The Frost Fair
Tom knew he was in trouble. Bill Thornton had left him in the shop while he went to drink in the Red Lion on the other side of the square. Before he left, Thornton had told him to carry bundles of cloth which were ready for dyeing into the cellar where the vats of dye were kept.
'And if you haven't done it when I get back, I'll beat you to pulp, I will.'
Tom took this threat seriously, because Thornton beat him for the slightest mistake. If he brought Thornton the wrong pair of scissors, or put a length of cloth in the wrong place, he was beaten. Thornton was a big man with bleary eyes and a belly that rolled over the top of his trousers. Tom was small for his age, sandy haired and grey eyed.
After his mother died, he had ended up in the workhouse. The staff had told Tom he was lucky to get any kind of employment and should be grateful. He was quick to learn, and soon realised that Thornton went to drink at the Red Lion every day and came back shouting and singing. At those times, Thornton was at his most violent, so Tom sat in a space behind the rolls of cloth and kept quiet until Thornton shouted for him.
On this day, it was freezing cold outside, so Thornton wrapped himself in a thick coat, hat and muffler. As he opened the door, cold air streamed into the shop and down the stairs into the cellar. As soon as Thornton left, Tom set off down the stairs with bundles of cloth. He shivered in his thin shirt and trousers. It was damp in the cellar and little puddles of cold water collected. By the time he had completed four trips down to the cellar and was carrying the fifth bundle, he
was feeling confident he would finish the task well enough to avoid a beating. Suddenly, he slipped on a damp patch and fell down the last couple of steps, dropping the cloth and, as he landed on the cellar floor he heard a ripping sound. He struggled to his feet and looked down. Two lengths of cloth lay on the floor with ragged tears across them.
Tom stood and gazed at the damage. He knew he didn't want to be in the shop when Thornton arrived. He needed to leave in a hurry. He crept up the stairs from the cellar and across the shop, opened the door and looked out. The square was empty, so Tom ran. The air was so cold it hurt his lungs when he breathed in. He had no clear idea where he was going until he came across a group of men and women chatting as they walked. They were dressed in coats, hats and scarves and seemed to be in a cheerful mood. Tom followed them at a distance, hoping nobody would notice him. The group clattered down a set of steps towards the Thames.
Tom stopped and gazed. He had heard customers say the river was frozen but he could hardly believe his eyes. Encampments had appeared on the ice: tents and booths of many sizes and colours, some with flags or pennants. There were crowds of people on the ice and music drifted on the air. Thinking that Thornton would never find him in this crowd, Tom ran lightly down the steps and slid on the ice.
It was even colder on the ice and Tom felt his feet would freeze if he didn't keep moving, so he started trotting between the stalls. He passed a big tent where a woman with dark hair and big earrings was offering to tell fortunes. Nearby, he came to a place where an ox was being roasted on a fire. He moved close, enjoying the warmth and the smell of roast meat. Tom watched enviously as a man in a blood-stained apron cut slices of meat and passed them to customers.
After a while, the stallholder shouted at Tom and he ran. He passed a printing press where a man was running off commemorative verses and reading them out to anyone who would listen. Tom was more interested in the jolly music he could hear, so he wormed his way into a group of onlookers. At least the warmth of people's bodies helped shield him from the intense cold.
Couples were dancing to the music, turning round and weaving in and out, the women kicking their feet up, so everyone could see their petticoats.
When the music stopped, the crowd broke up and Tom followed a group of boys not much older than himself. He was beginning to realise he had no idea where he was going. He could see the buildings alongside the river, and knew Thornton's shop was on the south side, so it seemed a
good idea to go north. However, he didn't know what he was looking for. It was all very well to run away but he needed somewhere to run to. The cold was so intense his fingers were going numb, so he started running again in the fear of freezing.
He ran round a corner and came to a stop by a tent with a flag, where a plump woman sat on a stool behind a stall laden with gingerbread. It looked attractive, with squares, fingers and figures of men and women all made of gingerbread. Nearby, a brazier full of wood burned, giving off a welcome heat.
The woman smiled at him and pushed a strand of dark hair out of her face. 'Do you want a gingerbread man?'
Tom shook his head. 'I haven't got any money.'
She looked him up and down. 'You look frozen. Where do you live?'
'I work for a dyer over there,' said Tom and pointed vaguely. 'Or I used to work for him.'
'What do you mean, used to?'
'I ran away.' Suddenly, the impossibility of his position sank in and Tom started crying.
The woman stood up, wrapped a plump arm round him and led him into her tent. 'Stand by the fire and get warm and tell me what happened.'
Bit by bit, Tom told her about Bill Thornton, his shop and the accident with the cloth.
'Can you read and write, add up and take away?' asked the woman.
The woman picked up a gingerbread man and handed it to him. 'Have this and listen to me. I'm Pat Martin and I run a confectionery shop. Gingerbread, as you see, but other things too. I could do with a bright boy to help out. Why don't you come and work for me?'