a Novella by Steven B. Williams
in collaboration with
Alexandra Vaughan & Nicholas Vaughan
Ian placed a measly lump of coal in the stove and watched it blush and seethe. His hand hovered over the coalsack at his feet, almost empty now, and decided against adding more.
“We’re not doing it,” said Arthur pulling his flatcap down tight, all senior-statesman like.
“Think how it will look,” put in Les, heavy scowl over his now half-pint of beer. “We can’t be the ones to break. We’d be a laughing stock.”
“Aye, them down in Barnsley’d never let us hear the end of it.” Trevor, wan arms folding, leaned back from the pockmarked table as though to divorce himself from the entire idea.
Jed, sat opposite, was blank. The webbed scar across his face shone how the moon might if viewed up-close. The result of a methane blast four years ago that took skin and a patch of hair but left his eye intact, the scar was hard to ignore even years into the friendship. When Jed spoke it was soft, thin. “The picket’s all we have now.”
And that was the truth of it.
They all turned to Ian. He’d brought them to his kitchen to break the news that he was desperate. That he was thinking…
“You? A scab?” said Arthur. “No. Not one of my lads.”
Arthur was the most senior among them. He didn’t go down the pit anymore thanks to his mangled leg, but he’d worked down there for over twenty years and had landed a foreman’s job making sure the pillars were built right to keep the tunnels from collapsing. He was as close to a dad as Ian’d ever had.
“It’s not even winter yet, and it’s already freezing,” Ian said. “By next month we’ll have no fuel left.”
“I’m in the same boat,” Les snapped. “But that’s no reason to go soft, is it?”
“Soft? You think I’m saying this because I’ve gone soft? It’s our Linda. She’s expecting.” Ian looked to the kitchen door, left slightly ajar in case Linda needed anything.
“Why didn’t you say owt?” Arthur said, brightening some. “That’s good news, that. And God knows we need it.”
“It weren’t planned,” Ian said. “You think I’d want to bring a baby into this?”
Arthur might have nodded then, but Ian couldn’t be sure. There was a softening though. At least he understood.
“We’re not going to last,” Ian went on. “And Linda’s been having it rough. The stress for her, it’s been…” Ian had to breathe. “She nearly lost it, Arthur. The baby. When that bloody earthquake happened the other week it took the kitchen cabinets down and the shock…she called me in here and there was so much blood and she… she’s sleeping so much because she’s so tired. And I…” Ian forced the heel of his palm into his eye socket, trying to dam the flow of salt water. “I’m sorry. I am. I just don’t know. I don’t know what to do now.”
Trevor looked glum. After a sip of his own beer he said, “My Sandra’s at her wits end too. She’s down the chippy working all hours. Free food, shouldn’t complain, but if I see another butty I’m going to throw myself in the canal, I really am.”
That made Jed’s face crack with a smile. “I ain’t got no one, so there’s that,” he said. “But without work, I’ve got nothing either.”
Les drained his glass and let that do his talking for him.
“We’re not breaking the picket,” Arthur repeated. “We can’t give. It’s the principle.”
“If we’re starved and frozen though what good are our principles?” Ian put in.
“No.” The coal stove seemed to glow hotter then, and a wave of dull popping echoed out through the room as the coal smouldered down and broke apart. Then, a little change.
Arthur clucked his tongue as he always did when he’d had a thought. “Now…” he said. “I can’t do much about money. Can’t do much about food either.” Arthur leaned forward and removed his glasses, laying them on the table. “But…”
“But?” Ian repeated.
“Well, there’s a story what some of the miners tell.”
“Oh, here we go,” said Les.
“You all know this place is riddled with tunnels,” Arthur went on, paying Drunk Les no mind. “Under the cathedral’s no different. Not our tunnels, like. Religious goings on, or maybe natural, I don’t know. But I remember when I first went down the mines, years ago now, this preacher what worked with us told me there’s a great big cavern under the cathedral, and in it he said there’s coal. That the cathedral was built there so the Church would always have a reserve. I’ve heard lots of versions of that story in my life, but it’s always the same. There’s coal down there and not too deep, easy to get to if you know how.”
A beat, and then Trevor gave a laugh. “It’s just a story, though. And, besides, we can’t just go and start digging in the cathedral. I mean our bobbies are alright but the pigs from across the Pennines catch us? We’re in front of a judge in no time.”
“That’s the thing. The only reason why I’m even entertaining it. That quake we had the other week, it’s knocked seven shades of you know what out of some of the buildings round here, not to mention your ruddy kitchen cabinets. I heard, though, that the cathedral itself got off light, but around the back of the place the earth’s caved in. It’s a tunnel, see, and it runs deep.They’ve no money to close it up of course, so it’s just roped off.”
“You reckon there might be coal down there?” said Trevor. “Seriously?”
“I don’t know, do I? It’s a whisper what mining folk tell to one another. But if there is, and if we went down to get it, we’d be getting it for us. Way I see it, that’s not breaking the picket. We don’t sell it, but we use it. We share it.” A new silence, thick and charged. Arthur popped his glasses back on. “What are we thinking?”
“It’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard,” Les said.
“I mean, it’s probably rubbish, ain’t it?” Trevor put in. “Caverns of coal.”
“Spires if some of the stories are true,” Jed said, nodding.
“You’re not seriously suggesting we try this, are you? You going senile in your advanced age?” Les said.
Arthur ignored it. “I’m not saying it’s there. I’m saying we can look. And if we do look and it is possible, I’m saying to Ian that we’ll do it for him because the alternative… well…”
Ian looked across to the other end of the table where Arthur sat. He realised then that these were Arthur’s cards laid flat for him to see. They would do this with him. They would try. If it turned out to be an old yarn with no truth and Ian then chose to break the picket, he’d do it alone. And that was how he’d stay after all this was done.
“I want to try,” Ian said. “When can we go?”
“You’re not serious?” Les said again. “It’s rubbish.”
“It does sound… a bit…” Trevor said, then trailed off as Arthur’s gaze turned.
“What do you say Jed?” asked Arthur.
Jed thought on it a moment. “It’s easier to hide my face in the dark.”
A laugh. “That’s three to two then,” Arthur said. “We’re doing this for Ian.”
“Oh for the love of…” Les whined. “I’m gonna need another beer. Have you got any more tins in, Ian?”
“When?” Ian said, ignoring everything else.
“There’s a dark moon two days from now. Best then when it’ll be pitch black. We take a bit of light gear with us. Just exploring like. We’ll get more folk in when we know what’s what. Alright?”
“Yes, yes, that’s…” Ian swallowed down the lump in his throat. “Thanks. Thank you lot.”
Had the men been less involved, they might have heard the slight creak of the door as someone peeled back into the darkness of the hall.
Linda stood, one hand at her pointed chin as she’d always done when she was deep in thought, and the other hand on her swollen stomach. She’d been about to tell Ian and the boys about something, a dream she’d had just now full of screeching and glittering dust and eyes, so many scalded white eyes, but all that was gone now.
On the night of the dark moon, the cloud cover was thick and so it seemed the stars too had fled the sky. This suited Ian fine as he paced the street where they’d agreed to meet, puffing with furious rhythm on a cigarette that he wasn’t supposed to be having anymore now that he was going to be a dad. But desperate times, illicit measures. That was the order of the evening. He let out a coil of smoke and watched it unwind in the air.
“Your Linda’ll have you,” said a voice from behind. There was Jed, his scarred face looking almost smooth in the clinging night.
“That she will,” Ian said, and he removed the cigarette, dropped it and then crushed out its smoulder. “She’s been off past few days, mood-wise I mean. Reckon the baby’s giving her bladder some jip.”
“Don’t talk to me about bladders,” Arthur said, rumbling up the narrow alley after Jed with a stick in one hand and an overly large padded jacket making him every bit a Yorkshire blimp. “Evening Jed, Ian. You got the supplies?”
Jed held up a distended rucksack, oval zip straining to contain the girth of torches he had packed. Ian, likewise, rustled a plastic carrier bag hooked over his arm where swung three thermos flasks buoyed with milky tea.
“Excellent. Where’s Les and Trev?”
“Trev was over in Donny today. Offered his van for carting folk to the picket.”
“Ah, good lad. But they better get here soon or talk of bladders will be back on the –”
“Sorry, sorry,” Trev said, panting a bit. “Been getting this one out of the pub.”
Les meandered up behind and then inelegantly sprawled on the brickwall.
“Oh, you are kidding me?” Ian said. “You couldn’t go without for one day? You knew you was meeting us.”
“Aye, that’s why I couldn’t go without,” Les said. “Besides, I’m look out. I don’t need to be sober to do that.”
“Who says you’re look out?” Trev said. “I was gonna–”
“Oh, knock it off you lot,” said Arthur, fixing them each with a look. “Might as well stick Les on duty seen as how he’ll be no use nor ornament down below. Right, let’s get a move on or it’ll be morning by the time we’ve framed.”
“Thank you Mein Fuhrer,” Les said, attempting a Nazi salute but barely managing a disappointing wave.
They moved as one, quickly, quietly, walking around the stonework of the cathedral’s boundary until they came to the trees on the cathedral side of that low cast wall and the subsequent thick shadow. Ian and Jed were up on the sparse grass, pulling Les up and then, with a bit of help from Trev, Arthur too. Under the cloak of the trees the group moved over the old graves toward the back of the grounds. The stones had already started to freeze, and were now turning as slippy and sheer as glass.
“Careful,” Arthur said when Les nearly went arse-over-end on the final resting place of a Miss Dorothy Lancaster. But as the group went slinking around the side of the building and down toward the corden, Ian felt an odd warmth run over his skin. It was then he noticed that there was only rain water on these graves, not ice. As they walked on, even that too gave way to a queer dryness. A caw in the trees behind made him jump. The sound grew suddenly loud and he strained to see what was making the racket.
He shook himself free of the noise. “Yeah? I mean, yeah, I’m coming.”
“No, I mean…” Trev had trailed off, which wasn’t uncommon for him. His reason this time, though, was rather unique.
Stood in their path, dressed from neck to beyond the knee in thick wool, was Ian’s Linda. And she looked cross.
Ian reached for his most simpering voice. “Here, ha, w-what are you doing…”
“Don’t you come that with me,” she said.
“If I could, Linda,” started Arthur.
“No, you can’t,” she bit back, and Arthur duly shut up. “I don’t exactly know what it is you’re planning but I heard enough to know it could get you arrested, or worse, stuck down some bloody mineshaft. I won’t have it, Ian.”
“Linda, love,” Ian held out his hand.
She batted it away. “Don’t you ‘love’ me. This is–”
“Oh will you take a breath?” Les said. “We’re going down looking that’s all.”
“Are you drunk?” she asked Les. Then her face turned to Ian. “Are you drunk?”
“No, just Les. And he’s staying on lookout while we poke around. It’s coal, Linda. Could be a lot of it, and easy to get out. Wouldn’t be breaking the picket, and would make life easier for us.”
“Won’t be easy for me if you’re dead or banged up, will it?”
“That’s why we had been planning on keeping this very quiet,” Arthur said in a not too subtle plea for Linda to reign in her voice. “Look, Linda, your Ian came to me about your happy news and how it had been tough.”
“And he said that he was considering…” Off of Ian’s furtive look, Arthur chose his next words carefully. “He’d been considering his options and didn’t want to do anything too extreme. I happened to say that I remembered a story of there being coal under the cathedral. After the ground caving in the other week, I said we could at least see how it is. These tunnels are old but they’ve survived years so they’re sound, and we’re not digging, just looking.”
Ian did take Linda’s hands then. “I know how much the baby, the strike, everything is getting to you. It’s getting to me too and I don’t have to even carry him. I know it’s a long shot, but I’ve nothing to lose going down there. And if Les is on guard duty, he can warn us if someone’s coming.”
Linda considered. “You’re just looking around down there?”
“Aye, that’s right,” Trev offered. Jed gave an incline of his head.
Linda clicked her tongue in her mouth. Then she cocked her head. Her large eyes seemed to get larger still, and she said, “Alright then, take me down with you.”
“What? No way.”
“Are you having a–”
“Here!” Linda started shouting. “Here, someone’s trying to break in to the cathedr–”
Ian clamped his hand over her mouth. “Will you shut up.” Off her stare, he slowly peeled his hand away.
“The next time you do that you’ll lose a finger,” she promised. “Now, if you’re just looking about down there it won’t be any problem to have me along.”
“You’ll have to climb down,” Arthur said.
“If you can do that with your gammy leg I reckon I can do it with this,” Linda said, using her hand to sweep across her protruding stomach.
And for the first time in all those years the lads had known Arthur, he seemed at a loss for words.
“Way I see it, I’m your insurance anyway. Anyone starts asking questions, say I fell down there. No one’s going to arrest a pregnant woman, are they?”
Trev blinked at that. “She does have a point.”
“Let her do what she likes. I wanna get home before sunrise,” Les said.
“But…but…” Ian was still desperately trying for something. Anything.
“Word to the wise,” Arthur said with a hand on Ian’s shoulder. “Know when you’re beaten, because it’ll happen more and more now that you’re having a barne.”
The group moved on, now with Linda shuffling alongside. They made their way around the back of the cathedral proper to the grassy stretch of land the cathedral kept for its own.
The split in the ground was relatively unremarkable. In fact, at first sight, because it had collapsed just after the crest of a small banking, it would have been easy to miss were it not for the metal spikes struck into the ground and the frayed rope that strung a warning together.
“Jesus, it’s warm,” Linda commented, pulling at her turtleneck jumper.
Indeed it was. Of course, it wasn’t sweltering, but in the same way that a change of just a few degrees can be a noticeable relief, the air here was decidedly thicker than around the front of the building.
“That’s the ground that. Most folk think of her as deathly cold,” Arthur said. “But she keeps some heat from the summer for a lot longer than you’d think.”
“I just thought it were the baby,” Linda said as she watched the men duck under the rope fence. “Other day I could have sworn I heard a bird outside our window going hell for leather. Were nothing there. Oh God, ain’t it deep?” Linda said, staring into the dark of the jagged hole. And then, quickly, she added: “Here, quick question, how the blooming heck are you getting down there?” She said it as one sentence, speaking as the thoughts quick fired across her brain. Ian had always loved that about Linda. She was smart and she didn’t care who knew.
“I had foresight on that one,” Arthur said. “Lads.”
Trev and Jed peeled off from the group. They returned a moment later, a ladder over Jed’s brawny shoulder being guided by a non-too-involved Trev.
The ladder was quickly grounded, shuffled over the lip of the hole in what Arthur assured them was the safest spot, and then allowed to descend in a controlled manner. When it was clear it was solidly placed and not about to move, there seemed to unfold a moment in which all of them stood around the hole, just looking. Except, of course, for Les, who was staring at his battered work boots and wondering if he would vomit now or later.
“Well,” Arthur said. “Are we ready?”
“I didn’t expect it to be this dry,” Linda put in as they trudged. The getting down had been relatively painless, even for her, though Ian had mithered her terribly. There was just about enough room to stand at full height without scraping a scalp or worse, and the heavy plastic torches Jed bequeathed them helped reassure matters. Arthur had been right about one thing, though. Linda had been to the mines — course she had — and this wasn’t a mining tunnel. At least, not one she’d ever seen.
“What you mean?” Ian asked as they walked on through the oval passageway.
“It’s the air. I thought it’d be damp.”
“Well usually toward the surface it is,” Arthur conceded. “You only get this kind of heat when you go further down into the earth. But these tunnels might have changed things. Especially with the quake.”
“It’s nice,” commented Jed. Ian noticed that as they went further into the black, Jed became more lively. He had foregone using the torch he had brought. Whenever they were down the pits he always navigated just fine. Some miners could. Others couldn’t bare the black.
“Here, you reckon Les will be alright up there on his tod?” Trev said to no one in particular.
“He’s probably having a kip and snoring off the drink,” Arthur said.
Les finished watering the grass and buttoned up his fly. He ambled back toward the roped off pit, his dull feet catching on clods of earth. “We are women…we are strong,” he sang as he went. “We are fighting for our lives…”. He shook his head. “It right sticks in your ear does that,” he told the night. Then he sat himself down on the grass and let the stillness gnaw at him.
He’d been able to hear them, Ian and that lot, and he’d watched their lights retreating into the tunnel. He’d done it intentionally, of course. The drinking. The distance. It would be better for them that way.
Les looked up straight into a torch light, and then swore. When the dazzle of colour resolved, he realised his mistake. It was the police. Just one lad, about Les’ age, maybe mid-thirties. He had cheekbones did this lad that you could strike a match on. “What you doing here mate? It’s unsafe.”
Les decided that the gamble was worth it. “I had a drink. Then I came here to, um, just to think, you know? I’m a miner.” He added it on the end as a litmus test. See if this boy in blue was one of theirs or one of the imported lot.
The policeman gave a nod that would have been easily missed in the dark had he not bent at the knees to perch by Les. “Well it’s not safe. You see that,” he indicated the pit, fortunately still not having clocked the ladder or, at the very least, paying it no mind. “Earth just opened up. Could happen again.”
“Only place I’ve ever been alright is down the pit,” Les said. “It wouldn’t bother me.”
“I’m sure it would bother your family.”
Les laughed. “Family.” And suddenly his eyes were wet, and his throat ached for all that he’d kept unsaid. “You don’t get family if you’re–”
The swell of sound caught them on the knife edge of sense so that everything that happened next was instinct. The officer grabbed for Les and yanked them both away from the dull cacophony and rising plume of dirt so that they fell to the ground and rolled back from the edge.
Breathless, still holding to one another, the officer asked, “You alright?”
Les pushed the man away. He got to his knees and peered down at what was left of the tunnel he had just watched his friends dissolve into.
The earth had caved in. There would be no getting out.
“What the chuff was that?” said Linda, eyes wide. Next thing she knew they were all on the ground, pushed off their feet by a rush of dirt. Its wire-brush fingers threaded up her nose and down her throat, making her cough and hack.
“Tunnell’s collapsed,” someone said.
“Oh shit,” was offered as a summary of the situation as the ceiling groaned, as more dirt and rocks rained down. And then thick silence. It stretched on and on. The ringing in Linda’s ears tuned out slowly, the sound of her labored breathing bled in. “Are we all right?” she said.
There was no answer.
“Hello?” she said again, panic rising. “Lads? Ian?”
There was no answer.
And the darkness was so thick that it threatened to choke her, and the air was so dirty that she couldn’t catch a clean breath, and she was sure, so sure, she was going to die. Die alone. Suffocate alone. Alone, alone, so much time passing and she was alone because they were all…
“Linda, love.” A light and then form, and Ian was standing over her offering a hand to help her up. Other torches blinked on, one, two, three, because of course they’d survived. They were miners. “Love, it’s okay.” Ian tried to wrap Linda in his arms but she batted him off.
“It’s not okay,” she said, drawing on her inner reserves of grit that, at this moment, had been topped up to bursting. “We’re ruddy trapped down here. What are we going to do?”
“I, er…” Ian didn’t have an answer. Fortunately, a very dusty Arthur did:
“Les is up top, he’s gonna have heard that. He can let folk know we’re down here.”
“What are they going to do? They might not be able to get us out,” Trev complained.
“They will,” said Arthur. “I know Les. He will find a way to get us out. Won’t be long.”
But Linda wasn’t so sure. With a hand to her belly she prayed rescue would come soon.
“No, no, no,” Les moaned, staring down at the pit. It had been minutes. Just minutes. But he knew that was all the earth needed to take you.
“Of all the stupid things,” said the police officer. “Why would they go down there?”
“Because they’re bloody idiots…” Les said. “Damned, stupid idiots.” While that may have been true, there was more, and Les found the next words sparking off his tongue before the poison that had sunk deep in him these past few months could squash them. “And Arthur was trying to keep us together. He was trying to stop Ian from doing the one thing that, no matter the reason, would be unforgivable. You cannot scab. You cannot or it was all for nothing. Down there in the dirt. For nothing!” spittle flew, his eyes ran with water that felt like slaking mud.
“I’ve got to tell the Sergeant. This is—”
“No,” Les said.
“I’ve got to.”
“They’re trapped. We have to help.”
“You’re not listening. I said…” Les was clever. Had he been born to a wealthier sort, had his mother and father not disowned him when he was young and full of heat he didn’t understand, then all this might have meant he could have gone somewhere in life. But intellect doesn’t dim just because the future does. He knew how to play the game.
Les stood there a moment. The quiet of the night seemed to call to him, and he knew that for a spell of this size it would take nothing less than the truth. “I’m dying,” he whispered.
He rolled up his shirt sleeves to show a lesion, dark and unsightly, maring the skin of his upper forearm. “You see a lot in your line of work. I’m sure you’ve collected more than a few lads like me, with marks like this, these past few years because there’s more than just miners strikes going on in. You know what it means, right?”
The police officer looked with eyes that, now they were close Les could see were pleasant and blue. And then, slowly, something began to dawn, and the officer drew back a step, those blue eyes shattering into something that was close to fear.
“I thought so. So you listen to this and you listen good. I’m not losing them,” Les said. “You go door to door, and you tell folk. You tell them that a group of our people and a woman who is as pregnant as she is pig-headed is stuck in this God-forsaken hole, and you bring them. You bring them here with their shovels, with their bloody kitchen pans if that’s all they’ve got, I don’t care, and they will dig.”
“Do it!” Les bellowed, and if the earth had moved again that night, it would have been through him, creaking in the old and forgotten ways that shifted land masses and made islands form of ash.
The police officer ran and, true to his word, a now clear headed Les began to dig.
“I am not losing them.”
Trevor paced up and down. “We need to be doing something. We can’t just sit here.”
“Will you sit down,” Ian said. “You’re making our Linda upset.”
“Your Linda can speak for herself,” Linda said. “And I think being stuck in a pigging old tunnel with you lot has got me as upset as I’m going to get,” she said.
“We’ll not get rescued any faster by fighting among ourselves,” Arthur said and then coughed, and coughed, and coughed. “Oh the bloody dust, it’s set me off.” He coughed some more, unlacing a handkerchief from his top pocket and using that to cover his mouth. When he took it away he didn’t look, didn’t let the torch light shine on it. He just kept it curled in his hands ready in case he needed it again.
A pinprick of torch light down the tunnel slowly grew into a miniature star, and then boots and bulk, signalling Jed had returned. “It canters down a way before coming to a chamber of sorts. There’s another few tunnels leading off.”
“What about the wood supports, they any good?” Arthur said. When he wasn’t coughing, he was flashing a torch at the faded wood struts and boards that had been used to keep the tunnel firm these long years. He didn’t trust them now and wanted insurance in case they looked like they were buckling.
“They seem fine as much as I can tell,” Jed said. “And…”
The sentence hung a while.
“What?” said Trev.
“I thought I could hear…birds.”
“What would birds be doing down here?” Linda said.
“They won’t be.” Arthur cleared his throat. “Sound bounces down here. Could mean its funnelling in from outside. Which, if true, means there might be another way out.”
“Or he’s just hearing things,” Trevor said.
Jed was silent on the matter, as though both things were equally as likely. “What do you want to do?”
Arthur contemplated a little longer. “I say we wait.”
“No, we should go down and see if there’s fresh air anywhere,” Trevor said.
“Not with Linda. She’ll not walk far. Ow!” A swift back hand clipped Ian’s head.
“He’s right though,” Linda said. “This is making Baby uneasy is this, and I’d rather not push it unless I have to. My luck, not the baby.”
“Let’s not be pushing anything,” Arthur agreed. “To tell you the truth lads, I don’t think I’ve got much in me now. And if we do need to clamber up owt to get out, better, ain’t it, that we’ve saved our strength. The good news though is if there are tunnels, there’s plenty of air. We’ll not suffocate.”
Trevor exhaled his disagreement, a sharp gust through his considerable nose, but he said nothing.
“This reminds me of my first time down the pit,” Arthur said. “Me father took me down, saying it was about time I knew what bloody graft was. It were only supposed to be a quick tour, you know, put wind up me a bit and make me appreciate food on the table, that kind of thing.”
“Aye, my dad did that,” Ian said.
“It were my mother what sent me,” Jed said.
“I went down with my brother,” Trevor said, voice softer now.
“He didn’t bargain on two things, didn’t Dad,” Arthur said. “One, that I’d love it. Nowhere else where you can get away from everything what worries you and just be alone to think with folk what are just like you. No airs. No graces. Just graft. I loved it as soon as I saw the lamp light glitter off the walls.”
It was romantic, but it was Arthur being truthful, and none of them had the heart to disagree. Well, almost none of them.
“Well I think you’re mad,” Linda said. “I’ll tell you that now. This one’s never going down the mines if they reopen, oh no.”
“Linda,” Ian said. “Shouldn’t we discuss this kind of thing?”
“Aye we can discuss it if you want. Of course. We have an open and democratic relationship, us. But you always end up agreeing with me anyway Ian, so I thought I’d save you the time love.”
“There is that,” Ian said. And then to Arthur: “You said about two things.”
“Two things your Dad didn’t bargain for,” Ian told Arthur. “That you’d love it and…”
“Oh, aye, that the flipping lift would stop working. We were down there for nearly nine hours. I’d took no water with me. One of the lads had smuggled some scotch down from his father-in-law. Me father kept my nerves down with a bit of that. Made me sick as a dog the next day but it worked.” He laughed. “Didn’t dissuade me though. Nothing ever could.”
It’d been an hour, maybe two, and Les’ arms were weak, his hands blistered, but he was digging.
“Here, have a break love, our Dennis will take over,” a black woman in baggy denim said, her thick rimmed glasses flaring with torch-light whenever their beams drifted by. About twenty people had come out, and the number was growing. Doctor Francis had made an appearance and was helping coordinate the effort as they waited in case anyone needed medical help; men were digging, some women too, while others offered blankets, hot drinks, and helped keep the effort oiled and working.
“I have to get them out,” Les said without looking.
“And you will, but you’re no use to them if you collapse.”
“No, I have to—”
“It’s an order,” someone said, their hand descending on the shovel. It was the police officer, and he looked at Les all defiant like. “Take a break before you fall down. I’ll keep digging.”
Les let the shovel be taken out his hands. The officer set to digging immediately, no mind for the uniform he wore. Les craned his way up and out of the hole in the earth to sit on its side.
“I never asked your name,” Les said.
“It’s best we don’t do names. I can’t book someone and their friends if I don’t know who they are.” It was inevitable, really, that there would be questions, possibly charges for wasting time and endangering the public, but Les appreciated the gesture all the same.
“Les,” he offered the officer.
The police officer looked up at him. A slight nod and then he went back to digging. A minute or so passed, wordless but big. “I…” he swallowed down what he was saying. “I reckon you lads are having it rough,” he said, a vagary Les knew was deliberately wide. And also deniable.
Another shovel of dirt. Another. Les imagined it like each subtraction was pushing air down into Arthur and that lot’s lungs. Just one more shovel. Just one more breath.
He climbed down into the pit again, tagged another man to take a rest, and began shovelling.
“What was that?” said Linda, shining a light into the expanse.
“Could be owt. These are old tunnels,” Jed said. “Nothing to worry over.”
“Right,” Linda said. She tried to rub the unease out of her belly but it wouldn’t shift. So, to more pleasant thoughts. “I’m going to have fish and chips when we get out of here,” she said. “Curry sauce. Vinegar. The works.”
“We can’t afford it Linda.”
“You can have some of mine,” Trev grumbled.
For Trev, it started as a little shake of his head. Back and forth, like a weather vane twitching in the wind. Slowly, a storm did gather. And then he was on his feet and spitting. “If only you hadn’t said owt, we wouldn’t be down here.” Trev had his finger pointed Ian’s way.
“What did I say about fighting?”
“Oh give over Arthur. No one’s listened to you in years,” Trev said, with a mean laugh. “The only reason they keep you around is because no one has the heart to tell you you’re in the bloody way.”
“I will have some respect,” said Arthur, and he shook the handkerchief in his hand. Linda thought she saw a stain of red catch the light, but it was there and then gone before she could be sure.
“No, it’s true. And if this one hadn’t have wanted to scab—”
“You what?” Linda turned her flashlight on Ian, thoughts of crimson now forgotten.
“I didn’t want to. I never said I wanted to, did I?” Ian got up, too. “But with you and the baby Linda, we needed the money. And I told them I didn’t want to, that I needed options, and that’s when they said they’d come down here. But I never made you Trev.”
“I’ve been ferrying people around to the pickets all over the sodding place, and then you come out with that,” Trevor said. “I should have said it then but I’ll say it now: You’re scum.”
“Taking care of your family’s not scummy,” Linda said from the floor. “You weren’t there mopping blood off the floor when I had an hemorrhage, were you? Ian was. So don’t you dare judge us.”
“Betrayal, that’s what it is. Of our way of life.”
“Oh give it a rest,” Linda said.
“You don’t care about no one but yourself, Ian. Never have—”
“Take that back!”
“That’s enough,” Jed said, his even voice not loud but like the clang of metal against stone. “We all made a choice to be here. A free choice. No one to blame except those what made choices like these the only options we have.”
“Jed is right. It’s the government what’s done this to us. I’ll not have anyone blamed.” Arthur rolled a bit to his side and used his walking stick to take his weight as, with one knee under him and Jed to help lever, he got to his feet. “That’s better.”
Trevor, still ticking with anger, stood it just a few more seconds and then burst, “Well you lot do what you sodding like, I’m going to see if I can get us out.”
“Not alone,” Arthur made a grab for Trevor, but Trevor shrugged him off.
“No. Leave me!” Trevor said. He picked up one of the heavy torches and skulked down the tunnel.
“What’s up with him?” Linda said when Trevor’s light had gone.
“Some folk like Jed are fine down here. Others, they need to know they can get to the surface or it starts to get to them.”
“He gets worked up,” Jed said. “Panics. You know, that fear what comes from your insides. You can’t control it. He’s okay so long as he knows he can get up top. Will check machinery, all that lot, a dozen times maybe more.”
“Aye, he just needs to blow off some—”
A male shout, not quite a scream but pained, echoed off the walls. And then silence, stillness like a piano wire over their skin.
“Jed,” Arthur said, and Jed set off at a jog. “Be careful, won’t you.”
“What’s he done you reckon?”
“Poor sod will have twisted is ankle or something,” Arthur said. “The last blooming thing we need but at least it’ll keep him in one place.”
They waited a good ten minutes. When Jed came back, he was carrying two torches. “No sign of him. Just found this on the ground. But…”
“But what?” asked Ian.
“Well, there’s some blood.” He held it to the light, and sure enough there glistened a smear of gore.
“He’s probably hit his head on something, dropped the torch,” Arthur said, but while he spoke in his usual manner, his certainty had thinned. “We should, er, we–”
He found himself losing his train of thought as the slap, slap, slap of wing beats, boomed, and then came a bloom of cold air that raked its nails over them, pulling with it a fat cloud of dust. The torch in Jed’s hand, the one that had been Trev’s was the first to flicker. Then they all started doing it.
“It’s the dust, it’s getting into the workings.”
Out. Out. Ou-
One torch winced out of life, then back on, then stayed lit, its beam dull and yellowed but persistent. Linda and Ian held the light between them.
“Here, Linda, I’m going to get us out of here, I promise you,” and for once Linda had no fuel for comeback. She merely nodded. “That was cold air, weren’t it Arthur?” Ian said, spitting out the dirt that had collected on his tongue.
“I reckon so.”
“Then I say we go toward it.”
“I don’t know.”
“We need to look for Trev,” Jed put in.
“Besides I…” Linda, illuminated by the yellow light, was sweating in a way that made her look like running wax. “I don’t feel good. I think the baby’s not…” She swallowed. “Ian… I’m scared.”
“There’s no need, love. Come on.” He wrapped her hand. She pulled back, but only half way. “You are the strongest person I know Linda,” Ian said. “You keep our baby safe, yeah? And I will concentrate on getting us out. You know?” Linda took a few short, sharp breaths, her eyebrows drawn in discomfort.
And then she squeezed Ian’s hand and nodded. “Let’s get the hell out of here,” she said.
Linda held the torch in a shaking hand, illuminating where Ian trod as he led them, ducking and winding through the tunnel. She tried to keep herself steady but her nerves had rarified so every sigh of air made her jumpy.
At first, Linda thought the tunnel narrowing was just her imagination, but when she tore open a hole in her jumper scraping her elbow on a jutting piece of rock, she knew. The room they had to move was narrowing, and with that there came another feeling. It was paranoid, she knew, but every so often the light they shone ahead of them would catch on a glinting bit of what she assumed was coal or mineral or something, that would, impossibly, hop away out of the light. They never caught up to it. There was never anything in their path that explained it. But she was sure…
Then the tunnel suddenly expanded, opening into a tight circular chamber from which led a number of other tunnels. Like the others, it was man made. That didn’t set her mind at ease any.
“If Trev was bleeding I’d guess there should be blood, yeah?” Ian said.
“Shine the light to the floor. Might see something.”
“Where did you find the torch, Jed?” Arthur asked. Jed shuffled to the edge of the light and pointed at the ground. Linda angled the torch. A few small drops of blood, like scarlet tinged daisies, glistened. She chased the blossom to the nearest tunnel.
“Trev?” Arthur called. There was no reply.
Arthur hobbled toward the tunnel’s mouth. “Trev?” he called again.
Trev an echo from behind made Linda start. Then a chuntering, a low, modulating cackle. She searched the darkness there, casting the dull torch beam around. Nothing. She turned back.
“Can’t see bugger all,” Arthur said and turned around.
Linda screamed. Arthur’s face, once certainly craggy but human and even nice, was now quite literally a coal face, black and sheer and glittering under her light.
“Linda, what’s wrong?” Ian’s voice, but not Ian. Hands of pitch reached for her.
“Don’t touch me!”
A hulking man of stone towered over her, the hollow of the left side of his face singing with the woosh of air as he pounced. “What’s wrong, love?”
Linda, taking the tunnel at her back, hobbled away. Somehow, through some sheer evolutionary trigger, she had the good sense to point the torch toward the ground.
“Linda!” she could hear Ian’s voice, but when she turned around, all she saw were men of coal, and she knew, again on instinct, that to stop was to die. So she ran, feet sliding, arms scraping along the walls, running, running, running until–
Her foot caught on something and she went down hard, landing on her side. The dark took its chance and her vision blurred, her senses dulling. The torch rolled, illuminating the wall a few feet from where she had crashed. Something skipped in front of it, but from her angle on the floor she could not see what, only that it cast a long shadow that rose on the wall. A hooked beak opened and out came a voice.
“Linda!” A squawk, and the shadow eclipsed the light.
Hands touched her.
“No,” she said. “Get off me!”
“Linda, it’s me.” She looked up and saw Ian’s face, his real face, illuminated by the harsh glow of the torch. “Why did you run?”
“You were all, different,” she said. “Your faces.”
“Nevermind, nevermind, are you alright? Can you stand?”
She allowed herself to be raised up, gentle, tentative, so that she could sit upright and lean against the wall. A dudley of water was brought to her lips and she sipped, the water fresh and cool as it ran down her sore throat. She became aware, then, of a slickness between her legs.
“I think…” she took a breath. “The baby, Ian. The baby’s…”
The contraction felt like a low baseline, a rumble of machinery trembling through her body that twisted and writhed.
“What? Oh no, not here. You can’t have it here.”
“Well stick your head up there and tell that to the bloody baby!” she said through gritted teeth. The hurt and heat of it seemed to come on fast, and though she had never given birth before she knew that this would not be a long process.
Then, two figures emerged behind Ian.
“What’s happening?” Arthur’s voice. But not Arthur’s face. The same as before, coal cracked and blacker than deep space.
“She’s having the baby.”
“Not ideal” he said, his words sizzling like water thrown on hot ground. “Can you carry her Jed?”
“I can,” Ian put in.
“No, you’re the quickest on your feet. We might need someone to climb or run for help. Can’t have you tired.”
Jed bent to pick Linda up, and she shrunk back. “What is it?”
“You look like…” she swore against the rise of pain. “Something’s messing with my head.”
He looked at her a moment. “No one told you how this happened to me, did they?” he reached up a hand and pointed at his face. “I thought I saw my Nancy,” he said, and he made the sign of the cross. “She was down a passage way we knew wasn’t safe, but I’d been down there much longer than I should. Had worked two shifts in a row and was going for a third.Grief does that to you. Puts you to work. And the dark,” he said, “the dark starts to eat you up after a while. It gets in your eyes and in your memories. I started digging for her, frantic like, and before anyone could stop me–boom.”
His face resolved into a human face. A kind face.
Linda nodded. “That’s not all. I keep hearing…and I saw… I think I saw a bird.”
Jed’s face tensed a little at that. Then he blinked and was as water again, flowing but never fixed, an expressionless grace. “There’s cool air here? Can you feel it?”
And whether it was just because she wanted to feel it, or that it was actually real, she felt that air like a caring hand cradling her cheek. She turned her face into it and breathed it in.
“I’ll get you up now, okay?” Jed said.
“Yes,” she said. “I’m sorry I’m a bit of a state.”
“We’ve seen a lot worse down here, love,” Arthur said.
Ian leaned his head on Linda’s. He had the torch in hand. “What about Trevor?” he said to no one in particular.
Arthur didn’t speak at first. Instead he chewed on the problem.
“We need to get Linda out,” he decided. “We can send help down for Trevor. And I know what that means. I know if he’s bleeding there’s a chance…well, he won’t make it if we leave it too long. But we can only do what we can do and we have no way of knowing how far down those tunnels he went. This is on me.”
They moved in silence, the only sound being their breath and Linda’s occasional huff of pain. The heat was stifling now, and the air and the dark seemed to almost crackle. Every so often she thought she saw shadows on the walls that were fronged like feathered wings, but the shapes changed too fast. And still on went the tunnel.
“We’re going down hill,” Jed commented.
“How can you tell?” Ian said.
“Just can,” Jed said. “It’s in my toes. The way they slide up your boots just that bit.”
It was subtle, but when Ian tried it he thought he felt the same, and as though awareness of that produced more of it, the ground tilted down with a sheerness he had not expected.
“Be careful here,” he said. He helped Jed get Linda down, then Arthur who deployed his cane to take his weight so that he could lower one leg, then the next. It was just a few feet more before they came to a wall. His first inclination was that it was a dead end.
“Oh chuffing great,” Linda said.
Ian was about to say as much too, when he felt a rush of cold air. He tilted the light to find that, where the wall jutted out on their left, it actually masked a split in the rock.
“I think there’s a way through.”
Ian shone the torch beam down, and noticed immediately that there seemed to be light on the other side too, defuse and purplish, but enough to illuminate an expanse of floor. He turned his body, measuring the distance between the thorny rocks and how narrow the split might be. It would be tight, especially for Linda and Arthur, but there would be room. “What you think?”
“Go forward, don’t go back,” Arthur said.
“I need to get out of here,” Linda said at once, in agreement. The contractions were coming fast now. She could feel the urgency, the need to push, building. And she didn’t want to worry anyone but there was another pain, sharp and stabbing, that lit in her lower abdomen at regular intervals. It was getting harder to ignore. “Put me down, I’ll do it. I can do it.”
Jed complied. Linda, hands to the wall, found the gap. “Breathe in baby,” she told her squirming, soon-to-be unsealed child. Ian went first, shuffling through the split in the earth. Then Linda. Arthur followed her, Jed at the rear.
Her every breath hit the stone in front of her and bounced back, sour and gorge-smelling. Every time she inched forward she felt the rocks at her spine, at her chest. If the earth were to shift…
“Don’t think about that,” she said out-loud, and when no one asked her what she meant it occurred they might all be thinking the same. Then her back raked against the wall and on reflex she twisted. Because of her protruding belly, she was caught at an odd angle. She shuffled a bit, but her instincts told her to be still.
“I… I…” she stammered. “I can’t. Ian, I can’t do it. I can’t do it. I…”
The sound of birds flapping. The cawing filled her ears. Arthur, at her side, tensed, but he couldn’t even turn his head. “Keep going love. You have to keep going.” he said.
“I can’t. I’m too big. I can’t,” and the pain through her belly made her want to curl but she couldn’t, of course, so all she could do was yell and cry. “Please, please, I can’t. Please.”
Ian was back and his fingers were touching hers, then reaching past. “Remember your last birthday love? You wanted me to bake you a cake so you got all them ingredients and I nearly burned the bloody house down, what did you tell me?”
“I don’t, remember. Ian I can’t do this.”
“Yeah you do! You told me that if you weren’t in my life I would be a danger to myself, and you were right Linda, love. You were…” He pushed on her stomach while tilting her back and suddenly she had room, just a bit, to lean forward. “You were right. Come on. I can’t have you stuck down here. I need looking after.”
“But the pain,” she said.
“Just look at me, Linda. Just look.”
So she did. She looked only at Ian, and kept moving, kept struggling, and it occurred to her that she loved him in a way she’d never realised. That she loved him because he was hers more completely than anything in this life had ever been, and the thought of him holding their child brought her so much joy that just for one split of a second she thought she could see it. It seemed to swim before her eyes, the vision of him holding the baby close, being absolutely useless. Being absolutely…Ian.
And then she was through and she could breathe, and she collapsed to the ground and, as though skipping through frames of time, she wasted no mind to modesty before ripping off her jeans and knickers. “The baby’s coming, Ian. I’m sorry, I can’t hold it no more. It’s coming.”
“It’s all right. It’s all right.”
Arthur came through the wall next, then a cut up but mostly uninjured Jed.
Arthur hung back. “It’s real,” he said. “It’s really real.”
Ian followed Arthur’s gaze, and then let out a breath. “The spire.”
Before them, stretching high into a cavern lit by purplish lamps suspended on long cables, amid tangles of broken suspended platforms and half fallen machinery, was a tower of black. Mottled and angular, cancoured with clinker, it appeared to have bubbled from the earth and then vitrified, so that it stretched like a weed to choke the world above.
“What the hell is that?” Linda said, gritting her teeth.
“It’s the spire,” Ian said. “It’s coal.”
Linda bared down, the baby now in full transit. “He’s coming,” she said, grabbing for Ian’s hand.
“My June used to deliver babies. I don’t know much but I’ve seen it done a few times. Do you want me to help, love?” Arthur said.
“Yeah, yes,” she nodded.
Arthur, with considerable effort, knelt before her. He opened her legs, keeping eye-contact with her. She nodded to give him permission and he set about seeing what state she was in.
“Oh you’re doing marvellous,” he said.
“Yes love. Oh yes, he’s crowning. It’ll not be long. Someone give me the water from their dudley, I’ll wash up and help angle him. He’s a big lad.”
Linda almost smiled. It was so close to joy amid that horrid scene that she felt it curl her face, but then her gaze slid left of Arthur’s shoulder and the sight there robbed her of her peace:
Black, the size of a bulldog if not bigger, it came hopping over the ground toward them. Then it stopped, turning its head this way and that, its hooked beak more like a muzzle that, occasionally, would crack to let out a note or two of low grunting. Its eyes were blind, creamy white like pearls that, occasionally, would darken when it blinked, but she had the sense that while it did not see her, it knew exactly where she was. The raven of earlier: it was real and it was here.
“Get that away from me!” she said.
“What love?” Arthur looked over his shoulder and flinched. “What the bloody hell is that.”
“I’ve been hearing them,” Jed said. “I thought… you know, we’ve been down here a long while. I thought I was — ”
“There’s more,” Linda said between pushing. “On the tower thing. I can feel them watching me.”
Pairs and threes, their white eyes, their flashing claws, all breaking up the black spire so that they looked like horrid stars. Another bird flew down to join its kin, then another until there rested an envoy of three, each raggedly different in its own way.
They looked at her. One of them flapped, and then looked ready to spring.
“Don’t let it get me!” Linda pleaded.
“It won’t,” Jed said and launched a kick. The bird jumped back from his reach. There was a moment of stillness as the bird regarded Jed. It flapped, its wingspan easily two metres if not more. Then it opened its beak and it said in a familiar, Yorkshire voice.
A bolt of black struck Jed’s front, raking a thick line of blood, then a bird to his back the same. He turned, roaring, as one after another of the birds descended from the spire, and then spun, weaving, taring, flaying, until Jed was on his knees, covered in a vale of black wings and flashing claw-blades.
It was over before any of them could react. The twister of birds pulled tight as though to press the body to the ground and then dispersed to reveal the mangled form of what used to be Jed lying still.
When the birds gave no sign of further action, Ian rushed over.
“Jed mate, Jed?” The nudge made Jed’s body slump over, and Ian recoiled. Jed’s chest had been pulled apart, his ribs cracked and cleaved. But Jed’s heart wasn’t the pinkish, pulsing organ it should have been.
“Coal,” Ian said. A lump of coal as big as his fist, and embering up like it was being stoked by a fire he couldn’t feel or see.
“What is going on?” Linda said.
“Never mind that love, never mind that. All you have to do is get that baby out. Let us worry about everything else,” Arthur said. “Ian, get away from that body and do not touch them birds.”
Ian retreated but not completely, keeping a mid distance so that, if he needed to, he could intercept.
“Look around. What do you see?” Arthur asked.
“Birds. The spire.”
“No, better than that. We need details, son.”
“Lights. There’re lights. And it looks like pulleys, old rigging. Like folk have scaled this thing before, maybe. And the spire looks like, I dunno, like there…” He strained in the dim light. “There might be a path up it.” He walked as close as he dared and not an inch closer when a hiss from above froze him. It was close enough though to see that the spire did indeed have a thick ledge winding around it, probably just wide enough a person could half walk, half climb it. He felt a blast of cool air descend upon him and noticed directly above, the cavern had a small split in it, darkness giving way and the rosy light of dawn threading through.
“You are ours,” the bird who had spoken before said to Ian as though to correct a mistake Ian was making.
“Ours!” the host squawked.
The voice. That gruff, Yorkshire voice. “Trevor?”
“You take from us,” said another bird, skipping closer. “We take from you.”
Linda gave a yowl.
“One more big push Linda,” Arthur said. “He’s there, he’s almost…”
Ian retreated just as his son’s first cries bristled in the air. At Linda’s side he looked down on the baby, pink and writhing and smeared in who knew what, but it didn’t matter because he was there and he was safe and healthy and real. Arthur cleaned the boy up as best he could, leant his head down and clipped the cord with his teeth without grimace or gripe.
Ian took off his jumper, then his undershirt and gave that over to swaddle the baby.
Linda held the baby to her chest, crying in relief and still no small amount of fear.
“Oh look at him,” Ian said, but movement out of the corner of his eye meant he did not look for long. The birds were interested, not in Linda and the baby, but Jed’s body. The three on the ground had gathered and were pecking at the black lump of coal in Jed’s hollowed chest. A crack, another, and again, then the smell of sulphur and peat and the coal egg broke open to let loose a bird, wet and scaly, but dark as night with eyes like moons.
“To us,” the birds said in turn.
“Get me up,” Arthur said to Ian, and it was clipped and more than a little annoyed, as though he’d had quite enough of all this nonsense.
On his feet, Arthur approached the birds. “You say we’re yours. What does that mean?”
One of the birds seemed to listen and contemplate a while, as though there was more than one conversation going on in that chamber. Then it opened its mouth and a cracked, female voice emerged. “You who worked us into being.”
“You who became us.”
“We who became you.”
“No.” Arthur shook his head. “I don’t understand. I–”
He was stopped short by a cough like razor wire in his throat, one that soon turned into a fit. He held his hand over his face as it ripped through him, wringing him like a cloth.
He held Ian off. When he finally managed to straighten up, Arthur saw his own blood on his hand mixed with the black coal dust that had been engrained there all these long years.
“Ours,” repeated the bird.
He looked back at Ian and Linda. He thought of Jed and Trevor and even Les, and all the lads of the pits. His family.
“What’s his name?” Arthur said.
“You what?” Ian replied.
“The baby’s name, what is it?”
“I don’t know. We haven’t really–”
“Can you call him Sam. If you don’t mind? If I’d had a boy, I mean, if mine had survived, I’d have called him Sam.”
“I suppose, I mean–”
Arthur lurched forward and, with a speed that Ian and Linda would never have guest at, he jabbed at the nearest coal bird and, in the room that cleared, found time to pluck the fledgling bird from the bone cage of Jed’s chest.
The murder descended from above, spiraling down bite and claw at him. Arthur, though, was prepared and used the fledgling as a shield as he limped toward the other side of the cavern, creating distance, forging opportunity.
“Ian, get her up that tower, now!” he called. And then the last word he would ever say: “Live!”
Ian saw what Arthur had already noticed. The birds acted as one, and that meant the path forward to the spire was now open. He yanked a bewildered Linda to standing and dragged her across the distance to the spire. The baby was crying, Linda was sobbing, and he probably was too, but then he found the start of the serpentine ledge, just large enough to uncomfortably step upon.
“I can’t,” Linda said to him. “I can’t get up there with this one.”
“You don’t have to. I’ll do it. Give me him.” Ian took the baby and held him to his chest with one hand. “Now on my back. I’ll make sure you’ll not hurt him.”
Linda complied, hooking herself over Ian’s shoulders, but doing most of the gripping with her soiled legs. Her weight was sudden and crushing. He hadn’t known just how tired he was until that second, but there was no room for that now. Arthur was still screaming. That meant they still had time, if only just.
So he began to climb. At first the path was relatively easy, if steep. The fresh air from above began to kiss them, and that spurred Ian on more. His feet ate at the distance, slow but steady until…
“Ian. Ian, it’s quiet. It’s…”
Another shriek, and a black blur of birds sped past Ian, circling around the spire. Linda cried out and held tighter to Ian.
The birds swooped, striking at Linda, but only with body blows, not with their claws. Ian broke into a run and immediately regretted it as his foot found not solid coal but clinker that crumbled under his weight. His leg hyperextended, his knee threatening to give, but with one hand down he braced himself and prevented him and Linda from twisting and tumbling over the edge. He blinked away sweat. He summoned all his strength and pulled himself back to an even stance. There was no relief, though, when one of the monstrous birds landed by his hand and leered at the baby Ian held steady on the floor.
“Not him you sodding thing!” he lashed out at it.
“No!” Linda said, but it was too late. He had done the exact thing that had already got two of their friends, if not three, killed, and swiped at the bird. Not just swiped, slapped it away.
The birds were swirling, their squawking rising, rising, pulling tighter, tighter. He held to the baby, and to Linda, and then realised that the birds weren’t attacking. That he was still alive. Why was he still alive. He watched them, and caught a glimpse of their eyes glaring with need. But as close they came, they wouldn’t take him. “Linda…” Ian realised. The baby and Linda, they’d not breathed coal dust for the past ten, twenty, fifty years. They didn’t belong in the pit and so…
He let Linda slip off his back then broke into a run with her.
“I can’t,” she said again.
“You have to do this. I don’t know how long we’ll have. Linda, run! For him. For Sam!”
And that’s what she did.
The birds began darting in front of him, and voices, awful, mechanical voices like the machinery he’d heard every day for years, rose:
“Ours! Ours! Ours! Ours!”
But still he ran and he climbed, and climbed, helping Linda up when she couldn’t scale the spire, until, at last, with the clinker breaking off under his feet and his hands bloody from gripping and ascending the remaining part of the spire where it was too thin to walk, they were at the dizzying summit, and the split was within arms reach, the light and the blur of human faces just a breath away.
“Oh my god, she’s here. I can see her! Come help me. Come on,” said a voice from above.”Linda, we’re going to get you out,” said another as an arm descended through the split. “Come on love. We’ve got you.”
Linda reached up her hand, her fingers stretching, stretching but there was too much distance. She tried again, jumping now as high as she dare when one of the birds crashed into her upturned hand. A hiss permeated the air as Linda recoiled. “They won’t let me. They won’t…” Linda turned to Ian, and she saw not her husband but a thing of coal. She loved him anyway.
“Go on, it’s okay,” Ian said, pushing her forward. “I’m right behind you love. Take Sam, and go.”
“But what if–”
He kissed her, fierce and full, and then hoisted her up so that the arms from above could latch first to the baby and then to her. “Ian?”
Then he did the only thing he knew would guarantee her safety. “I love you,” Ian said, and without pause of self-pity let himself step backwards off the ledge.
Linda didn’t remember what happened after they got her out of the Earth. It was a numb darkness, as though something had been torn away from her and left a space into which she had plummeted for a little while.
Hospital was, of course, her immediate destination. Somewhere in between sleeping and caring for her baby, peppered with needles and prying questions, reality began to reorder itself and she was aware of who she was, of how she had ended up in the hospital. At first she told folk of the birds beneath the ground that had killed her husband and his friends, but she realised, sharpish, that the more she talked, the less time she got to spend with Sam. So she stopped telling her story.
In due course, the police came to see her. They stood around her bed, stoic and somewhat unsettling, and talked to her doctor as though she weren’t there at all. She didn’t mind. The TV was on. She wanted to know what Thatcher was doing.
“It’s not unheard of for someone to experience hallucinations after prolonged sensory deprivation,” said Dr Morris, kindly if a little bit too academic for her tastes. “The fact that she gave birth just hours after her husband perished will only have increased her grief.”
They said that Ian and the other lads had died when the ground gave way at the start of the night, that she’d been wandering down in those tunnels alone with her baby, but what did doctors know? They couldn’t understand what had happened. She barely did.
Little Sam gave a squall then and she got up off the bed to go over to his crib. The good thing about people thinking you might be mental was that you got your own side room with the crib close to hand.
“What about her, you know, state?” said one plain clothed officer. “Is she okay with the baby?”
“I’m just fine, thank you,” she replied.
She listened as the doctor wove an elaborate tale of “coping mechanisms” and “survival instincts during traumatic injury” but again she tuned it out. The BBC was showing Orgreave again, but backwards as always so it was the miners who were the aggressors.
“But talk of monsters and that–”
“Well, not to put too fine a point on it, she survived when four experienced miners didn’t. I think if she says she saw monsters down there we’d be polite enough to simply acknowledge her grief and concentrate on her condition now, which is lucid and entirely reasonable. She has been a perfect mother to that child. I have no reason to assume any element of danger or neglect,” he said.
She felt her shoulders relax. That was the only thing she cared about now: taking Sam home.
“It’s just the Sun’s outside sniffing around for a story,” said a young officer she thought she recognized. He had high cheekbones and an air of someone who was out of his depth. “One of them that were there when they pulled her out blabbed–”
“Well tell them the same thing we’ve been saying these past couple of years,” Linda said, turning to face them as she let Sam latch to her breast and start to feed. It was always a good way to punctuate a sentence, that. “You and your rag are not welcome here.”
And that was the end of that conversation. The police filed out, all except Cheekbones who dithered in the doorway.
“Les, your husband’s friend,” he said.
“He’s in a room upstairs. It don’t look good.”
She nodded. “Can I see him?”
“He doesn’t want visitors. He’s not, well, he’s in a state you see.”
“But you check on him regular?”
He gave a shrug. “When I can.”
“Tell him…” She stroked Sam’s face and the baby gave a squeak of pleasure. “Tell him that I want to see him for Sam’s christening.”
“I don’t think that–”
“I said tell him,” she said. “He knows I’ll not take no for an answer. Now, leave me in bloody peace.”
The policeman smiled at her, and then left.
She looked into the face of her little boy and found comfort there. How he’d managed to survive was still a mystery to her, and she was grateful. She didn’t believe in God, but perhaps this was as close to a miracle as she would come. Then, when Sam opened his eyes, his hand rising as though to cup her cheek or explore her chin, her peace thinned.
It was his eyes. When he was born she had seen perfect steely blue there, but that colour had faded as if, somehow, drained by the dark of the mines.
Now, Sam’s eyes were a ghostly, unseeing white.
“Careful now, that’s it.”
“We’re here?” said Sam and smiled in that way where every time it was big and full. He looked so much like Ian, though much taller. Sometimes, it hurt to notice the similarity of his black curls and his lovely, goofy features, but Linda felt it as an old, arthritic pain. Much like the state of her knees actually, which were ageing at a disagreeably quick pace.
“Yes, we’re here,” she answered as she navigated them over the uneven ground. Sam valued his independence and could navigate most places he was familiar with relatively easily, but this shifting slick stone was different. He stood as still as he could, and with his white eyes turned toward the sun. He bathed for a minute in the early morning shine before asking, “What can you see?”
Describing something to someone who has been blind since birth is a task of sensory blurring, of finding the thing adjacent to vision so that it can be understood. Fortunately, eighteen years had given her a lot of practice.
“The field stretches out far in front of us. We are stood on chips of smooth stone, called slag; don’t laugh you.”
He tittered just a bit.
“What are you like?” She gathered herself. “There’s plants. I read at the museum that the plants are special. See the slag is like the run off, the waste material. Most stuff can’t grow in it because it’s full of these heavy metal things. But some plants can.”
“What are they like?”
She looked around. “It’s, well, honestly it’s beautiful. I mean it’s bleak and it’s sad, because places like this used to be alive with folk, but still… somehow, in these cottony and scrub brush plants, there’s some life here. And it’s, it feels…”
“Warm,” Sam said.
“You said we were on the hill, right?”
“What can you see beyond here?”
“I can see the valley and the city me and your Dad called home. It’s changed a bit, I think.”
“What is it like?”
She looked at the blurry shapes of houses, of the twisting roads. Her vision stopped at the spire of the cathedral, visible by virtue of its height. A vision of the coal spire beneath the earth seemed to bleed into being, as though it now existed always in the corner of her eye, ready to reassert itself. But then Sam was there in front of her, her son. Ian’s son. “It’s like sadness,” she said. “Like when nana died. But also there’s something good here, like fish and chips and football on Sundays. Things I did with your dad, you know?”
“Do you ever think, Mum, that I’m blind because of what happened to you?”
“I don’t think on it at all, Sam,” she said, running a hand through his hair. Then she pulled her gloves on tighter after that, as though the lie might slip out of her grasp.
Far off in the trees that edged the road behind, some birds began to squabble, but Linda ignored it. The mines were all but gone, and soon would be entirely. She had nothing to fear from the shadows below. After all, they had taken all they could from her. And, perhaps, given all they could too.
Sam’s hand found her shoulder then, and he leaned his head down to rest there. The cool air moved around them, like a lover wanting one more dance, and the grassy slag heap became a prayer of stillness. “Dad’s here,” Sam said.
Linda held tighter to her son. “Yes.”