Jack Frost mocks the locked gates of the arcade. Dances through their iron bars, into the doorway where the little girl huddles. Touches her toes and nose and fingers. Nips at the elbows poking through holes in her threadbare cardigan.
Molly is fast asleep – and dreaming. Of hot stew and fur boots. Of feather cushions and roaring fires.
But Jack Frost’s teeth bite harder – and she opens her eyes. Looks at the matches in her lap. Thinks of that leaping fire.
Beside her a low brick wall rises up to meet the curved glass window. She takes a match and strikes it on the brick.
The light flares.
Molly smiles at the brightness and the sudden spurt of warmth. Holds the match to the window and sees its reflection. Leans closer.
Inside the window, a mannequin models a long fur coat.
The match goes out. The fur coat disappears.
There’s no going home, now, she knows. Without pennies her father will beat her. Without matches or pennies he may well kill her.
Tomorrow she’ll have to think of something. But tomorrow’s so far away.
And she’s so cold.
Molly ties the red flannel around her head. Takes a bundle of matches and tiptoes from doorway to doorway. In each she strikes a match and waits till it goes out, nose pressed close against the glass.
In one short evening Molly sees a world she will never know. Gold and wine. Books and chocolates. Fur-lined boots and cut glass decanters.
As the clock chimes midnight Molly finds the warmest doorway and lights the remaining matches, one by one. Imagines that each is a falling star, the kind you wish upon, as they die their beautiful deaths.
And then, she sleeps, still wishing.
At five o’clock the clock strikes. Long before the invisible dawn.
One of the iron gates groans as it opens. Groans again as it’s shut.
A woman, Elspeth, enters the arcade. Her job – to brush away any dirt that blew in overnight.
Her jaw hurts badly, today. But at least she’s alive. Thank God.
She puts the small lantern she’s carrying down. Bends to pick up a heap of old newspaper, blown into the corner of a dark shop doorway.
But it’s not newspaper. It’s a little girl.
Molly is barely alive. The woman picks her up. Cradles her in strong arms. Breathes warm breath on her face.
Molly dreams of a smoking fire, putting out a strange smell and wonders what’s burning. Her little eyes open and she sees a miracle. A face, shining in the dark.
The woman with the ugly face – for ugly it is – smiles as best she can. Molly gasps, startled, as the vision becomes real – and awful.
The woman shushes her.
Elspeth, old at thirty, puts her shawl over Molly and bids her stay still while she cleans.
Her tasks over, she bears Molly, piggyback, all the way home. In the dark.
Elspeth’s jaw gleams when she speaks. When she smiles. When she’s silent.
She works, by night, at any job she can find, when it’s dark and no-one can see her. Stays at home by day, safe from the stares, the shouts and the spitting.
She’s had the worst of it removed, now. She should not die.
Molly is frightened, at first, by this ugly woman and her shining jaw.
But as she sips at a bowl of hot soup, wrapped up in Elspeth’s blanket, in the flickering light of Elspeth’s small fire, she thinks she understands.
The lady’s a saint. It’s just the halo slipped.
Perhaps her saintliness came from her words, not her thoughts.
Yes, Molly likes that idea. And she smiles the first smile that her ugly saviour has seen in months.
And so Molly sleeps. And dreams.
Tonight she’ll eat bread with beef dripping.
Tomorrow, she’ll have a new job. Making matches, for the Salvation Army.
And for Christmas, this year, she’ll eat ham hock with cabbage.
Luck, at last, has visited our poor little match girl. But Luck, as we know, can be a fickle friend.
Fear not, though, for Molly.
For thanks to a stranger’s Charity, now, she will always know Hope.
And, this year, her first happy Christmas.
Merry Christmas (or whatever you’d like to celebrate), to one and all!
If you’d like to know a little of the background to this little match girl’s story read on:
For years in the late 19th century the match firm Bryant and May used white phosphorus for making its matches, even when it became clear that it could cause terrible sickness and death. It was very poorly paid work. The young women and girls who did it were not allowed to take time out for eating so ate while they worked which transferred the phosphorus to their mouths. ‘Phossy jaw’ began with pain, progressed to glowing bones, necrosis of the tissue and – if the jaw bone was not removed (and often even if it was) – to death.
The plight of the ‘match girls’ became famous (or infamous) when campaigner Clementina Black, an influential and early women’s trade unionist, gave a speech at a Fabian society meeting which was heard by journalist Annie Besant. Besant helped organise the Match girls’ Strike of 1888. Better working conditions were eventually agreed, but it took years before B&M stopped using white phosphorus and in the meantime the Salvation Army set up a matchmaking business using the safer red phosphorus – which B&M eventually took over.