Authors: Janet Tanner
“I don't know your name,” she said.
“I don't know yours either,” he teased. Then, taking pity on her, he added, “I'm James Hall. Does that make it all right?”
“I don't know,” she confessed. “And I'm not sure I should tell you my name. You might be up to something.”
“I am. I want to make sure I can find you again,” he told her honestly.
They turned a corner and came upon a row of small houses whose doors opened directly on to the steep street.
“This is it,” she said, excitement making her bold. “ This is where you can find me.”
“Then I can see you again?”
“If my aunt allows it. But I expect I can get round her,” she added.
“I should do something about this if I were you.” He pointed to the hair she had quite forgotten to re-pin. “I don't want to get the blame for something that isn't my fault. And no more wandering about the streets on your own, do you hear? From now on, I'll take care of you, all right?”
He had been as good as his word. He had courted her with a gentleness that had surprised her, and when he proposed marriage, her father had reluctantly agreed. He hadn't much cared for the idea of his only daughter becoming the wife of a miner, but for all that; he liked the quiet pitman well enough.
So Charlotte and James were married, and she moved into a world that seemed to have a romance of its own. She was fascinated by the dark and dusty workings that were reached by means of leafy lanes, and the black batches rising out of the green fields had, she thought, a regal dignity. As for the men who worked in the unknown places beneath the earth, they were her heroes, and when she watched them walk in twos and threes across the colliery yard, sinews hard and taut beneath their working shirts and rushyduck trousers, she was proud to be the wife of one of them.
She had closed her eyes to the bent shoulders and stooping posture of the older men, ignored their phlegmy coughs and turned her head as they spat into the gutter. To her, the lung disease meant nothing. Even the pit accidents she heard about seemed more romantic than tragic, on a par with soldiers' lives lost in battle.
When she first began to learn of the indignities a miner could suffer, she had refused to believe. She had actually laughed when James told her about the duties of a carting boy, for it was beyond her comprehension that anyone could expect a lad to pull a sleigh fill of coal by means of a circle of tarred rope around his waist, while crawling on his hands and knees along the narrow and sometimes steep seams.
“Just because I don't know anything about it, you think you can make a fool of me,” she had said, and to convince her, James had called in a young lad from further down the rank who had called in young lad from further down the rank who had recently started work as a carting boy.
She had stared in horror when he had pulled up his shirt to reveal a raw and bleeding band of flesh around his waist where the rope had cut into it.
“That's terrible” she cried, outraged. “They shouldn't allow it! If the roadways aren't big enough for tubs then they should make them big enough!”
But to her surprise, James had merely shrugged.
“If they spent too much money, the pit wouldn't pay, and we'd all be out of a job,” he told her calmly. “Besides, the lads soon get used to it.”
“I don't believe it!” she said harshly sickened, yet unable to tear her eyes away from the red raw flesh. “Look at his poor back! You can't tell me he'll ever get used to that!”
“It'll harden. We've all been through it.” James turned to the lad, pulling his shirt across the sore. “Bathing it with urine, are you, son? That's the best way. But I expect your father has already told you that.”
Charlotte had been as shocked by James' easy acceptance as she had been by the boy's raw back, and that night as they prepared for bed in the small room above the parlour, she found herself looking closely at James' waist. To her surprise, she saw that there was no circular scar. But for the first time she took notice of the blue veinings that stood out places, one short, thick and ridged along side his left shoulder blade, one longer and shaped like a curled rope just above his buttock, and instead of the usual fierce pride, she felt the beginnings of anger and disgust.
During the busy years that followed, however, she had no time to think about the pits and what they did to the men who worked in them.
The children came, one after the other, first Jim, then Dolly, her older daughter, Fred, Ted, Jack and Amy. And between them, the two children who had not survived, but were still as real to her as those who had lived: Wilfred, whose sickly little body gave up its unequal struggle after only a few days, and Florrie, fifteen months old, and beginning to talk and take a tottering step or two when whooping cough claimed her. When they died, a little of herself died with them, but there was precious little time for grief. The endless round of washing, scrubbing and baking saw to that.
When the time came for Jim, her eldest, to leave school, however, and James took him proudly down the hill for his first day under ground, all her anger came flooding back. That night she had looked at his bloodied back and relived the horror she had felt so many years before, only multiplied a hundred fold for it was her own son's body that had been used in this brutal way, a body on which she had lavished tenderness and care.
She had wanted to cry, but she was beyond tears, and to relieve her feelings she had taken down every pair of curtains in the house and washed them, working until almost midnight, while the children, half-afraid, peeped at her from behind the wash-house door. When she'd finished, she was exhausted, her eyes great dark pools, her hair hanging damply from its pins, but she felt herself washed as clean as the curtains, and as thoroughly wrung out.
“What the devil are you doing?” James had asked, crossing the yard. “ Leave it and come to bed, do, or you'll kill yourself.”
She laughed, and her tired, singing ears recognized the note of determination and piercing despair.
“Don't worry, James, I'm not going to die yet,” she told him. “I'm going to makes sure I live to see at least one of my sons in a decent job where people respect himâand his body. I'll see that, if its the last thing I do!”
He had put his arm around her then, wondering what had happened to the naÃ¯ve girl he had brought to Hillsbridge as his wife. Life hadn't been easy for her. But for all that, she was still the handsomest woman in the rank. Her neck had not turned scrawny, and her body was still straight and supple, though thickened at the waist from repeated childbearing. As for her hair, most of the curl had gone when Jack was born, and she had almost lost her life, but thirteen years had done nothing to dim its rich honeyed colour.
He moved his hand to her head, pulling it against his in a rare gesture of affection.
“Better times are on the way,” he told her. “Amy is three now. In no time at all, she'll be off you hands. And with the boys earning, there'll be a bit extra money about, and with any luck we'll fix Dolly up in service where she can live-in. It'll be all right sweetheart, you'll see.”
She did not answer, for she knew that she could never make him understand, and she let him take her back across the yard to the scullery door. There, for just a moment she paused, looking towards the batches: black mounds on the skyline, trapping them all.
Now, five years later, Charlotte sat in the doorway, remembering that other night. Since then, she had seen two more sons go down the hill to the pit, and each loss had only strengthened her resolve. The coal masters would not have Jack; and they would not have her unborn child either if she could help it.
All evening, as she sat sewing moleskin patches on the threadbare knees of three pairs of pit trousers, she had been busy formulating her plans. Her hands and face had been black with the dust that spewed out from the cloth in clouds as she sewed, but she hardly noticed. Finally, when she put away her needle, she knew that in spite of being tired, she was far too excited to sleep. So she had taken her chair to the doorway where the heat that still sang in the air was less oppressive, and sat for a while turning over her memories and her plans.
A small breeze stirred the hem of her skirt, and she smiled gently to herself. Tomorrow, perhaps, it would be cooler. She hoped so, for tomorrow she had a great deal to do.
THE NEXT DAY, she went to see William Davies, the school-master at the board school where Jack had gone since he was three years old.
There was no time for making appointments, so at the end of the day she stood at the school gates, waiting for Jack and Amy, turning over in her mind what she would say.
She would have liked to be able to talk it over with Dolly, she thought. Since Dolly had grown up, Charlotte had found she could discuss things with her more as a friend than a daughter. But Dolly was in service with Captain Fish in the big house at the top of the hill, living in, and would not be home until her day off, the day after tomorrow.
The bell rang to signal the end of school, and as the children began pouring out, Charlotte watched them closely. Amy was among the first. She came skipping across the yard, a small, round figure in pinafore and petticoats, with honey-coloured hair as bright as Charlotte's once had been.
“Mam! Mammy! Why are you here? I was coming home with Jack!”
Jack had returned to school that day for the first time since his bout of chicken pox.
“I've come to have a word with Mr Davies,” Charlotte told her, bending to retie a hair ribbon that had been pulled into a tight, crumpled knot “ You go home with Jack like you always do.”
Amy looked up at her, round-eyed.
“What do you want to see Mr Davies for, Mammy? Is it about me?”
Charlotte smiled. It was just like Amy to assume she must be the central character in any drama. It came from being the youngest child of the family for so long, she supposed, loved and fussed over by older brothers and sister. When the new baby arrived, Amy was going to have some adjusting to do.
“No, Amy, it's nothing to do with you,” she told her. “ Look, here's your brother coming now. He'll see to you. And if you're good, he'll take you to get an ounce of mint shrimps, won't you, Jack?”
“If you like â¦” Jack's eyes were on her best coat, and she knew he'd guessed the reason she was here. His face was paleâfrom spending too much time indoors, she told herselfâbut she knew it was not only that. “ Mam, couldn't I come with you?” he said hesitantly. “I'd like to hear what he has to say.”
But Charlotte shook her head decisively.
“No. It's better if you're not there. He can be frank with me then, without hurting your feelingsâor making you conceited, if that's the way it goes. You take Amy home, and you'll hear soon enough what Mr Davies has to say.”
Jack's face fell, and Amy looked from one to the other, hopping up and down with impatience.
“Go on now, the pair of you,” Charlotte instructed.
Then, without another word, she crossed the school yard and entered the cloakroom.
After the sunshine outside, the long narrow room, ventilated only by a small window above the two little sinks, was dim, and the distinctive smell of carbolic soap and chalk tickled her nostrils.
She rounded the peg stands and mounted the two stone steps, to tap on the closed door. A voice from within bade her enter, and she pushed it open and went into the classroom.
At his desk, William Davies was piling slates one on top of the other.
He was a portly little man with a fringe of dark hair around an almost-bald head, smart still in his stiff white collar, although his chalk-marked suit had seen better days. He peered short-sightedly in Charlotte's direction, searched for his spectacles amongst the welter of papers and inkpots on his desk, and settled them on his nose.
“Mrs Hall!” Able to see her at last, he sounded faintly surprised. “What brings you here?”
“I want to talk about Jack,” she said.
Behind his spectacles, his eyes became brighter and his tired expression seemed to lighten.
“About Jack,” he repeated cautiously.
“That's right. As you know, Mr Davies, he took his knowledge test before he had the chicken pox, and he's fixed himself up with a job on the screens at South Hill Pit.” She raised her chin, looking at him squarely. “I don't think he's cut out for that. I want to know what you think.”
William Davies nodded, and the joy that was swelling inside him showed in his face.
Jack Hall was one of the best pupils he had ever had, and he had thought it a tragedy that he would be wasted in the dark, soulless warrens beneath the ground. From the time Jack had come to him, he had worked with him, fostering his love of learning, helping and encouraging him.
Sometimes he had stayed late and they had read together, and talked about books. Often Jack had asked to borrow the tattered school copies of the classics so that he could take them home to study. And once or twice, William Davies had found himself talking to Jack as an equal instead of a pupil, discussing current affairs and politics and everyday things, like the changing pattern of the countryside around Hillsbridgeâand even the butterflies that were William Davies's secret passion.
“Watch them, Jack,” he had told him. “ See how they rise and float! The most fragile things on God's earth, but they can do what we cannot.”
Then, seeing his pupil's thoughtful expression, he had gone on: “Not only that, they're free. Their lives may be short, but at least they spend them doing what they want.”
Now, to Charlotte, he said, “I think that if Jack goes into the pit, you'll all regret it I've seen a lot of boys wasted who would have been capable of much, much more. But I've never seen one I felt it so strongly about. He's different, Mrs Hall. How, I don't know, but â¦”