He was always in stitches at something, you know the face creased up, tears coming, body bent, hands gripping stomach, no noise coming out kind of laughter. I’d only joked that I was thinking of sending the kids up the chimney to clean it, not exactly side-splittingly funny, but there he was, laughing his leg off. I suspect if his leg had actually fallen off, he’d have kept on laughing.
He was a little man, slight and short, and didn’t say much, just laughed a lot. And whistled through the gap in his teeth too. It didn’t take long to sweep the chimney, even though it had been many years since it had last been cleared. In my pessimistic way, I asked if he could see light at the top, and he nodded, got down on his back, head stuck right in the middle of the fireplace and looked up. A rogue bit of soot got him in the eye, and this time we both laughed. He could see the light, he said in his thickly accented voice, and chuckled as he rubbed his eye with a grubby once-white handkerchief. This was somebody to have around – who saw the hilarity in life, and pulled you in with him. When he whistled out the door, I wondered what kind of happy life he’d lived that had made him so cheerful.
If I had followed him back to his ramshackle, run-down house, I would have encountered a surprising truth. He was married to a woman who had been beaten by the cares of life, and refused to step out the front door lest she encountered more. Her thin mouth was always tightly down-turned, and her face was lined with wrinkles pointing the opposite way to those of her laughing husband. Bitterness and pain had bent her double too, so forcefully that she could never stand upright again. She and the chimney-sweep had shared the same troubles, but had gone off in different directions from them. She had absorbed the darkness so willingly that it cast a long shadow all about her, and anyone who came near. Her house was dirty, and always dulled by its smeared windows. It even smelled of sadness. Of course, thanks to him, there was a bravely burning fire in the hearth – and the chimney was doubtless the only swept place in the whole dwelling.
And yet – this was where the cheery man came home to, every day. His was a tough job – scrubbing at the black soot of his wife’s misery, always looking up for a glimpse of light. His laughter had tailed off here a long time ago, but every morning he tried to make her smile. He knew that she didn’t want him to give up, and he never would. The bright sky was there somewhere, and one day, he’d help her to see it again. Until then, he’d stock up on laughter, anywhere he could. Life was a bundle of little hilarious things, if you only looked.