The sound of Finnigan’s horny, callused hand striking flesh was audible even across the whicker and snort of a dozen different horses, their proud hoofs ringing hard against the cobbles, the shrill cries of the flower-sellers and the low murmuring hum of the upper classes, out for their late afternoon stare and be seen.
A few people even turned their heads, but the plump little Empress of India’s London was inured to the noise and hum of violence just as much as it was the heat, the dirt and the over-crowding. It would take more than a heavy slap to make the crowds react.
Finnigan drew his hand back, and wiped it across his mouth.
“Nate anaither waird”, he said.
“Ye hair me? Nate a wan. Or next taime, it went bae me tae slap the faice off yae.” Here, he paused, and looked down, smirking, at the thin streak of dirt and sullen panting pride huddled on the ground, staring at him in silence.
“It’ll bae the Gaintelmain. And yae won’t be gettin’ up fram that wan, will yae nae, not yae or yair skinnymalincks airse?”
Aiming a final kick in the direction of the streak’s ribs, he strolled off, looking towards the dozen or so glasses of blue ruin he was about to enjoy; after which his temper would either be sentimental and bleary, or harder and nastier than ever.
The ragged, black clothed streak gingerly pulled itself to its feet, let out a low “ow”, and winced, feeling the heat in its face still resonating from Finnigan’s palm.
“Bloody bastard”, it said, in a low voice.
“Bloody, utterly despicable, rotten, filthy, despicable, lying, cheating, repulsive Ulster guttersnipe that you are, Liam Finnigan. Rot in hell!”
If anyone other than a stray dog had overheard these words, they may have been slightly surprised at both the quality of the streak’s vocabulary, and more so at the quality of their pronunciation. Because this isn’t a romance, or an improving sort of story, there was no passing Professor or eligible member of the aristocracy to witness the impassioned words; but it’s certain if there had been, they would have been shocked into speech.
(They may even have done something wildly exciting like adopt the streak, or launch them into society, realising all at once they were the long-lost heir to the throne. We’ll never know, but it’s nice to know somewhere in the multiverse this may have happened, isn’t it?)
Limping slightly, trailed by the dog, who had decided they may have about them something exciting, such as a spare end of sausage, and leaving a dark stain on the cobbles, the streak collected their equipment, and started the long walk home.
The ‘huh’ was understandable, as we pan out, in a much-vaunted cinematic style, to see the aforementioned destination of our angry young streak and their semi-faithful canine companion.
It was – well, to call it a slum would be a kindness. It was a cesspit of swearing, sweating, shouting humanity; one of the most foul warrens to be found amongst the rot which was The Old Nichol, the East End’s answer to Lucifer’s dominion on earth.
The streak reached the corner of The Mount, and turned to the dog, who sat down, panted, and then just stared.
“Look, idiot, there’s nothing here for you”, they said, voice low. “Scarper, quicksticks, before someone decides that Dog Pie could be nowhere near as nasty as rat sausages, and chops you into little mouthfuls.”
Sigh. “Oh, just bugger off, you stupid git”, but halfhearted.
Stare. Pant. Stare.
“Well, if you end up as chien en croûte don’t come crying to me, that’s all I can say.”
“Although, of course, on balance”, the streak said, moving forward, hefting the bag over their shoulder, speaking mostly to themselves, “as you will be in small floured chunks, it may be somewhat hard to put voice to complaint.”
Pant, woof, pant, brush against legs.
(As an aside, for those who were worried; this is not one of those whimsical, whamsy, talking puppy dogs. Don’t panic. My goodness, if that were the case, I would probably put myself in a pie out of shame. No; just a nice, in need of affection and a year’s worth of chuck steak, ordinary dog.
Feel better? Excellent.)
The streak opened the crumbling, rot-infested boards which passed for a front door.
“Mind you”, it was saying conversationally to the dog, who suddenly stopped in his tracks, “one could hardly call it chien en – oooofff!!!”
The oooofff was in response to a large barrel on legs, which had thumped the streak squarely between the shoulders, almost knocking them sideways.
“Bartleby, you great lump! Leave off!”
The great lump, also known as Bartleby, just grinned.
“Wotcher, yer Lordship. Picked ourself aht a furrowbred, ‘ave we?”
The streak scowled.
“Don’t keep calling me by that ridiculous name. It’s irrelevant” – and as Bartleby opened his mouth to ask wot, exackly, irrele-irrelelevant meant – added almost absentmindedly “not to mention possibly redundant by now, if the old sod’s gone.”
The streak sighed, and looked at Bartleby. “Irrelevant means without any real point, or usefulness, and redundant means that it may not be right, if my” – and here there was a hesitation, and then a squaring of proud, very thin shoulders – “my father is dead. Because it won’t be my Lord” – as a dirty, tired, potential peer of the realm stalked off down the foetid corridor, Bartleby and dog trailing behind –
“It will be your Grace.”
Later, after a highly unsatisfying supper of not much, washed down with a pint of very little, the streak, otherwise known as ‘yer Lordship’ in the warren of muck and evil that was the crisscrossed crowded life of Bethnal Green and beyond, scrubbed a hand through their lousy hair and sighed. Bartleby and the dog (now known as The Upper Crust, because the streak had quite a finely tuned sense of the absurd) were both snoring their wide open-mouthed heads off. His Lordship, meanwhile, rubbed the aching cheek where Finnigan’s hand had connected rather harder than let on, and thought bitter thoughts. Handed over to the Gentleman; was that to be the final fate of the heir to one of the premier titles of England?
He couldn’t help himself.
He shuddered, causing Crust to raise a sleepy eyelid and ear.
“Go back to sleep, idiot”, he told the dog, not without affection.
Crust yawned, showing yellow teeth, and obeyed.
How someone like the Gentleman had ended up controlling half the slums of Bethnal, whilst other people – good people – well, reasonably good people, he amended – were driven from their homes by, by, by wrongness… it beggared belief, he thought fiercely. Finnigan was a complete wastrel, and a mean wastrel, but he was as a flea in the Upper Crust’s fur compared to the depravity that was the Gentleman. He knew in his heart that if he pushed Finnigan once more, being cold, aloof, proud, that his fate at the hands of the Gentleman would not be a kind one. He may never have seen the man, but he had seen enough evidence in the ruined, half-mad wrecks of thieves and whores surrounding his own kip to know that once taken, there would be no way back.
He sighed, punched his repulsive cushion into something resembling a pillow, and finally went to sleep, only to wake with a start as Finnigan, the drunken pride of Armagh, entered the building at three in the morning, singing ‘The Murder of M’Briars’ at the top of his lungs. As he roared out ‘and Papists at this glorious sight did quake with fear and dread’, poetic justice intervened in the form of the equipment his Lordship had thoughtfully deposited to be right in his path the night before.
Possibly this was one reason the possibly your Grace made certain to be waiting for Finnigan a few hours later, ready to work, as the bleary-eyed sot came to from his position on the floor.
“What the haell do yae wan’, yae pair excuse fair a pairson?” he muttered.
“Well, I’m ready to go to work, Finnigan. I thought hard about what you said yesterday” – here Finnigan looked at him suspiciously, but a carefully smoothed out expression told him nothing – “and you were quite right.”
This was enough out of character from one who had screamed at him to rot, damn you, even as he was smacked to the floor with a backhander, to make him blink.
“Yes… I have been thinking, and I realised my attitude is one of belligerence and unkind actions. So from here on in” – and he smiled, wonderfully, making Finnegan think somewhere in his hind-brain of that giant cat he had once seen in a magic lantern, a great black and orange thing it was, with the Hindoo men in India – “I shall endeavour to be more grateful to you. I may slip, mind, but I shall at least try.”
Finnigan dismissed the shiver of air that went down his spine (what was that thing called? A tiger, aye, that was it) and looked at him. Hard. Nothing radiated back but calm purposefulness.
“Hmph” he said. “Wae will sae then, waen’t wae?”
And he hauled himself to his feet, spat onto the black-covered floorboards, and set off out the door.
Three hours later, the young reformer was feeling his words, as he struggled to push his shoulders through the black gap in the bricks. He hated coming this far into Belgravia, and here, yet, of all places, having the constant itchy feeling he would be recognised and made to come home. Never. This fierceness was enough to thrust his body up and in, and he started to clean and cough at the same time, the coal dust seeping into lungs and pores alike.
“Finnigan, pass me that other broom, will you, please?” he called down, his voice muffled by the chimney’s surrounds. “I can’t reach the worst bits.”
He heard a scuffling noise, and twisted his arm down to take the broom.
“I tell you Finnigan, they may have better quality coal, but the Quality still has just as much bloody dirt up here as any other man.”
Another muffled sound. But no broom. He sighed. Finnigan… if the rotten arse had fallen asleep, there’d be hell to pay from the butler, who had seen in the sweep and artfully coal-disguised prentice nothing which pleased his long fastidious nose.
But it was no good. He would have to climb down. Sod, sod, sod, he chanted to himself, squeezing and scraping his way down the still warm bricks.
“Finnigan, I swear” he began as he landed with a thud on the carefully dust-sheeted hearth.
He didn’t finish, for standing beside Finnigan, whose mouth was in a sort of rictus grin, was a large, well-dressed young man with reddened skin and blonde rough hair, looking at him with a quiet astonishment and suddenly knowing eyes.
“Dear me,” he said quietly and smoothly, “what – or rather, whom – do we have here?”
His Lordship, quite possibly his Grace, didn’t hesitate. That voice, those eyes – he’d know them anywhere, even if the frame was somewhat more padded out.
He’d know them blindfolded.
“Hello, Arthur”, he said evenly. And just as the Upper Crust came snarling into the room, followed by a flapping, bleating, under-butler, the dog having relinquished his bowl of scraps at the basement entrance for no good reason in his foggy doggy mind other than ‘go’, he turned, picked up his sweep’s broom –
And swung. Swung hard, and swung true, nine generations of warrior blood roaring up and through his veins as the stiff-bristled broom, the metal and wood rock-hard, clipped Arthur as effectively around the head as any noble sword.
A briefly astonished Arthur fell to the hearth, happily catching one of the fire irons on his journey down.
Finnigan turned to him, mouth agape, as the under-butler speedily reversed, running for the butler and the safety of relinquished authority.
“Air yae taitally, otterly ait a’ yae brainpan, yae daft piece of Mary? Yae jist killed daid the Gaintelman!”
This somehow made perfect sense. Arthur – the bully, the bastard who had driven him from school, from his home, from his life – was the Gentleman. In just three short years, this bastion of shining nastiness, who in one short night, along with four of his weedling, toadying shits, had ruined his body and his innocence – had become the terror of the tenements.
He looked at Finnigan, as the butler barreled into the room with as much dignity as he could muster, and calmly said “good morning, Withers. Is my father still alive?”
The butler nearly fell over both the recumbent Arthur and a broom as he realised who stood before him.
“Of, of course he is, my Lord – but what –”
“Right. Well, tell him I’m back, will you? He may have been a little concerned. And do something with this, will you?”, he said, waving a hand dismissively at the (sadly) just-still-breathing Arthur, a.k.a. the Gentleman, as though he were the leftovers from a rather unfortunate breakfast.
“Certainly my Lord – but –”
“Oh, and pay Finnigan, here. Don’t try to cheat him, Withers; this is a man whom, if I am not mistaken, is suddenly going to hold quite a large amount of power around the seamier side of our fair city, and it wouldn’t do to cross him.”
“Of course, my Lord.”
“And feed my dog. Again.”
“Yes, my Lord.”
He turned to Finnigan, who was still standing utterly still, but mouth no longer gaping.
“Well, Finnigan. One would say it’s been a pleasure, except it hasn’t. Not at all. Not even one tiny part of it. But there we are; it seems life has a way of bringing rewards to those who behave well, so my attitude to you this morning paid off, didn’t it? Would you be a good chap, and send Bartleby along here? I’m certain” – and the tiger returned, Blake’s burning bright flame, swift, sure and toothy, ready to pounce on an unsuspecting native – “that you have no further need for him.”
Finnigan opened his mouth, and saw that the broom was twitching, just a little, in the boy’s hand.
He closed it again.
“Excellent decision” came wry words, and behind the young voice he heard the steel of the man to come, and shivered a little.
The Lord Edward David Albemarle William Maltravers, Viscount Wroxley, heir apparent to the Duke of Hastings and Earl of Marlborough, nodded and looked thoughtfully at the lump of excrement known as the Honourable Arthur St John Farris-Smythe, late of Harrow and the devil only knows which scum-filled hell.
And he grinned, and hefted the broom handle, and Finnigan, in one of the most pious acts of his Papish-hating life, closed his eyes and crossed himself, and held on to the Upper Crust as though his very skin depended on the dog’s good graces, as cloth parted from well-padded buttocks –
And the sweep’s broom was used to best, if not its usual, capacity.
Historical note, for my fellow nerds (waving): the titles of Viscount Wroxley, the Duke of Hastings, and the Earl of Marlborough are all amalgams of real peerages held by various great, good, and not so good members of the British aristocracy.
A duke is addressed as ‘your Grace’; his heir is given a courtesy title and is known severally as my Lord, the Lord X X X, and Viscount/Earl/Marquess X, dependent on the duke’s own other titles.
The Old Nichol on the other hand is, or rather was, real. The most notorious of the East End slums, its pain-filled history reaches back to the early to mid eighteenth century, and the roots of the Industrial Revolution, as country-dwellers flooded London in search of work and shelter. Comprised of just twenty streets between Shoreditch and Bethnal Green, it had 730 ramshackle, swollen, terrace houses which (at official count) were known to be populated by 6,000 people.
The Old Nichol was torn down by the London City Council in the 1890s, and the first ‘modern’ housing development - the Boundary Estate – erected in its place.
Despite there being a humane alternative to the use of ‘chimney boys’, or apprentice sweeps, developed in 1803, chimney sweeps, in constantly growing demand as the cities of Europe and the United States grew bigger and ever more fat with coal-fired housing, and unfortunately their clientele, refused to stop the use of child labour. Boys (and some girls) as young as four were exposed to the creosote coating the narrow insides of the chimneys, where the sweep couldn’t reach, and contracted Chimney Sweeps’ Cancer. It wasn’t until 1875 that an Act of Parliament was passed in Great Britain, finally banning the practice of ‘employing’ chimney boys there.
Edward is a bit long in the tooth for a true sweep’s boy, but allow me a little licence.