The Tale of Henry Bridger: A Beginning

This is all as true as any gospel the parson will preach. The facts are all there to be checked by those who want.

Or perhaps it’s not. After all, ask anyone and they’ll tell you that I walk through this life on paths made of lies. My wife will confirm that, and roll her eyes as she says it.

So the choice is yours.

My name in Henry Bridger, and I was born in this town of Leeds in eighteen hundred and fifteen. My mother, God rest her for she must be dead now, said it was the joyful news of Wellington’s victory that brought on the birth, although she wasn’t close to term.

I came out so small and weak and they didn’t think I’d survive. But I must have been determined to cling to life and now I’m as hale and hearty as any man. More than many. And luckier than the brothers and sisters who came after me. None of them lasted more than a year. They’re all in the churchyard, although I don’t know where. Like so many others, we didn’t have the money for a headstone.

My father had come from the country to look for work. There was money in the towns and he thought he’d go home a rich man in a few years. But a farm labourer wasn’t about to find money, only a job in one of the new manufactories that spit their smoke and soot from a hundred chimneys. I remember seeing him go through the gates and it was like a man walking into the entrance of Hell.

He only came truly alive on Sunday, taking us to the Baptist Church, where men with wild eyes preached. It seemed to give him his strength for the week. On Monday morning he’d leave our room with his shoulders back and a smile on his face.

It should have been my fate, too. The masters of the places liked their children. We were small, we were quick, they could beat us when they wanted, and they didn’t have to pay us as much. For two years it was what I did, staying at the job until I was dead on my feet each night, only to be brought back by a blow from the overseer’s quirt.

By the time I was eight, I knew I couldn’t do this and keep alive. If I stayed another year I’d be dead.

 

I’d seen where they gathered, those boys and girls. Some smaller than me, others bigger, almost grown up. It was by the bridge, near the steps that led down to the bridge. No one ever told me, but I knew what they did. They survived however they could.

I disappeared. Left work on my dinner and never went back. My parents would miss me, or the wage I brought home. But like that baby who fought, I was going to keep myself alive.

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