Life at the Colliery, 1832-1845
by Matt Kendrick
It’s dark. Darker than coal. Darker than Ma’s eyes when I came home caked in mud after football on the common. Which is before. When we weren’t down here. Crouched in our sidings. Waiting. And there’s no oil left in the lamp. And there’s rats scuffing round, sniffing at the bread and cheese in my pocket. And they’ve filched it. And there’s no point grumbling cos there’s no one to grumble at. Not till a hurrier comes with a corf. But then there’s the door that needs opening. And closing again right away. The air comes down the shaft and I guess it might be raining. I haven’t seen the sun in days.
No better than a carthorse with the harness round my waist. The chain that fixes to the corf goes taut. And I’m hunched, on all fours where the ceiling’s low. And my back aches. And my legs cramp. And my arms are red raw. But they say a hurrier is better off than a thruster cos thrusters go bald from pushing the corf with their heads. Most of the men have thin patches. Like Da. Except Da ain’t around no more. Cos he’s scattered limbs and chitterlins underground. Ma cried when they told her about the explosion. And she hugged me even though I was grimy from the pit.
Ma says I’m the spitting image of Da. And what she means by that is I’m pale and scrawny like all the men. And I’m always hungry. Although now I’m getting 7d a day, we can maybe have ham and eggs for Sunday tea. We’ve candles down here so the hewer can see the coalface. He grunts at me and I know that means fetch something. He has me crouching down and picking up the coal as he chips away at the face. And you can see another world in there. Green fields, a rumbling breeze. Sometimes, I picture escape.
The day’s here. My thirteenth birthday. And I’m a man now. With a pick slung over my shoulder which I lift and swing, scrape, heave, knock the coal back to my putter. And it’s heavy work. And the candles are flickering. And the air tastes of liquorice. And I’m dog tired so I close my eyes. And I’m not sure if I’m home in bed or still down the pit. And I dream of Da’s charred face in the darkness that is darker than Ma’s eyes. And he wants to play football up on the common. And he says it doesn’t matter if we go home caked in mud. Or coal dust. Or blood. As long as we get home. Cos Ma is waiting. Waiting all day from the clanging bell that calls us in before sun up. All day at the coalface. The darkness darker than coal. Cramping legs. Arms red raw. Ham and eggs for Sunday tea.
Matt Kendrick is a writer based in the East Midlands, UK. His stories have been published by Fictive Dream, Lucent Dreaming, Reflex Fiction, Spelk, Storgy and The Cabinet of Heed. Further information about his work can be found on his website: www.mattkendrick.co.uk. He is on Twitter @MkenWrites.
Photograph of a trapper boy at Turkey Knob Mine, Macdonald, West Virginia, witnessed by E. N. Clopper. This photo was taken more than a mile inside the mine. Library of Congress nclc.01070.