“Out of all of the days you have to look that serious,” I quipped at the black-haired boy with his sooty face peered downwards and bare hands lodged within the workings of the machinery, “does it have to be today?”
“Out of all the things you could fill an empty head with,” Joseph remarked without diverting his attention from the gears within his palms, “does it have to be my birthday?”
I scowled at the insult beneath my breath that mixed with the familiar dark fumes of the factory, as I checked to see if anyone was watching before making my way through the throngs of other boys over to him. I had met Joseph about a year ago in the slums where we shared a single room with five other people and about twice as many rats. He might have been older and smarter than me but I wasn’t one to forget. Not since I had found myself with fewer and fewer days to remember.
“Yes, it does,” I insisted quietly, “it should be a happy day.”
He raised his head from where he was working, interest piqued. I kept my head down but from the corner of my eye I saw two dark eyebrows furrow down.
“You cannot be that dense.”
I met his gaze with confusion only to see startlingly grey eyes flash at me like lightning and I swore the machinery behind us roared like thunder. Suddenly I found myself searching for shelter from the storm.
“I know we can’t exactly celebrate but-“
“I mean it when I say this, Henry,” He warned in the same voice he used to keep the younger boys from getting in trouble, “getting older is not a cause for celebration.”
I wanted to pry further but I distracted myself by fumbling with the metal pieces in front of me instead. As sad as it made me, I knew better than to argue with him. We were always more different than I liked to admit and it wasn’t entirely due to a few years age difference.
Joseph would never discuss it in front of the others, but he wasn’t bringing home his shillings to family. He didn’t have one to bring them home to. I was from the countryside where family and clear skies were all I knew and from what I gathered in the past few months, he had never even left the city. I remembered wondering around the time we first met if perhaps he had been born with that black soot coating his fair skin.
Now I turned to him and amongst the rumble of shifting gears and small feet across the floor, I heard him heave a wet cough into cusped hands. I watched in horror as he slowly raised his lips only to reveal a small pool of blood beneath them. It coated his teeth and dribbled down his chin and all the while my heart raced at the sight of it. He was in a bad way.
“I-I got it,” I stuttered impulsively, pulling a half-hearted smile on to my lips as I tried to control the fear creeping up my chest, “it’s your birthday and you’re sick, so as a gift, you could let me work for you. I’d make sure we wouldn’t get caught.”
He wiped his lips with the sleeve of his shirt without speaking, before weakly shaking his head at the ground between us.
“The older I get, the closer I get to not being able to work alongside the rest them,” He gestured loosely to the young boys that flocked around us, “they can’t have the older ones doing this kind of work, do you understand?”
I nodded quickly. It was true that the older boys didn’t do the same work that we did but why would they want to? Nobody cared to do what we did or for as long as we did it and especially not in Joseph’s case. Nobody worked as hard as he did.
“So when I’m gone, who do you think is gonna do it?” He asked coldly and before I had a chance to answer, he spun around a frizzy-haired boy working beside us who couldn’t have been more than nine years old. I swallowed my words as I glimpsed the tiny lumps on his right hand where his ring finger and pinky would be if they hadn’t been caught in the machinery.
“Every hour I work now is an hour he doesn’t have to work later,” He released the young boy’s hands to let him return to his work with a solemn gaze, “and if that means working until I drop dead on these floors, so be it. Because if he doesn’t want to go to work for his family, they will call him selfish. I want to live in a world where he can be selfish, Henry.”
I saw nothing but hurt in his eyes that flashed grey like the smoke that filled our lungs and consumed our dreams. His cheeks flushed red like the blood that stained his lips and blemished our streets and I tried desperately to grasp the glimpse of white sunlight that streamed through our only window. It wasn’t fair.
“Everywhere you look, it’s awful.” I snapped not at him but at the very fact we had to have this conversation, “If you’re not dead, you wish you were but only long enough to remember surviving is your only option.”
“Lower your voice.”
I breathed heavily, realizing just how loud I had been by the looks I received from those around me. I wasn’t done yet though.
“And some of these boys have come from places just as horrible,” I continued frantically, jutting my head towards a group of immigrants, “and yet they’re not any more used to this awfulness than the rest of-”
He caught me tightly by the shoulder now, gripping me hard as he pulled me over to him. I stood in shock as he held me by my collar, peering down at me like he was searching for something in the blank look on my face.
“You don’t have to come from good to know we’ve got it bad.” He hissed.
I broke free from him anxiously, stumbling backwards as he released his grasp on my shirt. I wheezed as I tried to catch my breath and felt my face get hot from how mad I was getting.
“And yet, they just keep coming.” I sputtered. “People just keep having children. It never stops. Why would you want to have children? Why would you want to put more people into this world?”
Joseph stared at me again but this time, it wasn’t in anger. I didn’t recognize it at the time but now I think it was sympathy. Pity for the little boy old enough to understand how every part of a machine worked and yet young enough not to understand how the world worked.
“It’s the only world we have,” He explained softly, with a sad smile, “so we can either give in to it and let it kill us or we can usher these children into a world hopefully we will be able to change.”
I wanted so hard to believe him but I couldn’t help but fear for the small stain of blood upon his lips.
“And what about today?”
“Today we work. Long and hard and if you’re incredibly lucky,” He coughed again, clutched his chest and smiled through the pain, “we survive. And with our last breath, we speak up for a better tomorrow. We fight towards their future.”
In the end, Joseph ended up giving me a better gift for his birthday than I ever could have gave him: Hope. I held on to those words when he died of tuberculosis within the next couple of months and kept holding until laws were passed to protect the children working in factories just like ours. Only then, did I let go. Only then, did his grey eyes disappear from the thick smoke that filled our lungs and consumed our dreams.