The mirror was buried deep, and Fred had to pull hard to drag it out of the mud. His fingertips throbbed as he grasped its edge and pulled it up against the resistance of riverside silt.
“Come on!” Polly’s scarred face was wide with alarm. “Smog’s comin’ in, we’ve got to go.”
“Not yet.” The mirror came free with a sucking sound. He slid it in among the dials, gears and cables in his sack.
“Smog’ll kill you!” The ribs of her chest showed beneath her ragged dress.
“So will hunger.”
She didn’t reply, just turned and ran after the rest of the mudlarks.
Fred reached back down, pulled out a flywheel, a strip of canvas, a handful of smaller gears. The hard edges hurt hands swollen and made soft by damp, but he kept going until his sack was full. At last he stood and swung the weight of his findings over his shoulder.
Around him, the Mercers’ factories towered above dense grey-green fog. As he strode from the riverbank up toward the streets, his eyes watered and his throat stung.
The cobbled streets were deserted, doors locked against the smog or anyone desperate enough to be out in it. Fred’s footsteps echoed off grey stone and red brick as he walked away from the factory district and its gear-strewn mud, toward the slums around the edge of the city. He’d waited longer than he should have done, and the smog was becoming dangerously thick, the chemicals from factory fumes stinging his exposed skin. Coughing and spluttering, he had to pause and catch his breath.
Desperation took hold. If the smog grew any denser it would kill him. The sack was slowing him down, but without it what would he have to sell, how would he eat tonight?
He swung the sack around, feeling the burden of its weight. But he had known whole weeks without food, curled over with the cramps of hunger, and could not bear that again.
In desperation he started hammering on doors, but each time angry voices yelled at him to go away. Swinging the bag over his shoulder, eyes watering with fear as well as pain, he stumbled on.
The fog congealed around him like tar. His skin was burning, and when he coughed he tasted blood. Doorways were invisible, the end of the street a distant dream. Only the vague shapes of aristocratic homes were visible, towering through the haze high above his head.
Stumbling to his knees, weak from lack of air, he looked up into that grey sky, where sunlight and clean air hung far beyond his desperate reach. A distant, forbidden realm of the rich and powerful. For him to go there was to face imprisonment or worse.
But what could be worse than death?
With trembling hands he pulled a cable from his sack and tied a loop in the end. Something protruded from the side of a building four floors above, and he flung the loop at that. It fell back useless to the ground. Blood misting his breath, he flung it again and again, until finally it caught.
His face felt like it was being pressed into a fire, and he could barely see through the blurring of his eyes. But he tied his sack to the end of the cable and climbed.
The top of the cable was hooked around a protruding drainpipe. He paused there, pulled the sack up behind him, then flung the cable up again and continued his ascent. Each time he stopped the air was a little clearer, his breathing a little easier, the pain a little less. At last he emerged into sunshine and lay back on a tiled roof thirty storeys above the smog-clogged streets.
Opening the sack to stow away the cable, he caught a glimpse of himself in the mud-smeared mirror. His face was burned all over, skin peeling away.
Fred smiled at the scarred vision. He could make it home with the wealth he had found. He would survive.
* * *
A couple of weeks ago Scott A. Butler wrote a glowing review of my story ‘Mud and Brass’, in which he said he’d like to read more set in that world. Ever keen to give readers what they want, I wrote this story. While it doesn’t revisit the characters, it does take us back to that setting. If you enjoy this then you might want to check out ‘Mud and Brass’, which is free on Amazon and Smashwords.