… when respectable heads were hatted and industrial smoke filled every lung, when automobiles were rare and horses and carts were common, then, lived a poor little match girl. Molly.
We join her one cold December day, as the clock strikes noon.
Grates heaped high with coal blaze brightly in many-roomed merchants’ mansions.
Glimmers of red peep out from meagre fires, damped down with vegetable peelings, in the terraces of the poor.
Factory chimneys, tall and soot-blackened, jab at a place where the sky might be – but instead is choking fog.
Molly is used to the smoke. So used to the smoke she doesn’t see it. Sulphurous yellow, grey or black – the guises of smoke are nature’s work, as far as Molly is concerned.
Molly has no coat to keep her warm. Her father sold it – came home drunk, again.
Her shoes are cast-offs – and too small. So small, they make her icy feet feel icier still.
Filthy water, churned from the grey-yellow slush by the wheels of horse-drawn carriages, seeps through the holes in their soles.
Christmas is coming – but that means nothing to Molly. There will be no tree, no presents.
She won’t be eating goose or beef. Just boiled potatoes, or turnips, or perhaps a bowl of watery soup – with bread, if she’s lucky.
But Luck is someone her family doesn’t know.
That’s why Molly is out on this miserable, chest-congesting day. Hoping to sell matches to gentlefolk. Trying to earn pennies, to buy some luck.
Molly makes her way to the smartest part of this grimy town. To a brightly-lit arcade of shops.
It’s warm in the arcade. But the man with the black top-hat and coat with shiny brass buttons will hit her legs with his stick if she tries to sit inside.
So Molly stands at the edge of the shop on the corner of the glowing tunnel. One side in the dark world, the other in the bright.
Marvellous riches are there, her brother says. Rings for ladies’ fingers, coats for gentlemen’s backs. Gloves and hats – and bowls full of flowers. Wonderful things, in that golden, forbidden realm.
But Molly’s not angry, nor envious – don’t presume to know how she feels. This is the way things are – how could she know anything other?
Molly holds her store of matches in what looks like a large red handkerchief. But it’s not a handkerchief, it’s cut from a red flannel petticoat that a kind old lady gave to her mother.
Striking a pose, with a false, bright smile, Molly keeps watch. Endeavours to catch the eye of each likely buyer that passes her by.
A man with a fat cigar. A man with a thin cigar.
A man tamping down his pipe tobacco.
It’s an ugly old ogre of a thing, his pipe. Molly squints to work it out.
It’s shaped like a head, has a face.
She won’t make a sale. The man has a matchbox, in silver, attached to his waistcoat watch-chain.
He scrapes a match on the serrated edge. The flame flares.
He puffs – and puffs – and smoke curls out of the ogre’s head. Molly shudders.
Smart ladies chatter as they approach – until they see the little girl. Edging towards the other side of the pavement they turn their heads and tut.
Little slattern, how dare she.
One lady – perhaps not such a lady – stops as she leaves the arcade. Takes something from a paper bag, hung by striped-string handles. Opens a little grey tin. She tilts the tin to the light, revealing a row of brightly coloured – what?
Molly doesn’t know what they are.
The woman removes a blue stick, inserts it in a tube, puts the tube to her mouth. Fumbles around in her bag – then sees our little match girl.
How much?’ she asks.
‘Tuppence a bundle, ma’am,’ says Molly. Her dad says they’ll pay it, at Christmas.
The woman rummages in her deep, beaded bag, but cannot find two pennies. She shrugs, puts the cigarette – a Cocktail Sobranie – back in the tin.
The sale vanishes into the fog. Soon she’ll be sipping cocktails, in a smart hotel. The staff will light her cigarette, for nothing.
A clock, somewhere, strikes four.
The winter’s day grows murkier. Darkness, unseen, saturates the world.
The arcade’s golden lights are almost painful, now, for Molly to behold.
The smoke – she doesn’t know it’s the smoke – makes her eyes prickle. She rubs with one hand and clutches the matches safely with the other.
The clock strikes five.
The man with the coat – and buttons – and hat – begins to close the arcade.
Soon all the light is gone, except for the dull, hissing, gas lights lining the street.
The fog becomes denser – or perhaps it just seems that way, now the light has stolen from the world.
Molly is frightened. She’s made no money and her father will be angry. She wonders if she can slip into the arcade before the big man notices.
A shopkeeper stops to chat. As the two men laugh, barefoot Molly– she’s left her worthless shoes behind – runs into the arcade.
Like a piece of newspaper tossed by a sudden gust, she flies into the corner of the nearest doorway – and nestles.
The red flannel settles on her lap like the breast of a wintry robin.
But tonight the world will grow bitter.
Please forgive any anachronisms.