Harkive Christmas Bonus: ‘Little Tim’s Christmas’

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Mint Street, The Borough, Southwark (1857). Image from  The British Library.

Published one year after her Christmas story ‘A Pantomime Child’ (1889), ‘Little Tim’s Christmas’ appeared in the Pall Mall Gazette on Christmas Eve of 1890. While both stories explore the devastating social effects of poverty in a Dickensian tradition, ‘Little Tim’s Christmas’ is a more explicit response to the most famous of Dickens’s five Christmas Books: A Christmas Carol (1843). As in A Christmas Carol, London’s notoriously boundless and noxious nineteenth-century fog is a significant theme in Harkness’s tale; and in like manner it lifts at the story’s conclusion – yet Little Tim suffers a rather different fate than Tiny Tim. Perhaps the most striking difference, however, is the absence of a figure of awakening conscience and moral reform. In characteristic fashion, this is a role Harkness reserves for her readers.

Harkness continued to publish Christmas Stories into the twentieth century, such as ‘Two Christmases’ (1903).

 

Source: Originally published in the Pall Mall Gazette, 24 December 1890, Vol 51 (no. 8039). This version from The Daily Telegraph Supplement, 16 May 1891 (Issue 6150).

Available on Papers Past, National Library of New Zealand via Trove.

 

LITTLE TIM’S CHRISTMAS

A TRUE STORY

PART I

The sun lay like a red ball in the foggy sky, high up above the London houses. One could not see across the street, or recognize the faces of passers-by, for the yellow fog blinded one’s eyes, and confused one’s senses. It was thick in the City, thickest of all in the Borough.

There, in a garrett, two little boys stood with their faces pressed to a pane of glass, watching the red ball and wondering.

‘What is it, Tim?’ asked the youngest.

‘Er’s the moon, Bill,’ replied Tim.

‘When I wos down ‘opping I seed ‘er all bloody like that, and Sally said ‘er wos the ‘Arvest moon. I guess ‘er’s come to Lunnon.’

A knock at the door made the children draw their faces quickly away from the window.

‘ ‘Ush!’ whispered Tim to his brother, ‘I guess it’s the School Board after us.’

The knock came again. Tim went softly to the door and peeped through the keyhole.

‘It’s Sally!’ he cried; ‘I’ll unlock the door.’

‘I thought you wos School Board,’ he explained, as an old woman came into the room arrying a jug. ‘Mother’s took our boots, and ‘er said if School Board comed we wosn’t to let ‘im in. What ‘ave you got in that jug?’

‘Wos mother drunk?’ enquired the visitor, without heeding his question.

‘Well, ‘er slept ‘eavy last night.’

‘Ave yer had any breakfast?’

‘Nothink. Baby’s cried ‘isself to sleep, and Bill and me’s been lookin’ at the ‘arvest moon, what you and me seed when we wos ‘opping.

What’s in the jug?’

‘Tea.’

‘Tea!’

‘Yes, my son. Taste it.’ Sally poured something out of the jug into two broken teacups, and handed it to the children.

‘Good?’ she asked.

‘Prime!’ said Tim.

‘Sweet?’

‘Treacle!’

Sally chuckled. She was old and weather-beaten: dressed in rags and a crape bonnet. Wrinkles scored her face, creases furrowed her neck; her eyes were sunk deep down in their sockets, but they smiled lovingly on the boys while she watched them enjoying her own scanty breakfast.

‘ ‘Ere’s summat for the fire,’ she said, opening her apron, which she held together with a horny hand, and showing Tim some bits of paper and a few cinders. ‘Got any sticks?’

Tim pointed to a broken box on the hearth.

She set to work.

‘Now I’ll be off,’ she said, when a fire burnt in the grate. ‘If anyone comes after me, just yer say, ‘Does yer want rags sorted?’ and if the party says ‘Yes,’ then yer say, ‘Well, Sally wun’t be ‘ome for a bit.’ ‘

‘All right,’ said Tim. ‘When will you be back?’

‘Not before one, sonny.’

Saying this, the old woman left the room, casting a glance at the fire that gleamed through the fog, and a hasty look at the red ball in the sky which Tim called the ‘ ‘arvest mood.’ She knew it was the sun, but why should she confuse the minds of the children?

After the door was shut the boys went to the fire and crouched down on the hearth. Yellow fog filled the room hiding the old bed where the baby lay under a dirty blanket, and throwing a curtain over the broken chairs and boxes. Tim held his hands up before the burning sticks. He looked wondrous wise in the firelight. Gleams fell on his small white face, showing his wizened features, from which all traces of childhood seemed to have vanished. He had been sole protector of his two brothers for the space of a year and a half, even since his father found a home in the cemetery. His mother drank, and when drunk she was sometimes violent. He had seen a good deal of life, although he was only eight, for he lived in a Southwark lodging-house. Fights, murders, suicides, and deaths made epochs in his existence, and he talked of ‘when I was youn’ as though the time lay far back in his memory.

Presently the baby began to cry, and Tim went to fetch it from the bed. He brought it to the fire, and fed it with some of the tea which old Sally had given to him for his breakfast.

‘I guess,’ said Tim, ‘ ‘er’s gone back to the country.’

Then Tim’s thoughts wandered to the days when he had gone hopping with old Sally, to the harvest moon and the hop-fields. He would have been perfectly happy then if he had not ‘worrited’ about the children.

‘When I wos young’ he said aloud, ‘I never worrited about nothink!’

Just as the words were said a shrill cry came from the window.

‘What’s the matter?’ asked Tim.

I’s cut me thumb wid a bit o’glass,’ sobbed Bill.

‘Come to the light and let me see,’ said Tim.

The little boy came howling to the hearth, holding out his thumb, and pointing to the blood upon it.

‘Whatever will I do?’ exclaimed Tim. ‘It’s lock-jaw he’s got, I knows it.’

Only the week before a man had died from lock-jaw in the room below the garret; and Tim had heard his mother discussing the matter with her neighbour. ‘If they’d stuck his jaws open directly he cut his thumb, he’d have pulled through,’ some one had said, ‘but all the doctors in London couldn’t force his jaws open after he got to the hospital.

Tim laid the baby on the bed, where I lay crying as loud as it could cry, because it was cold and famished; then he went back to the fireplace, and found a square piece of stick.

‘ ‘Old yer mouth open,’ he said to Bill.

The little boy stopped crying and opened his mouth.

Tim slipped the stick between his teeth. ‘Now,’ said Tim, ‘come along to the ‘ospita!’

But Bill threw himself on the floor and kicked. His thumb was bleeding, and he felt suffocated, so he rolled on the ground until he lost his breath. Directly he became pale and still, Tim picked him up and struggled with him out of the room and down the staircase. No one saw the children leave the house, for the place was full of fog and very dark; so they arrived in the street, where Tim laid his brother down on the the street pavement, and stopped to pant and to stretch his arms for a minute. Then he picked Bill up again, and struggled bravely along with his burden until he reached the hospital.

‘What is it?’ enquired the hospital porter as he passed through the gate.

‘Lock-jaw, sir!’ panted Tim.

‘I thought it was a bundle of rags,’ said the man; ‘there, to the left, that’s the Out-patients’ Department.’

Tim struggled into the receiving-room, holding his brother tightly round the waist.

‘What is it?’ asked a doctor.

‘Lock-jaw,’ gasped Tim, ‘but I’ve stuck his jaws open.’

Loud peals of laughter made him stare at the doctors and students who had gathered around Bill.

‘Ain’t it lock-jaw?’ he whispered to a nurse, who was standing by.

‘No,’ said the woman, ‘of course it isn’t.’

For a moment Tim could not believe his senses. Then an awful vision floated before him, and a vision of his mother. Supposing she came home while he was away, and found the baby alone, crying? What would happen then? It is but a step, they say, from the sublime to the ridiculous; but sometimes that step is across a precipice. Tim shuddered when he heard the students laughing at his mistake. He had meant to save Bill’s life, and all he had done was to make himself a laughing-stock.

Without a word he took his brother’s hand and left the hospital. Bill trotted by his side through the foggy street, pointing to the sticking-plaster on his thumb, and chattering about the penny he had received from one of the medical students.

‘P’raps mother ain’t come home,’ thought Tim, ‘or p’raps ‘er’s so drunk er wun’t see us!’

 

PART II

An hour later the doors of the hospital receiving room were pushed open by old Sally, the rag-sorter. She hurried through them, carrying little Tim, whose head lay against her ragged dress, while his arms and legs dangled down, and blood streamed from his forehead.

‘Why, this is the boy who came here an hour ago with the lock-jaw case,’ said the doctor, when Sally laid Tim on the table.

The students crowded round to look, but they did not laugh at Tim now, for they thought he was dead. They listened to the doctor’s questions, and watched old Sally’s face while she explained that the boy had fallen on the hearth in the garret.

‘Is he your grandson?’ enquired the doctor while he felt Tim’s pulse.

‘No, he ain’t. I’m alone woman. I’ve got no children. I fend for myself.’

‘Well, it’s a matter for the police,’ the doctor said. ‘I believe the boy has been knocked down, or kicked; his head’s smashed.’

The fog had lifted by the time Sally left hospital. She went back to the lodging-house, up the staircase into her room. Rags covered the floor. A large heap of rags made a bed, another heap served as a seat. A horrid stench filled the place, but Sally was accustomed to the smell, and she never opened the window, saying that she liked to be ‘warm and comfortable.’ While she was raking the cinders together in the grate, and patting a black cat that had raised its back to welcome its mistress, the door was opened, and Tim’s mother came in with the baby in her arms, and Bill hanging to her skirt.

‘Sally,’ she said, ‘I was drunk when I did it!’

‘Yes, yer wos,’ said Sally, ‘and yer’d best make yerself scarce, for the p’leece ‘as been told, and if yer don’t take yerself off yer’ll swing for it!’

‘Will he die?’

‘The doctor says ‘s ull.’

‘Will you mind the children a bit?’

Yes, till Christmas.’

The woman placed the baby on the heap of rags and vanished.

Each day Sally visited the hospital, and sat beside the bed on which Tim lay unconscious. Tears streamed down her cheeks, and she wiped them away with the back of her hand, saying to the nurse, ‘I’ve loved ‘im like a son. I’m a lone woman. I never had no children.’

At last on Christmas Eve, when she went to the hospital at about seven o’clock, she found Tim himself again.

She sat down beside him, smoothing out her ragged dress, and trying to make her crape bonnet sit straight upon her head. Tim’s white face frightened her, and she could not speak. She did not want him to see that she was crying.

A great fire blazed opposite Tim’s bed, and round the fire say boys and men, reading, playing games, and discussing politics. Nurses flitted about, decorating the walls with ivy and holly, while they chatted to one another and laughed with the patients. No one seemed to be very ill except Tim, but a single glance at his face told Sally that he was dying.

‘Tim, my son,’ she said at last, ‘this is a beautiful place, ain’t is?’

‘Yes,’ answered Tim faintly, ‘it’s like ‘eaven.’

Neither spoke again for a few minutes. Then Tim pointed to some toys on the bed.

‘Take ’em ‘ome to the children,’ he said. ‘When I wos young I set my eart on a top like this un ‘ere what I’ve got for Christmas. Take it ‘ome to Bill.’

The old woman pretended to admire the toys, while her tears dropped on the blanket.

‘Sally,’ said Tim presently, ‘does you remember when we went ‘opping?’

‘Yes, my son.’

‘Well, that wos like this ‘ere ‘ospital; it wos like ‘eaven.’

Old Sally’s eyes wandered over the ward, and she admired the decorations . Tim lay with his eyes shut, thinking of the time when he had gone hopping. He had ‘worrited’ then about the children, and now he felt that he was going away from them for a long time, going to the strange land his father had talked about when he ‘wos young.’ He was not sorry to go, but he could not help ‘worriting’ about the children. One of the nurses began to sing a Christmas carol, and Tim opened his eyes to look at her. Then he saw old Sally beside his bed, dressed in the same ragged dress, and the same old crape bonnet she had worn when they went into the country together. Sally had always been good to him, and he knew that she never broke a promise.

‘Sally,’ he said, ‘when I’m gone yer’ll look after the children?’

‘Yes, my son,’ said Sally, ‘I ull.’

Tim gave a sigh of relief he closed his eyes again, and by the time the nurse had finished singing he was asleep, with one hand under his cheek, and the other in Sally’s horny fingers.

The next morning when the sun was shining, and the Christmas bells were ringing, Sally went again to the hospital. A heavy snow had fallen during the night, and now the Borough was covered with a while pall that hid all its deformities. Children shouted while they snowballed passers-by, and the policemen pretended not to see what was going on, unless (by some accident) a snow ball hit them. Everyone seemed to rejoice because King Sol had put in an appearance, for he comes seldom to London, so he gets a right royal welcome.

‘Don’t go upstairs,’ said the porter after Sally had climbed the Hospital steps, ‘your little lad’s not there any longer,’

‘Where may ‘e be?’

‘I’ll show you,’

She followed the porter along the passages and down a staircase.

‘Is ‘e dead?’ she asked, when the porter stopped to unlock an iron door.

‘Yes, I’ve just brought him down here,’ said the porter.

Old Sally went into the mortuary, and stood crying while the man uncovered a little coffin. There lay Tim, with a smile on his face, and his hands holding a bit of holly, ‘because it was Christmas.’

For a minute Sally looked silently at him. Then she bent down to kiss his forehead. ‘Tim, my son,’ she whispered, ‘I wun’t forget my promise.’

It is several years since little Tim went home to the cemetery. His mother has not been heard of since. The children live in Sally’s room, with the cat. Bill has developed a genius for sorting rags, and the baby has been taught to pick out the papers from the rubbish Sally finds in the dust heaps.

Someone or other the old woman manages to pay the rent and to provide food for the children; how she does this is only known to herself. She has not forgotten little Tim. Often at dusk, before she lights the dip candle, she calls the boys to the fire and says:

‘Now, my sons, I ull just tell yer ‘ow yer brother Tim kept ‘is last Christmas!’

––John Law, in Pall Mall Budget

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