky-black sky. The short winter’s day was already over.
A narrow tongue of flame licked past his feet, searing his bare calves and singeing his tattered trousers. He yelled in pain and panic. Aware of freedom and fresh air a few tantalizing feet away, he tugged again at his trapped foot. His scream of pain echoed up and down the chimney.
A moment later he heard a fierce, spluttering hiss. Realizing the fire had been doused with water, he let out a panic-stricken moan. His master must ken fine what that would do. The child wet himself. As the warm urine coursed down his legs he found space in one corner of his mind to be ashamed of the fact. Only wee bairnies peed themselves. He was six years old and should be long past that.
Plump white tendrils of smoke snaked up from the grate. Two separate tentacles slid into the boy’s mouth and nose, intertwining at the back of his throat. It was like having a fusty old blanket forced into his mouth. The acrid smoke rose further, stinging his eyes and the delicate skin that surrounded them like a swarm of malevolent wasps. Tears streaked the soot which coated his smooth young cheeks.
He began to cough, knowing that opening his mouth could only make matters worse. Breathing in smoke was what had killed his pal Davie last year. Once it had cleared, the boy had been dispatched up the shaft to push the lifeless body out onto the roof beside the chimney tops. Davie had been all floppy, like a grubby rag-doll staring up at him out of empty eyes. There were nights when the boy couldn’t get that picture out of his head.
He wondered dimly if they would hack his foot off to make it easier to move him. He’d heard tales of things like that happening to other chimney boys.
His head was swimming, poisoned by the smoke which was slowly suffocating him. He couldn’t breathe properly. Even with his bony little chest heaving and his heart hammering like a drum, he couldn’t catch one decent breath.
Maybe he should stop trying. Close his eyes and allow himself to be spirited away. He sighed, allowing his mouth to fall open and admit the deadly smoke. He was feeling real hazy now, losing his awareness of where he was, even of who he was.
Yet a tiny window of lucidity remained. Pushing back the smothering grey curtains and his fading consciousness, it allowed a picture of his big sister Kate to flash into his head. Tears were streaming down her face. They had told her he was dead and she was weeping for him. Weeping sore and hard and moaning his name over and over again. Andrew, Andrew, Andrew…
His mind cleared and his determination returned. ‘It’s all right, Kate,’ he muttered, gathering his strength about him. ‘Ah’m no’ deid yet!’ All he had to do was free his foot. Clamber up the chimney to the outside world, freedom, life and Kate.
He braced himself, tugged harder on his trapped foot. Pain zigzagged once more through his small frame. He couldn’t thole this, he really couldn’t! Except that he had to. Kate would be so sad.
He yelled out another defiant ‘Ah’m no’ deid yet!’, then screamed in agony. He tried to say the words again but his voice faltered and cracked before he was halfway through.
Maybe he was wrong. Maybe he was already dead. That was his last conscious thought. Although as everything faded, he could still hear his sister’s voice, frantically calling his name.
Andrew, Andrew, Andrew…
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