It was a blue-cold winter’s day and another poor soul was lying dead at the bottom of the Hungerford Stairs.
The boy was just standing there staring at the corpse.
That was the first time I ever clapped eyes on the little urchin. He was surely no more than twelve years of age at the time and making him a year or so older than me.
I will always remember his eyes, for in those eyes was the story of a child who had been rattled by his life thus far.
He became my friend and my companion and not a day went by in those glorious few months of the winter of 1824 into the spring of 1825 that I was not spending time in his company. We were the best of friends.
On that day that I write of, I had only, a few moments earlier, sneaked out of my kindly Uncle Bertie’s haberdashery store on Charing Cross Road. I had been instructed to ‘remove the snow from the entrance’ for the tenth time that particular day:
“And, Sam, for pity’s sake don’t bring upset to any of my customers”
Perhaps I should introduce myself before we go further dear readers, my name is Sam Weller. I was born and raised in Bermondsey, London and due to my lack of schooling I was sent off with unnatural haste to work with my uncle.
“Goodness knows young Sam Weller will never amount to much, but he must acquire a trade.”
I was now in my second year of such an endeavour. I neither begged nor looked for sympathy because the way I considered it, it left an individual free to take upon everything that life had to offer. For surely not everyone in this life who reads a book is a gentleman? Just as not every uneducated child is an idiot. Because, dear reader, as you can appreciate, I had learned much in my short life.
But I digress - such a disagreeable trait - but that is the making of my heart, I am afraid to say.
The poor man whose body lay at the bottom of the Hungerford steps had expired in the black of night having succumbed to the freezing air, one shouldn’t wonder. There were many similar finds in a winter of such magnitude. Each day the snow came faster and thicker and I would secrete myself to that part of the Thames hoping to discover some gruesome find. I was rarely disappointed.
That day was the first I remember seeing Charlie. He stood at the top of the stairs promoting such an unhappy account of himself that I thought he too would expire at any moment. Happily for the world, it was not to be.
My inquisitiveness drove me to question the lad. Had he seen the man die? Did he know the man in question? Was he working in this part of the river?
My final question did raise a look from the lad. Yes, he was indeed working next to the Hungerford steps at Warren’s blacking warehouse. The boy said those words with so much sadness that it was all I could do not to offer him a smile there and then.
“My name is Charlie and I work at the blacking warehouse in order to free my father from the Marshalsea.”
“The debtor’s work house?” I clumsily enquired.
It seemed, from what I could glean from the lad, that his whole family was currently living in the Marshalsea with only the boy himself living outside the premises, in the area of Camden.
I just knew there and then that we would become great friends and indeed it came to pass.
As the winter grew colder and sterner, Charlie and I would spend a few quiet minutes in the grounds behind my uncle’s haberdashery.
Although the gardens were only truly for the customers to gaze upon, it had been kept in the most wonderful of conditions by my aunt’s gardener, Mister Wilkins Micawber. Both Charlie and he seemed to take to one another and would spend time discussing their interests in gardening.
Charlie loved being in that place and when he was older, he wrote to me the most wonderful letter describing it as the ‘gardens of happiness in a woeful forest’.
His life was a miserable existence at that juncture and he much appreciated the merest time spent away from Fagin - the ogre who ruled over the warehouse with an iron fist.
My cousin David Copperfield joined us one day prior to Christmas and both he and Charlie laughed so hard that they made themselves cry.
I will always remember the man on the other side of the high garden wall, a Mister Pickwick. In all those weeks we never saw his face and yet he would entertain us with stories of derring-do, of adventures in battles and ghosts at Christmas.
Every shoe that Charlie blackened that winter was a step nearer the door and freedom for his dear papa. The little freedom of his own that he tasted in my company and in my uncle’s garden seemed to raise the gloom that sat so easily on his young shoulders.
When the winter melted away to spring so, sadly, did our friendship.
I will always remember the boy who grew to become one of the world’s greatest writers and I am proud to say that he was my friend. When I read his Pickwick Papers and saw that the happiest character was named Sam Weller, after me, I shed a tear.
Just as I do today, all those years later. They buried my childhood friend this morning at Westminster Abbey in the quietness he would have wished for.
When a flower requires to grow from a seedling into a beautiful form, it needs the frosts and snows of winter and, in his way, so did Charles.
So do we all.
bobby stevenson 2013