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Coal-Miner

what it felt like, going to and descending into the mine

Coal-Miner

Thirty year old powerloader Brian, stood amidst the crowd of jabbering miners as they waited to descend in the cage. His aching slightly overweight frame already fatigued with the stress of just getting there. He put his holdall down at his feet, then rested his arms on the guard-rail of the fence at the top of the steps leading to the bottom deck of the cage.

Who wanted to be down the pit on a sunny day like today, anyway? Not him, that's for sure. Walking up the enclosed gangway that led to the pithead, he'd stopped to gaze longingly out of the last broken window of the corridor. Whilst sticking his head out, he quickly remembered to remove his helmet in case it dropped down to the ground outside forty feet below. He'd done so a few weeks back and almost missed the cage as he raced down to retrieve it.

The smell of cigarette smoke wafted up through the gangway. A seven and a quarter hour shift felt like a lifetime to the smokers without their cigarettes. So in the final ten minutes before going down, they'd smoke as many as possible, chain-smoking till the air turned blue. He'd passed them all on his way, and now stood at the broken window feeling the air buffeting round his head and ruffling his black hair. Bri gazed first at the cemetery over the wall from the pit, then to the right, through the gaps in the various workshop buildings, he saw the beach, a mere quarter of a mile away. Roiling waves in the blue water reflected exactly how he felt on this warm sunny summer morning. Blue. In fact he was pissed off.

Pissed off, because the summer months were the worst times to be down the pit, in the dark, the wet and the cold. The constant smell of oil, coal, shit and stale air that stuck with him till he had a shower at the end of the shift.

Faintly, over the noisy hum of the intake fans and the machinery at the shaft's entrance, he heard the distant squeals from the kids on the fairground rides.With that sound in his head, he pulled back from the window, put his white helmet back on and carried on walking like a condemned man, depressed, hunched over, head hung low, and finally got to the pithead.

Usually he rattled like a jailer with a bunch of keys as he walked, the hand-tools he normally carried on his belt were left in the lockers. The only things he had now were the heavy battery for his cap-lamp, his self-rescuer and his water-bottle. Since he'd got his new job on the coalface, he travelled a bit lighter these days.

The pithead, looking like a vast empty warehouse, with two sets of stairways set into a hole in the cement floor, had windows in the walls to let light in.They were so high nothing could be seen out of them but the clouds, or an occasional passing seagull. Today the light shimmered with the golden sun and the motes of dust released from the men's crusted overalls. He stood there, lost in his thoughts as he polished the lens of his cap-lamp.
He'd just put a fresh plug of chewing-tobacco in his mouth when he was slapped on the back by a calloused hand. “ Aye aye pal!” Brian turned to see his friend Doddsy.

“ Alright Dodds” he answered, glumly.

Doddsy, seeing the miserable expression on his friends face, leaned in conspiratorially, “Lets hide till everyone gets down. We'll bugger off, I'll get our Mandy, you get Jen and Kath and we'll hare off to the beach. Spend the day with the kids; building sand-castles, paddlin in the water, eat our baits, drink our flasks of tea, get chips and fizzy's for the kids, and get the pit bus back home by tea time!”

It sounded lovely, but they both knew it was just a happy fantasy, but for a brief pleasant moment their faces were animated at the thought.

The pithead gradually filled up with more and more workmen, each adding to the cacophony of voices and general noise. face-men, drift-men, back-by-men, deputies and overmen, all standing in little clusters discussing operations and techniques. Transport lads shouting and bawling about various football scores. Interesting to them. Boring to Bri. Doddsy nudged him to one side so he too could lean on the guard-rail. He looked at all the chattering men then looking askance at Bri, asked, “What the hell do they find to talk about? They saw each other on Friday!”

“ Buggered if I know,” answered Bri, puzzled and shaking his head.

Three bells rang out loudly in the pithead, announcing the cage was about to show itself. “Here we go again.” said Doddsy. All the men looked up, as the pigeons roosting in the beams of the roof took flight, flying around in a panic at the extra noise.

“ Friggin ell! Shouted Doddsy, in alarm as he and Bri ducked to avoid the low-flying birds. “You'd think they'd be used to the friggin noise by now wouldn't ya?” As he said this, the cage appeared slowly out of the ground like a missile rising out of a silo. The men, with resigned sighs picked up their holdalls and haversacks and started to shove their way through the queuing men to get a good position at the cage entrance. The stairs leading to the bottom and middle decks were full all the way back up to the top. The stairs that Bri and Doddsy were on filled up with men behind them, all eager now to get in the cage.

They were impatient to get down now, knowing that the sooner they got down and in, the sooner they'd get back out. Jostling each other to one side, pushing and shoving, as the stragglers exited from the cage, some of the deputies stopped the flow of black-faced smiling men, to confer with their earlier-shift mates, to jeers of, “Gerrout the friggin way ya mad buggas! or “Get the fuck outta it ya morons!” The onsetter who put the guys into the cage, had a quick look to make sure it was safe to board and then waved them all in. Doddsy immediately stepped on and stood just inside the cage doorway.

“ Bri!” he shouted, indicating with a wave to stand behind him. Everyone else crowded in and queued up behind them, till the cage was bulging with chattering impatient men. The onsetter dropped the steel slatted gate onto the cage floor, penning the men in. Now they were standing over the shaft, the wind whipping about their legs as the intake fan caused a big draught that shot down the empty space under their stamping, shuffling feet.

Not everyone made it into the first cage so had to wait for the second. The pigeons flew again over the stragglers heads causing them to duck while everyone cheered and shouted at them, safe from bombardment inside the cage. As they waited to drop, Bri looked at the last bit of sunlight he would see for some time. The windows of the pithead were mostly square holes that let brightness in but could easily be mistaken for white neon lights.

There were four Cathedral-type windows that reflected light on the opposing walls. Arched, like a church, and quite beautiful in the drabness of the pithead, with the light shining through them, throwing prisms of rainbow colours on the plain walls of the pithead. Mixed into this were a melange of floating motes of dust that made the light shimmer. The motes gently floated in the ether except for a gulf-stream of particles sucked down into the pit-hole. The air from all the shouting made the dust particles quicken and agitate, flickering briefly in the golden light.

Brian noticed this, wondered for a moment, mouth open in awe, and was about to nudge his friend to share the spectacle, but seeing Doddsy had his eyes closed in thought, kept it to himself and enjoyed the experience.

The noise in the background from the intake fans was constantly there. A steady hum that dropped off or got louder. Now they were standing in the cage all the noise seemed centred and directed at them. Brian knew then it was time to insert the ear plugs to stop the excessive noise damaging his ear-drums. If they hadn't had ear-plugs in, the noise would have been deafening. But as soon as the sponges expanded in his ears, he could feel the noise lessen, it felt muffled, like a noise with no sharp edges, undefined, almost indistinct.

He felt the vibration through his feet indicating they were about to descend. Everyone started to shout now, just for the thrill of being able to do it. The simple joy of being alive. But Bri thought it was the excitement and the fear of the drop about to take place, that really made them do it.

The keps holding the cage steady came off and it hung in the air. It went quiet then as they waited for the drop,
like “ The deep breath before the plunge” as Tolkien once said.
The bells rang out again as the cage slowly drifted down, gathering speed. First the bottom deck went under, followed by the middle and then the top deck. It got faster and faster, then whoosh! Dropped like a stone into the pitch-black darkness. It wasn't totally dark, little pinpricks of light filtered up between the legs of the guys carrying Davy Lamps, casting ghostly shadows on the walls of the shaft. As they dropped deeper, the pressure in their heads started to build up. Bri pinched his nostrils tight and puffed out his cheeks, straining to make his ears pop. As he did so he looked round and saw his fellow miners doing the same thing.

The wise-cracks came then.

“Geordie, I can't feel my leg, its gone numb!”

“That's because it's MY leg, you fool!”. . .

“Davy?”
“Yeah?”
“Have farts got lumps in them?”
“No”
“Oh God, I'm in trouble then.”
The rookies hearing them for the first time, nervously laughed not sure if it was real or not.

One notable Old-Timer, Jackie, shouted over the rushing wind that was making everything fly, “Does anyone want a pinch of snuff?” The main beams came on and were pointed at Jackie as he was standing in the middle of the cage with a tin of Talcum Powder. The men looked increduously at him as his hands slowly opened the lid. They begged him, “Please Jackie, no!” But with a little smile to himself, he opened the tin and the stuff got caught by the wind and went flying about, coating them all in a white perfumed film of dust. It was one of Jackie's favourite tricks. The men would hold their breaths in, till most of the powder had gone then they'd all let them out explosively. They'd all start to harangue Jackie with dire threats, but Jackie just laughed at them without a care in the world. He never cared about the threats made to him, he just liked to amuse himself, usually at our expense. Because he was well-liked, no-one ever beat him up or anything.
“ Nice bloke, Jackie is.”

Bri and Doddsy enjoyed the drop, but with the fear ever present in the back of their heads. “What if?” What if the rope snapped? Then another and another? There were six cables or ropes holding the cage that held upwards of a hundred and fifty men, but they knew that it would still be safe with just two. They secretly prayed never to have the need to test that statement.

They experienced a great feeling of exhilaration as they dropped many hundreds of feet, knowing that it was quite safe to enjoy something that had the potential to kill, or maim severely-with a lot of luck. Amid the general chit-chat and muted conversations going on, One of the Old-timer's started to sing quietly,
'You'll Never Walk Alone,' this, in spite of the conditions of the ride, made the hair on Bri's arms stand on end. All the guys joined in on the last verse, shouting it out so they probably heard it on the surface. Very stirring.

The surface light fast reduced to a pinprick now, as they got further away from it, till it winked out like the dot on the telly after the Epilogue.

The Yard Seam, which was the oldest part of the pit at six hundred and twenty three feet deep, approached rapidly underneath. They passed it in a flash then it was gone. For some unfathomable reason it always smelt of garlic, and this smell lingered as they dropped. The slowly receding light a quick memory as the men continued to hurtle to the bottom. The Hutton Seam, where everyone worked, was at nine hundred and twenty three feet. The cage started to slow down as it approached the gradually encroaching light. It started to vibrate as if fighting the action of the brakes being applied, in shuddering steps as the noise of the 923 got louder. Till with a surge of light and noise they knew they'd finally arrived. There were times when The Winder-man, who controlled the cage, feeling a little playful or sadistic, and knew the cage had reached the correct depth, would jam the brakes on hard, causing it to come to a sudden stop. Bastard! It was very frightening.

W.I.P.

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