This time with a theme of mining.
The colliery glows like flames, yellow and orange and flickering. I was rounding the wall and stumbling across the loose gravel of the track. There are cobbles under foot but they are covered in mud, it slops over everything, beige and cloying. Porridge coloured, my boots are always dust dry with it when I get out of bed in the afternoon. I shuffle up the slope to the banksman’s hut where my helmet and equipment is kept. There are no signs of life, the wind catches smoke trails and curves them over obstacles. The wagons on rails full of coal waiting to be sorted and weighed, the empties waiting to go back down. It is only seven in the evening but if feels like the early hours. In the early hours I’ll be stuck down there without any sense of time and space. Stuck beneath whether it’s day or night. I’d rather work at night there’s no chance of the manager or his agent dropping in. Even the Fireman stays out of the way. I stand by the shaft, the wooden shelter which supports the winch and keeps the weather off the workings. I wait for ten minutes before the Banksman and Engineman stroll over blowing warm air into their hands. The Banksman nods. He’s got a face sourer than lemon, his eyes are grey and sag wearily, he dislikes me and I dislike him and we make no attempt to smile or speak. The Engineman I’m indifferent concerning, he’s in the banksman’s pocket, that’s all. The cage is called up and it chatters it’s noisy metallic way to the top.
‘Just you.’ One of the men say, I just hear it over the wind.
‘Just me?’ I can’t tell if they’re asking or telling me. I can’t work out why it is so quiet tonight. I step on the cage, unused to having so much space to myself. I give my token to the Banksman who keeps it while I’m underground, sort of like a register of who is down. The level beneath me lurches and begins plummeting.
Descending into a coal mine goes like this:
Darkness gradually encroaching between suspended lamps. You feel a pair of hands at your neck, that have kept you warm like a scarf up until now, starting to tighten their grip. The walls are wet. You don’t need to see it, you can hear it, like a babbling brook, tinkling away in the darkness. You keep thinking you’re going to hit bottom, in fact it’s deeper than you remember, always. The chatter of chains and metal ends so suddenly when you’re at the bottom it takes you by surprise. And then – my first thought? Twelve hours to go.
‘Donald?’ I shout into the pony stalls which surround the pit eye. A couple of boys with startled eyes poke their heads around the thick, motionless thighs of a pony. They are sitting in the straw doing nothing, possibly just sleeping. ‘Donald!’ I shout again and a shadow scurries out from behind the horse. He keeps his head down, the other boys sink back down into the black. I have a lamp in my hand with a candle in. There are safety lamps we’re meant to use but you can’t find your own arse with them. How they expect us to win black coal from a black coal face in low light. I lead with my lamp and we begin the long hike. The ceiling is flat and low, the floor dirty and uneven. Donald is behind me pushing a cove, an empty wagon, for the coal I’ll cut. We reach the tunnel proper, and the space of the pit eye diminishes to four feet by two feet. I bend, we walk steadily. Occasionally at declines Donald lets the cove hit the back of my heels. I whip around and try to smack him but usually he anticipates it and ducks behind the thing.
‘Why’s it so quiet here tonight?’
‘Thirteenth in’t it?’
‘Yep, I didn’t think you’d come in, I was going home if you didn’t come in.’
‘Because of bloody bad luck?’ I ask, Donald murmurs a reply and we keep walking. At the turn in the road there was a tenter asleep whose job was to open the door. There were these doors all over which regulated the air flow. I kicked at the tunnel floor and gave him a cloud of dust to breath which made him jump up quick smart.
‘You’ll be fined if he comes down,’ I said and the boy pulled the rope which opened the door. We passed through and left him behind us in darkness. Now it was cloying, the air was warmer on this side of the door. We walk on and I hold the lamp ahead, watching the flam flicker threateningly. Donald is rumbling behind me at his own bastard speed. His father works in a rag place, sorting rags and ripping up old clothes. It won’t be long before Donald is earning more than his dad. God knows why he doesn’t come down here.
Now at the coal face I strip. It’s warm, not uncomfortable, but once you’re going you get sweating fast enough. The smell at the coal face is dank, like a man’s old socks. There is an intricate series of stoppings, and on either side of a pillar two places to cut. On the opposite side there is another man cutting and further across the seam, down a narrow tunnel I can hear a third man. The space before me is mine. The pillar to my side isn’t to hold the ceiling up, we use timber props for that, it’s a baulk, a space of rock between the seam, and it isn’t worth any of our time to chip it out, so it will have to stay until the wasteman or shifter comes to clear it.
I’m at the face now with my pick wearing just a pair of cotton shorts. I trim away at big pieces and it’s a constant shift and twist beneath the four foot ceiling to get into place to swing. My hands are rough and sore from the day before but I have to grasp the pick tightly else my wrists wouldn’t last five minutes. I feel like shit already, I gasp for air and when the pick hits wrong, or slips at the face instead of cuts, my back and arms ache. If it sticks in I have to use my whole body to pull it back. As each chunk falls Donald clears it into the cove. This is how we will spend the night.
After a few hours my thumb and palm is aching so much I drop the pick. Donald is away to the brow with a full cove. He stays with the coal I’ve cut to see it’s marked up properly and recorded, as my pay depends on it. If the chalker fancies the cove is laid out, that is full of stones and slate, then I’ll be fined rather than paid, for the time wasted getting it to the top and sorting it. If Donald is slow I give him a quick wallop to speed him up. The problem with having lots of boys down is they’d rather sit and chat.
An hour from the end I’m aching all over. As I lift the pick and swing it I’m trying to arch up so that it undercuts a block of coal. I’m bending into three feet by two feet for this action. The coal is above me almost and I’m trying to get it to fall under its own weight. Donald has slowed down too, and the two of us are waiting for time to pass. My back creaks, and when I bring my shoulder back there is an unpleasant click at a certain point. When the last block finally sags, I get the arch of the pick in and lever it out and it crumbles and collapses into a heap. Donald steps in with a shovel and feeds it mechanically into the cove whilst I get dressed again. I wipe the sweat off my face and head. I know it will be cold outside. Dark early morning. The different between the air down and the air on the surface is harsh and it rips suddenly at your throat and you get mouthfuls of phlegm to spit. I follow Donald back up the road, I put my tools on top of the coal and when he struggles I put my head to it with him and shove. We both use our heads since our arms are knackered by this time. The cage creeps up and I’m out into the grey dawn. I can’t speak for coughing. I get the token from the Banksman who is sipping tea on a stool, with the door of his shed open so he can see when the day shift turn out.
I walk down Thomas Gunn Street. The weather is more favourable, it might even be a good day. My legs ache, my knees and ankles. But most of all it’s my wrists. I can’t pivot my hands in any direction and have to hold them carefully, straight by my side. Where my knuckles have grazed and cut the coal dust has filled them so all of my injuries are bright black and wet. I hawk up dirty phlegm and spit it in the gutter as I walk. The cold air reaches into me and scratches my insides. At the house I open the door and step in, but it is too tight and warm, my breath almost stops completely. The atmosphere is stale here and my cold lungs are tight already. I walk through and open the back door. Outside in the yard the mist is tinged with golden light. I sit on a rock and try to make slow, small movements with my fingers. I twist my neck, my shoulder cracks again. I’ll wash then slide into bed. My body at first lands like a fallen tree upon the mattress, it’s branches are my rigid limbs. But in an hour I would have relaxed, my muscles unravelled, my hands and neck numbed. I sleep like the dead once that happens.Poem: The miners daughter Black fingers scarred and cut red hands too small for cove’s handles Thin finger tips worn hard and nails cracked and blistered. Grit-eyes too dry not needed in the dark, Sometimes closed on cold corridors, closed on breezy emptiness She had dinner ready for him though she finished only recently And he was black and crumbling in the back yard Bleeding black in basins with his tankard, dry coughs spit-wet with beer Black fists mobile like thrown stones swinging. Dinner out, moon-white face washed in candlelight looming He grips cutlery with knuckles, building anger menacingly Wordlessly leaving and she sits panting, lungs tight Empty house draws in black as coal the empty night.