Keith has read at Story Shop 2014, the Edinburgh City of Literature Trust’s daily showcase at the Edinburgh International Book Festival of up-and-coming writers living and working in Edinburgh today. You can find the story he read on Mon 25th August below. Keith was the last reader in the 2014 Story Shop season.
Keith Dumble was born and still lives in Edinburgh. He’s passionate about writing and storytelling, and is drawn to discovering the stories which can be found lurking in the shadows between folklore and history. He’s published several short stories and novellas as e-Books and is currently editing a psychological thriller novel set during the Edinburgh Festival. Keith is also a live storytelling, enjoying the opportunity to bring stories to life in front of an audience. He’s won and been shortlisted for several writing competitions, including winning Edinburgh City of Literature’s Iain Banks-ism contest in 2013.
The Tale of the Inflatable Chimney Sweep
a short story by Keith Dumble
Around a hundred and fifty years ago, in a place not too different from here, there lived a boy.
Or rather, there existed a boy.
For little Tommy was not like you or I. No: instead of flesh and bone and blood and organs, there was nothing inside Tommy. Nothing but air.
For Tommy had not been born of man and woman. Instead, little Tommy had been made. His creator — whom he called father — had been a wise and clever man. When he had been old enough to understand, he had told Tommy. Told him of the day he had been created.
Tommy’s father was an inventor and a magician, rolled into one. For as long as he’d been able to remember, Tommy’s father had dreamed of discovering the secret. The secret of life. He had toiled for many years, and for many years he had failed. His experiments had all gone wrong, no matter how hard he tried, no matter how hard he prayed to the gods above. Then, one day, as he finished stitching the material which would become Tommy’s skin, something happened.
A glowing figure had appeared in the laboratory. A woman, tall and graceful. And, as Tommy’s father had watched through the gaps in his fingers, the woman had laid her hand upon the pile of material. And she had spoken, her voice like a warm wind on a summer night. She had told Tommy’s father that his wish had been granted; that he was a wise and kindly man; and that this was his reward. And Tommy’s father had fallen into a deep and dreamless sleep.
When he had awoken, he had been amazed. Amazed and overjoyed to see Tommy, sitting on the edge of the workbench, looking up at him. As Tommy’s father conducted his tests and experiments, he had said, he discovered the truth behind the secret. That Tommy was filled with magic: with air as warm as a summer’s wind, but that he was also as light and fragile as a whisper borne on the cold wind of winter. And Tommy’s father loved him, and told him that he was the most precious boy in all the world.
But one day, Tommy’s father was gone. He had left the boy reading one of his favourite books, telling him he was going upon an errand. That night, Tommy’s father did not return. And Tommy sighed, like the cool breeze of a spring afternoon. And in the morning, when his father had still not returned, Tommy wept, like the heavy rain of a summer storm.
The days passed and Tommy realised he was alone. Though he found comfort in some of his father’s other creations — the laughing golden horse and the beautiful spinning ballerina — they were not like Tommy. They laughed and they spun and they spun and they laughed… but they were not real. And Tommy let out the deepest sigh he had ever sighed.
And so Tommy ventured into the world. His father had warned him to be careful. To stay away from things with sharp points and jagged edges. Things which would jab and claw at normal boys, but which would make Tommy disappear forever. And he had warned Tommy to keep his secret to himself: that he was not born but made. And that he would, if he did all those things, be safe.
And at first, Tommy heeded his father’s words. He kept to wide open spaces, watching carefully where he put his feet. When people asked him who he was, he smiled and told them that he came from far away, from where the warm winds of summer blew. And they smiled at him and ruffled his hair and treated him like all the other boys.
But Tommy grew lonely. He watched as the other children laughed and played with wooden swords with splintered edges; he saw them run and climb amongst bushes with thorny branches; and he saw the world for what it was: a world filled with danger for a boy filled with air as warm as a summer’s wind.
Then one day, as Tommy watched a soot-faced man march from building to building, he saw a way for him to no longer be alone. He followed the man, who asked at every house if anyone within wished to join him. For his young lad had run off to the big city; and he needed a new sweep. He would have to be nimble, said the man, he would have to be quick; he would have to be able to climb inside the narrow chimneys where even the smoke had to squeeze itself out through the pots above.
He would, thought Tommy, have to be as though he was filled with air.
And so, after he had tugged at the man’s sleeve, Tommy became a sweep. And not only that, but Tommy became the finest sweep the land had ever known. There was no roof too high (for Tommy was light as air and feared not falling); there was no chimney too narrow (for Tommy could squeeze himself into gaps so tight that he feared not being stuck). And there was not a house in the land who did not ask for their chimneys to be swept by the man and his new boy.
And Tommy was happy, for he was no longer alone. The sweep treated Tommy well, and shared his humble home and modest food with Tommy. And every day, they would work from dawn til dusk, until they walked home, black as coal, laughing with hearts as light as air.
One day, the sweep and Tommy visited a new house. It was grand and large, and Tommy thought it must have been built for a king. But inside, there lived only a man and his wife, and their daughter. And when Tommy saw the daughter, he felt lighter than ever before. For the girl was beautiful, with long golden hair and pale white skin which shone like the moon.
He looked forward to visiting the house, every week, to clean the chimneys. And he looked forward most of all to cleaning the chimney in the room where the girl slept. Sometimes, she would be in the room, and she would smile as he doffed his cap and Tommy felt lighter than all the air in all the world. And he would squeeze tight as he could, making sure even the tiniest of gaps was cleaned, even those which seemed to stretch hundreds of feet into the sky.
And, over time, Tommy fell in love with the girl.
Then one day, Tommy noticed something was wrong. The girl had fallen ill. She was kept in her room and the man and woman told Tommy and the chimney sweep that they could not enter, for she was so sick that nobody could lay eyes upon her ever again. And Tommy, with his father’s wisdom, saw a glint within their eye as they spoke, and feared for the safety of the girl locked within the room. And he heard, from behind the door, her coughing and coughing as if she was running out of air. But the man and the woman told the sweep and Tommy that they were no longer needed and told them to go, smiling as they closed the door.
But Tommy was determined to see the girl again. And so he came back to the house that night, when all were asleep and not even a breath of warm summer wind rustled the trees. And, nimble as nimble could be, Tommy climbed to the roof, where he quickly found the chimney which he knew to be the girl’s. And, squeezing himself as tight as tight could be, Tommy slipped into the chimney, where he planned to squeeze down until he could see if he could help.
He had to squeeze so tight he feared that he might burst. But Tommy breathed in and slipped down and down until he found something, stuck within the thinnest part of the chimney. In the dim light cast by the moon far above, Tommy could see it was a single black rose. And he knew, from reading his father’s books, that it was a special rose, created from the blackest of magics and with the blackest, most poisonous of perfumes.
Of course, being made of air, the perfume had no effect on Tommy. But he knew it must be releasing its evil scent, down the narrow opening of the chimney and into the girl’s bedroom below. And he knew, more than he had known anything before, what he must do.
Tommy grabbed the rose and crushed it in his fist, being careful not to let a single petal drop down to the room below. And he knew that by doing so, the rose had lost its terrible, poisonous power.
But then he felt a sting of pain. He had not noticed the thorn. With shrinking heart, Tommy stared in horror at the jagged object which had pierced and torn his skin…
And in the room below, the girl coughed and stirred, her eyes and mind clear, as if she had awoken from a terrible nightmare. And she knew, as if someone whispered inside her head, what she must do. So she did not question or look back as she opened the window and ran from the place as fast as she could.
And she did not see, many feet above her head, a puff of soot from the chimney pot, as if blown from below by the warmth of a summer wind.
(c) Keith Dumble, 2014