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The Coal Wagons

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The Coal Wagons

The coal trains ran behind our houses from morning to night, twenty four seven, thundering down from the pit to the staithes at the river, where the coal was transferred from the wagons to the ships.
Miles of seemingly endless coal wagons were pulled by a huge, blackly-chuffing locomotive. Our moms, on hearing the trains whistle, dashed to get their washing in before the ash and soot stained them. It felt like we were watching a big race and the train-whistle was the starting gun, especially if it happened on a Monday, because that was always washing day if the weather was fine. The whistle blew and the back doors of the houses all the way down the rows slammed open, and sprightly women dressed in pinnys and house-coats sprang out like greyhounds from a gate, while shouting at their kids to get off the fence and come and help them.

As the trains passed, we'd sit atop the high fences and see who could count the wagons the fastest. I never won because I wasn't very good at counting till I was much older. The driver and his mate smiled and waved as they passed. They'd throw lumps of coal to us so we'd be warm that night.
An amusing thing to them was to wait till they'd almost gone past before giving the whistle a deafening blast, catching the unprepared off-guard, and a few of the younger kids would pitch off the fence, arse-over-tit. The driver and the tender were laughing and carrying on scandalous as if it was the funniest thing in the world. But they must have done this little pantomime hundreds of times every week and not just with us, but with other kids further up and down the line.

We hitched rides on the gravity brakes, but being so slight the weight of our bodies had little effect so we could ride safely on them. We never thought of the danger of being killed or seriously maimed, to us it was 'just a ride.' The older boys flipped effortlessly up to ride inside the wagons and lie on the coal. They'd take jute sacks with them for this, but on the return journey these sacks would be filled with coal and then lobbed off as we got nearer home.

When the wagons slowed down, we ran as fast as possible trying to keep up. The older lads would lean over the sides taking the piss and smirking at our feeble efforts to run. Then they'd all grab an outstretched hand, haul us up and deposit us with a thump on the gravity brake. I'm sure the driver slowed the train even more so we could hop on safely. He'd have a last look back up the line of wagons then sound the whistle and we'd be off.
We never had a thought of any possible danger, the wagons were part of our everyday lives. So every time a trip was planned down to the river with the docks and the sea, it was always the wagons. I used to wonder to myself, what it'd be like to see our parents riding the wagons like us? Mam hanging on for dear life whilst trying to keep her hat on, and her skirt demurely pressed round her legs, and Dad trying to stay calm instead of whooping with joy like we sometimes did. I really would have liked to have seen that.

We'd sit there balanced on the pole of the brakes, legs criss-crossed around the shaft in a bid to keep steady. Sometimes there'd be two kids if they were light enough. If the brake started to drift down, one would have to get in the wagon. My favourite part of the ride was to listen to the zing of the wheels as they passed over the points two feet below. I'd smell the burning oil on the steel when the brakes were applied, going down the gradient toward the tunnel.

On entering the black maw, as it went from the brilliance of the day to the slowly decreasing light, our chatter would wind down at the same rate as the train till finally we'd be in total darkness. We'd all be quiet then. It felt at times like entering a sacred place so our talk was hushed, like it is when entering a church. Another reason for keeping quiet was the smoke from the train up front. There weren't air shafts in the tunnels in those days, so the smoke trailed backwards and you got a mouthful of soot if you opened your gob too much.

But as we got deeper in, the sound of the train got louder and the walls seemed to get nearer and it was scary. The refuge holes held little lanterns in them and they whipped by so fast they became blurry like one big light streamer. Were it not for the older lads shouting to each other occasionally over the noise and the wind, the young-uns might have started panicking.

It's a weird sensation travelling like this, in limbo with nothing to feel except the rough splinterwood of the wagon under your fingers. The smell of wet coal, soot and steam burning your nostrils.
The train picked up more speed getting faster and faster till it hurtled through the tunnel with the wind rushing past our ears, and the evenly-spaced stacatto rhythm rattled as we passed over the points. The speed sensation ran through our bodies as the wagon vibrated around us.

The excitement of travelling precariously balanced on a gravity brake was frightening. But it was exhilarating as well, there was always the chance you could fall off the narrow trembling brake-shaft, and getting hurt was the least of your problems. The wagon-wheels could slice you in two, so we gripped the rusted steel struts as tight as we could. People could always tell when we'd been for a free ride because our hands looked like they'd been steeped in cocoa.

We were going full tilt now, rattling through the blackness, laughing with the thrill of the speed and the closeness of the walls, at times they were nearer because there were bulges where the tunnelers had to go off-centre due to a fault in the rock. We'd be jerked to the left and then the right periodically, but because we'd travelled this way many times we knew where to zig and where to zag, in all the right places

Eventually we'd hear the ghostly sound of the whistle in the distance as the train came out of the tunnel, warning anyone near the entrance. We'd still be in the dark but fast approaching the brightness. We quickly emerged back into the daylight, smelling the changes from oil and grease and wet coal, to salty air tinged with the aroma of the docks, the sea, and frying chips (french fries).

As we came out of the tunnel, the really young lads would rub coal-dust on their little faces and pretend they were their dads working down the pit. The friendly older boys ruffled their hair and told them not to be afraid, they wouldn't let anything happen to them whilst they were with them. The little-uns would be smiling. For some of them without dads, this was the closest they ever got to a positive male role model. What happened to all those friends that I had, where are they now? Did they go on to have kids of their own? I wonder what they'd say if they caught their children riding the wagons?

This story is protected by International Copyright Law, by the author, all rights reserved. If found posted anywhere other than with this note attached, it has been posted without my permission.

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