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Dear Doddsy

A letter to a friend

Dear Doddsy

How you doing pal? Sorry to hear of your accident. Jan told me you were bored stupid and didn't have much to read, (to tell you the truth mate, I didn't know you could read). There being no telly till the kids programmes in the afternoons (bet you love those?) So I thought I'd keep you up-to-date on what's been happening at work.

All the lads are asking after you. Everyone sends their best wishes. Most of them though, wish you wouldn't come back. They said it, not me.

As usual, nothing really important happened at the Pit today.

Before I start, I must tell you this. Remember 'whats-is-face' that new lad who started work in South Drift the other week? You know the one, man? The one from Jarrow? Young lad? Big nose? Got that annoying habit of blinking his eyes real fast a few times, then peering at you like he's trying to figure you out? Fresh out of Training School and thinking he knew it all. Does that jog your memory?

Well. . .and you'll love this. . . you know when they bore through the coal in the drift and they sometimes hit the really hard granite, they have to drill more than usual amount of holes to compensate, don't they? Well guess what? The buggers drilled a hundred and twenty two holes a week ago. Whoo hoo! That's when I knew it was gonna be a 'rattler!' I tried to warn 'whats-is-face' about the noise. You know what I mean; Multiple explosions, ground shakes, roof heaving, like it's going to come down on your head. But before I could get a word out, his hands came up in front of my face, like I was a little kid or something. Know what he said? “Keep your nose out Black-Un--I'll be fine! I don't need any advice from the likes of you.”

'The likes of me?' I knew exactly what the frigger meant! Oh aye. So I thought to myself, Ok arse-hole, we'll see, oh yeah, we'll see how cocky you are when they fire those buggers off! I bet you go into friggin over-drive to get away.

Well later that day, the Deputy, Harry, jogged up the drift towards me, really shouldn't do that you know, getting on a bit now, he is. Anyway, when he got to where I stood, he asked me to cover for the new lad seeing as how I was so close to his conveyor-belt an' all. Plus with me being a Powder-Monkey-handing out all the dynamite, I wasn't fazed by the explosions.

I had to tell him then of what had happened earlier, when I tried to warn the little snot-nose. Harry got a sly smile on his face. He looked at me all slant-eyed, and said.

“ You did tell him what it's like when we fire that many flippin holes, didn't'cha? You did warn him?”

“ I tried to Harry I really did, but he told me to Eff Off!” You remember Harry now don'cha Dodds? He's the one says “flippin” instead of Effin.

It's all right for you and your cronies on the Salvage Teams. You lot can swear to your hearts content. Eff this, Eff that, and Eff the other if you want. But not me. I have to constantly run what I'm saying to Harry through a filter in me 'ead before I speak to the bugger. If I don't and I forget, I get such a look off him, it's unbearable. Like I've cut him or something.

Anyway, Harry asked the little bugger again in front of me, if he wanted me to cover his conveyor-belt for him. I'm sure he did that deliberately, you know so the lad couldn't back down then. When Harry and me got back up the incline, to the entrance where the Firing Battery hung on its peg, he said to me, smiling out the side of his face almost.

“ He really doesn't like you. What you said to him?”

As if I'd ever say anything? Me, the soul of discretion?

(You better not be laughing at me Dodds!)

I had my arms stretched out now to my sides, all innocent-like. . .

“ Me?. . Nowt. . . Nothin. . . Honest. . . ! Maybe it's the colour thing, Harry? You know how daft some of them buggers are.”

You know yourself Dodds, you've been with me when they've tried to “have a go.” I usually turn the digs back on them till they get so flustered, the only way out, they must think, is to raise their fists. But again I've got them, cos if they do that, I'll knock seven shades of shite out of the bastards!

Harry shouted down to the drift-men who were busily eating their baits.(lunch)

“ Right, come on you lot! There's fire!” We looked at each other, sniggering cos we could hear them cursing Harry.

“ Could yer not have waited like 'Arry?” As they stashed their sarnies and poured the hot drinks back in their flasks then legged it up the slope towards us. All the while muttering and calling Harry's ancestry into question?

But Harry didn't hear a word of any of it now. He was deep in concentration, wiring up the battery ready to fire, perspiration dripping from his head. One day when he's wiring up and sweating like that, he's gonna ask me to swab his brow like the nurses do with the Doctors in them operations on the telly. Well, he can frig off! It's never gonna happen.

He then inserted and turned the firing-key to test the system, getting a yellow light and a clean circuit. Turned it fully back the opposite way to prime it, getting a green light. . . but it stayed dark. “Bugger!” exclaimed Harry. He went through his firing procedure again, but with the same result. “Bugger, bugger!” This was the worst I'd ever heard Harry swear, so that alone told me the problem was bad.

“ I'll have to go down the line and check the wires and the dets.” He said to me. “You're coming with me as well.” I started to protest, saying I was hungry but he remained adamant. “You're coming, so shaddap!” Addressing the drift-men he instructed them.

“ I'll be about half an hour lads, so if you's want, finish your baits here till I get back and please. Don't touch those wires!”

The men cheered up considerably hearing this news.

Grabbing a couple of my sandwiches, I offered one to Harry which he took, we both munched the food as we made our way checking and double checking the long wire snaking down the roadway. The chit-chat of the drift men slowly receded as we went further down the gate. When we reached the bottom of the drift we both had a drink of water to wash the sandwiches down, and while Harry started checking the connections to the detonators, I asked him.

“ Wouldn't it be a good idea to get whats-is-face down here so he can learn how to do this as well as me?” Harry looked at me patiently, but shook his head slowly side to side.

“ Do you really think it's worth it like? I've seen lads like him before, he won't stick it at the pit. He'll be off the first chance he gets, you wait and see? Why bother investing any time in the likes of him?

We'd checked the wires leading to the face where all the brightly coloured detonators were waiting to be inspected. I looked up at the wires near the roof, they seemed ok to me.

“ What do you think of the top ones Harry? They look ok to you?”

Harry shone his cap-lamp up to the arched roof, inspecting every detonator as his light shone left to right.

“ Yeah, they're ok.” We inspected them all in this way, for the next twenty minutes, till near the middle row, I saw two wires not twisted together.

“ There's ya break there Harry.” I hurried forward to twist them together. Harry blurted out.

“ Stop! Stop!” I halted, feeling confused, wondering what it was I'd done wrong? Harry stood to one side, held the two lines apart and said.

“ Let me tell you about a friend of mine Geordie was his name, a Deputy, a bloody good one as well, a bit older than me. He was the Deputy in the Fore-Drift a few years back. He was 'detting' up like me n you are now." Harry looked down at the two copper ends in his hands, as he continued. "He'd done all his checks; the detonators were wired up properly, the shot-firing cable, and everyone out of the firing area. All ok. He'd completed the circuit, but it wouldn't fire. Obviously there'd been a break somewhere? He tried it again but still no joy. So, he pulled the wires out away from each other, told the lads to stay put, and went back into the drift to try and find the break."

Harry blinked rapidly a few times, concentrating on what he was telling me, he sighed and took a deep breath.

"What he couldn't know, Harry continued. Was that the wires he'd just pulled apart, weren't far apart enough, and had started to come closer together till finally they touched and formed a circuit." I was quiet then, I waited with breath held, for the words I knew now that were coming.
Harry had a sad expression on his face as he carried on with his story.
"So Geordie gets all the way in-bye to where the face and the explosives were. There must have been an obvious parting of the wires, cos he shouted up to the lads at the top of the drift, 'Found it! Hang on!'
A second or two went by then. . . Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom

They scooped up what was left of him into a bucket. It was a horrible sight. One I'll never ever forget.” He looked at me then and I could see the horror he was reliving inside his head. He looked so sad. “So you see, I have to put these two wires together now and you have to get your arse back up the drift before I do. That way if anything does happen, it'll just be me, and not you as well.”

I, of course saw the logic in this and shaking with nerves, I started walking back up the drift. I'd only gone about fifty yards when harry called up to me. I looked back down to see him standing in a little pool of light. He looked so small just then.

“ Do me a favour, Bri. Make sure those wires are nowhere near each other will ya?”

I answered him, “of course I will mate.” I turned and ran up the incline till I got to where the battery hung. I made sure the wires weren't near each other and shouted back to Harry, who by now seemed like a little pin-prick of light in the darkness.

“ Right-O Harry! All Clear!”

I waited then. I wondered to myself if there'd be an explosion? I wanted to shout at the chattering drift-men, who didn't know there was a man down there, possibly risking his life for them. But in the end I kept silent.

Soon, I saw Harry's light bobbing up and down as he trotted up the roadway. He was safe. I let out my breath now, and quickly got out my flask, poured a cuppa and relaxed up against the back rest of the seat.

When Harry got to me he pulled up short and exclaimed.

“ Well bloody hell! I'm down there risking life and limb, and you're up here drinking coffee!” I couldn't let him see how worried I was, so I just said, matter-of-factly.

“ And?” Followed by. “This is what you get paid the big bucks for Harry. This is why you're a Deputy. To take the risks.” He sat next to me, looked in my bag, and asked.

“ What you got for bait? Anything nice?”

I spluttered through a slice of sandwich I'd just bitten into.

“ You're a cheeky sod Harry. You get all the big bucks, but still ask me for bait? You've got some nerve mate!” So saying, I handed him a cake over I'd taken out of my bag seconds before he'd arrived.

We sat for about fifteen minutes like this, eating, drinking, oh yes he scrounged a cup of my precious coffee from me as well. When we'd finished, he stood up and commanded us all.

“ Right lads, up here behind me now all of you, it's time to fire!”

The drift-men stashed their gear away in between the girders to keep them safe and out of the way of any flying stones and made their way up to where Harry and I were standing. Harry asked me where my new 'friend' was? Piss-taker. I replied that I didn't know, or care.

Harry peered round the corner, and found whats-is-face, reading a book, which was against the pit rules. He was in so much trouble now. Harry snatched the book out of his hands and said.

“ Come see me in my office after you ride later, there's some rules you need to know.” The kid started to splutter apologies and protestations.

Harry stopped him before he could get into flow and said.

“ I'm not interested in anything the likes of you has to say! Save it for the office. Now get your arse round here where I can keep an eye on you.”

Inside I was cheering Harry on. 'Go on Harry! Give him what for!'

The newbie came round the corner, dragging his feet like a reluctant petulant schoolboy given an onerous job to do.

Harry now looked all round to make sure we were all safely tucked in to the sides of the tunnel, no lumps of over-hanging rock in the roof that may fall on us in the explosion, nothing could hit us carried along by the shock-wave.

Whats-is-face wasn't looking half as cocky then. No by God. In fact judging by his plate-like eyes and panting breath and the way his body shook, I'd say he was shitting his pants, or in the process of doing so.

I think in the ensuing silence I heard a good few little trump-trumps.

Ha ha. Serves you right you cocky little Fucka. Now let's see what you do? Harry had a final look-see again, to make sure everything looked safe, then

took a deep breath and shouted. . . “THERE'S FIRE. . . ! At the same time we all crouched in between the girders and faced away from the coming explosion. He then pushed the red button, hard. Tucking himself into the space between the girders where I stood. A split-second of nothing followed. . . then. . .

Whu-u-u-u-u-u-u-u-u-u-u-umpp-Boom-Boom-Boom-Boom-Boom-Boom! Like Howitzer guns firing, and an accompanying sound like the whole world falling down on top of you. Even with the sponge ear-plugs in our ears it still sounded very loud. You've been there Dodds, you know what it's like, a hundred of those big guns going off in split-second sequence, one after the other. Thank God for the girders holding the roof up. It was very frightening, especially to anyone who'd never experienced it first-hand. The ground and the walls shook. The Stone-dust used to diffuse any flash-fires, settled on all of us, disturbed into activity by the shock-wave coming up the drift. Pretty soon we were all enveloped in a fine gentle talcum-like mist. But if you breathed the mist in, you'd choke as it hit your lungs. Thank God for the Dust-Masks.

Me and Harry were scrunched right in to the sides of the girders, taking cover. The drift-men with their heads hanging, looked almost as if they were asleep.

But 'whats-is-face' busied himself packing his knapsack in a real hurry. We watched him, amazed he could be out in the open instead of taking cover like the rest of us. Blind fear written clearly on his ugly face.

I think the Doc's in the Medical Centre call it flight-reflex. Well his flight reflex was in gear and firing on all burners! Looking over his shoulder every few minutes like he's expecting something big to come up the drift. Real jumpy. Harry tried to hold him back in his panicked haste to get away, but the daft bugger fought like a madman and took off like a frightened rabbit, along the roadway. We were all well impressed with how fast he ran. I mean, he was only a little lad as well. I wonder if he's stopped running yet?

So. Like I said. A slow day today. Nothing much happened. Sorry pal.

Maybe next week when I write again, I'll have something more exciting to tell you? Get well soon mate.

Love to Jan and the kids. Bri.

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