by Amy Slack
Tommy never came home clean. He finished each shift a little heavier than he started it, what with all the soot that would settle on his sweat-soaked skin as he worked. I’d have his bath waiting for him, the water warmed by the same coals he blasted and carved from the earth, the same coals they paid him with. A bonus, they called those coals. A pitman’s hearth should never go cold.
There were days the exhaustion seeped so deep into his bones he could barely hold his head upright. That didn’t stop him bathing every afternoon, mind. He’d stand in the tin tub by the fire, naked as a bridegroom on his wedding night, and scrub himself with a rag until his skin shone free. Then he’d offer the rag to me.
“Do my back, love?”
When they told us our men were heard praying, that they had not been crushed by falling debris after the pump beam collapsed and choked up the mouth of the pit, I gasped with relief. No longer was I the widow I had thought myself to be when news of the accident had reached our door. There was hope yet, for Tommy and the two hundred other souls trapped in the earth below our feet. A village’s worth of husbands, fathers, sons, all praying to the Almighty for rescue.
Hope sustained us in the days that followed. It kept our spirits raised as volunteer pitmen from other villages arrived in their dozens to help with the rescue effort. It kept our hands from shaking as the London newspapers sent up special correspondents on the express train to report our plight to the nation.
On the sixth day, they finally cleared a path through the debris, only to discover that our men’s prayers had long since been extinguished. I learned, then, how poisonous hope can be.
For the first time in over a week, I boiled water by the panful, pouring it into the tub. Beside me the fire growled and coughed.
At last, they brought my Tommy home, laid him out on our kitchen table. I had never seen him so filthy. Those six days had left my husband a solid shadow of himself, black as the pit that had choked the life from his lungs. Even after I removed his foul workclothes, I could not find a freckle or a scar beneath the soot.
“Do my back, love?”
The words rose with the steam from the bathtub as I soaked his old wash rag. With shaking hands I swept the cloth across his chest and let the water do its work. I watched as the coal dust began to bleed from Tommy’s skin, running down his cold body to gather in inky pools by his sides. Somewhere, beneath the coal dust, my husband was waiting. I only had to unearth him.
Amy Slack is an editor and aspiring short story writer from the North-East of England, currently based in London. Her work has been featured by The Cabinet of Heed, Visual Verse, and Palm-Sized Press. You can find her on Twitter @amyizzylou, or follow her blog, Amy’s Ever-Growing Bookshelf, at amyizzylou.wordpress.com.
Image from L’Illustration, Journal Universel, February 1862, p 100. Engraving of bodies being handed over to relatives of victims during the 1862 Hartley Colliery disaster.