Hopes and DreamsbySpykke©
One of my favourite books is a novel by A J Cronin describing the lives of coal miners and a terrible mining accident in a town in the northeast of England. This story picks up the tale where he leaves off with respect to the son of one miner involved in the accident. As usual it has emphasis on character development with my normal soupcon of naughtiness. The story uses one or two items of dialect, they are:
Da – father
Bait, snap – lunchbox, meal taken underground
How – Hello
Gannin' – going, eg "Are you gannin' t' Institute?" means "are you going to the Institute?"
Mashing – brewing tea
lairking – playing, eg are you lairking football?
I was awoken by an insistent tapping on the window. For a moment I was disorientated before realising that it was the pole of Barney Norris, the waker up. It was time for another day's toil down the pit. In those days an alarm clock was a luxury I didn't have and I depended on old Barney to wake me for work. Early every morning he would walk the streets tapping on the windows with a long pole, waking up the men on early shift in the local coal mine. I didn't need a clock to know it was four thirty in the morning, dark and cold.
With a sigh I crawled out of bed and dressed. Ma was already up and I could smell her cooking my breakfast. My Ma knew the importance of good food to a miner and she always made sure that I started work with a full belly – as she had for my Da before me.
My name is Billy Hudson, I was 19 years old and I was a coal miner. My Da had also been a miner and had been killed in the disaster 18 years previously. The pit owner had landed a major contract for coking coal and had decided to strip an area in the north of the mine. Tragically the area had formed a dam between the mine and the old Neptune workings. The Neptune workings had been disused for 50 years and, a fact known by the pit owner, had flooded. The coal stripping weakened the dam and the pit was inundated, killing my father and 132 other men and boys. The shock had given the pit owner a stroke but this was no solace to my family, in those days you didn't get compensation.
It was now 1935 and conditions were still pretty poor.
I pulled on my pit clothes, freshly washed and dry. The pit ran out under the sea meaning that it is was wet and needed constant pumping. It also meant that I returned after every shift soaking wet. Ma always made sure that I had clean and dry clothes to begin work. Not a major luxury but important nevertheless.
I sat down at the table. The fire was already roaring in the grate, warming the room. Breakfast consisted of fried belly pork, bread and sweet tea. Plenty to fill the belly and give strength for the shift ahead. Ma sat at the table with a mug of tea – she would eat later. We didn't speak, 4:30 on a wet March morning is no time for small talk.
I pulled on my cap, grabbed my bait box, gave my Ma a kiss on the cheek and left the house. Ernie Bevan was walking past and I joined him, our hobnailed boots crunching on the path as we walked out of Sleascale towards the pit.
"How, Billy," Ernie greeted me.
"How, Ernie," I replied.
We walked on in silence.
The rain was slashing down, driven by a brisk wind from the sea, as we walked down Alma Terrace. In a fit of patriotic fervour, someone in the 1860's had named the streets in the area where I lived after battles in the Crimean war. Running east from our street were Balaclava Terrace, Inkerman Terrace and Sevastopol Terrace, you get the idea.
The housing wasn't exactly exotic. Row upon row of terraced houses, each the same. All were what was known as "two up two downs". Upstairs there were two bedrooms and downstairs a kitchen and living room. No bathroom and the toilet was "out back" behind the house – a 20 yard walk in the rain. If you wanted a bath, water was heated on the range in the living room and poured into a tin bath on the floor. The houses had been built in 1851 and were showing their age. They were tied to our jobs and we could live there so long as we continued to work in the mine. The rent was consequently low but it also meant that the mine owner spent as little as possible on their upkeep.
The street was eerie with the faint light from the gas lights barely penetrating the flurries of rain. The weather was miserable for spring.
Sleascale... what can I tell you about Sleascale? Think of a small huddle of terraces of houses by the coast on the north east coast of England. Think of a church, a Temperance Institute, two or three shops and a pit and you've got it all. Not a place of beauty and certainly not a name on the lips of most people in the country. Oh, I've forgotten one thing, the Haven. The Haven was a huge manor on the top of a hill overlooking the town. It was owned by the pit owner, Mr. Edward Barras – the man whose negligence killed my Da. In those days the word of the mine owner was law. There were no unions to defend the men's rights and there was no realistic likelihood of compensation if you were injured or killed in the pit. Things weren't quite as bad as in my Da's days with reform being demanded but things were still pretty bleak.
"So are ya lairking next Saturday?" Ernie asked me.
Work in the pit was hard. Even the most hardened men suffered from claustrophobia from time to time and we all relished our leisure time. My Da had enjoyed fishing. My hobbies were my allotment and football - I played for the local Sleascale team. Purely amateur but I was a pretty good player and I had a quiet fantasy that maybe one day I would be spotted by a scout for a professional team. Sleascale FC was run but Arthur Roberts, a solicitor in the town. He was richer than any of us could aspire to but he was a lovely bloke who would do anything for the team. Football was a passion with most of my mates at the mine and we all looked forward the game each Saturday.
"Aye, Blythe Town at home. It'll be a hard game," I grinned relishing the knowledge that games with Blythe Town usually ended up with a fight both on and off the pitch.
"Aye, it'll be a fine match no doubt," Ernie grinned back, he also enjoyed a good fight.
As I've said, my other passion was my allotment. The allotment was a strip of land 30 feet wide and 100 feet long. It was provided by the local council for the use of residents in Sleascale. I used the allotment to grow vegetables. It was a cheap way of adding to our diet and there was usually plenty for our friends. More importantly, it gave me a chance to enjoy nature – a vital change from the wet darkness of the pit.
All too soon we joined the queue at the pit gates waiting to clock in and collect our recharged lamp batteries. There was the usual low level of banter between the miners – anything to lift the gloom of the morning. Once done we crammed into the tiny lift for the 800 foot descent into darkness. You will have all used a lift before but a pit lift bears no comparison. Basically it was a small cage with a pair of sliding barred doors. The lift was always packed full and it descended at a speed always guaranteed to bring your stomach to your throat. Almost every miner I knew hated the claustrophobic trip down the pitch black shaft into the mine.
The mine was a place of fear and danger. Apart from the obvious dangers of collapse or inundation, there were the invisible dangers of fire and black damp. Fire damp was composed of flammable gases which escaped from the coal strata and gave a risk of explosion. Fire damp was uncommon in our pit but we nevertheless always carried a safety lamp to warn us of its presence. A greater risk was black damp which spread from the old workings. Black damp wasn't a toxic gas. It was an absence of oxygen which simply killed you by suffocation. The mine was ventilated by huge fans to prevent black damp but there had nevertheless been examples of men in more remote parts of the pit simply collapsing dead at their place of work.
We reached the bottom of the shaft and left the lift. I stopped for a moment to take a deep breath and quell the oppressive claustrophobia which gripped me. I never got used to the sense of thousands of tons of rock above me, waiting to crush the life out of me. The tiny lamp on my helmet did little to dispel the dark as I set out with my gang on the mile walk out under the sea. At the end of my walk waited a two foot coal seam which required us to lay on our sides in three inches of sea water as we hacked at the coal with our picks. This was the worst form of work which exhausted men and destroyed bodies. So many miners ended their working days with lung disease, broken bones or damaged joints. We all bore the black marks or tattoos where we had banged our faces against the coal seams, forcing black coal dust under the skin. There was no escape from this other than finding alternative work – something which was quite impossible for the likes of us. As the younger men, Ernie and I would help the older guys by taking on the worst digging jobs. Nothing was ever said, just a look of gratitude as we quietly slipped to our knees and crawled to the coal face. What else could we do? We were brothers in arms, fighting a war against pain and exhaustion that could never be won.
We walked in silence, dreading the prospect of the work and each with our own thoughts trying to forget the grim realities of life in the pit. I would think about the jobs I had to do on the allotment and the feeling that the sun would have on my back as I tended the plants.
The sky was leaden and the rain still fell in torrents as I left the pit at the end of the shift. Since I had just finished a shift in a wet seam, the rain didn't bother me – I was already soaked through. It had been a tough shift and I was dog tired. As I trudged down the coast road I saw a figure struggling in the rain with what looked like a sack. As I approached I saw that it was girl. She had a shawl over her head in a futile attempt to keep the rain off. She was trying to carry a heavy looking sack but kept dropping it after a couple of steps.
"Can I help?" I called out.
The girl turned, her face pale and haggard.
"Please?" was her simple reply.
"Take this," I told her, giving her my bait box and I lifted the sack over my shoulder. We walked towards the town.
"Been collecting sea coal?" I asked.
"Yes," came the quiet reply.
Collecting sea coal was a sure sign that her family were either on low or no wages. In tough times of unemployment the only way of getting coal for the fire was either to gather coal from undersea seams washed up on the sea shore or to collect duff, the poorest type of discarded coal, from slag heaps.
"You're Billy Hudson aren't you?" the girl asked.
"Aye, do I know you?"
"I'm Mary Harris, I was in your class at school.
I turned and looked at her. Yes it was Mary although her face was so thin that I hadn't recognised her. As I recalled she had been a nice lass but she had been called Bandy Mary at school because of the shape of her legs. I realised with a shock that she had grown up to be a devastatingly pretty girl. I smiled warmly.
"Well aye and you're a bonnie lass for sure," I told her.
Mary blushed and smiled back.
We walked on in silence. The rain was easing off and I could see she was flagging so I suggested we paused by a low wall. She sat on the wall gratefully.
"Are you hungry lass?" I asked.
She looked down, shame faced, and finally nodded.
You have to understand that the mining community had a fierce pride. We worked hard for an honest wage so that our families were warm and well fed. Borrowing was anathema. Even though Mary's family were justifiably struggling to make ends meet, it was difficult for her to admit it.
I still had a large piece of ma's mutton and potato pie from my bait so I opened my bait box and offered it to Mary.
"Eat it lass, it'll do you good."
Mary didn't hesitate and took the pie. I watched her in silence as she ate.
"Thankyou," she whispered when she had finished.
I remembered that Mary's Da had been killed in an accident in the pit a few months previously.
"Things must be hard without your Da" I said.
"Yes. My brother Tim works in the stables but a boy's wage is barely enough."
Tim was a thirteen year old lad who looked after the pit ponies.
If ever there was someone worse off than the miners it was the ponies. They spent 24 hours a day underground only leaving when it was time to go into retirement on the surface before the final trip to the knackers yard. Tim had a real touch with the ponies making their lives as comfortable as possible.
The pie gave Mary renewed strength and we resumed our walk to her house. Her beauty and frailty had struck a chord with me and I felt an overwhelming protectiveness towards her. I quietly wondered if she would walk out with me. While I knew girls from school, work, my allotment and football occupied my life and I had next to no experience with girls. I thought hard, trying to work out how to ask her. Of course I knew about sex and I had the same urges as any guy but I somehow felt shy with girls. I had talked long and often about sex with my mates and we had made you usual comparisons of our cocks and had pissing contests – all the usual stuff. It had soon become obvious that my "old man" was a lot bigger than any of my mates' and it made my mates jealous and me self-conscious.
Soon we reached the back of her house. The back door opened as I emptied sack into the coal bunker.
"You're back, Mary," her mother commented rhetorically. "Come and get warm I've mashed some tea."
She then spotted me.
"Is that you Billy Hudson?" she asked.
"Aye, missus," I replied. "Mary needed a hand with her sack."
"Thanks for that lad, would thou like some tea?"
"No thanks, my Ma will have us bath ready," I replied.
"Well thanks anyhow," Mary's Ma said as she went back into the house.
Mary stood on the step.
"Yes, thankyou Billy," she added, turning into the house.
It was now or never.
"Er... Mary..." I began.
She turned back, looking at me expectantly.
"Would you like to go to the institute on Friday?" I asked.
The Temperance Institute was the only source of entertainment in Sleascale. Once a month they would hold a Friday night dance. The music was provided by a trio comprising of a piano player, a drummer and a trumpet player who only just managed to keep in tune or time. Add to that the absence of alcoholic refreshment and it's fair to say that the dances would not suit everyone. The hall was nevertheless always full. Everyone enjoyed a dance.
Mary hesitated and my heart sank.
"Yes she would," came her mother's voice from inside the kitchen. "The girl needs some fun. Be here at eight, she'll be ready."
Mary smiled broadly.
"See you then."
My heart soared and my fatigue vanished as I walked back home.
A bath of hot water awaited me in the living room as I got home. I quickly stripped off my clothes at the back door and climbed into the bath. Ma and I talked as I soaped myself down. There was no embarrassment from my mother seeing me naked – modesty was pointless in a miner's home. Ma washed my back in exactly the same way as she had washed my Da's and her Ma had washed my Grandda's.
I told her about Mary and our date.
"They're a good family," my Ma observed, giving her approval.
"You know Ma, that family is struggling, I want to help them," I told her.
"Why don't you give then some of your veg," she suggested.
I always grew far more vegetables on my allotment than my family needed. Some, such as potatoes, apples and onions stored well in a dark, cool place and I had enough stored in our cellar to feed two families. I also had some winter cabbage left over from the previous season.
The next day, after work, I loaded up a hand cart with a sack of potatoes, onions and apples along with a couple of cabbages and some carrots. Enough to feed the family for a couple of months.
Mary's Ma answered the door.
"I thought you might be able to use these, missus," I told her.
She looked in the sacks with surprise. We miners are a proud breed who like to look after themselves. I saw her face set as she prepared to refuse my offer. I caught her eye and shook my head slightly conveying an unspoken message:
"Don't be proud and foolish, accept my gift."
She smiled and I saw a tear in her eye. She hugged me.
"Thankyou lad," she whispered. "Its appreciated."
The week crawled by as I waited in almost unbearable excitement for Friday to come. Finally I found myself knocking on Mary's door, dressed in my one and only suit. Mary's Ma answered the door and let me in. I went into the kitchen. Tim was sat at the table, changing a stud on a football boot.
"How, Billy! I hear you're taking our lass out," he grinned.
"Aye, if that's alright," I joked.
"Well, she isn't much to talk about but I suppose someone has go out with her," he grinned even more broadly.
"Tim, stop that," his ma scolded. "You mustn't be unkind to your sister."
At that point, Mary came into the kitchen. She looked stunning. She wore a simple blue dress and her brown wavy hair fell over her shoulders. Her face was pale but her eyes were bright with excitement.
Tim looked up with obvious approval.
"I suppose she scrubs up quite well," he joked again, ducking as his Ma went to clip his ear.
"Shall we go?" I asked.
Mary nodded and pulled on her coat.
"Be back no later than eleven," her mother told us, unnecessarily.
"Yes, mother," Mary replied.
One thing I noticed was that Mary never used the local vernacular, choosing to use correct English.
"And no touching her up," Tim called out.
"Tim, go to your room," his mother scolded.
I liked Tim and his irrepressible attitude.
The evening was clear as we walked arm in arm down the road to the Institute. I felt ten feet tall as I walked along with Mary. I had zero experience with girls. I knew the nuts and bolts of reproduction and I knew the physical differences but I had no idea of how to behave. I decided that the best option was to be polite, treat her kindly and see how things panned out.
The Temperance Institute was a throwback to the last century when wealthy worthies spent their money building churches or buildings to their own glory and architects tried to copy exotic buildings from around the world. The Institute was a red brick imitation of the Alhambra Palace and had been built by someone called Edward Leathwaite. I hadn't a clue who he was but his name was carved in a big foundation stone to the right of the door.
Inside, the huge hallways echoed, the floors made of marble and the ceilings covered with ornate mouldings. The building was however showing it's age with the décor showing faded splendor. The ballroom was huge with a sprung wooden floor. On the stage the Edmundo Garcia trio played a waltz, badly. Edmundo, the leader, had a Latin appearance with black wavy hair and a pencil moustache. The rumour mill claimed that he was actually from Manchester.
The room was pretty full and I lost count of the number of times we were greeted. "Nice lass!" several of my mates called out and Mary blushed with embarrassed pleasure.
I bought Mary a glass of apple juice, you didn't get alcohol in the temperance institute, and we listened to the music.
"Do you want to dance?" I asked once we finished our drinks.
"I don't know how," Mary replied glumly.
I loved to dance. "Just do what I do and you'll be fine," I told her and we launched into a gentle waltz.
To start with Mary stepped on my toes once or twice but she had a natural rhythm and soon got to grips with the dance. Feeling her pressed against me was the most exciting feeling. Her breasts were full and pressed softly against my chest. I felt my cock stiffen and in spite of my best efforts to keep my lower body away from Mary's, my bulge brushed against her. Mary looked up at me, blushing.