Boy By Corinne Clark

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Some folk said Uriah Bleakness would do the devil proud, should the devil ever stoop so low. Bleakness—Lord Bleakness, he’d grown fond of calling himself—owned a gloomy curio shop at the junction of Pinchin Road and Back Church Lane in the bustling parish of Whitechapel. The merchandise he sold was of a most Unextraordinary Character, useless to anyone but the dustman despite the peeling sign above the door that read: Everything You Could Ever Want or Need, and squeezed in at the bottom in tiny, dim letters (and on a considerable slant) Quality Garran-teed. 

But passersby couldn’t see through the windows no matter how closely they leaned in, for the mullioned glass was dark under a layer of smog and soot—the crud so thick that someone had scratched the word poo in it, though inside the shop it read oop.

Bleakness boasted that he sold outside and inside clothes; second, third, and fourth-hand thingamajigs, and whats-its that were so fine only the Queen had their like. He kept the lamps low when showing things like old petticoats, broken chairs, or cast-off tableware (it isn’t rust, sir, but a rare copper from India. No, no, miss. Not a stain, just part of the lovely pattern).

He took in a small boy, whom he called Boy, to hammer dents out of beaten tankards and teapots; affix tin over holes in buckets and kettles; and embellish brooches, coins, and spoons-and-things with gold paint (which scraped off with the application of a fingernail). Paste jewels glimmered half-heartedly from shadowy boxes, but Bleakness assured the customers they were rare jewels indeed—arrived only a week ago from Java.

“They sparkle brilliantly in the sun,” he oozed. “In fact, the open space at Leicester Square—three miles away—is the best spot to view such precious merchandise.” And he might cough on it, and rub the gem’s surface, pretending it dazzled all the more with that extra bit of care.

Bleakness nipped coins and plucked jewels from their settings to replace with glass. He dismantled candlesticks and sold their parts as “Arabian treasures”; melted down silver stolen by wretched urchins who had come to rely on him for a meagre crust should they deliver an object of especial value.

On a Monday that at first seemed like any other Monday, Bleakness unbolted the shop door and ordered Boy to sweep the stoop. But as Boy emerged from the dim interior of Everything You Could Ever Want or Need, a man in a fine wool coat pushed past him, asking—quite desperately, Bleakness noticed—for a Sneezy-Wipe. Bleakness blinked his damp eyes.

“Why, I’ve many sorts of wipes,” he said, in his smooth voice. “The finest wipes there are.” (He was always laying it on thick with his customers.) “Do you like blue?” The edges of his lips curled halfway up his cheeks.

“The colour doesn’t matter; any Sneezy-Wipe will do.”

“Ah, then allow me.” Bleakness put his hand to a drawer jammed squint-ways in its slot. He pounded it with his fist and wrenched it free, never taking his eyes off the customer’s (for he had learned such a tactic made him appear trustworthy). He riffled through the bric-à-brac, then with the flourish of a stage magician, withdrew a blue handkerchief and gave it a shake to get the dust off. “This is my finest wipe.”

The man squinted at it. “That’s a wiper, right enough,” he said. “But it’s not a Sneezy-Wipe.”

Bleakness frowned. “I assure you this is a Sneezy-Wipe.”

“No,” the customer insisted. “A wiper’s for wipin’ your nose. A Sneezy-Wipe is for wipin’ sneezes.”

“Why, they’re the same thing,” Bleakness argued, shaking it again to liven it up.

“No, they’re not. Besides, your wiper’s got a hole in it.”

“To allow one to breathe through it.”

The customer shook his head. Boy sat in the corner, watching the exchange silently.

“Have you any Face-Hats, then?” The man seemed impatient.

“Face-Hats?” Bleakness kept his voice polite.

“Yes, to prevent the Mee-azma.”

“Mee-azma,” Bleakness murmured. What newfangled thing was this? He would sooner chop off a finger than admit he hadn’t heard of it.

“Boy!” Bleakness barked. “Where are the Face-Hats?”

Boy frowned. “We haven’t got any, Lord Bleakness.”

“Well,” Bleakness purred to his customer. “I may not have a Face-Hat, but I stock all sorts of hats. You can have Boy’s hat if you like it.”

Boy frowned again and touched the brim of his cap. He decided to speak up. “A Face-Hat ain’t a regular hat. It goes on your face, so you don’t breathe in the Mee-azma.”

His master’s eyebrows knit together. “Breathe it in? How small is this Mee-azma? Ah, or is it like tobacco smoke?”

“It’s what’s makin’ everyone sick,” the man said. “Don’t you read the papers?”

“Of course,” Bleakness said smoothly (though he made it a practice not to read anything that might be true). “I understand you now. It’s only that I know this illness as Amza-eem.”  There was that thin smile again. “As described by the Daily Whats-its Paper of London and Its Environs.”

The man scowled. “That’s not a newspaper.”

“It most certainly is.”

“It most certainly is not.”

“Then I must have meant The Times.” Bleakness cleared his throat. “In any event, I will have the Wipey-Hats and Sneezy-Things by tomorrow. Piles of them. In every colour.” He leaned across the counter to seem companionable.

The man stepped away. “Don’t breathe on me, you might have it.”

“Have what?”

“The Mee-azma!”

“My apologies.” Bleakness thought the man sounded irrational, but he took a step back. A sneeze tickled his nostrils. He clamped his lips together to stop it.

The customer drummed his fingers on the countertop. “Have you got Finger-Sleeves? Or a bottle of Cleaning Elixir?”

“Yes,” Bleakness said, brightly.

“No,” Boy said.

Bleakness glowered. “I have fingers, and sleeves, and many elixirs—”

“Never mind,” the man said. “I’ll get them elsewhere.”

“Come back Friday!” Bleakness called, as the man strode out of his shop. “You shan’t be disappointed!”

The door closed but the bell above it didn’t ring, as it had lost its clapper six months ago.

“Boy!” Bleakness wheeled on his assistant. If he had been wearing a dark cape, it would have swirled around him. “Why didn’t you tell me of this Meezma?

“Mee-azma, Lord Bleakness.” Boy set aside the broken china dog he was gluing back together. “I thought you knew; everyone’s talkin’ about it. It comes from the stink of the Thames, and it’s making folk sick. There’s a clamourin’ for Sneezy-Wipes, Face-Hats, and Finger-Sleeves. Not to mention the Cleaning Elixir.”

“And those things protect against the…sickness?”

“Some folk say they do.”

“We must acquire as many of them as possible.” Bleakness tugged his top hat upon his head and bundled himself in the black fur he had Boy pinch from a secondhand clothes dealer.

“Get your warm coat, Boy.”

Scraping the bottom of his cash box, Bleakness filled a small bag with coins. He shook it to hear them jingle, for he liked the sound, then slouched out of his shop with Boy at his heels. “It’s early yet, Boy,” he said. “We shall snap up all the merchandise we can find.”

As they rounded the corner at the top of the street, they came upon a newsboy nearly hoarse with shouting the day’s headlines.

“Meeeazmah!” The boy yelled. “Read all about it! Twenty-two fresh cases in the ‘eart of Whitechapel!”

Bleakness marched up behind him and plucked a paper from the top of the pile at the newsboy’s feet. He rattled it open and scanned the pages.

“Oi!” The boy snatched the paper back. “That’ll cost ya a shillin’. The news ain’t free.”

“Well it should be.”

“Well it isn’t.”

Bleakness pressed his lips together. “I shall only glance at the front page, then. Just to get a flavour of the news. The Hat-Faces, Wipey-Things, and such.”

The newsboy held the paper out of Bleakness’ reach. “Fuck off.”

Bleakness hardly blinked an eye, for better people had said worse things to him and he had deserved it too. “I hope you catch this—Meezma,” he growled.

For the next six hours, Bleakness and Boy visited every shop and market within walking distance. They bought all the Sneezy-Wipes, Face-Hats, and Finger-Sleeves they could find, not to mention the Cleaning Elixir. Bleakness handed over every coin in his bag, and the ones in Boy’s pockets too. At the end of the day, Boy’s arms were loaded with supplies, and what didn’t fit in his arms had been stuffed down his pants and up his shirt. (Bleakness used Boy instead of a packhorse or donkey due to the prohibitive cost of renting such a beast.)

Boy was exhausted by the time the pair staggered back to Everything You Could Ever Want or Need—and thanks to the things crammed into his pants—forced to walk straight-legged. Bleakness unlocked the door and had Boy dump the merchandise on the counter: several minutes later he was still yanking Face-Hats from his sleeve like a magician with a string of coloured scarves.

Now and then Bleakness sneezed. Boy looked at him sideways. “You all right, Sir? Lord Bleakness?”

“Of course. Never better.”

“Maybe you should use a Sneezy-Wipe.”

Bleakness considered using a Sneezy-Wipe, then reselling it. But how would it look, Lord Bleakness needing a Sneezy-Wipe! If another sneeze tickled him, he would sacrifice one—he had loads of them, after all. “I do not need a Sneezy-Wipe, Boy. I have a capital constitution.”

Bleakness held up a lantern to examine his new stock, then rubbed his hands together and cackled as he piled the Mee-azma supplies in groups. He poured himself a sherry, to celebrate, and gave Boy a cup of beef tea, and his last nugget of cheese for supper. Boy yawned.

“Don’t fall asleep on me now,” Bleakness said. “We have important work to do.”

Boy thought of the bed of straw Bleakness had fashioned for him in the storeroom. He dreamt of the semi-soft pillow and ragged counterpane. He sighed.

“Let’s see.” Bleakness picked up a Face-Hat. “This was a penny at Gradgrind’s was it not?”

“Yes, Lord Bleakness.”

“Then we will charge two pennies.” Bleakness took out a large piece of card and had Boy write TWO PENNEES on it. He wiped his nose on his sleeve. “The Sneezy-Wipes were two for a ha’penny, so those shall be a penny. The Cleaning Elixir was tuppence, so it shall be thruppence, and the Finger-Sleeves, a shilling a pair.” He sneezed. “Make that two shillings.”

At Bleakness’ direction, Boy drew up a fresh sign and propped in the window after rubbing a patch of grunge from the glass. It read:

Everything You Could Ever Want or Need for the Meezma Mee-azma, including Face-Hats, Sneezy-Wipes, Finger-Sleeves, and Cleaning Elixir.

Bleakness ordered Boy to put the word out to the wretched urchins, promising two crusts of bread for every Mee-azma supply they brought him. Before long, a steady stream of young thieves slunk through the door with Face-Hats stuffed into their pockets and Sneezy-Wipes tucked under their hats. Bleakness gave them their meagre crusts, and the pile of goods grew.

When the shop opened the next morning, a trickle of customers came through the door, but it soon grew into a torrent, each shopper paying the inflated prices for the Face-Hats, Sneezy-Wipes, Finger-Sleeves, and Cleaning Elixir. They were frightened: every day the papers reported new cases of Mee-azma, and more deaths. Boy tossed Face-Hats to the throng of customers and handed out Finger-Sleeves like hot nuts. Hunched over his sizable hoard, Bleakness watched the crowd clamour for his goods. He chortled and counted his coins in piles, like Scrooge had done the week before Christmas.

Bleakness could have climbed his mountain of Face-Hats, drowned amongst the Finger-Sleeves, and blocked up every window and door with Sneezy-Wipes, but it still wasn’t enough. Every evening when the gaslamps came on in the streets, Bleakness sent Boy out to snatch up every Mee-azma supply he could find. Three days later, there wasn’t a Sneezy-Wipe, Finger-sleeve, Face-Hat, or bottle of Cleaning Elixir anywhere in the city, except on the shelves of Everything You Could Ever Want or Need. And as the items flew out the door, Bleakness raised the prices little by little, then a lot by a lot, till the patrons stopped paying, and his shop went quiet.

“Boy!” Bleakness shouted. “Where are all the people?”

“They can’t afford the goods,” Boy said, as he polished an old kettle.

“Nonsense. If they want the supplies badly enough, they’ll pay.”

“But your prices are so high they can’t buy the things for the Mee-azma and pay their rent and buy food. Perhaps if you dropped the prices a tad.”

“A tad? What do you mean by a tad?”

Boy swallowed. “P’raps cut by half?”

“Half?” Bleakness said, outraged.

“And there’s another thing.” Boy chewed his lip, not wanting to make Lord Bleakness angry.

“Well?”

“Gradgrind’s shop has gotten stock in and they’re selling it all for a decent price. At a discount, some of it.”

“Discount?” Bleakness roared in disbelief, for that word never passed his lips.

“Yes, Sir, Lord Bleakness.”

“Good God. Are they mad?”

Boy swallowed and returned to his kettle.

Lord Bleakness paced his shop with his hands behind his back, muttering to himself. He sneezed, then coughed, and sneezed again. He accosted the display of Sneezy-Wipes, snatched one from the top shelf, and blew his nose into it with vigor. Boy thought his master sounded like a dented trumpet, but he didn’t remark upon it. Instead, he brought up the shine on the old kettle, two pairs of shoe buckles, three knives, and four tankards. He watched Lord Bleakness, who shook slightly, and sat more than he stood.

After a few hours, the sneezes blew forth in regular intervals, followed by coughing and shallow breathing. Bleakness wrapped himself in his black fur coat and lay down on a pile of Sneezy-Wipes piled in the backroom, near Boy’s bed of straw.

After an hour, Boy crept close to his master. “Sir? Lord Bleakness?”

Bleakness moaned. “What is it, Boy?”

“Are you all right?” Lord Bleakness had gone pale. Sweat glistened on his brow.

After a moment of silence, Bleakness croaked: “bring me a Sneezy-Wipe.”

Boy squinted at him. “You’re lying on a mountain of ‘em, Lord Bleakness.”

“Humph.” Bleakness put out his hand, clutched a Sneezy-Wipe, and trumpeted his nose into it. With a newfound vigour, he grasped every Sneezy-Wipe his fingers found, and swiped it under his nostrils till the skin flamed red. But the sneezes came all the same. “Useless wipes,” he griped. “Boy, bring me some Cleaning Elixir.”

Boy fetched Lord Bleakness a shining vial of glass and pressed it into his master’s hand.

Bleakness held it up to the light, watching small particles drift through the amber liquid. “What do I do with this? Drink it?”

“Hmm,” Boy said. For he could not read the label. “I suppose so. If it’s for cleaning, I reckon it will clean your insides.”

Bleakness licked his cracked lips and raised himself on his elbow. He tipped the bottle of Cleaning Elixir into his mouth. It burned as it slid down his throat. He screamed, sputtered, and stuck out his tongue. “Ugh! What a frightful concoction.” His breathing grew heavy, and his cheeks flushed pink. He vomited and clutched his stomach, then eased himself back onto his makeshift bed. He closed his eyes. Boy leaned over him and gently positioned a Face-Hat over his nose. “You’re a Good Boy,” Bleakness murmured, for his guard was down.

For three days and three nights Bleakness grew paler and quieter. His voice shrank to a whisper, and his movements were weak. Boy mopped his master’s brow and coaxed him into drinking beef tea with a crumb of cheese; he didn’t care that he had none left for himself.

“What shall I do, Sir? Lord Bleakness?” Boy whispered into his master’s ear.

But Bleakness only moaned. A thin, brown spittle formed at the corners of his mouth and slid down his cheeks. Boy used many Face-Hats and Sneezy-Wipes trying to revive his master, but nothing worked.

On the fourth day, Boy went into the streets, knocking on neighbours’ doors, asking for food, medicine, or advice, but everyone refused with a sneer or dismissive wave when they learned it was Bleakness who was ill. But Boy did not lose hope, and continued his mission, block by block, and parish by parish.

Unfortunately, Bleakness’ reputation as a heartless charlatan had been reported in the papers, and the news spread across the city as fast as the Mee-azma. Every household Boy visited refused him help. “This is your chance to be free of him at last,” some said. “Sell everything in that horrid shop, use it to pay rent for a room of your own, buy a steak supper, take a little holiday.”

“But he saved my life,” Boy replied. “He took me in when no one else would. He gave me a job, and beef tea and cheese for my supper; he gave me a home, and a bed of straw.” Boy held his cap in his hands. “He’s been…kind.”

The citizens scoffed. “You don’t know what kindness is, it isn’t that. Kindness is mercy, compassion, and sacrifice. Not a pile of straw.”

Boy returned to Everything You Could Ever Want or Need, disheartened. By then, Lord Bleakness was delirious, his eyes shining with fever. His grizzled flesh had sunk under his cheekbones, and his wrists were thin as matchsticks “Who are you?” He muttered through lips as dry as sand.

“I’m Boy,” Boy said. “And I’ll stay by your side.”

A week later, Boy stood next to an empty grave. It had begun to rain, but he wasn’t cold, bundled in a black fur coat he had nicked long ago from secondhand clothes stall. In his hand he grasped a cluster of brambles, and as he looked on with a sombre expression, two gravediggers lowered a pine box into the earth, then tossed clumps of dirt on it with their shovels.

A day earlier, a solicitor visited Boy at Everything You Could Ever Want or Need. Boy assumed he was going to be turned out into the street.

“No,” Mr. Jaggers said (for that really was his name). “I’m here to tell you that the shop is yours, as is everything in it. Uriah Bleakness named you as his sole heir: Mr. Jeremiah Dodge, his Good Boy.” No one had called him Jeremiah for so long, Boy had almost forgotten it was his true name. “Mr. Bleakness amassed an enviable fortune,” the solicitor said. “It’s all in the bank. Everything he made from the shop for the last twenty years, all of it, is yours. There is no other family.”

Mr. Jaggers directed Jeremiah to put an X on a piece of paper, then clapped him on the back and left through the door with the bell that did not ring.

“I’ll replace that bell,” Jeremiah said, to no one in particular. “And I’ll clean the windows; I’ll repaint the sign. I’ll hire a boy and call him Boy, and give away all the Sneezy-Wipes, Face-Hats and Finger-Sleeves, not to mention the Cleaning Elixir,” (though he cautioned his customers not to drink it).

Jeremiah did all the things he promised and more. He repainted the sign that hung creakily outside the shop so it read: Lord Bleakness’ Emporium of Everything You Could Ever Want or Need. He hired a boy called Boy and replaced the bell over the door. He turned up the gaslamps and brought in better stock; he told his customers—and there were many—about the late Lord Bleakness, and how he had shown him kindness.

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Corinne Leigh Clark

Corinne Leigh Clark is a writer of gothic stories that reflect the human condition in a historical context. In 2016, her short story, “A Ghost Story”, was published in O Horrid Night: Chilling Holiday Tales for the Dark-Hearted, an anthology of dark Christmas stories, and in 2018, an excerpt from her novel-in-progress won the Penguin Random House Canada Student Award for Fiction. She is a graduate of the creative writing program at the School of Continuing Studies, University of Toronto, and is a card-carrying member of The Ghost Club. She is disappointed that a mysterious light she photographed in Highgate Cemetery was a lens flare, and not a ghost.

www.corinneclarkwriter.com

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