This story is written for AMMC: A Merry Minion Christmas. You can find the rules here:
Title: “Thomas’ New Coat”
Author: Marissa Ames
Dedicated to Jeremy, Laurie, Miles, and Lily. Thanks for all the apples and yoga.
Thomas shivered in the sooty slush outside the workhouse. The February wind whipped sleet into his face. He wrapped his tattered coat about him, which had become too small in his year detained in the boys’ ward.
Thomas lived in the best of times and the worst of times. In the age of wisdom and foolishness, the rich lived in three-story brick houses. The poor lived in workhouses.
The door opened, and his mother appeared. Emma wore her own dress. Gone was the striped inmates’ uniform.
With teary eyes, Thomas slid on the slush and collided with his mother. She wrapped her arms around him.
“Can we stay away this time?” he begged. “Please?”
Thrice, Emma had discharged herself when she could be apart from Thomas no longer. Women lived separate from the men, and everyone separate from the children. Those three times, Emma left in her own dress, took Thomas to a park then returned by midnight. The workhouse promised food and shelter in return for hard labor. The streets promised starvation.
“Mama,” he said, peering through his tears. “Please, mama?”
With hands roughened by picking apart oakum, Emma combed through Thomas’ hair.
“I’ll pull carts in the mines,” Thomas said. “I can still be a chimney sweep. I haven’t grown much, really.”
Closing her eyes in her gaunt face, Emma nodded.
As a widowed seamstress, Emma had managed to feed Thomas. Slipping in the slush during pea soup fog, she had injured her arm. She could not pay rent. After nights weeping in decision, Emma took Thomas to the workhouse.
Thomas had a plan. First he would work as an errand boy. Then he’d be crossing sweeper, cleaning streets in front of rich ladies in exchange for tips. He would purchase matches to sell to passing shoppers. Thomas would enter the mines if he had no other choice. But, for his mother, he would work anywhere.
Offering domestic services in trade, Emma found a room in a London slum. Thomas worked as planned, waking before dawn and coming home late, with money for soup and suet.
As he worked he advertised his mother’s skills as a seamstress.
The owner of a new factory bought his matches. He had a job for Thomas’ mother, with the new sewing machines. Emma had only sewn with thread and needle, but she soon learned the machines, pushing the treadle with her foot. Only once did she sew over her own hand. Thomas worked within the same factory, carrying bolts of fabric. They worked twelve hours a day and returned together to their tiny room.
Thomas fell asleep fast. At night, his mother stitched by the single flickering flame of her lamp. Customers wanted coats with detail that only skilled seamstresses could provide.
One year after leaving the workhouse, Thomas wore the same tattered coat. Emma had purchased scraps of fabric from her employer. She had unpicked the seams of Thomas’ coat and added the fabric to expand the sleeves. He had decent shoes, replaced when the others disintegrated. The slush did not invade the leather.
Luxury stopped at new shoes. Emma was ill. On good days, she worked at the factory, coughing into a handkerchief to catch the blood. On bad days, she sweated in bed with a fever. Half of November, Emma had worked at the factory. Twenty-four days into December, she had not worked at all.
Thomas trekked to the factory daily, buying food on the way home. After work, he cleaned the tenement to pay rent. Each night, Emma apologized as she fumbled with needle and thread while propped up in bed.
Thomas told her it didn’t matter.
Emma fretted over Christmas. Last year, they resided in the workhouse. She couldn’t see him at Christmas. This year, she had promised a hot meal, with meat. Goose and figgy pudding, she said. She had promised it before she fell ill.
Emma had one match left. She used that last match to light a fire on Christmas morning, as snow fell in the streets.
Thomas held his only gift, complimenting how well Emma had wrapped it in old blankets. Warm from the fire, he unpicked the twine. Emma smiled weakly as he withdrew his new coat: thick, warm, and sturdy.
He slid his arms into the coat and hugged it around his body as his mother coughed blood into her handkerchief.
As Emma napped at midday, Thomas traversed the new slush of the London streets. What he sought lay ten streets away, where Thomas had worked before finding the factory. Now other boys worked there, sloshing in sooty slush and broken shoes.
“Do you have matches?” he asked.
A boy half his age looked up with sunken eyes. Nodding and shivering, he said, “You have to pay for them.”
A rag wrapped around the boy’s head, in lieu of a hat. His patched shirt hugged his body tightly. The boy wore no coat.
“I need them for my mother,” Thomas claimed. “She’s terribly ill.”
Shaking his head, the boy said with chattering teeth, “My father will beat me.”
Thomas needed those matches. He needed them for his mother, who kept him out of an orphanage simply by staying alive. Emma had taught him that he was better than no man, and no worse either. She taught him compassion and charity.
“Will you trade?” Thomas unbuttoned his coat. The boy’s eyes lit up.
As the boy donned the coat and rolled the sleeves up, Thomas took his matches and sprinted home, sliding in the slush.
His own teeth chattered as he opened the door. He found his old, tattered coat. Emma woke as a log dropped from his frozen fingers onto the floor.
“Where is your new coat?” she asked.
Thomas added the log to the fire. Then he took her frail hands in his and told her of the little match boy. Someone needed the coat, just as Emma needed the matches.
“I’m sorry, Mama,” he said, hoping for forgiveness. “I know you worked many nights on that coat.”
Tears filled Emma’s eyes. She spread her arms. As she embraced her son and his tattered coat, she whispered, “I worked harder to make you a good boy. You’ve given me the best Christmas present by proving you are one.”
Read other stories from this project here: