By Lynne Siejka
Please believe me when I say that Twig existed. I cannot prove it, for you see not all births were registered in London in 1808, so you cannot check the veracity of my words. Nor was he baptised in the Parish of St Giles, the parish of his birth, because his mother did not want him. This may sound harsh (and indeed it is) but have pity on the poor woman who already had three children – all of them hungry. One more (moreover a long, scrawny, ugly one) was unthinkable.
After a troublesome labour Polly looked down at the scrawny blood smeared boy child, with large black eyes gleaming in a deeply creased face – me old pa’s face, she thought, I wonder where the old bugger got to.
‘Oi there, Tom, Sal. Never mind that.’ The children were cleaning the bloody mess off the floor, and pulling the soiled rags from the bed. ‘Help yer Ma up will yer.’ She gave the baby (whom we now know as Twig) to Sal, and struggled to her feet. ‘Now give ‘im’ ere.’ Sal returned the squirming bundle to her mother.
‘Look after baby Joe you two. I’m goin’ to find this one a new home.’
Polly stumbled out of their lodgings, into a ghostly London afternoon. The sun was missing, lost behind a thick roiling fog which slid through the twisted, narrow streets, like a slimy Thames eel. Polly was used to this though, and with an experimental sniff turned right towards Brick Lane and the Thames. She felt lightheaded, and weak and could feel a thread of blood meandering down her leg into her scuffed shoe, turning cold and slick. She had to ask directions a couple of times, but soon she could follow the overwhelming smell of the spoiled river. Finally she came to the place she had wanted. Nothing distinguished it from the slums around it except for the children and babies of all ages loitering in the vicinity. Many were begging; some playing in the muck, and some older girls were steadily sewing as they sat on the front stoop.
The children jumped up as Polly approached and she tried to shoo them away.
‘Wot you here for lady?’ asked one of the older girls with a snigger over the word ‘lady’.
‘Mind your own business. Where’s Madam Phillpot?’ The girl scowled and pointed through the open door. ‘Down back.’ She glanced at the bundle in Polly’s arms. ‘Wots its name?’
‘It don’t have one.’
Polly huffed through the doorway, noting the familiar smell of boiled cabbage and mildew. Wooden stairs teetered to upper rooms and a dark hallway led to the back of the house. She found Madam Phillpot in a steamy lean-to kitchen supervising a collection of older children who were peeling potatoes and chopping cabbage. She spied one child, no more than two, gnawing a bone beneath the table.
Madam Phillpot was stick thin with raw bony hands and shifty feet. Her face wore a perpetual frown beneath a greasy topknot of thinning hair. As Polly entered, the redoubtable woman cuffed a skinny boy who was boiling the potato peelings. The boy cried quietly over the steam. ‘Stop that snivelling now unless you want another one!’ She turned to Polly, ‘Wot you want?’
‘I don’t want this one. I can’t feed ‘im.’ Polly gestured to the now quiet babe in her arms.
‘O, and you think I can?’ sniffed Madam Phillpot. ‘Look at the lot I gotta feed.’
Polly looked around at the many thin hungry faces. ‘I can give summat to make it worth your while.’
‘Wot yer got?’
Polly rummaged in her skirt pocket, and found the two coins she had tied in a hanky there. She gave the hanky to Mrs Phillpot who hungrily un-wrapped the bundle.
‘Two quid? Two measly quid? Wot yer take me for - a bloomin’ charity?’
‘I – I can bring more. Later.’
‘Not if yer like them others. Out o’ sight out o’ mind they say don’t they,’ she chuckled. ‘C’mon dearie – I s’pect you got more, aint yer?’
Polly did have more – to pay the rent, and buy bread. She didn’t want to spend any more on this, this arrangement. If it weren’t for the Fear o’ God she’d a done it herself - tossed it in the river wrapped in a sack and tied with string – but no she was damn God-Fearin’, she was.
‘I ain’t got more, I swear. Take them two pounds for the babe or nothing.’
Polly sagged against the wall, ‘I’m done in,’ she thought ,’I can’t carry ‘im no more, no matter wot.’
Madam Phillpot assessed the situation.
‘I’ll take it.’ She closed her hand over the coins and nodded to Polly. ‘Just leave it there,’ she nodded to the crowded table. ‘We’ll take care of it.’
Polly laid the babe down amongst the cabbage shavings and greasy bones. She didn’t look at the babe again, but turned and left quickly hoping it was the last time she would see such a place. (I don’t think I am giving anything away if I tell you that Polly was to visit such premises several times over the course of her short life).
Madam Phillpot poked the babe with her bony forefinger, ‘Nothin’ but skin and bones. Get rid of it.’
As for Twig, he was wet and warm and very tired so he slept on.
Twig was taken ‘out back’ to a small cold room with a stale blanket of air stained with milk-vomit and urine. He was laid on a sagging bed with several other babes who lay under thin grey rags. Eventually the cold woke him, seeping into his wet nappy like a tide and he began to whimper. The other babes were quiet, but Twig mewled on. It was at this point that his luck changed, for at that moment the she-cat of the house came to investigate the sound, leaped up onto the bed, and began to lick his face. After this tender ministration she proceeded to curl up on top of Twig, warm and purring; and he, tired and hungry, fell asleep again.
Twig’s luck held. The following morning one of the new babes that had a mother who paid regular, gave up his brief struggle with life. Madam Phillpot, unwilling to forgo the payments, came looking for a fit substitute. It transpired that only Twig had lived through the night, and with his bristly black hair and long body, he looked enough like the lost babe to be a fit substitute. It was done in a moment. He was taken to the front of the house wrapped in some dry swaddling and fed for the first time on watered milk sops.
As you might expect the lady concerned eventually stopped making payments when twig was just shy of a year old. By this time Twig’s quiet and cunning nature had facilitated his considerable growth. He was tall for his age, and skinny, with coal black eyes. He saw much and said little – and Madam Phillpot decided that she had a use for him after all...
The Chimney: Chapter 6
Twig had been out collecting pure for the Tanner. It had been a long and weary trek from Steptoe to Fleet Street and back to the Rookery and his feet were sore. He paused to sit on the stoop of the tenement with Sal, his half-filled sack limp at his feet. He watched as she expertly darned a pair of shabby long pants, her face scrunched, her pink tongue stuck out one corner of her mouth as was usual when she was concentrating.
‘There’s summat up, Twig. I think Madam’s found a place for yer.’
Twig found he had nothing to say. He examined his hands, turning them over to inspect the lines mapped in dirt, the roughened knuckles, one split because he had punched Jimmy, who was askin’ for it.
‘Don’t take it so hard, Twiggins. I always told yer it would happen, didn’t I? I told yer to be ready.’
‘Who is it, Sal?’
‘Mr Samwell of the Sweeps, Twig. He ain’t so bad. Not real mean, like. You leave that here and go on inside.’
Madam Phillpot was always on the lookout for ‘situations’ for her charges. One of her regular associates was the master of Chimney sweeps, Mr Samwell, who ran the largest team of sweeps in that part of the city; he had upwards of nine likely lads working for him. When Twig entered the hall he could hear Madam’s voice raised in happy self-congratulation. ‘Yes he’s a good worker, is Twig. And so skinny! He don’t eat much neither. Ah, here he is now! Come in my boy.’
Twig stood in the doorway surveying the stooping form of Mr Samwell. He found he didn’t like his small eyes, or thin–lipped smile. But he stood quietly as Madam told him he had a new master.
‘Go pack yer things boy.’ Mr Samwell directed. Twig scrounged in the kitchen for an old sack and packed his belongings; a scratchy pair of short pants; a pretty piece of blue glass, worn smooth. An old blanket speckled with moth holes. His cap. A forked stick and some string.
Only Sal, Mrs Phillpot and the babies saw Twig leave his home of eight years. Sal smiled and squeezed his hand and looked like she might cry after all. Mrs Phillpot admonished him to, ‘Be a good lad now Twig and work hard for you’ve no home here no more, don’t you forgit it.’
It was Twig’s good luck to be paired with Tom when he first came to Mr Samwell. They were introduced at the very moment Twig entered Mr Samwell’s premises for the first time as it was dusk and the boys were back from their work.
‘Eh, Tom. This young one’s yours to train up. Mind you don’t cook him!’
Tom regarded Twig curiously. ‘Wot’s your name?’
‘Twig?’ Mr Samwell lifted his heavy ridge of brow in Twigs direction.
‘Yes, Sir. Twig Hollyoak.’
Mr Samwell guffawed but Tom watched Twig kindly enough.
Tom was taller than Twig, and bent-backed like an insect, though not one that Twig had ever seen – a stick-insect would be comparable but Twig had never seen one of those. To these oddities Tom added a fine positive – his frank blue gaze and cheerful grin.
‘Twig it is then, boyo.’
‘How long have you been here, Tom? Twig asked as soon as they were on their own.
‘Dunno exact, like. Came here from the work house. Before that I dunno.’
‘Wot, you don’t remember yer ma?’ Twig asked.
‘I remember nothing, Twiggins, but I was a work-house brat. Never knew me ma, or da. I was orphaned see?’ He shrugged. ‘Wot’ about you?’
‘Me ma left me with Mrs Phillpot. Paid her, like, for a time. Then one day she never came back. I don’t remember, but. Sal told me.’
‘Mrs Phillpot the baby farmer? I see’…
The next morning they set off with their brushes and booms, and funnel cleaners that looked like bristling flower heads. Twig was already dusted with soot, trying to concentrate on the knot of streets they passed through. He knew his patch well, but had not often been beyond it.
‘Whos’ this Sal, Twig. Is she yer girl?’ Tom was grinning.
‘No way! I ain’t got no girl!’
‘Sounds like she’s sweet on you.’
‘Oh bottle up Tom! What d’you know ‘bout anything!’
The boys turned up a wider thoroughfare where they dodged along the stone footpaths as a surge of hackney cabs, carters and sedan chairs swirled past in a cram of action. Twig found it hard to stick with Tom, as he darted across roads, down lanes and finally along a back alley used by the nightsoil collectors, which ran along the rear of some well-to-do homes.
‘Here.’ Tom let himself through a wooden gate, and a long yard stretched before them. Clean sheets were neatly hung to dry on swaying lines at one side. The yard was cobbled, well swept, with a fat ginger cat sunning itself on the wall beside the basement steps.
Tom knocked at the kitchen door and after some moments a young man came and nodded at the pair of them.
‘From Mr Samwell then?’
The young man nodded. ‘This way lads.’
They followed the house boy up the narrow servants’ stairs for three flights to the central floor of the house. He led them down a dark hall, into a room all closed up, where the heavy curtains hushed the noises from outside. Twig could smell the sour tang of smoke in the room.
‘This chimney’s a right piece of work. The family can’t sit here for the fire smoking. Get to work lads. Come and find me when you’re finished and I’ll fix you up.’ He jingled some coins in his pockets and grinned. ‘And maybe an extra copper each if you don’t make a mess.’ He winked and left the room whistling.
Tom started laying out the sacks around the fireplace to capture the mess when he noticed that Twig wasn’t helping.
‘What’s eating you?’
Twig stood in the gloom, speechless before the gilded mirror which hung over the mantel piece. He saw two dirty boys, one tall one moving around the fireplace – the other small, grey faced, with a thick thatch of black hair. Twig. Him.
‘Oi, Tom – look.’ He pointed at himself, saw himself point.
‘Wot, you never seen a mirror before?’
Twig shook his head. His other self-shook his head too. He had seen a shadow of himself on the surface of the buckets of water he fetched for Madam Phillpot, on the surface of greasy puddles, and in the grimy windows of the tenements, but nothing so bright, so dazzling and certain as this. ‘It’s me, Tom!’ He reached up over the polished mantel-piece and slowly extended a finger to the glass. ‘Magic,’ he whispered.
Tom shrugged, ‘Yeah, Twig, it’s you. Well. Let’s get to work.’
Twig did what he was told. He followed Tom into the hearth, looking upwards into the throat of the chimney. Tom was clambering up the sides dislodging the flaking dirt, creating a storm cloud of ash and was soon above him.
‘Here, give us that.’ Twig passed him the spiky broom. ’Jus’ put your feet on there, and grab this shelf, see?’
Twig reached for the ledge, and used this to brace his feet against the fireplace walls and climb up. Once there he turned to look down where he had been, the grey light, the cold hearth. Tom had already moved on, coughing further above him.
‘Put yer climbing cap on!’
Twig paused to drag the coarse grey hat from his pocket. He took a deep breath of coal dusted air before he pulled it down over his and nose and mouth as he had been instructed. It smelled sweaty. He could barely see.
‘C’mon Twig! Master Samwell would light a fire under yer!’
He thrust his broom slightly ahead and began climbing. It was hard to climb with the broom in one hand. He tried to crawl upwards bracing his legs on one side of the funnel using his back and hips to create pressure on the other side. He then had to try to move forwards, upwards. He was slow. Tom’s calls echoed down the tunnel to him.
‘Where is yer, Twig? For the love of God get a move on!’
Finally Twig clambered into a small elongated chamber where Tom sat scrunched and sweating. It was like the inside of a dragon’s lung. Black and hot. Twig didn’t know about dragons, but he was afraid up there all the same. It smelt of bitter tar, and the air rustled through the tunnels like the scrapings of a thousand hungry bedbugs.
‘See here,’ Tom indicated the length of the chamber, where a dozen smaller tunnels branched upwards. ‘We got to get as far into them as we can, then send the brush up, see?’
‘Only don go too far, or you may get stuck. When you see the top, stop, see?’
In the dark Tom’s voice was disembodied and echoing.
‘When muck falls let it pass, see? Then we cleans it up after.’
Twig groped along the darkness to an opening.
‘When you hear it coming, close your eyes – stings like buggery.’
This next space was tight, a rounded tube where Twig dragged himself up on his elbows. The stink was so bitter it burned his lungs, and his eyes streamed from the grit he dislodged about himself as he climbed. Finally he sensed the closing of the flue, and he could see, as he squinted ahead, a hint of lightness that must be the sky. He pushed the wire broom ahead, as he had been told, reaching as far as he could. Much to his surprise he could feel an obstruction and pushed himself further in jabbing at the blockage. Suddenly he heard a crack and a shower of putrid soot showered him. He tried to let it pass, and some trickled down, but he was left with a clump of fire dirt about his chest and shoulders. He was too scared to breathe, and for a while thought he might suffocate. He forced himself to take small pants of air, like a cat, and the panic passed.
When the dust settled he had a quick look, and could spy a larger shape of lightness this time, and so began his descent. It was a relief to return to the larger chamber, where he coughed and spluttered, and rubbed his sore eyes. Tom sat quietly watching him – a faceless charcoal boy.
‘You’ll get used to it, Twig. This is the worst it gets.’
Twig nodded in the gloom, but he found it hard to believe.
‘C’mon, then. Next flue.’
When Twig and Tom had cleaned the set of flues they clambered down into the main fireplace again, sweaty and coughing.
A little girl was standing back from the hearth watching the boys with a frown on her face. She wore frilled petticoats and rag-curls in her hair.
‘You, sirs, have been to the Devil’s Kitchen, have you not?’
Twig looked up, unbelieving, at the delicate confection before him.
‘Aye, we have that.’
‘I think it must be horrible up there. You poor, poor, poor boys.’ She began to sob, ‘I bet it is dark?’
‘And really, really dirty?’
‘Are there s-spiders?’
‘Yes, miss. Big ‘uns.’
At this the little girl screamed like a boiling tea-kettle and ran off. Twig and Tom grinned at each other sheepishly.
‘C’mon, lets clean this mess up ‘n be off.’ Tom reached for the brush and began sweeping the crusts of soot from the fireplace. Twig held the pan and navigated the soot sack and felt something akin to pride.
Tom whistled as they headed back to the yard, his sack full of sooty crusts. Twig felt light-headed and jelly-legged and was struggling to keep up. His sack was full, too, and he kept fumbling his brushes.
‘Ere Twiggins,’ Tom paused to take Twig’s sack, and hand him the tall flue brush. ‘When me ‘prentiship’s over I’m going to sea Twiggins. Two more years I got.’
To Twig this sounded like an eternity. He changed the subject to something of more pressing importance.
‘Whats ee like, master Samwell?’
Tom spat onto the filthy cobbles.
‘Don’t get on the wrong side of ‘im. I remembers young Dick – his leg broke when Mr Samwell gave ‘im a right kicking, ‘cause of his givin’ cheek, see. He sent ‘im to the poor house after that because he couldn’t work no more… Wish it were me at the poorhouse.’
‘The poorhouse ain’t no fun Tom, from what’s I hear. I’d rather Mr Samwell meself.’
‘But why, Twig?’ Tom asked as they panted up the back alley, the few coppers they had earned jingliing in their pockets. ‘Mr Samwell’s a right bastard.’
Twig unlatched the rusty back gate which swung open to reveal the dank yard, where Mr Samwell’s grey long johns hung limp on a string. ‘Better the Devil you know, Tom. Tha’s all.’
Tom looked at his friend’s wizened face, with its creases rimed with coal dust. ‘Wot yer mean, Twig?’
Twig opened the back shed and began putting his tools away. ‘I mean, I can survive this, Tom. An’ so can you.’