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Geordie Martins Budgie

Coal miner memoir, humorous in places

Geordie Martin's Budgie

We were all sitting in the Pit Canteen, at one thirty in the afternoon, half an hour from the time we have to go down. It was mid-summer as well, quite a hot day and the last thing we wanted, was to be down the hot smelly dark pit. We'd all rather be on the beach, with a few beers. But we were all trying to be positive. Laughing and joking, trying to keep our spirits up, when in walks Geordie Martin.

No-one ever called Geordie Martin, 'George'. I bet even his wife called him Geordie. He belonged to a group of miners at Westoe Colliery, called the "Hillbillies". These were all miners from outside the boundaries of South Shields, whose collieries had closed and they all travelled long distance to work at Westoe. I don't know why it was, but Geordie and quite a few of those men were small in stature. Maybe it was something in the water? Very few of them were over five feet in height, ideal for coal-mining really.

In the canteen, we're all sitting, chatting and moaning about having to go down on such a lovely day and in waddles Geordie, he always walked as if he were on a ship that rolled in a stormy sea, so he weaved a lot. He's carrying a little cardboard box tied up securely with string, with a few little holes punctured in it. He looked at us, nodded hello, and joined the canteen queue for his regular 'quick cuppa'. When he eventually came to us at the table, none of us looked him in the face. We were all, looking puzzled, at the box he was carrying.

It was a plain non-descript little box, no adornments, no decorations, just a small rigid carton with a lid, all sealed up, with some holes in it. So someone looked up to Geordie, I don't remember who, and said,

"Whats in the box Geordie?" To which Geordie, completely ignoring the speaker, lifted the box up to head height, brought it in close, and said "Chook-chook chook-chook-chook, hows-my-little-lovey-doin-in-there?" While he's doing this, he's poking his finger near the hole, as if he's reassuring something inside. Of course, we're all intrigued now. We have to know!

"Come on Geordie, tell us? What's in the box?"

"Hawaay man, what is it?"

"Are you going to tell us?"

Geordie, sits wearing a funny little smile on his face, looking at us all with a bemused expression. He knows something we don't, and he's gonna milk it dry. He casually looks round the canteen, taking his time, gives a quick nod to someone over the other side, glances back to us, still smiling, he can be a right little twat for that kinda thing, a quick slurp from his tea-cup, then he brought the box up to head height again, and said,

"Its Betty, me budgie."

We all knew of Geordie's reputation as a “fancier,” he bred budgies and canaries of many different traits, and they always won loads of awards, it was almost as if he could tell the hens what he required of them and they'd deliver his requirements to the eggs. His reputation in the hills was known far and wide. So when he said a budgie, we weren't all that surprised to be honest.

He took another quick slurp of his tea, dribbling a few drops on his tea-stained vest. looked at us all, over the rim of his cup, and slammed it back on the table. He leaned forward conspiratorally and whispered “Come ere then, I'm not shoutin this out.”

We all lean in. "You's have to keep this under your hats, don't say anything to any one. Its like this. I had to drop this here budgie off to my mate, who's got a cock he wants to put to this here hen so they'll mate. His, is a bloody champion and she's a prize-winner. The chicks'll be lush man. I'll be in the money!"

We all take this in, lean back in our seats and then to a man shout, "So?!"

He replies, "Well . . . he wasn't in so I had to fetch her to work with me, I couldn't leave her in the canteen, they won't allow that will they, cos of the feathers, and the fresh grub. I can't leave her in the lockers cos of the heat, you's know how hot they get between the shifts. 

I don't know anyone on the surface, to look after her properly for me . . . so I'll have to take her down with me."

We all saw the logic in this, but we still had reservations. "Are you sure there's no other way Geordie? You're gonna have to leave her in the Mothergate for most of the shift, in the noise and the wind and the heat."

"Of course I'm gonna have to leave her. But what choice do I have? I'll get back from time to time to make sure she's still alright, but what else can I do?"

Davey Campbell, a curious feller at times, pipes up.

"Well, gizza look at her then, G."

Geordie, with a look of horror and disgust on his face looks Davey up and down and cries, "Are you bloody stupid or what? Once she sees your great big ugly mug, stuck in her beak, she'll friggin shit herself with fright, and she'll start layin empty eggs without gettin near her new bloody boyfriend. Or she'll take off and I'll never see her again.”

The buzzer goes off announcing to all that its fifteen minutes before the first cage is going down. We all scramble for the door, chairs screeching and scraping across the floor tiles, a cacaphony of shouting, swearing and running men. We make our way to the lockers, get changed and have a final cigarette, before heading up to the heap. The heap is like a huge warehouse at the top of the shaft, where we all wait to get in the cage.

On that day Geordie got a good ribbing cos word had got out somehow that he was bringing his bird down the pit and of course everyone kept asking him for a look, which usually ended with him giving the person a right earful and a tongue lashing.

After getting down, and getting to the workings on the little train and carriages we had down there, we all finally arrived at our place of work. K67, which was the name of that particular coalface. It was at the top of a one in four incline and about a mile and a half trek. we'd all walk in single file, the only light coming from our cap-lamps, flashing and spearing the darkness.

Amid the constant noise of the conveyor belts as they thundered past us loaded with coal and rock, there would be an odd belt roller banging because it needed repair. Most of us wore ear-plugs to drown out the majority of the noise. A couple of us guys volunteered to carry Geordie's box, but he wouldn't let us near it for some reason? You know, I don't think he trusted us.

When we got inbye we all hung our jackets up, with sweat cooling rapidly on our bodies from the climb. This was the entrance to the face, a long long tunnel called the Mothergate. We then had a cuppa from our flasks, and a quick bite of a sandwich, meanwhile Geordie is trying to re-assure his bird and keep her calm. He placed her away from where we normally worked, trying to protect her from all the racket. It was quite a strange sight to see this little hard fucker going gooey-eyed over a friggin bird! Then we began crawling onto the face.

After a pretty normal half shift, we all crawled back off the face for our bait-time.(lunch) We were tired, soaking with dripping water, mixed with sweat, tired, blackened faces shining with the reflected lamps of our mates. Coughing and spluttering from the constant presence of the coal-dust. All happy to be able to stand upright without having to duck.

Ten minutes later, as we were all starting to nod off, Geordie came running up, panic-stricken, shouting,

"Have you's seen her, is she here?"

We all asked, "who?"

He stood ramrod straight and shouted, "Who? who?" "Who-the-fuck-do-you's-think-who?" Betty. Me bird! Some bloody idjits let her out of her friggin box! If I find out which one of you morons let her out, I'll have ya guts for garters!" We had the feeling he was angry.

So then we were all over the Mothergate shouting and calling for his budgie, we were asking, "Who let her out?" but no-one knew, or stepped forward to claim the deed. As we're calling, we got near to the entrance to the face, and someone shouted, "There!" Looking up the face we could just make out in the dark a little flash of green and grey.

She was sitting on the face-chain. All of us there were worried now. The chain is what the coal cutting machine used to pull its way up and down the face. very dangerous to be around when it whipped up, or worse, snapped! Men have been killed when they were near it and it snapped.

Billy McKay, who could often be found with his jumper off sneaking up on the poor pigeons in South Shields Market place every other Saturday, started to slowly take his jumper off. "I'll get the bugga!" he whispered confidently. He was an expert at catching wild pigeons.

[He'd catch them, at the market, take them home and keep them with his other racing pigeons. I don't think he ever paid for any of his birds]. Once his jumper was off and in his hands he was off. He was soon down on his knee-pads and crawling carefully but very quietly up the face. All the time we were giving him good advice like, "Get up close Billy and turn ya light off so you can surprise her!"

He turned back and whispered derisedly, "And how the fuck am I supposed to see the little frigger then, ya bloody idjits, eh? Shut ya friggin gobs an let me get on with it!" He turned back to the budgie and could be heard muttering under his breath as he crawled closer to her. a few seconds later we saw him pounce, shouting, "I've got the fucker! I've got her!" Whereupon he crawled back down to us all waiting anxiously in the Mothergate.

We all cheered and congratulated him and told him what an intrepid fellow he was. Beaming with pride, and with commands of, "Do it gently Bill, we don't want her getting away again." he started to carefully unwrap the bundle. When he unfolded his jumper the whole place went quiet. Its a strange thing as well, but as he opened his hands the belts slowed down and stood silent, almost in reverance of what was revealed to us in that dark tunnel so long ago now.

There in his palm was the lovely little budgie, she was all green and grey, with tiny flecks of gold in her wings, which were at this time folded demurely back on her little sleek body, as she laid on her side. Oh she was so beautiful and so so delicate.

But hold on, she wasn't moving! We thought she was in shock, the poor little mite. [We may have been hard miners, but sometimes, especially when hearing a sob story, we could all be as soft as shit] But it was no good, she was gone, she was stiffened in death. Her eyes had that permanent glazed stare. It must have been the shock of being out of the box. We all hung our heads.

We were all crestfallen at the plight of the little bird that for a moment had lifted us up and united us all in worship almost, of her beauty, her majesty, her pure joy of living, down here in the bowels of the Earth, for a brief moment it was if we were back in the light. So we all contemplated her death, seemingly at our fumbling, inept, stupid attempts to save her.

It was actually Davey Campbell, who happened to notice something not right. "What the fuck'nells that?" he shouted.

Our heads, which had fallen a bit in grief by then, whipped back up, nearly giving ourselves whiplash as we stared again at the little bird. There seemed to be 'something' sticking out of her bum?

Was that some kind of metal down there? No, It can't be? It couldn't be? We all turned our cap-lamps into spotlights and shone them down. But we soon realised it was. There was a little spring sticking out of her bum. We then knew for certain, it was one of those plastic toys that goes in the cage with the Real Budgie, to keep it company.

We'd been had.

We all looked up to see Geordie Martin, Davey Campbell, Billy McKay and the management team of Deputies and Overmen, ALL OF THEM, doubled up on the floor, laughing their heads off. Screaming with hilarity. Coughing and spluttering, trying hard to breath, just so they could laugh again. Holding their sides as if they were trying to hold their guts in. No no no, it can't be? Not Geordie, he wouldn't? He couldn't? But the little fucker could. and he bloody well did.

It was a total wind-up!

They'd had us from getting off their pit bus to now, this minute. We couldn't believe it. It couldn't be true? He couldn't have? we repeated to ourselves, we recalled coming down in the cage, men had scrunched up in the tight environs so the box wouldn't be squashed. People from time to time were giving Geordie little bits of bread and cakes or biscuits to feed "the little-un", and all the time he was laughing inside at us.

Then we chuckled, then we laughed, till soon, we were all howling, and smacking everyone involved on the back. It was so funny, because it had been so finely executed. People talk about hook-line and sinker? This was hook-line-sinker-arm-angler-and-stool. People still talk about Geordie Martin and his Budgie, years later.

And we couldn't help thinking about it, with a grin on our blackened faces as we worked far below the Earth. We remember how we got "taken for a ride" by the little feller from the hills.

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