The sky and the street met every day; where grey clouds mingled with grey pavement, joined by greyer snowflakes. A monotone existence was one of the capital city of Andale in winter. People would wrap up in scarfs and coats and trudge along the streets, sometimes ankle deep in the snow-sludge. The luckier ones dressed grandly, spoke about Christmas and the new year coming, and got animals to trot along the filthy streets for them, whilst they rode splendidly in carriages.
The match business was always rather busy in these times. As, of course, it was the time for warming, cosy fires. For those who could afford it. That is why when his father went to the factories to help them belch smoke, little Sammy would go as well, and collect his matches to sell for the week.
It was before the sun had fully rubbed the sleep from its eyes when they rose. After pulling on the only coat he owned, which was both dreadfully well-worn and two sizes too small, he and his father left their little shack on Hawshane Avenue.
They twisted through streets and lanes, dodged oncoming carriages, and weaved through snow and other working-class people. Slowly and doggedly, they made their way towards the pollutant-filled haze in the distance. This fumes marked the factory part of the town, for those who knew the city well enough. There were distant shouts, rattling carriages and the rhythmic patting of their feet on gravel.
Amongst all this, his father, always cautious, was briefing his son on what he had to do that day. “Now, remember Sammy, youse need to sell all the matches they give. And don’t be afraid to use your scarf if you’re low.” He reminded his son in his uneducated accent and gestured to his son’s scarf, pointing at his eyes. His father would do anything for money, even lying about his eyesight. “I does it when I was your age. Just make sure to be convincin’.”
“Yes, Pa.” Sammy nodded, but he really hated to lie. He knew he was no good at it, and really didn’t wish to get caught.
The rest of the walk was in relative silence, besides the bustling city waking just next to them, and they soon reached the factory. Sammy was once again instructed by the manager about his duties, but had no interest in this repetition. He knew what he needed to do, and wanted to do it. For his Father and Mother. He was squirming and just wanted to get out on the streets with his matches, and earn his part in the family.
“So be back this time next Monday, with your quota sold, and you will be able to keep a bit.” His Father’s boss finished, and handed over his box of matches. Sammy didn’t need to hear any more. He said goodbye to his father and ran off into the grey streets. His father chuckled slightly at his son’s enthusiasm, and went back to work in the grime of the machines.
Sammy went by other street vendors who sold all sorts of items, but passed them in a flurry. He knew he needed to find a street that was busy, but with no other salespeople. He needed to have people interested in him, and not others. Besides, he didn’t wish to loose a tooth via fighting over who’s selling where.
After running up and down the Andale streets, avoiding shouts of “buy two get one free!”, Sammy finally found a semi-bustling corner, free of other sellers. He half-smiled and thought this was the perfect place for his first day of selling matches.
The buildings around were both residential and business, made of tough brick. They were all covered in sheets of snow, which turned to half-solid sludge on the road. There was a road intersection which separated the residential side from the business, and on the corner of one of these buildings was where Sammy stood.
During his run, he hadn’t had a chance to realise that it had started lazily snowing, and the immense cold had become even more so. He stood on that corner until his nose turned blue, shouting, “matches! Matches! Great for a fire in winter!”
Soon his fingers also turned blue, and in all this time he had only sold one match. An older lady came and bought one out of pity for this poor boy. She had a peculiar glint in her eye as she looked at Sammy, and after purchasing a match, thanked him kindly. “You are a good one. Stay this way, and good will come.”
After her utterance, a wave of biting cold wind headed straight for his face. He raised his arm to cover his eyes, but when he lifted it again, the woman was gone. Only a strange glow radiated from where she stood, but then it promptly disappeared as well.
It was soon dark and after a day of shouting offers, his voice was hoarse. He guessed the rich already had fires, and the poor were too poor to make one. So though the whole day had passed, he had still sold only one match.
He was ready to pack up his station and go home when he saw somebody coming in his direction. As a last attempt, he thrust his match-box into the air with as much enthusiasm as he could muster.
The man coming towards him smirked. He was also cold, but after seeing the boy with his matches raised, the man had an idea. And Sammy was not ready. The man started to run, and in a flash, took the box from fingers and continued to run speedily off.
“No! No! No!” Sammy screamed, and he too began to sprint. But this thief was faster, and knew the streets better than Sammy ever could. The thief ran over the road just as a large and richly decorated carriage passed by. Sammy realised too late that he was speeding right in front of the moving vehicle. He had a chance to glance at it just as the horses were roaring in his direction, and he could do nothing to stop being flattened by their hooves.
He braced for impact, but after a loud skidding noise, he found he was still in one piece. He cautiously opened his eyes and unclenched his fists, and found himself staring right into a horse’s neck. He stumbled backwards and fell over into the sludge, where icy water reached through his clothes and climbed up his spine. He started to shiver, not just from the cold, but also from the fear still coursing through his veins. The promise of imminent death wasn’t one to be gotten over quickly.
“What is going on!” A sharp, sophisticated female voice called from inside the enclosed carriage. It was only now that Sammy realised the coach must have stopped just in time, and he was holding up the traffic.
He scrambled to his feet to apologise, “Sorry! So, so sorry!” He seemed to be shouting to nobody, and got no reply, so he moved over towards the opening of the carriage. The girl inside was growing impatient, and was about to make another, ruder remark, when she saw the small and grubby boy outside. She was startled by such a boy appearing so suddenly, so she just sat there in silence. He looked up at her, in her fine clothes, in her fine carriage, with her fine servants. He was intimidated, but broke the silence with his continued apology. “So sorry to intrude on your journey, miss. I was running after someone, he stole my matches.”
Though she wouldn’t look like it, this girl felt sorry looking down on this shivering little street boy. She introduced herself, feeling suddenly ashamed at her previous behaviour. “I’m Anna. Nice to meet you.” “I’m Samuel, Sammy. I mean, everyone calls me Sammy.” He replied, trying to hide how the cold was turning his lips blue and somehow impeding his speech. This charade obviously didn’t work, as she invited him into her carriage where he could get cleaned up at her home. Of course he declined, but the girl was surprisingly obstinate. Sammy was soon whisked into her carriage and they set off.
The journey was amazing to Sammy, whom had never been in a carriage before. To him, it truly felt like the epitome of extravagance. There were plush, red cushions, and everything was draped in a deep, luxurious glow.
However, this was nothing compared to where they pulled up after their short and silent journey; in front of the carriage stood a mammoth mansion in the old and opulent style. It displayed a beautiful, regal charm and stood multiple stories high. The roof was a warm red, and the walls were cream. Balconies swung around the front and the back, and windows were placed wherever they could be, just to show off.
At this, Sammy started to wonder what he had stumbled into. And he stumbled once more, this time into the building, and followed Anna with his mouth wide open. The foyer was just as grand and royal as the outside, and was covered in expensive furniture of expensive tastes. He spun around, trying to take in the vastness of the place. He couldn’t believe this girl had so much wealth, and so much generosity to help him.
“Who are you?” He asked, the question clinging to his brain.
“I’m Anna, I told you.”
“You can’t be any ‘Anna’ with this house. Are you some sort of… royalty?” He replied, jokingly.
There was a small silence from the mysterious girl.
“Well…” She continued, but stopped as she noticed her guest pick up one of the many vases.
“Don’t touch that!”
It was too late. He picked it up, where it slipped through his numb fingers. It shattered on the ground, leaving a mass of trillion-dollar ceramic on the carpet. “Oops.” He said.
“Oh my… this is no good,” Anna replied, suppressing her oncoming tears, “Mother is not going to be happy.”
Sammy was also suppressing his tears, but took a less reserved approach. He turned around, and started bolting for the front door.
He didn’t get far though.
He ran straight into a middle-aged woman, whose hair was done up high and wore a dress as large as the doors themselves. She had a reserved air, and her face explained that she had seen everything. She grabbed his shoulders to stop him from running away.
“Mother…” Anna trailed off. She was standing in the far corner of the room, her head down.
“Anna. Bedroom. Now!” Anna’s mother said through her teeth. “As for you,” She turned towards Sammy, “You have trespassed on the Queen’s property, and have broken a priceless artefact. I can have you sent to prison right now if I want to.”
“No. Please! I’m not trespassing, your daughter, Anna, invited me here. Please.” he whimpered, tears now making stains on his dirt-ridden face.
“You are lucky. It is late, so you will stay in the cellar for tonight, and my husband and I will decide what to do with you in the morning.”
She called for two guards, which dragged Sammy away. The Queen scoffed at the audacity of this boy, and turned on her heel towards her parlour.
The cellar was greyer and darker than outside, with bars that blocked any hope of escaping. It was incredibly cold, as if the outside had leaked into the basement, and into the concrete floor. The slightest touch drained any body warmth. He sat there crying in the foetal position, contemplating everything that had happened. This amazing mansion was actually the royal family’s Andale home. No wonder why Anna was so rich; she was a princess, and he had been silly enough to intrude on her. He smacked his forehead with the palms of his hands, angry at how he could be so foolish.
It may have been hours, or maybe minutes, but after a while a sliver of candlelight became visible on the grimy wall outside his cell. A figure in a hood held this candle, and proceeded to unlock his cell door.
When the door swung open, he found someone he was not expecting to see behind it. Anna, the princess.
“I’m here to let you go. I’m not supposed to, but I feel so very guilty about all of this, it is all my fault.”
He slammed the door shut in a fit of anger, not considering that she was a princess, nor that she was helping him.
“We are going to get caught. You go. I’m going to prison, and I don’t want to be hanged as well.”
“You are not. My mother may be strict, but she isn’t cruel. I know that. But I have a special way you can escape.” She said the word special with such emphasis and such faith, that he believed her.
Sammy followed Anna out of the cellar, and down long, winding hallways, up narrow staircases and into a dark room. In the small light of her solitary candle, all that was visible were the cobwebs hanging by the ceiling. Anna walked to the end of the room, where she pressed on one of the bricks on the walls.
Mysteriously, it pushed in like a button, and a whole child-sized portion of the wall peeled back to reveal another, smaller room. It was brightly glowing, but without any candles. It just radiated light and heat, a welcome relief to the chilling winter air, even within the house. The room was empty and much like the previous one, except somehow incredibly clean, and contained a solitary object; what looked like a fortune-teller’s ball. It stood on a podium in the centre of the room, and was a glass-like material, with magical colours woven into it. Somehow, these colours moved like clouds within the glass. Like it contained all the magic in the world.
“Do you like it?” Anna’s voice broke the silence.
“Yes, ah, yes.” Sammy answered, mesmerised.
“It looks like it is.”
“This is how you can escape. It grants one wish to any person. Everyone in the family gets one before they are born, so I’ve already received mine.” She reached her hand to her chest. “Kindness of heart,” she said, imitating an over-the-top royal. They both giggled.
“You will let me get one? A wish?” He asked, dumbfounded she would give away something so special.
“Well, kindness is in my nature.” She replied without question.
He thought about it. Though he knew he should use it to escape his sentence or this house, he couldn’t do it. Why should he escape what was ultimately not his decision?
He shook his head, and instead wished for something he really wanted.
“I wish for,” He looked up at Anna, “a match. I want to help others, and get back to my family. I just… I just want my matches.”
Anna raised her eyebrows in surprise at his odd wish. However, both their eyes were fixed on the ball. It began to emit a somewhat familiar glow, which soon grew brighter and brighter until they both had to close their eyes. A blast of sweet warmth spread throughout the room until they both tingled with something… magic.
Once the light subsided, they both opened their eyes. Staring right at both of them was the Queen.
However, her expression was different; she stood by the door half-smiling. Surprisingly, she started apologising profusely to Sammy. She explained how after watching him with her daughter, and hearing his wish, she knew she had to let him go. Sammy beamed with happiness, and a lone tear graced his cheek. He was free, and though he might miss his new friend, he knew he had to return home.
After walking back down to the foyer and declining any requests to drive him back in a carriage, he walked out of the mansion. He entered the starry night, and a rush of fresh energy greeted him. He started to sprint. Though the night was cold, he kicked through the thick snow, skidded over ice and ignored his blueing fingers. He ran and ran, using street signs and gas lampposts as guides, until he reached his cramped shack on Hawshane Avenue. True, it was no royal mansion, but it was everything it needed to be.
The sun was now lazily rising over the smoggy streets, which provided a slightly better light upon the houses. Sammy walked slowly up the few steps to his door. He stood there for a moment, trying to catch his breath. He was about to open the door when something glinted atop the snow-covered doorstep. He leaned down to get a better look.
Sitting calm and regal upon the pillow of white snow was a solitary match, tied nicely with a shining gold ribbon. He almost stumbled back down the steps when he saw it. The magic had worked! Sammy beamed and excitedly plucked the match from the cold ground.
He was about to come rushing through his door and assure his parents he was fine, tell them all about his match, and sit by a well-earned fire, when he heard a tired cough from up the street. He turned to look at where this sad sound emanated, and found a group of three old women in tattered clothing. They were desperately holding onto the last ashes of their fire, recently put out by the overnight frost.
This wasn’t an uncommon sight upon Hawshane avenue; a poor street where the poorest happened to try and find shelter during cold winter nights. Sammy was used to nodding his head when passing, or just blocking them out entirely. But on this morning, he couldn’t ignore them. The match sat in his hands, a choice he had to make. To better himself or others. He looked at his door, to the women, and back to the match.
He squeezed it tightly, knowing he was giving up his wish, but knew what was right. He trudged through the icy path towards the ladies. The cold bit him, as if trying to persuade him otherwise, but he stayed strong. When he offered his match to help them re-light their fire, the woman in the centre thanked him dearly.
He struck the match and handed it to the woman, whom lit her fire immediately. He turned away, not wanting to enjoy the warmth that couldn’t be his. The woman in the centre called after him, “thank you young man. You are a good one.” She said this last statement with a slight smile.
Sammy stopped in his tracks. Could this be the woman whom had uttered those same words to him yesterday? He turned around and rested his eyes on the spot where she had been not a minute earlier. However, she was no longer there. In her place was that same glow, etched so recently in his memory. He asked the other two women if they had seen anything, but they just continued to rest their eyes upon the fire.
After realising they were a hopeless source of information, he went over to the empty chair. He scratched his head and raised his hands in disarray. His match, completely intact, still sat on her chair. He picked it up. It was just the same as it had been before it was lit.
He struck it once again, but as it flashed itsy warm glow which then disappeared, as all fires do, the match was left unharmed. He walked back towards his house, striking it again and again, only to find the same result. The match never burnt out.
He walked back to his house, entering it to find his worried parents. The sun was well up now, so his father must have skipped work to find him. Sammy smiled and ran towards them, and they all fell to the dirty, cold floor in a hug. All this time he gripped the match hard in his hand.
For many years after, Sammy and Anna would meet at winter. They would walk around all of the poverty-stricken streets and help others feel the warmth and glow of magic in winter. The fire in the frost.