In the morning, he stood at the Bankside, shivering. They warned him that he would be sent down. He didn’t believe it though, even though he’d been sent for the training. He wondered what it was like down there. Some of the older lads already worked underground. Since they’d gone down, he noticed that they’d developed a kind of swagger, a way of walking that the boys who worked on top didn’t have. It was something that he wanted. They cursed well too, in a way that they wouldn’t have wanted their mothers to hear and that was something else that he wanted. He stood at the Bankside, shivering, and then the cage came up.
It was six o’clock. The sky was deep and blue like ink. It had not yet begun to soften and lighten and to bring with it the reassurance of day. He could smell the musty oil and dust smell that the men carried on them and the individual smells of each one of them. When the cage came up they fell to silence. Up until then, there had been banter about drunkenness on a Saturday and the horses and a fair bit of dirty talk, which he liked and which made him feel better and he was glad to be with them. The floodlights that lit up the washery and the dimmer, amber lights, twinkled in the cold air and their breath came out in faint grey skeins.
The arrival of the cage was a surprise to him. He had expected it to announce its arrival with much racket, but instead, only the slap of grease upon the pulleys and the persistent whirring of the rope told of its coming. It came up out of the darkness of the shaft and was unexpected, materialising strangely in the chill light. Another thing was he hadn’t expected that it would look like a cage, even though that was the name that they gave it. The men, he knew, made many jokes and he just thought that this name, the cage, was one of them. When it arrived, he could see that they did not joke. The stays that held it firm over the shaft clanked into place.
The bars of the cage were crossed like those in an old fashioned lift and behind them a kind of curtain that looked like chain mail, which the Banksman rolled up to let the dawn in. Then he could see the faces of the men, pitch black before the morning light with eyes so white he could make out the redness of their veins and teeth so white they reminded him of the fake smiles of film stars. The group he was standing among shifted to the side to let the night shift go their way. He could smell the dust emerge with them, pungent and sulfurous from the pyrites which grew in those seams, which some had said was called “fool’s gold,” and the smell of clay from the shales. When they came out, they pressed a brass disc, stamped with their number, into the Banksman’s hand, so that they could be accounted for. He thought it was like paying Charon the Ferryman, to bring them back across the Styx! The men he was with had teased him about the discs, a golden one of brass and one of grey alloy and they said that if he handed in the wrong one they would never find him again.
When the night shift was gone and the sound of their boots was no more in his head, the Banksman told them to board the cage. Before they did he frisked some of them to make sure they carried no contraband. He frisked the boy too so that he would know how it felt and the boy pressed his alloy check carefully into the Banksman’s hand, feeling its click as it met those already there and feeling the puffy strength of his palm. The men were shoved into the confines of the cage. They were tight against each other, front to back squashed close so that the sweat and breath and proximity seemed unnatural and he felt embarrassed. It was too close for men to be together.
Some had their cap lamps on at the shaft side and they turned them off when they entered the cage, before the descent. The joking about being drunk, or under the thumb, or who was responsible for the stinking fart after a night on the Guinness, dwindled to a fidgety silence. He heard the shoot back of the holding bolts and felt them suspended. Even breath was suspended and beneath them a void a thousand yards deep.
The drop began. It was slow at first like warming up before a sprint, then growing faster until they were dropping through space. In the light of his cap lamp, which curiosity had caused him to leave on, the vertical fall of bonded brick blurred to oneness as they plunged. The men had told him he must bend his knees lest there should be an emergency stop and the great winding wheel so far above should have to apply its breaks. Then, he was assured, his thigh bones would snap and project upwards out of his pelvis and he bent his knees. It was a sudden drop and was unexpected, but he pretended to be unafraid. His stomach lurched as the ground seemed to fall away and he felt a painful pressure build up in his ears, which he did not know about. The men told him to hold his nose and blow, to equalise the pressure and he did and it was better again.
The falling cage began to slow up. On the way, he had passed holes in the shaft which flashed by with the light from other seams, but when they slowed down, the light was fixed. It crept into view like a photo in a developing tray, the cage undulating on its rope until the bottom bolts slid in and it came to rest. The muffled voices of the men switched to normal volume and the Onsetter threw open the curtain and bars. They were free and they surged forward. The men spilled out into the whitewashed light. Pit bottom was higher than expected and lighter. The great arc lights on the ceiling gave everyone a pasty look as though they hadn’t slept. They were all moving forward with a kind of urgency, for these men knew where they were heading. He searched about in the sudden glare, breathing in the limey, caustic scent of the stonedust and the egg smell of sulphur and another smell, stale and strange as though the earth itself was sweating.
Most of the pit bottom lay empty now save for the Onsetter and a few stragglers, who had missed the first draw.
“Aye, I’m Ernest, gaffer says I’ve to take thee round wi’ me today an’ show thee where tha’ll be tomorrow.”
Jack had only met his grandma’s brother twice before. One had been an obscure wedding which he’d attended a smart, well creased man in a white shirt, suit and tie. The other a funeral, equally obscure when the tie had been black, but the suit had been the same. Ernest was dressed in a baggy orange boilersuit and wore a white hard hat. He looked bigger than the boy had remembered, a fresh faced, well built man, lanky, and powerful and lean and goofy, an ebullient hare.
“Come on I’ll tek thee into t’ return an’ up to sixes. Ron sez he’ll bring t’ paddy, save us legs.”
“Put thi lamp on then. We’ll go through these three sets o’ doors and tha’ll feel it get warmer. It’s dark at other side.”
“Cos there’s no leet theer of course! It’s warm though cos that’s return air coming back out of t’ pit. These doors trap it and mek it go in one direction.”
Jack switched on his cap lamp. The change in temperature was noticeable. It was warm and clammy at the other side of the doors. It was also deeply silent. The boy’s world now comprised the circumference of light that surrounded his cap lamp. Close around them, their shadows gathered. Ernest strode at the front, folded in the waist in that miner’s easy way and at a pace that the boy struggled to match. The man chuckled at the clumsiness of the boy in his heavy toe capped boots, his hard hat clonking against the girders when he had not stooped enough.
“You’ll get used to it,” said Ernest.
The air at the other side was more sulphurous. It cloyed against the skin and brought the sweat seeping. The boy’s face prickled. It was a muffled, dusty, place. To either side of them, beyond the extent of their light was abject darkness.
“Turn thi light off,” said Ernest.
The lights were switched off and then they were in pitch, in silence and blindness. Jack’s question seemed shrill a little hysterical, in the blackness.
“What if it goes out? What if the battery runs out and it goes off?”
“Then tha’ll be blind, but other lads’ll help thi out they’re good down here, tha knows.”
“But what if I’m on me own somewhere and it goes off?”
The idea filled him with a kind of dread. He felt shaky at the thought of it.
“Then tha stays where thy is until some’dy finds you.”
“But what if they dunt?”
“They will, that’s what them brass checks is for. If that dunt go in at end of a shift, they know your till in t’ pit and they’ll send out a search party.”
“Is that reight?”
“True as I’m standing here.”
“But what if there’s an accident?”
“Especially if there’s an accident.”
“Have you ever been in an accident?”
They switched on their lamps. Ernest reply was a glance at the roof. Wires attached to the ceiling of the tunnel tapered to either side, a silver glint lost in the darkness and beneath their feet, narrow rail tracks did the same. A steel rope, black with grease whirred along between the tracks smacking up and down as it went. Some of the boulders which had fallen between the tracks had been worn through by the rope into perfect grooves.
“Paddy’s coming Jack.”
“It’s a paddy wagon to tek thee to work. It’s where tha’ll go tomorrow. It’s like a small train, tha’ll see in a minute. See that rope? That’s what pulls it round, it’s called Endless Rope Haulage.”
Ernest seemed pleased to impart this nub of information, it was something he’d remembered from his own induction. The paddy began to materialise out of the darkness. It was painted white, a primitive set of carriages welded together so you could see the weld joint. The steel carriages clanked and hobbled along the tracks until you could see the driver, white eyed and bristly. He held a thin triangle of metal above his head and touched it once against the wires. The paddy came to rest.
“ALL ABOOORD! Where’s tha going Ernie?”
“Up sixes, Joe. This is Jack, our Mary’s lad, it’s first day for him.”
“Aye and tha wants to mek it thi last young un. Get thissen art on here!”
They climbed on. The seats were wooden, polished from the wear of many arses. The flat roof of the paddy stopped only inches above their hard hats. Joe lifted his triangle and rang twice. The paddy began to creep back the way it had come. They went over a bump and the boys hat crashed against the roof. He tensed his hamstrings hard as they made the incline to stop him falling on top of his uncle.
“First lesson jack. Always sit wi’ thi back to t’ incline or tha might end up sittin’ on some bugger’s knee!”
Jack smirked with embarrassment, shook his head from side to side. The ceiling at either side in the light of the cap lamps was sheared smooth and grey. There were fossils, branches, leaves, mysterious to him. The only reference he had to his surroundings was within the extent of the cap lamp’s light. He soon realised the importance of keeping it still, otherwise, there was no reference, no fixed point and the motion made him nauseous. Joe lifted his triangle. The ring was precise in the silence and they drew to a halt. Two more rings and he returned down the tunnel fading until he had vanished. They trekked on, boots crunching on shale, a kind of company, travelling forward, each in their own penumbra. At last voices came and other beams glaring before them hurting their eyes, but it was some time that the voices revealed themselves to be men.
“How do Ernest.”
“We’re just waitin’ on t’ machine, Raymond’s hade a few problems.’
“Whose this then tha’s got wi’ thi?”
“It’s our Jack, his comin’ in wi’ your lot tomorrer.”
The man sitting in the side of the road tipped his helmet back showing the whites of his eyes beneath the glare. He looked at them under his eyelids like a blind man might.
“Nah the, Jack?”
Jack nodded, but said nothing, the man’s face was inscrutable.
“Sit darn ‘ere lad, we’ll look after thi.”
His face was black and his teeth shone against lips too red for a man’s. His eyes seemed to roll under the light and had a mischief in them.
“Are you right, then Jack?”
The boy nodded and so did Ernest and the two men smiled as if they kept a secret between them. The man, whose name was Wilf, reached nonchalantly into the pocket of his boilersuit and pulled out a red wax paper cylinder. He was facing away from the boy and so, at the other side was his uncle, staring at the earth. Wilf produced a sharp, little penknife from his pocket.
“Does tha smoke, Jack?”
Jack flicked a quick look towards his uncle not wishing to give the game away, but here he was among men. There was no woman, no mother to disapprove of him. He nodded embarrassed.
“We’re not allowed to smoke down here, so some of us likes a chaw.”
Wilf rolled the paper wrapper in his hand and pulled a strand back revealing the brown twist of tobacco, like a sailor’s plait. He cut of a quid against his thumb and stuck it under his lip.
“This is red tow and’ it’s my favourite, some o’ t’ lads like a bit on aromatic, that’s in white paper, and some’s in blue and that’s rum soaked. I don’t mind a bit o’ blue myself sometimes. They reckon it’s good for keepin t’ dust down. Does tha want a go?”
Jack looked to Ernest, but the uncle looked away. Things were different down here. Wilf pressed the twist against his thumb and cut of a quid. He handed it to the boy.
“Here, try it, see what tha thinks, some likegs aromatic better, but tha’ll come to thi own.”
He thought of the old men he had seen on the surface sitting on their back steps sleeves rolled up, collarless, dreaming into the dream space, their own quids turning over and over in their leathery satchel mouths, spitting, spitting. He wanted to be part of that. Part of the old dreams, part of the coal. He put the tobacco on his tongue. It tasted sharp, bitter, alien.
“That’s reight, keep it theer, but don’t swaller it, or it’ll mek thi sick.”
Ernest smiled and nodded there was something slow timing, approving in his look. The fire of the tobacco juice spread into Jack’s young nose and his eyes began to water.
“When tha first starts, tha has to chew slow so tha can handle it.”
Jack kept the quid under his bottom lip and the juice came up and spilled into his throat so that he retched and his eyes streamed. He swallowed hard like a toad. His cheeks felt numb and his mouth filled up with so much spit that he was able to send a long streak of it, brown and silver, squirting across the tracks. And the lights which shone in his teary eyes had a tinge of pride in them. For the rest of the day the boy sat with the men in the sidings and he spit and spit. Ernest knew that he would be okay and he nodded knowingly in Wilf’s direction and Wilf nodded back.
I am a writer living in Yorkshire, England, recently retired from the teaching profession. I have always written and love poetry and have a large backlog of work. I have, through my own neglect had little published. I had four poems in a recent anthology: "Viral Verses," put together to raise funds for the NHS and am currently working with a sculptor writing poems to complement his work. I have a few collections on the go: "Norse Gods," "Box of Ochre," "Water Dancing with the Moon."