No Man’s Land
No Man’s Land
SIMON TOLKIEN NO MAN’S LAND
Published by HarperCollinsPublishers
1 London Bridge Street
London SE1 9GF
First published in Great Britain by by HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd 2016
Copyright © Simon Tolkien 2016
The extract at the beginning of Part Five is copyright Siegfried Sassoon, by kind permission of the Estate of Siegfried Sassoon.
Cover design © HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd 2017
Cover photograph ©
A catalogue copy of this book is available from the British Library.
This novel is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are the work of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or localities is entirely coincidental.
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Source ISBN: 9780008100469
Ebook Edition © June 2016 ISBN: 9780008100476
‘Vivid set pieces, notably a wonderful section down a mine, while Adam is an intriguing central character: clever, sincere and, amid the turbulence of early twentieth-century England, a determined survivor.’ Daily Mail
‘Simon Tolkien’s most ambitious work yet … Adam makes an attractive hero and his story has more than enough colour and energy to keep us reading.’ Sunday Times
‘In this emotionally charged novel, Tolkien brings to the fore the social injustice, poverty and attrition of war in early twentieth-century England. The scenes underground in the mines of Scarsdale are every bit as shocking as the harrowing descriptions of trench warfare when Adam and his comrades are repeatedly sent over the top.’ Sunday Express
‘A bittersweet coming-of-age tale … Peopled with a rich cast of sympathetic characters.’ The Straits Times
‘A page-turner, an opera, a costume drama to binge watch. Simon Tolkien knows how to keep a story moving, and he does it well.’ NPR
‘Rends the heart and sears the soul … A splendid novel that exemplifies historical fiction at its descriptive, disturbing, addictive and engaging best.’ Richmond Times-Dispatch
‘Tolkien draws from the World War I-era experiences of his famous grandfather J.R.R. Tolkien to spin a saga worthy of Masterpiece Theater.’ Kirkus Reviews
This book honours the memory of my grandfather, J.R.R. Tolkien, who fought on the Somme between July and October 1916.
Table of Contents
‘I cannot think of any need in childhood as strong as the need for a father’s protection.’
Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents, 1929
The first world Adam knew was the street. It came to him through his senses without mental dilution, filling up his head with sounds and smells and images that he couldn’t begin to unravel. Lying in bed at night with his eyes closed he could see Punch and Judy bludgeoning each other with rolling pins, just as if they were right there in front of him. Down they went and up they came, again and again: gluttons for punishment. He knew that Benson, the rag-and-bone man with the blue scar across his chin, was pulling the strings behind the tattered red curtain but that didn’t make the garishly painted puppets any less real. Just thinking about them made him laugh until his insides hurt, in the same way that he laughed years later in the bioscope when he saw Charlie Chaplin with his bow legs and stick and black moustache, marching confidently up the road towards his next disaster.
For a long time there was no cinema in Islington where they lived. There didn’t need to be – the street was a complete world, turning on its axis to the sound of the waltzes that flew up on a thousand notes out of the brightly painted barrel organ as the bald-headed grinder methodically turned the handle, looking neither to right nor left. He was solemn and sad and apparently unconnected to everything around him, even his monkey, which had a blue cap on its head with a tassel that bobbed up and down as it jumped around with the collection box. Sometimes the children danced to the music, weaving around each other in elaborate patterns, watching their feet to keep clear of the leaking tar and the horse manure. Some of them had no shoes and the tar was hard to get off the skin. You had to use margarine and even that didn’t always work.
The street was familiar and exotic all at the same time: a maelstrom of life. The muffin man carried his wares in a tray balanced on the top of his head; it swayed as he walked but it never fell. The fishmonger wheeled a barrow and, if he dared to look inside, the dead black eyes of the cod staring up out of the white-crystal ice made Adam shiver. And the flycatcher wore a tall black hat with long strips of sticky paper fastened to it, all covered with dead insects, calling out dolefully as he passed: ‘Flies, flies, catch them alive!’
On Saturday nights in summer Adam could look out of his bedroom window and see Baxter, the fat butcher in his bloodstained greasy white apron, standing in the doorway of his shop, lit up by the flare of a paraffin lamp, shouting out to the worse-for-wear men leaving the Cricketers’ Arms on the corner: ‘Buy me leg, buy me leg.’ It was because the poor man couldn’t afford to keep the meat cold overnight, Adam’s father told him; by morning it would be good for nothing.
And once a month two bent-over old men came slowly up the street, pushing a small cart with long handles, from which they sold solid blocks of salt. ‘Any salt please, lah-di?’ they asked in their sing-song foreign-sounding voices, holding up the white salt in their black fingerless gloves like an offering. Sometimes Adam’s mother bought from them and sometimes she did not. It depended on whether there was any money in the house.
Adam’s mother, Lilian, believed in God but Adam’s father, Daniel Raine, did not. He believed in something else instead, called socialism, which Adam didn’t understand until later, even though his father tried to explain it to him sometimes. Adam’s mind wasn’t yet ready for abstract concepts. God was different. He couldn’t see God, of course, but he could feel his presence in the high fluted arches of the Holy Martyr Church with the soaring white spire that he went to with his mother on Sunday mornings. God – as Adam pictured him – had a huge head and a white snowy beard and he lived up above the grey London clouds, gazing down at his creation with big eagle eyes. He was surrounded by a throng of ancient saints who had slightly shorter beards and a lesser number of winged angels who did not. They were extra eyes in case God needed them.
And God was not happy. In fact he was angry, filled with ‘a righteous rage’ according to Father Paul, an old priest with red mottled cheeks and thick grey bushy eyebrows that met in a wiry tangle in the middle of his wrinkled forehead, who was the rector of the Holy Martyr. God was incensed not by the poverty and injustice that Adam’s father complained about, but by the wickedness and debauchery, the unbridled lechery and fornication, that was going on day and night down below. Adam wasn’t clear what these sins were but he knew they were bad, very bad. ‘Repent; repent now before it is too late,’ the rector shouted at them all from the high, elaborately carved pulpit. Adam watched fascinated as beads of perspiration formed in the crevices of the old man’s face and trickled down, dripping in globules on to his surplice. He sat very still, clutching his mother’s hand, and wanted to urinate.
‘Will Daddy go to hellfire?’ he asked her as they crossed the park afterwards, going back home under a leaden November sky.
‘No,’ Lilian said. ‘Definitely not. Your father is a good man.’
‘But he doesn’t believe,’ said Adam. ‘And Father Paul says that if you don’t believe, you can’t be saved. That’s what he said. I heard him.’
‘Jesus died for all of us,’ she said, squeezing her son’s hand. ‘He loves us. You need to know that.’ And he was grateful to his mother for the reassurance, even though what she said didn’t make much sense. Adam didn’t like to think about Jesus if he could help it, bleeding to death on the big wooden cross, stuck up there under the hot sun in that horrible Golgotha place with all those Roman soldiers gawping at him; and he was secretly glad when his father said that the Bible was all lies, stories that the rich had made up to keep the poor in their place, doing the rich man’s bidding.
‘“The opium of the people”: that’s what Karl Marx called religion and he was absolutely right,’ Daniel Raine shouted at his wife across the kitchen. ‘It’s the promise of heaven to justify a hell while we’re alive. The hell we’re living in now,’ he added for good measure.
When his father raised his voice, Adam was frightened and slipped down under the table where he could push the black-and-silver-painted train with real tiny wheels that his father had made for him up and down the patterned lines on the oilcloth-covered floor. They were like the web of railway tracks he had seen at King’s Cross Station when his mother had taken him there in the summer to see the steam trains coming and going in all their smoky glory.
He could still see her from where he was, standing at the range, stirring a pot with a big wooden spoon. There were onions in the soup she was preparing; he could smell them, and perhaps that was why there were tears in her eyes. Adam didn’t know and he would have liked to run to her and put his arms around her thin waist, encircling her in a tight embrace, but he knew instinctively that he had to stay where he was; that he couldn’t stop the trouble because the argument was about more than God and the man called Marx that his father so admired. It was about his father being out of work again and there not being enough money to pay for what they needed to buy.
The next day two men in brown overalls came with a horse cart and took away the piano that stood in pride of place in the front room of their small house. They brought a paper and said it was by order because Adam’s father hadn’t kept up with the payments. Adam knew what ‘by order’ meant. It meant there was nothing you could do; it was the same as if God had ordered it as a punishment because you had sinned. There was no right of appeal.
Lilian had played the instrument sometimes in the evening, her long beautiful fingers caressing the keys, gliding in a space of their own. Her music was different from the barrel-organ waltzes the hurdy-gurdy man played – thinner and frailer and sadder, full of sweetness and loss, hinting at places far away that had vanished from the world. And Daniel would sit on an upright chair in the corner of the room, listening to his wife play with bowed head and folded hands, quite still; as though he was one of the devout worshippers in church on Sunday mornings, Adam thought, although he would never have dared say so.
Adam watched his father when the men came; watched the way his hands balled up into useless fists, rocking from side to side as he shifted his weight from one foot to the other and back again; and watched as he beat his head uselessly against the frame of the front door after they had gone.
‘It doesn’t matter,’ Lilian said, laying her hand gently on the back of her husband’s shoulder. ‘We don’t need it, Daniel …’
‘But we do,’ he shouted, refusing to turn around. ‘Life should be about more than grubbing around, trying to stay alive. We’re not animals to be given just enough food and fuel to keep producing goods for the capitalists to sell until we get old and sick and are no more use to them any more. We’re entitled to more than that; we must be.’
It was as if he was asking a question but Lilian didn’t have an answer, unless she told her husband to trust in the Lord, and she knew better than to do that. And he was wrong about the fuel. They had none, and that evening Daniel broke up the chairs and burnt them in the hearth. They ate bread and dripping in the light of the flames and later that night Adam heard his mother coughing on the other side of the thin wall, on and on into the small hours, making Adam’s chest constrict in sympathy so he couldn’t sleep and prayed instead to the big angry God in the clouds to give his father work.
God didn’t answer at first. The building trade was always slow in winter and Daniel hadn’t helped his prospects over the years by his largely fruitless efforts to persuade his fellow workers to stand up for themselves and join the union. What jobs there were came in dribs and drabs, and Adam’s mother had to go out to work as a charwoman, bringing back scraps of meat to feed her family. ‘Leavings from the rich man’s table’, Daniel called them in disgust, but the family missed them when Lilian fell ill, and he had to go and ask for help from the thin-lipped, tight-fisted relieving officer known to everyone on the street as ‘Old Dry Bones’.
Daniel came back furious. ‘Told me that I should put my new suit on next time I came,’ he said. ‘I told him that if I had a new suit I’d pawn it to get what I need rather than coming cap in hand to the likes of him. Like going in front of a judge and jury it was.’
Adam’s Sunday clothes had long ago been pawned. To begin with, his mother would take them in on Monday morning and then queue up on Saturday night to redeem them for use the next day. And at church she told Adam not to kneel but just to sit on the edge of the bench and lean forward, as she was worried about him getting the trousers dirty. But when she got sick she stopped going to church and the pawn ticket stayed where it was, gathering dust on the front-room mantelpiece, across from the bare patch on the wall where the piano had once stood.
‘God will understand,’ she told her son. But Adam wasn’t sure she was right. He didn’t miss his tight-fitting Sunday clothes or his visits to the church with the high arches, but he thought that their non-attendance would make God significantly less inclined to help his family in their hour of need.
That said it wasn’t as if his father was being singled out for misfortune. Other families on the street were faring even worse. Some couldn’t pay their rent and took off without warning, piling their belongings into over-laden donkey carts so that the bailiffs couldn’t seize them when they came to levy distress. There was even a local barrow firm that advertised moves by moonlight. Friends that Adam made playing around the drinking fountain out in the street changed from day to day.
On Christmas Eve the gypsies set up a boxing ring in the marketplace and a tall black-eyed Romany in a frock coat, with red lapels buttoned over a dirty lace cravat, offered five shillings to anyone foolish enough to challenge his heavy, muscled champion; double if you managed to last a three-minute round; and a sovereign if you knocked him down. The man in the frock coat held up the gold coin, twirling it between his finger and thumb so that it glinted in the winter sunlight, attracting the attention of the crowd.
The gypsy fighter sat waiting on a folding stool in the corner of the ring, which seemed barely able to hold his weight. He was stripped to the waist in defiance of the cold and behind him an old grey-haired woman with long silver hoop rings in her ears stood with her legs akimbo, massaging oil into his broad back.
Adam was fascinated by the whole spectacle, although he didn’t want to get too close. He remembered what the children sang on the street: ‘Take the earrings from your ears and put them through your nose and the gypsies’ll take you.’ But from where he was, standing up on his tiptoes, he could see the coloured tattoos on the big fighter’s biceps – a snake that writhed and a girl whose chest expanded each time he flexed his muscles. Thick black curly hair sprouted up on the top of the champion’s flat-shaped head, and his tiny eyes set back under a domed forehead seemed to be focused on nothing at all.
Staring up at the gypsies, Adam only became aware of his father’s decision to take the challenge when it was too late to try and stop him.
‘Hold these for me,’ Daniel said, handing Adam his shirt and jacket. ‘And stay where you are. I’ll be back in a minute, I promise,’ he added with a smile, seeing the look of panic on his son’s face.
‘Don’t do it, Dad. He’ll knock you out,’ Adam shouted, but his father had already climbed up into the ring and the gypsy man in the frock coat was leading him forward to introduce him to the crowd.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, here’s a brave volunteer. What’s your name, mister?’
‘Daniel. Daniel Raine,’ said Adam’s father in a loud clear voice, and Adam felt a rush of pride springing up side by side with his fear. His father had to be scared – the gypsy fighter was built like a house – but he certainly wasn’t showing it.
‘And what do you do, Danny?’ asked the man in the frock coat.
‘I’m a builder when I have the work. But now I don’t, which is why I’m up here. I sure as hell wouldn’t be otherwise,’ said Adam’s father, glancing over at his opponent. The crowd laughed and began to shout out words of encouragement.
‘Well, good luck to you,’ said the man in the frock coat, beckoning his own fighter to approach. Standing, the man was even more formidable than he had looked sitting down. It was almost comical the way he towered over Adam’s father, watching impassively as his opponent took off his shoes and pulled on a pair of old boxing gloves. Adam felt sick. He wished his mother was there because she would know what to do and for a moment he thought of running home to fetch her, but he knew that by the time he got back it would be too late and the fight would be over. His father had told him to stay where he was; he could always close his eyes if he couldn’t bear to look.
At a signal from the man in the frock coat, the old woman in the corner rang a brass bell and the fight began. It was obvious from the start that Daniel had no chance of winning. He was a short, slightly built man and he didn’t have the power in his arm to fell the ox-like strongman he was up against. But his focus on survival instead of victory seemed to help his cause. He was quick and courageous and he had the support of the crowd. Some of them seemed to know him and shouted out his name: ‘You can do it, Daniel. Don’t let him get too close.’
Time and again the huge gypsy swung his arms and missed as Daniel ducked or leant away, jabbing at his opponent’s chest as he passed. Adam counted down the seconds. The round was supposed to last three minutes and it had surely been at least that already, and his father was still on his feet. But he was tiring. Adam could see that. And now the gypsy had him hemmed into the corner of the ropes, the same one where the old woman was still standing – Adam could see she had the bell in her hand but she wouldn’t ring it. And his father couldn’t stay where he was – he feinted to the left and spun away to the right and the gypsy almost missed with the haymaker punch he’d aimed at Daniel’s nose. Instead he caught him on the side of the cheek and Adam’s father fell down on the boards, momentarily stunned.
The man in the frock coat started to count to ten in a loud voice, hamming up the drama for the benefit of the crowd. Adam couldn’t remember ever feeling more terrified. Everything seemed frozen, hanging suspended in the thin cold air. He stared at his father, focusing all his concentration on his prone figure, willing him to move. And, as if in response, he did. First with one arm and then with the other, Daniel hauled himself up on the ropes into a standing position. And behind him the gypsy woman rang the bell and the crowd roared their approval. The round was over. And he hadn’t lost.
Walking home, Daniel made light of what had happened. He seemed pleased with himself, happy with the ten shillings that he had won, jingling the silver coins in his pocket.
‘My winnings will pay for Christmas,’ he said. ‘Your mother will be pleased.’
He looked over at his son and saw to his surprise that the boy was crying. ‘It’s all right,’ he said, putting his arm round Adam’s shoulder. ‘Nothing bad was going to happen. I knew what I was doing.’
Suddenly something inside Adam snapped. ‘No, it’s not all right,’ he shouted, the pent-up fear exploding out of him. ‘He could’ve killed you, but you didn’t think. You never think.’ He didn’t know he was beating on his father’s chest with his fists until his father lifted him up and held him away.
He’d never shouted at his father like this and he expected him to be angry, but he wasn’t. Instead he looked conscience-stricken, full of remorse.
‘I’m sorry, son,’ he said, putting Adam down. ‘You’re right. I didn’t think, and I should have. It’s in my nature, I suppose, to rush into things, to look for challenges wherever I can find them. Next time I’ll try to be more sensible. Will that work for you?’ he asked, squatting down and looking Adam in the eye.
Adam nodded, using his father’s proffered handkerchief to dry his tears.
‘Come on,’ said Daniel, looking across the street. ‘I know what we need.’ Weaving their way between horses, carts and bicycles, they crossed the road and went into a brightly lit confectioner’s shop. It was a perfect heaven, but an earthly version, very different from the one they talked about in church. Row upon row of cylinder-shaped show-glasses were lined up on polished mahogany shelves containing liquorice shoestrings and peppermint drops and brandy balls and tiger eyes, and on the counter was a set of brass scales and weights for measuring out purchases. But Adam wanted none of them; before they had even entered the shop he had had his mind made up and his heart set on a perfectly sculpted brown toffee pig standing on its own in the window.
On the way home he clasped it tight to his chest, while his father clutched a hunk of ice to his bruised cheek. And at the door Daniel stuck out his hand for Adam to shake. ‘Quite a day we’ve had of it, haven’t we, old man? Quite an adventure!’ And Adam nodded: the pig was the best Christmas present he’d ever had.
The New Year brought fog: the kind of London fog that was like a moving creature, sucking at the air as it moved, enshrouding the people who had to endure its wet embrace. Dirty and acrid, it crept inside their clothes, clinging clammily to the skin, breeding sickness. The traffic slowed almost to a halt and men and horses reared up out of nowhere, suddenly illuminated by the gas-fired streetlights.
One evening Adam was out with his father and they bought two jacket potatoes at a stall, holding them in their palms to warm their ice-cold hands before they began to eat. After a few minutes the fog began to clear a little and they could see a large shed-like building on the other side of the road with ‘Salvation Army’ emblazoned on a hoarding above the main door.
‘Come with me,’ said Daniel, suddenly excited. And taking his son’s hand they went inside. For a moment Adam’s eyes had to adjust to the light before he was able to take in the great size of the hall and the huge number of men inside it. They were sitting in rows on long benches all facing forwards, and most of them were resting their heads on their folded arms, which were themselves supported by the backs of the benches in front of them.
‘Listen,’ Daniel told his son, putting his finger to his lips to hush the questions about the place that the boy was clearly about to ask. And after a moment Adam could hear it – the deep rhythmic snoring emanating from hundreds of mouths and nostrils. Everyone was asleep, sitting down.
‘They can’t lie down. It’s not allowed,’ Daniel said, pointing to a notice on the wall. ‘If they pay a penny they can sit here all night and keep warm but they’ve got to stay upright. “Penny sit-up”: that’s the name of this place, and it’s better than the public library where they have to sleep standing up, hanging on to the newspaper stands. And anyway the library’s closed at night, like the parks. That’s what the iron railings are for – to keep the paupers out,’ he added with a bitter laugh.
‘But who are they? Where do they come from?’ asked Adam, awed by this mass of sleeping humanity, the rows of destitute men stretching endlessly away as far as he could see.
‘They’re the poor of London. Men who have worked hard all their lives but have now outlived their purpose. Chewed up, spat out and left to die by the capitalists who’ve got no use for them any more. Look! They’ve got nothing to look forward to but their deaths and that’ll come soon enough.’
Adam was frightened by the anger in his father’s voice. He wanted to leave this terrible place behind. But Daniel hadn’t finished.
‘The strangest part is not that the poor suffer but that they accept their suffering,’ he went on, and it was almost as if he was talking to himself; as if he had forgotten his son standing beside him. ‘Ask them, and they’d say they are truly grateful for the crumbs that are thrown to them from the rich man’s table and, if they had the vote, they’d vote without thinking for the perpetuation of the system that keeps them poor and cold, and will keep their children poor and cold when they are gone. But I won’t accept that,’ he said passionately, turning back to his son. ‘I want a better world for you to live in: one where men are valued for who they are, not for what the rich can get out of them. It may never happen, but it’s still worth fighting for. Can you understand that, Adam? I know it’s hard, but it’s important – what I’m trying to tell you.’
The boy nodded slowly. His father had used a lot of long words that he hadn’t heard before; and with his patched clothes and thin, unshaven face Daniel hardly looked convincing. In fact he looked almost as disreputable as the paupers sleeping on the benches in front of them. But the flame of his father’s conviction burnt more strongly than ever in his bright blue eyes and Adam felt in that moment that he would follow his father into any danger, even that lion’s den in Babylon that Father Paul had talked about in church, which had given him nightmares for days afterwards. It was a man called Daniel just like his father who had gone in there and come out unscathed, Adam remembered.
An attendant approached them, asking if they wanted to sit down, and his enquiry broke the spell.
‘I’m sorry, Adam. I hope I didn’t frighten you,’ Daniel said as they began to walk home through the gas-lit streets. ‘I forget how young you are sometimes.’
‘I’m not young. I’m old enough to go to school,’ said Adam.
‘So you are. So you are,’ said Daniel with a smile, as if realizing the fact for the first time. ‘Well, we shall have to see about that, shan’t we?’
School expanded Adam’s horizons. Beyond his street, beyond his tiny terraced house with the small patch of ground at the back where his father dug at the hard sooty soil with a broken spade and tried to raise shrivelled vegetables under his mother’s dripping washing line. Into a new world.
Lilian gave her son a St Christopher medal to wear around his neck because he would be a traveller now, walking to school and back with his slate hung by a string over his shoulder. And she rubbed ointment into his head each morning to stop the lice coming. It smelt of sarsaparilla and Adam hated it, but it was better than being singled out and sent home when Matron ran her steel comb hard through the children’s hair on her tours of inspection.
School was hot with combustion stoves where the children were allowed to warm their flasks of tea in the morning, and noisy with the sound of their coughing as they tried in vain to expel the coke fumes that they breathed down into their chests. All day the windows of the schoolroom were misted over with the humidity and the children drew faces in the fog. Some of them were unflattering pictures of Old Beaky, the first-form teacher, who was too short-sighted to see what they were doing. He had a tassel on his mortar board that reminded Adam of the organ grinder’s monkey. It made Adam laugh, and, not for the first time or the last, his inability to control his mirth got him into trouble. Beaky needed to make an example and he punished Adam by shutting him up in the cellar. It was dark and wet and there was a creature, maybe a rat, rustling somewhere, and Adam was frightened. And when his father found out what had happened, he went with Adam to the school and shouted at Beaky who backed away into a corner of the classroom with his hat and tassel wobbling ridiculously on top of his old bald head.
After that school was better. Beaky taught his class about the Empire on which the sun never set and showed them a map of the world covered with pink. The pink was British and London where they were was the capital, the centre of everything. Sometimes the children sang ‘Rule Britannia’ and threw their pens up into the air at the climax so that the nibs stuck in the ceiling.
Adam had boots too now, replacing the leaking, broken shoes that he had worn through the long winter. Just as in previous years, the building trade had picked up with the coming of warmer weather and his father was back in regular work. His mother coughed less and they had meat to eat on Sundays, and could go to the eel pie shop up on the High Street in the evenings where they wrapped the food in sheets from the penny newspapers which Adam read as he ate: accounts of stabbings and poisonings that made him shiver even as the hot food warmed his insides.
In the summer the travelling fair came to Islington and encamped on Highbury Fields. Adam went there every day, greedy to experience everything it had to offer. He rode swinging boats that went high up into the air, turning his stomach over when they fell, and the joy wheel that spun the riders round and round, whirling up their clothes so he could feast his eyes on the girls’ white drawers and bare pink knees. He ate hot chestnuts and black peas and wiggle waggle, a toffee that blackened his face and lips; and gazed entranced at the strongest man on earth, who was twice the size of the champion his father had boxed in the market square, and at the human beast from the jungle who snarled and roared in his cage just like a wild animal. There were real beasts too – an elephant that stood on its hind legs and a lion on a steel chain that looked sad and dejected, not lion-like at all. At night Adam left his bedroom window open so that he could hear the roaring of the menagerie coming to him across the rooftops.
Beyond the fairground, beyond Islington, London went on forever, the roads and the rails and the tramlines snaking outward like the Gorgon’s hair in the story his mother had told him about Perseus, the hero who had killed the monster by avoiding her eye, taking care only to look at her reflection in the face of his shining silver shield.
At weekends he helped the cabbies at Euston and King’s Cross, loading and unloading bags, and used the pennies he earned to ride the brightly painted trams as they swayed through the city streets – he liked it best in the evenings when the flashes from their overhead cables lit up the darkness like blue lightning.
Or he would sit on the open upper deck of the new motor buses feeling the wind and the rain on his face as he looked down at the people in the streets – people everywhere, poor and rich, idle and hurrying, no end to them. He wondered where he fitted in amongst them all, what his place might be in this mad rushing world that stopped for no one.
He was getting older. He gambled with his school friends for cigarette cards on the canal towpath. If the policeman caught them, he passed his hat round for a bribe, the price of turning a blind eye, but often they just threw it in the water and then dived in themselves, surfacing on the other side, laughing. Always laughter surging up through Adam like life, making it possible to forget for a moment about his troubles: his mother’s sickness, his father’s anger, the endless need for money.
Everything changed when Halley’s Comet came. That’s how Adam remembered it afterwards. He was transfixed by its brightness – the flash of dazzling light drawn across the still night sky. He knew it was only gas and dust and rock held together by gravity, but he couldn’t shake off the sense of foreboding that everyone seemed to feel as the comet approached its zenith. And when the King died it seemed as if the doomsayers might be right.
Adam went to Westminster with his parents to watch the funeral procession. Daniel had been going to stay at home but relented at the last moment. ‘I’m coming to watch, not to mourn,’ he said defiantly, refusing to put on his newly purchased best suit which Lilian had laid out for him, hoping for a change of mind. ‘He was king of his class, king of the one per cent who own half the wealth of this country and want to keep it that way,’ he added as he pulled on his working clothes and straightened his cloth cap.
‘Daniel, please don’t speak ill of the dead,’ said his long-suffering wife. She’d heard it all before – every statistic, every argument. Repeating them didn’t change anything.
‘He embodied them,’ Daniel went on, ignoring her. ‘I’ll say that much for him. Gorging his way through four huge meals a day while the rest of us were left to starve; filling his fat stomach with disgusting rich food. I’m surprised the old devil lived as long as he did.’
Something inside Lilian snapped. ‘Don’t come if you don’t want to. You’re not doing me any favours. In fact, to tell you the truth, I’d prefer it if you didn’t,’ she told her husband. She was soft-spoken by nature and her harsh tone startled him, making him look up. ‘You talk to me like I’m not here, like I don’t exist except as an audience for your politics. But I do exist. I’m flesh and blood and tears and pain and—’ She broke off, unable to go on as she strangled the cry in her throat, but the tears on her cheeks bore witness to the depth of her distress.
Out on the half-landing, Adam, uncomfortable in his tight Sunday suit, stood watching his parents’ argument through the open door of their bedroom, the bed between them covered with a cheap eiderdown, the dust motes in the air illuminated by the morning sun coming in through the open window, a cheap wooden cross the only ornament on the mildew-stained wall. The moment burnt into his memory like an X-ray photograph.
Daniel was white-faced, standing up straight as if he had been struck, searching for words. He wanted to go to his wife, beg her forgiveness, but he couldn’t, forced back by the intensity of her emotion.
‘I’m sorry, Lil,’ he said, stumbling over his words. ‘You’re right. I get carried away sometimes.’ He reached out his hand across the bed, but she ignored it, wiping her tears away instead with the back of her arm.
‘It’s for Adam’s sake I want to go,’ she said. ‘It’s history when the King of England dies and our son needs to see it. What you do is your own affair.’
Daniel nodded, accepting the reproof. He picked up his best suit and began to change his clothes.
In the streets everyone was in black. The women seemed like giant crows behind heavy crape veils. Everywhere was closed up, silent, except for the muffled tolling of the church bells and the monotonous tread of the mourners walking from all directions towards Westminster.
It was still early when they reached Hyde Park and they were able to work their way to the front of the crowd by the time the draped gun carriage with the King’s coffin came into view, followed immediately by a small dog, the King’s fox terrier, Caesar, led by a kilted Highland soldier. But that was the last homely touch. The new king, George, rode behind his father’s coffin at the front of a group of men dressed in wildly extravagant uniforms. The bright May sun reflected on their shining white-plumed helmets, half blinding Adam as they came abreast of where he was standing. And then for no apparent reason the cortège stopped – only for a moment or two but it was enough for the horseman closest to Adam to look down and catch the boy’s eye. Immediately Adam recognized him. The huge absurd upturned moustache was unmistakable – it was the German Kaiser. It was only a few seconds at most, but Adam had time to sense the man’s extraordinary rigidity – his frozen left arm, his chin thrust forward, his unblinking blue eyes; his concentration and self-absorption. He seemed mad somehow, capable of anything. And then, while Adam’s impression was still forming, he was gone – a memory of scarlet and silver and gold. And the marching soldiers and sailors followed – thousands and thousands of them following their dead king down the road that led to Paddington Station, while the drums beat and the bagpipes wailed.
It was as if the old order had passed away into the mist, and now everything was changing. It was an age of wonders: a Frenchman had flown a monoplane across the Channel; there was newsreel of it at the Picture Palace where Adam also went to watch the official motion picture of the King’s funeral, peering up at the grey-specked screen, hoping in vain to catch a glimpse of himself in the crowd, a participant in history.
The world seemed to be turning faster, rushing towards some invisible climax. Motor cars were everywhere, blowing their horns, whipping up clouds of dust from the poorly surfaced roads, running down people who left the safety of the pavements. And above the noise the newspaper boys cried out their violent headlines about a country torn apart by strife: suffragettes breaking windows in Whitehall; the need for more dreadnoughts; riots and mayhem.
And strikes – that word was on everyone’s lips. Everywhere men were demanding better pay; better hours; better conditions. It was the time Daniel Raine had been waiting for: the dawn of a new age of social justice when workers would be fairly rewarded for their toil. He was the secretary of the local branch of the building workers’ union, which met in a small private room at the Cricketers, the pub on the corner of his street. Membership was up and meetings went on late into the night, taking all his attention. But Adam’s mother was unwell again and sometimes she sent Adam with messages to ask her husband to come home. Like other women on the street, she hated the pub, although in her case it was not for the usual reasons. Daniel had never been a drinker, wasting what little money they had on alcohol. Politics and the union were his addiction and the pub was where he was able to indulge his passion. Fired up with righteous zeal amid the dazzle of the gas lamps, he could forget about the rent arrears and the grocer’s unpaid bill. But Lilian couldn’t. She knew they couldn’t afford a strike – not with the colder weather coming. The winter before had been bad enough; and everyone said that this one would be worse. But her husband wouldn’t listen whenever she tried to talk to him about her worries: it was as if she didn’t exist.
She felt as if there were taut strings inside her body that were being tightened like piano wire until they were almost at breaking point. When she tried to exert herself she coughed and coughed, and had to grope her way up the rickety stairs to her bedroom where she lay completely still, listening to the sounds of the street below coming up to her through the open window like the noise of the sea, receding away from her on an ebb tide.
In the end it was a safety issue that lit the fuse. Daniel and his crew had been refurbishing a department store on the north side of Oxford Street. It was a large job needing to be done quickly so that the shop could reopen in time for the Christmas season, and the contractor had been cutting corners by using high ladders instead of scaffolding for painting the high ceilings. Some were so high that the painters had to work, balanced at ninety degrees almost on the top rung, and it wasn’t long before a man fell, suffering appalling injuries when he hit the ground. The union demanded proper scaffolding be installed and refused to carry on working until it had been put in place, and the employers responded by bringing in new labour. They saw the strike as an opportunity: times were hard and the strike-breakers were prepared to work for lower wages.
Daniel was tireless, toiling day and night to organize the picket lines that the blacklegs had to cross to go to work, but the strikers’ shouts and curses didn’t deter them. And as the refurbishment continued apace, the strikers’ anger grew. Police were called in to keep the peace and stood in a solid blue line between the two sides, their truncheons at the ready. The rain ran down their capes into pools on the ground, but they stood motionless, ignoring the strikers’ fury, indifferent to their frustration.
‘How long will this go on?’ Lilian asked her husband, confronting him in the hallway on one of his rare visits home.
I don’t know,’ he said. ‘As long as it takes. Until the owners see reason.’
‘And what if they don’t? What do we live on?’
‘The union will help.’
‘A few shillings,’ she said contemptuously. ‘That won’t pay the rent.’
‘I don’t know,’ he said wearily. He was dog-tired – all he wanted to do was sleep. ‘We’ll have to do our best, make sacrifices. We have justice on our side – it’s a cause worth fighting for.’
‘Worth starving for, worth dying for,’ she shot back, mimicking her husband’s phrase, echoing it back to him, invested with all the despair she felt inside.
‘It won’t come to that, Lil,’ he said, moving past her to go up the stairs. ‘I promise you it won’t.’
Another week passed and she’d had enough. There was nothing to eat in the house and no money to pay the tradesmen who came knocking at the door. Next it would be the bailiffs. Daniel talked about justice but there was no justice in leaving her alone and abandoning his family. For Adam’s sake he had to come home, give up the cause once and for all and start over; she would make him if she had to. Wrapping herself in her thin overcoat, she set out to find her husband.
It was getting towards evening and the strike-breakers were beginning to come out, keeping their heads down, hurrying between the lines of police to where the special buses laid on by the employers were waiting to take them away. Another week’s work done and Sunday, a day of rest, to look forward to, at home or in the snug at the public house with beer in their bellies and a warm fire in the hearth.
For the strikers it was too much. Enraged by their own impotence, hating the scabs who had stolen their jobs, imagining the pay jingling in the pockets of their enemies’ overalls, they held up their banners and pressed forward against the phalanx of police, trying to find a way through the human barrier. And when it stayed firm, they began to throw stones. It was what the police had been waiting for. At a whistled command from behind, their front rank charged forward, laying about them indiscriminately with their truncheons and trampling the strikers, who fell down under their blows.
Daniel was hit on the side of the head and lost consciousness. When he came to, he was lying on his back in the gutter; he opened his eyes and then closed them immediately as the darkening sky came hurtling down towards him. His head ached and his shoulder hurt, and he swallowed back hard on the vomit that had risen up into his throat, mixing with the blood in his mouth. Slowly, very slowly, he pushed himself up on to his knees, looking back down the road to where his workmates were fighting a losing battle with the police. Everything was blurred and confused: a melee of movement; a cacophony of noise – cries and shouts and something else, a beating, and someone running towards him, calling out his name. Someone he recognized – Lilian, his wife Lilian, with her beautiful blonde hair flying out behind her as it had when she was a girl and they had first met faraway by the sea – in another time, another century.
She was shouting: ‘No, no, no,’ running towards him and shouting: ‘No,’ and something else was running too – behind him where he could not see. The beating was the beating of hooves on the asphalt. In despair he held out his hands towards his wife – whether to stop her or to receive her he didn’t know. His back contracted, shrinking up, anticipating its own destruction. But miraculously the horse passed over him, leaving him unscathed and able in the next instant to watch his wife being crushed to death only a few feet in front of where he knelt.
Afterwards he crawled forward, indifferent to the madness all around him, and covered her body with his, even though he knew that he had failed her and that it was too late to redeem his fault.
Daniel broke the news to his son in a flat, matter-of-fact way. He told him that he was responsible and that none of it would have happened if he’d been a better husband and a better father. And when Adam rushed away up the stairs he didn’t follow him but just went out the back door and stood with his hands thrust deep into his pockets under the empty washing line, gazing up at the stars with dry, unblinking eyes.
Adam buried his face in his pillow, turning, winding the sheet around his body. And from outside he could hear a cry, human but inhuman, coming up from down below. Falling and rising on unconscious breath, it was the cry of a broken spirit, someone alive who could not bear to be alive. He heard it again five years later in the trenches in France on the night after battle and recognized it for what it was.
He slept, stupefied by exhaustion, and woke up in the early light and for a moment didn’t know. And when he did, he pulled on his clothes quickly. He had to keep moving. Across the landing, his father was asleep, lying face down on the bed in all his clothes. His shoes hung over the edge and Adam thought of untying them, but he couldn’t. It was his mother’s bedroom too and he couldn’t bear to go in there. In fact he couldn’t bear to be in the house. Downstairs her sewing machine and her needlework, her spectacles and her apron, all spoke of her continuity, but her coat missing from the stand by the door told a different story. She was gone; she wasn’t coming back. And each time he remembered, it was like the twist of a sharpened knife in a raw, open wound.
He went out into the street. But now he saw it with new eyes: it was a tawdry show, a mockery of life. Cabbage stalks and refuse in the gutter; horse manure; a dead cat. And the uncertain sympathy on people’s faces made him remember when all he wanted to do was forget. He walked on quickly but aimlessly – anywhere to get away, and found himself outside the church his mother used to take him to. He gazed up at the high tapering spire pointing like a compass needle towards heaven and wondered if it was a meaningless gesture. Was there anyone up there? If there was, the God in the clouds wasn’t a loving God as his mother had said. Adam knew better now: God was more cruel and vengeful than even Father Paul could imagine. Adam shook his fist at God and turned away.
He was hungry; famished. He wanted to die but he was desperate to eat. He had two pennies in his pocket and bought some fish and chips and ate them standing up, gulping down the food like an animal. Afterwards he felt sick, but he also felt as if he’d made a choice – to stay alive.
A day passed and then another and he went with his father to the inquest. He sat at the back, forgotten at the end of a long grey bench, while a police sergeant described in a monotonous voice what had happened to Adam’s mother ‘on the fateful day’, as he called it, cradling his helmet in his hands as he talked, as though it was a baby. The sergeant said he wasn’t the horseman who had crushed the deceased, but that he’d had an excellent view of all that had occurred: the woman had run forward, giving the rider no chance to take evasive action. And then Adam’s father spoke too, saying over and over again that it was his fault; that he was the one responsible: ‘If I’d been at home like Lilian wanted, then she’d be alive now and this would never have happened.’ But the coroner couldn’t punish him; he didn’t even want to. It was an accidental death, a tragedy, and he extended his sympathy to the family as he released the body to them for burial.
Daniel was a broken man but on one issue he was adamant: he wouldn’t allow his wife’s crushed and mutilated body to come home. There would be no wake, no laying out, no chance for Adam to see what had really happened to his mother. He rejected his neighbours’ sympathy and their offers of help, and invited no one to the funeral, so that there was just Daniel and Adam and Father Paul’s curate at the graveside as the undertakers’ men dropped the small plain pine coffin down into the pit that the parish sexton had excavated out of the hard ground. Father Paul had made it quite clear that he considered himself far too grand for what was little better than a pauper’s funeral.
Most of the other families on the street belonged to funeral clubs, contributing a penny or two a week to guarantee a proper send-off when their time came. And, left to her own devices, Lilian would have liked to have done the same, but Daniel had refused to allow it. He hated the idea that the only thing the poor saved for was their deaths, as if that was all they had to look forward to. He had wanted better for his family and now the cost of even the cheapest funeral that the undertaker had been able to offer had left him almost destitute.
Every day he walked the streets looking for work and came home in the evening empty-handed. The building trade was always slow in winter and his work with the union had marked him out as a troublemaker. He knew he was getting nowhere but being out was better than being at home, trapped inside with his memories, and he needed time to think, to come to terms with his grief.
He met Adam in the evenings, sharing inadequate meals beside the cold hearth. The silence between them had become tangible, almost developing into an estrangement. Daniel knew he was failing his son when the boy needed him most, but he also knew that he had nothing to give. Not yet, not until he had worked out what to do.
Each day he went further, walking to forget his hunger, wearing out his boots as he tramped past miles and miles of windswept brick terraces until he reached unnamed places where tarred fences studded with nails and ‘No Trespass’ boards stopped him going on into wastelands strewn with broken glass, tin cans and ash. And there, on the borders of nowhere, he finally made a decision and turned for home.
Early the next day he took the last of his money from behind the loose brick beside the fireplace and told his son to pack his bag. He already had his own ready, sitting beside the front door on top of the final unopened letter from the landlord giving him notice to quit.
‘Where are we going, Dad?’ asked Adam.
‘Somewhere you’ll be safe until I come back for you.’
‘Where, Dad?’ Adam repeated his question, even though he thought he knew the answer. They had no close friends or relations in London and so there was only one place where his father could leave him behind.
Daniel bit his lip, unable to look his son in the eye.
‘It’s the workhouse, isn’t it? That’s where you’re taking me. You’re going to abandon me, just like you abandoned my mother.’ Adam’s voice rose, fear and rage finally overcoming the deference he always showed towards his father.
‘I didn’t abandon your mother,’ Daniel said.
‘Yes, you did. You admitted it at the inquest. I heard you – you said that if you’d stayed at home Mother would still be alive. But instead you had to have your stupid strike. The strike was what you cared about, not me or Mother.’
Tears were streaming down Adam’s face but he didn’t notice them. His words slashed at his father like the lashes of a whip and Daniel involuntarily stepped back, angered by his son’s unexpected attack. The blood rushed to his head and he was about to assert his authority and put the boy in his place, but then at the last instant he bit back on his words. Some sixth sense made him realize the importance of the moment – it was a crossroads in their relationship that could either drive them further apart or perhaps bring them back together.
‘You’re right,’ said Daniel, forcing himself to speak slowly; choosing his words carefully. ‘I put my politics before my family and I was wrong. And I have paid a terrible price—’
‘We have,’ Adam interrupted, throwing the words in his father’s face. Because words were not enough; he needed to feel that his father truly understood the crime he had committed. Without that there could be no forgiveness.
‘Yes, we have. And I promise you I won’t make the same mistake again, Adam. You are more important to me than any idea. I will never abandon you. Try to believe me …’ Daniel held out his hand to his son.
And the pent-up passion in Adam suddenly broke like a rush of water flooding through the falling walls of a broken dam. His grief for his mother, his fear for the future, his love for his father, came together in a wave of emotion that took him forward and into his father’s arms.
‘Get your things,’ said Daniel, releasing his son after a moment. ‘Leaving is only going to get harder the longer we stay here.’
But it wasn’t the house that was hard to leave; it was the street. Instinctively Adam knew that he wouldn’t be coming back, at least not for a long time, not until he’d become an older, different person revisiting childhood memories when they were no more than dust in the wind.
And as he followed his father down the road on that bright winter morning it all came back to him. The sepia lens through which he’d seen the world since his mother’s death dropped away and he saw the barefoot children running behind the water cart soaking their legs and feet in the spray as it rattled over the cobblestones; saw them dancing round the horse trough where he’d spent a hundred Sundays; saw them stop and wave goodbye as he reached the Cricketers on the corner and paused to look back one last time.
The golden rays of the rising sun glared back at Adam and his father from off the thick engraved glass in the pub’s window panes, and from somewhere inside they could hear an invisible woman singing a popular song to the accompaniment of the pub’s penny-in-the slot piano:
‘If I should plant a tiny seed of love
In the garden of your heart,
Would it grow to be a great big love some day?
Or would it die and fade away?’
She sang well, holding the melody, and Adam stopped to listen, but his father took his arm and pulled him forward.
‘We need to go,’ Daniel said, and Adam sensed the tautness in his father, saw the muscles working in his face. He seemed for a moment like a drowning man trying desperately to stay afloat.
It was a long walk through Highbury and up into Holloway where they went by the women’s prison: a dreadful building with blackened Gothic spires and high castellated walls surmounted by barbed wire. And the workhouse when they reached it was just as forbidding, although in a different way: long and grey and flat with rows of clean, closed windows running in a line under the stacks of smokeless chimneys, and above them a brick clock tower with a bell that mournfully tolled the hour just as they arrived outside the door.
The place terrified Adam – he remembered what his father had said about the workhouse in times gone by: it was the place where the poor were sent to die when they were no use to the rich any more; it was the house at the end of the world.
‘Please, Dad, don’t leave me here. Take me with you,’ he implored his father.
‘I can’t,’ said Daniel. ‘I don’t have the money to support us both. Not until I’ve got work. And you’ll be safe here.’
‘I don’t want to be safe; I want to be with you.’
‘You will be. I promise. But for now you’ve got to stay here and trust me. Can you do that, Adam?’ Daniel asked. He leant down, putting his hands on his son’s shoulders, trying to look him in the eye. But Adam kept his gaze on the floor: he hated his father just as much as he loved him at that moment. Finally, reluctantly, he nodded his head.
‘Good lad,’ said Daniel, straightening up. ‘I knew I could count on you.’ He reached out his hand and pulled the bell cord.
‘Listen, Adam, I’ve got to go now,’ said Daniel quickly. ‘The Guardians, the people who run this place, might cause problems if they see me here, but if you’re on your own they’ve got to look after you; so – goodbye. I’ll be back, I promise.’ He put his hand on his son’s shoulder and suddenly pulled him close in a tight embrace. And then, picking up his bag, he walked quickly away.
And for Adam there was no time to think. A wooden grating in the door was shot back and a pair of dark eyes looked out at him for a moment from above a thick moustache.
‘New?’ asked the voice of the otherwise invisible man.
Adam nodded, and there was a sound of bolts being drawn back and a key being turned in the lock. Adam wanted to run away. He felt that once inside, behind this thick iron door, he would never get out again. He hesitated, looking wildly up and down the street, and gave up. He had nowhere to go, no money in his pockets, and he had given his word that he would stay. If he left now his father might never find him when he came back. If he came back.
The porter was dressed in a blue serge suit with gold braids on the sleeves and collar. He looked pleased with himself; pleased with his uniform and with his elaborate military moustache curled up into tiny black spikes at the corners of his mouth. He towered over Adam, looking him up and down as if he was conducting a preliminary assessment, which perhaps he was.
‘All right then,’ he said eventually. ‘Follow me.’ And he set off at a brisk pace down a series of wide corridors with spotless linoleum floors and plain whitewashed walls. There was not a speck of dust anywhere. And all the doors they passed were shut; the porter’s thick bunch of keys jangled against his trousers as he walked and Adam imagined that he had individual keys for every one.
In the receiving ward Adam was told to take off his clothes by a male attendant who went through all the pockets, searching for contraband, before packaging them up in brown paper. And then he had to endure a bath in cold water and a badly executed haircut before he was allowed to get dressed again, this time in the workhouse uniform: a striped cotton shirt, ill-fitting trousers and a jacket made of some coarse fabric with ‘Islington Workhouse’ stitched above the breast pocket.
He felt tired suddenly and wanted desperately to sit down, but the attendant pushed him forward down yet another corridor and into a small windowless office where a grey-haired man with half-moon spectacles perched on the end of his nose was sitting behind a large kneehole desk from which he never seemed to look up. He asked Adam questions about his history and recorded the answers in a huge ledger, pausing frequently to dip his pen in the inkwell, and then listened without interruption to Adam’s account of how he had ended up at the workhouse door before writing the single word, ‘Abandonment’ in the ‘Reason for admission’ column.
‘What’ll happen to me?’ asked Adam. There was fear in his voice: each stage of the admission process had seemed to strip another layer of his identity away until he felt that there was almost nothing left.
‘Perhaps they’ll send you back to school, although you’re almost too old for that. The Guardians will decide,’ he told Adam.
‘At their next meeting,’ the grey-haired man laconically replied, and turned his attention to the next admission, an old man with his belongings tied up in a dirty red handkerchief, distraught because he’d just been separated from his wife of forty years. His protests fell on deaf ears. The Poor Law required separation of the sexes and in the workhouse the law was absolute.
It was a terrible place: everything was regulated – from the exact weight of stones required to be broken in the yard each day to the precise allowances of food for each inmate (Adam received six ounces of bread at supper, although he would have been entitled to eight if he had been a year older). The refectory vividly reminded Adam of the penny sit-up that his father had taken him to in what felt like another lifetime. The inmates sat in rows facing forward, eating their allotted portions in silence before the bell called them back to work.
Because of his age Adam was excused from stone-breaking and was instead put to work picking apart tarred ropes to make oakum that the shipyards used for caulking boats. After unravelling the rope into corkscrew strands, the inmates had to roll them on their knees until the mesh became loose and the fibres could be broken up into hemp. Soon Adam’s fingers became red and raw, so they looked like his father’s hands had sometimes used to look when he came back from work after using soda water to strip old paper from the walls of houses that his crew was refurbishing.
Throughout the day two old sallow-faced officials dressed in identical threadbare black suits walked up and down the aisles between the benches, watchful for any slacking. The inmates picked in silence and the overseers’ monotonous pacing of the hard boards was the only noise in the big windowless workroom in which all the light came from above through circular skylights set in the flat roof. And at the end of the day each worker’s oakum was weighed at a desk by the door; failure to pick the required quota was punished by a reduction in the malefactor’s food allowance. In this, as in all its rules and regulations, the workhouse was mindful of its legal duty to ‘provide relief that was inferior to the standard of living that a labourer could obtain without assistance’. The Guardians wanted to be quite sure that nobody in their right mind would choose this life if he could possibly avoid it.
At night the inmates slept side by side on flock-filled sacks in narrow unheated dormitories. There were men of all ages and boys all mixed together. Some screamed out in their sleep: unintelligible cries which kept Adam awake into the small hours. Lying on his back in the dark, he thought of his mother and then tried not to because it hurt to remember her when she was dead. But blocking her out of his mind made him feel guilty – it felt as though he was killing her a second time. He remembered what the children in his street said about the dead: touching them stopped you dreaming of them. That’s why the old midwife who lived above the Cricketers was paid to lay out the corpse; that’s why bereaved families stopped the clocks and kept candlelit vigils around the body while the neighbours came by and paid their respects. But Adam’s father had refused to do any of this. He’d refused to employ the midwife; he’d shut the door on his neighbours. And as a result Adam had never seen his mother dead; he’d never had the chance to say goodbye.
Adam blamed his father for his mother’s death and for abandoning him in the workhouse. He was angry with his father, angrier than he had ever been with anyone in his whole life, and yet he longed for his father to return and take him away as he’d promised. But he heard nothing. It was as if he had been forgotten, walled up and left to rot like the Frenchman in the iron mask in the story that his mother had read to him the year before from a book that she’d bought second-hand from the barrow man.
In the workhouse only the birds were free, able to escape. Adam looked up through the skylights in the workroom and saw them circling overhead and remembered an autumn evening years and years before when his mother had come and woken him. He was sleepy and she had carried him down the stairs and out of the door and pointed up into the misty sky where he could make out the shapes of hundreds of low-flying swallows, calling to one another as they flew over.
‘Where are they going?’ he’d asked.
‘To Africa where it’s warm. They’ll be back in the spring. Aren’t they wonderful, Adam?’ she’d said – and he thought for a moment that he could hear her voice in his head like a distant echo. The vividness of the unexpected memory jolted him – it seemed significant, as if his mother was communicating with him in some invisible way. Suddenly the hope that had been draining out of him ever since her death returned. And when Daniel arrived at the workhouse the next day with two third-class railway tickets in his hand, it was almost as if Adam was expecting him.
The destination was somewhere Adam had never heard of – a place called Scarsdale.
‘Where is it?’ he asked as they came out through the workhouse door into the early-morning sunshine.
‘In the north,’ said Daniel.
Adam saw his father was smiling, as though he didn’t have a care in the world, and it made him angry. ‘How far in the north?’ he asked.
‘A long way.’
‘Well, I hope it’s as far away as Australia,’ said Adam fiercely. ‘Because I never want to see this place again and I never want to remember that you put me here.’
‘I had no choice,’ said Daniel, biting his lip.
‘There’s always a choice,’ said Adam.
Daniel didn’t answer. He’d seen inside the workhouse and he felt ashamed of having left his son in such a place, and he also sensed obscurely that he didn’t have the same authority over him that he’d had before. The last weeks had changed Adam: he was no longer a boy even if he was not yet a man. Daniel had mixed feelings about the transformation: he mourned the past but he was also glad, knowing that Adam would need all the inner strength and independence he could muster to survive in the place where they were going.
They reached the end of the street and turned the corner and Adam didn’t once look back.
The train left in the evening and Adam and his father waited on the platform under the huge vaulted roof of the station as the day turned to dusk and everything around them dissolved into a blue and grey mist of vapour and smoke, pierced here and there by the pallid glow of the tall arc lights. Across from where they were sitting, they could see the rich coming and going through the door of the first-class restaurant: tall men in frock coats with hats and gloves escorting ladies in narrow-waisted hobble skirts who minced slowly along, their heads almost invisible under elaborate feathered hats. They reminded Adam of the flamingoes that he had seen at the zoo years before, inhabitants of an unknowable world operating on principles entirely outside his understanding.
As the departure time approached the platform filled up and Adam felt his heart beating hard. He knew Euston from days spent in the shadow of the great arch, earning coppers loading and unloading luggage for cabbies at the roadside, but he had never been on a train. He had never been outside London.
He heard the locomotive before he saw it – the scream of its whistle, the screech of engaging brakes, the hiss of steam; and then emerging out of the great pall of smoke came the black-and-red engine, a breathing, snorting mammoth of incredible power. And suddenly there was a frenzy of activity: carriage doors opening and disgorging passengers all the way down the line; porters and guards shouting, holding back the pressing crowd.
‘Come on,’ said Daniel, picking up his bag, and Adam almost lost his father in a sea of shabby jackets and cloth caps but caught sight of him at the last moment waving from the running board. He pushed forward and felt his father’s hand on his, pulling him up into the train.
Inside the compartment they found seats, perched on the ends of two wooden benches, facing each other in the flickering gaslight. Doors slammed and the shouts of the people outside were stilled by the guard’s whistle as the train spluttered back into life and began to pull away from the platform, picking up speed as it headed north, running smoothly along steel viaducts built high above the poor streets where Adam had grown up.
He closed his eyes and thought again of his mother: the leaving of London felt like a betrayal, as if he was leaving her behind too, somewhere back there in the smoky darkness, deliberately severing his last connection with her forever. He knew he was being irrational – that she was gone already – but that didn’t help with the raw tearing emptiness he felt inside whenever he forgot she was dead and then suddenly remembered. He hated that he couldn’t think of her without pain. It made him angry, and he realized that he was angry with her too – because she was supposed to explain these things to him and now she couldn’t.
He shook his head hard as if to expel his thoughts and opened his eyes. His father was looking at him intently, as if he was trying to read his mind.
‘I’m sorry, Adam. I know this is hard.’ Daniel spoke slowly, leaning forward towards his son. ‘It’s hard for me too. But we’ve got no choice. London will chew us up and spit us out if we stay; it’s a cruel town and it’s hurt us enough already.’
Adam nodded, not knowing how to respond. They’d hardly talked all day – the death of Adam’s mother and the weeks in the workhouse had set Adam against his father, and he had repeatedly rebuffed Daniel’s attempts at conversation. But, in spite of himself, he had begun to sense a change in his father. Daniel seemed more thoughtful, less driven. Adam had seen how he had said nothing when they had sat watching the rich men and women coming and going at the station dressed in all their finery. In the past he wouldn’t have been able to resist a political commentary accompanied by plentiful statistics about the unfair distribution of wealth in society, but today he had seemed hardly to notice. Adam wondered what the change meant for the future.
‘What’s this place where we’re going?’ he asked, looking out into the night. Surrounded by strangers in the spartan compartment, rushing forward on the express train towards a new unknown world, he felt apprehensive and hoped for reassurance.
‘Scarsdale? It’s a small coal-mining town not far from the sea. The north is full of places just like it. Everyone works at the mine, on the surface or down below. And it’s hard work, harder than you can imagine, which makes the people hard—’ Daniel stopped in mid-sentence, smiling at his inarticulacy. ‘But not mean, not cruel – miners stick together; by and large they’re good people.’
‘How do you know?’
‘I’ve worked with them. Not in Scarsdale but further south – in Nottinghamshire where I grew up.’
‘You were a miner?’ Adam asked, sounding surprised. He couldn’t imagine his father as anything other than a builder. That’s what he’d been all Adam’s life.
‘No, the firm I was apprenticed to specialized in putting up structures round pitheads to house the heavy machinery and to support it too. It meant I was working side by side with miners all the time so I got to know their ways.’
‘And is that what you’re going to be doing now?’ asked Adam. ‘Building things for them?’
‘No, this is different – nothing to do with construction. I’m working with them – or rather for them, I suppose. I’m to be their checkweighman, which means I measure the weight of the coal in each tub they’ve mined to make sure they get paid the right amount for it.’
‘So you’re down in the mine as well, with them?’ asked Adam nervously. The thought alarmed him – it made him think of being buried, like his mother. He was brave by nature but the thought of being underground had always terrified him. He remembered the well at the back of the school in Islington that Old Beaky had told them was out of bounds. Adam had disobeyed at the first opportunity, using all his childish strength to push the thick wooden cover aside. And, if he shut his eyes, he could still relive the long wait after he threw in a stone, counting the seconds before he heard the faint splash deep down below. He’d had nightmares for weeks afterwards, dreaming of falling down into the thick darkness, his unheard cries echoing off the damp brick walls.
‘No, don’t worry. I’m up on the surface where the tubs of coal come out,’ said Daniel reassuringly. He knew all about his son’s phobia – he’d never even been able to persuade Adam to set foot in the London Underground, let alone get on one of the trains. ‘The job’s not dangerous,’ he went on, ‘but it’s important, and the money will be better than what we’re used to, which will help.’
Daniel’s words were optimistic but Adam sensed an uncertainty lurking underneath and wondered if his father was feeling ashamed that he wouldn’t be sharing the hardships of the men that he was working for. But Adam dismissed the thought: what mattered was that his father would be out of harm’s way. He’d lost his mother and he didn’t want to risk losing his father too.
‘How did you get the job?’ Adam asked. It made no sense that his father should have been able to walk into this cushy, well-paid job in this faraway place when by his own admission he’d never actually been a miner.
‘I have a cousin who recommended me. He’s a good man and he’s worked in the Scarsdale pit most of his life so he has a lot of influence with the men. And it turned out they wanted me because of what I’d done down here with the builders’ union – getting more members, getting organized. It’s the miners’ union that’ll be paying me,’ said Daniel.
‘Will you make them strike?’ asked Adam anxiously. He knew what union work meant – poverty and violence and death. Was this what lay in store for them in the north? A second dose of what they were trying to leave behind?
‘No, I hope it won’t come to that,’ said Daniel, choosing his words carefully. ‘I do want to help, to make things better. But I hope I can achieve that by negotiating with the owner. I hope he’ll listen to reason. I learnt from what happened with your mother, Adam. It changed me, you know, just like it’s changed you.’
Later, much later, they had to change trains. Crossing a footbridge in the rain, they looked across a moonlit landscape of warehouses and factories to where the funnels and chimneys of a blast furnace were throwing columns of white fire and belching orange smoke up into the night sky.
Adam stopped, awestruck. He had never seen anything like it.
‘The jaws of hell,’ said Daniel, clapping his son on the shoulder. ‘And inside it’s hotter than hell; hot enough to make iron into steel, which is what the British Empire is built on. And the fires never stop. They can’t because the demand never does. And the fires need coal, mountains of coal. Which is where we come in,’ he added with a smile.
They got to Scarsdale on the dawn train. And at first, as they approached, Adam could see nothing of the mine. Instead the view from the window was a vision of loveliness. Still-water lakes and green fields carpeted with the first wild flowers of spring, divided one from another by silvery white dry-stone walls; woods of beech and oak and quick-flowing streams, and up on the crest of a hill a picturesque village of thatched cottages surrounding the weathered tower of a mediaeval church. But the railway didn’t go that way, curving round instead into the valley behind where all at once the landscape was utterly transformed. Down below in the valley bottom the mine was marked out by a line of wooden towers and tall red-brick chimneys standing across from a huge man-made heap of slate-grey waste, and stretching up from it on all sides row upon row of squat grey houses, monotonous and monochrome, straddled the hillsides like an encamped army of insects. The change in the view shocked Adam. It was jarring – almost violent – to go from beauty to ugliness in a moment; from a world unchanged in centuries to this industrial outcrop of the new century, with both existing side by side in a bizarre juxtaposition.
As they got closer, Adam could see that the houses were built almost back to back along long narrow streets which all led down like the irregular hands of a giant clock towards the mine at the centre, surmounted by the high towers that dominated the landscape. They had huge wheels at their apex and Adam could see that one set was turning as they approached. The spokes of each one rotated in opposite directions and the sense of power they conveyed reminded Adam of the beast-like locomotive at the front of the train that had made such an impression on him at the station in London.
‘What are they? What do they do?’ Adam asked his father, pointing towards the towers.
‘They’re the headstocks – winding gear like I used to work on. The wheels draw the steel cables that raise and lower the cages up and down the mine shafts,’ said Daniel admiringly, looking at the structures with a craftsman’s eye, taking pleasure in their design.
‘How deep are they?’ asked Adam.
‘Different depths: I’ve heard the deepest is over five hundred feet,’ said Daniel.
Adam shivered. Again he remembered the well in the school yard, the coin falling and the splash far away down below. He’d been terrified but fascinated too, going back again and again for weeks afterwards, drawn to the well like a magnet, although he’d never removed the cover after that first time.
‘Don’t think about the shafts,’ said Daniel, sensing his son’s anxiety. ‘I told you I’m going to be working at the pithead, not down below.’
‘What about me?’ asked Adam.
‘You?’ said Daniel, sounding shocked. ‘I’d never let you work in a mine. You’re my flesh and blood, all I’ve got left, and I’m going to look after you, keep you safe. You believe me, don’t you?’ he asked, looking hard at his son.
Adam nodded, grateful for the reassurance, although he wondered at his father’s willingness to come to this place and represent the men when he was obviously so appalled at the idea of sending his own son underground to work with them.
‘You’re going to school,’ Daniel went on. ‘It’s all arranged. You’re a bright kid, brighter than I ever was, and you deserve a better life than I’ve had, one where you can use your talents and get on in the world. And that’s what your mother would have wanted as well. I’m sure of that. Now come on,’ he added as the train came to a halt. ‘This is where we get off.’
They had pulled into a small station halfway down the valley. From the platform Adam could see the railway line split in two with one set of tracks heading away over the far hill into the invisible land beyond and another continuing down to the pithead below where it wound around among the mismatched assortment of grey brick buildings surrounding the headstocks.
Shouldering their bags, Daniel and Adam walked out through an empty waiting room lined with posters advertising seaside holidays in Blackpool, Scarborough, Whitley Bay and other places Adam had never heard of. The world of brightly coloured deckchairs and bathing machines, pleasure boats and parasols under a hot sun, seemed a long way removed from this bleak mining town which was to be their new home.
Outside the station they had to pause for a minute as a column of cloth-capped miners came up the street from the direction of the mine, returning home from the night shift. Their faces were smeared black with coal dust and their iron-heeled clogs clattered on the roadway as they approached, setting off sparks on the cobbles. Some of them were singing. The tune reminded Adam of a hymn that the congregation used to sing at the church in Islington when he went there with his mother but he could not recognize any of the words. They seemed to be in another language.
The last of the group had almost gone past when a tall man stopped in mid-stride and rushed over to them. He had an open tool bag in his hand, which he dropped on the ground as he put his arms around Daniel, pulling him close in a bear hug. Something tin-like inside it clanged as it hit the pavement and Adam instinctively bent down and picked it up, holding it out to the stranger.
‘So, this is thy boy, eh, Daniel?’ said the stranger, releasing Daniel and looking Adam up and down with a broad smile. ‘’E’s the livin’ image of thee, ain’t ’e? An’ good-mannered too, which I s’pose ’e gets from thee,’ he added, taking the bag. ‘Not like us miners. I’d shake thy hand, lad, but it needs washing first.’
‘Adam, this is your cousin, Edgar Tillett,’ said Daniel. ‘We’re going to be staying with him and his family until we find our feet.’
‘Find thy feet,’ repeated Edgar with a laugh. ‘Thy feet’re at the end of thy legs last time I looked so thou shouldna’ be wastin’ thy time tryin’ to find ’em. An’ you can stay wi’ us as long as you need. You know that. Blood’s thicker than water as they say, an’ they say right.’ He clapped Daniel on the shoulder and Adam sensed his father’s awkwardness in the face of his cousin’s largesse as he smiled uncertainly in response.
The other miners had gone on ahead and now they began to follow them up the hill, walking towards the rising sun. Edgar walked in the centre with Daniel and Adam on either side.
‘How was work?’ asked Daniel.
‘Tight,’ said the miner with a smile, pronouncing the word with relish as if pleased with the selection he’d made from a choice of other possible epithets. ‘That’s the word for it, I’d say. We’re workin’ a plough seam jus’ at present – that’s a narrow ’un, no more’n two feet high – and so we ’ave to be on our ’ands an’ knees most o’ the time. Hurts the back and it hurts the ’ead too if thou doesna watch thyself,’ he said with a grin, stretching his arms out wide as if to release the tension. Adam could see that he was a powerfully built man, lean and strong with muscle.
‘An’ it hurts our pockets too when the owner won’t pay us enough for all our hard work. Which is where you comes in,’ he said with a sideways look at Daniel. ‘You’ve come at the right time, Cousin, I can tell you that. I’m looking for’ards to seein’ thee gangin’ toe to toe with ol’ Sir John and the managers,’ he added with a smile.
‘Who’s Sir John?’ asked Adam, who’d been listening avidly to the conversation. The foreignness of everything in this new world had begun to excite him: the landscape, the way Edgar talked, the things he said. They made Adam want to understand, not to be left behind.
‘Sir John? Why, ’e’s the owner – o’ the mine, an’ o’ nigh ivrything ’ereabouts,’ said Edgar with an expansive sweeping gesture of his hand that seemed to encompass everything in sight. ‘’Cept me ’ouse o’ course. I owns that, lock, stock an’ barrel. I’m one of the few that do, so ’e canna evict me even if the notion takes ’im, which is nice to know.’
They had followed the road up from the station without turning right or left and now came to a halt in front of the last house in the street. Beyond, a yellow cornfield ran up the rest of the hillside to a thick-limbed oak tree standing alone like a sentinel on the sharply etched skyline. The house was the same height as its neighbours but it had been extended out at least fifteen feet to the side where a vegetable and flower garden had been planted out in tidy rows behind a picket fence.
‘Well, ’ere we are,’ said Edgar, pushing open the door and beckoning them to follow him inside. ‘Not exactly a stately ’ome but it’ll do. Thomas, Ernest, say ’ow d’yer do to your cousins.’ This last was addressed to two young men sitting at a deal table on the other side of the large low room into which the entrance opened directly. There was no front parlour as Adam had been used to in London or, if there had been, the partition wall had been knocked down to increase the main living space, which was centred on a big fireplace with a bread oven set in its side. The fire was banked high with red coal and Adam could feel the thick heat radiating off it from the moment he came in.
Ernest, the younger of Edgar’s two sons, came forward and shook Adam’s hand. He was a few months older than Adam and seemed open and friendly like his father. His brother Thomas stood back. He appeared reserved, nodding his head rather than shaking hands. And behind him Adam could see a woman in a white apron and cap, evidently their mother, come bustling out from another room at the back of the house.
She didn’t wait to be introduced but came straight over to Adam and kissed him on the cheek. ‘I’m Annie, Edgar’s wife,’ she said. ‘And I’m glad you’re here. Now, take your coat off and Ernest will show you your room. Edgar, you need to go in the back and wash yourself. You’re black from the pit and you’re not eating breakfast with the likes of us looking like that.’
‘Why do your parents talk different?’ Adam asked as he followed Ernest up the stairs, and then immediately regretted the question. It was rude to ask about the way people spoke. His mother had told him that.
But Ernest didn’t take offence. ‘She’s had more schooling than our dad – he went down the pit when he was nine or ten. One of the two – sometimes he says eight but that’s when he’s had a few too many to drink on a Saturday night and he’s trying to lay it on thick and make you feel sorry for him,’ he said with a laugh. ‘Schooling takes the Yorkshire out of thee, or at least that’s what they say round here. And yes, I suppose it’s done it to me too. That and my mother who’ll clip me round the ear if I talk silly, as she calls it. But I don’t know if it’ll last: I’m working at the pithead now, on the screens, and it’s hard not to talk like everyone else. We all end up down the pit sooner or later, you’ll see. And now here’s my room. And yours too – we’ll be sharing if that’s all right …’
Ernest threw open a door with a theatrical gesture and Adam found himself in a long thin room with two beds, each made up with a spotlessly white counterpane. A table with an oil lamp stood between them, facing a wide but low rectangular window with leaded panes from which he could see across to the oak tree at the top of the hill. They were clearly on the top floor of the side extension that he’d noticed earlier.
‘Better than looking out the front,’ said Ernest, following Adam’s gaze. ‘The houses here are all the same – it’s easy enough to go in the wrong one if you aren’t careful, coming home in the dark. It happens all the time. And you could end up in the wrong bed too, next to the wrong wife if you aren’t careful. And I don’t know what would happen then!’
Ernest laughed and Adam joined in, relaxing for the first time in as long as he could remember. Soon the laughter took him over and he had to sit down on the bed opposite Ernest, holding his sides. And that’s how his father found them when he came upstairs with his bag.
‘Good,’ he said. ‘You two’ll be friends, I think, and I’m glad of that.’
‘Who made ten thousand people owners of the soil, and the rest of us trespassers in the land of our birth?… Where did the table of that law come from? Whose finger inscribed it?’
David Lloyd George, Speech in Newcastle, 9 October 1909
The next day, Daniel and Adam went on the bus to Gratton, the nearest town, to visit the board school. He sat in a room full of dusty books and completed an exam which he found easy – the standard here seemed lower than in London, and by the end of the day their business was done. There would be no fees to pay; all Adam had to do was buy his own textbooks and pay for the bus fares, and work hard.
‘Your boy’s got brains,’ said the headmaster, shaking Daniel’s hand. He was an earnest-looking man with intense grey eyes and an evident sense of mission. ‘He’ll go far if he stays the distance.’
‘Don’t worry,’ said Daniel, looking pleased. ‘I’ll make sure he does that.’
‘What does he mean – stay the distance?’ asked Adam as they waited in the queue at the bus stop.
‘Most children leave school even if they have the chance of staying on. Times are hard and there’s pressure from their families to have the extra income, and then they want to have their own money too.’
‘Like Ernest?’ said Adam.
‘Yes. Edgar has bought his house and that means the family needs more. The rent we’re paying will help too – my cousin’s a generous man but he knows which side his bread’s buttered.’
‘Don’t you trust him, Dad?’ asked Adam. There was something in his father’s voice that he had picked up on – an anxiety, an uncertainty perhaps about the future. Adam couldn’t put his finger on it but he knew it was there.
‘I don’t know,’ said Daniel meditatively. ‘Edgar’s strong, and the other miners look up to him. I can tell that. And he wants to change their lives for them, just like he’s changed his own. But he doesn’t trust himself to be their leader; he thinks you need book learning for that, which is where I come in. I just hope he hasn’t misjudged me.’
It was dark when they got back to Scarsdale and rain was in the air, blown here and there by an indiscriminate wind that carried coal dust on its back up from the slag heap down below where a tangle of lights lit up the pithead. At the station Adam could see trucks on the sidings standing full of bright wet coal glistening in the moonlight, and by the doors of the miners’ houses the rainwater was washing away the early shift times written in chalk on the knock-up slates. Daniel told him that they were there for the knocker-upper, an old man who rode round the streets of the town on a bicycle in the early mornings, waking up the miners by tapping on their windows, using a long pole with wires attached.
In the house at the end of Station Street it was bath night. The galvanized iron tub that Adam had noticed hanging on a hook outside the back door when he went out to use the privy in the morning had been dragged into the living room and filled with hot water which Edgar’s wife had boiled up laboriously in the two kettles by the fire. And one by one the men of the family took turns bathing, scrubbing their pale bodies with Watson’s Matchless Cleansing Carbolic, although it was Annie’s job to wash their backs. Sitting out of the way in the corner of the room, Adam was touched to see how tenderly she ran the cloth across her husband’s shoulder blades, dabbing at the multitude of pale blue scars like tattoo marks where the coal had lodged under his skin. And then at the end Adam and Ernest carried the bath outside to pour away the inky-black water and leave it ready for the laundry work to begin the next day.
Further at the back, beyond the privy and the ash pit, a pig grunted in its makeshift sty. Perhaps it didn’t like the rain – Adam didn’t know. There had been pigs in the back gardens in London too, fattened through the year for slaughter in the autumn, but Adam had avoided them, pained by the certainty of their coming death. He felt it an ill omen that there should be another here and hoped that he and his father would have ‘found their feet’ and moved to their own house before killing time came round.
Back in the warmth of the house, Edgar, swathed in clean towels, was squatting in front of the fire, toasting brown sugar on a spoon until it turned black. Adam watched as he took a frying pan, added water and flour and mixed them with the burnt sugar for gravy. The movements of his big powerful hands were quick and fluid – hands that could make things but could unmake them too. He caught Adam’s eye and smiled.
‘Come over ’ere, lad. There’s summat I wanna show thee.’
He reached up above the mantelpiece and took down a small round tin box about two inches in diameter and six inches deep and turned it over in his fingers a moment before handing it to Adam.
‘Hang on to that and I’ll tell thee its story,’ he said. ‘Thy grand-uncle, thy father’s uncle and my father, ’e made that. Forty year ago when ’e wor workin’ in the Marley Main mine south o’ here, and the pit went up wi’ an explosion on account o’ they was usin’ matches to light their lamps – silly ignorant fools that they were – an’ one caught the firedamp that they ’ave underground. Firedamp – it’s a gas. Methane they calls it too,’ he added, catching the puzzled look on Adam’s face. ‘Any road, a lot o’ boys thy age lost their lives that day, but two ’o them survived by a miracle, trapped behind the fallen rock. An’ my dad, ’e drilled a borehole through the stone so ’e could pass this ’ere tin through to ’em with food and water for ’em to ’ave while they were diggin’ ’em out.’
‘And did they?’ asked Adam, looking down at the old tin in his hand, wondering at how Edgar had transformed it from an apparently worthless object into something so precious in just a few sentences.
‘Did they wot?’
‘Dig them out. Did they survive – the two who were trapped?’
‘One o’ ’em did, t’other didn’t. You takes your chances, but the point is that we stick together, us miners. We ’ave to,’ he added, glancing over at Daniel, who was sitting reading the newspaper at the table. And Adam sensed suddenly that Edgar had been telling the story to his father just as much as to him.
Ernest began his shift late on Monday and so there was time for him to walk with Adam to the bus. The stop was in a square across from the station where the village shop and pub and the Miners’ Institute were also located. In the middle a set of rusty swings stood on an uneven patch of worn-out grass – the town’s sole concession to the concept of small children’s entertainment. On warmer days mothers sat on the wooden benches and gossiped, resting their legs before they walked home, and teenagers came here too when they weren’t working, the girls watching the boys and the boys watching the girls and all of them pretending that they were doing nothing of the kind, gathered together in their separate self-conscious groups on opposite sides of the green.
The bus was late and some boys came over when they saw Ernest. One of them stood out from the rest. He was thin and wiry with short hair cropped tight to his skull, dressed in pit clothes that seemed too big for him, as if he was wearing his father’s cast-offs, and he walked with an almost imperceptible limp, slightly favouring his left leg over his right. He was looking at Adam, not Ernest, and Adam sensed the boy’s hostility. It seemed personal, as if he already knew who Adam was and didn’t like what he knew.
‘You’re goin’ up in the world, Ernest,’ he said. ‘Got a new pal wi’ smart London clothes to wear. Wot’s ’is name?’
The boy spoke with a strong local accent but Adam sensed that this was a choice, a deliberate statement of identity.
‘My name’s Adam,’ he said, stepping forward, putting out his hand. He refused to be cowed, not after all he had gone through.
The boy kept his hand in his pockets, looking at Adam’s outstretched hand with contempt. ‘An’ wot hast thou got in there?’ he asked, nodding at Adam’s bag
‘School books,’ said Adam. ‘I’m going to the board school in Gratton.’
‘I knows where the board school is,’ said the boy. ‘I’m not stoopid, you know, even if I work for me livin’.’
‘I never said you were,’ said Adam, standing his ground.
The boy smiled coldly, apparently amused by Adam’s boldness. ‘So let’s see ’em,’ he demanded, pointing at the bag. ‘Show us what we’re missin’ while we’re down mine, ’ackin’ out the coal for thy fire.’
‘Leave him alone, Rawdon,’ said Ernest nervously. ‘He’s done nothing to you.’
‘“Done nothing to you,”’ the boy repeated. He was a good mimic, catching the anxious defiance in Ernest’s voice. ‘Aye, I s’pose ’e’s done nowt, apart from ’is father comin’ an’ takin’ me father’s job,’ he said, switching his attention back to Adam. ‘An’ ’im ’ere bein’ too good for the pit an’ the likes o’ us. Now show us,’ he shouted, taking hold of Adam’s bag and wrenching it out of his hand. ‘Show us what you’ve got!’
The bag opened and the textbooks fell out on to the muddy ground. Adam was horrified, momentarily lost for words. Less than two days previously he had felt such pride of ownership when his father had taken him to the bookshop in Gratton High Street and they’d selected the books from the densely packed shelves. His father had paid for them at the counter, and then made Adam a present of a pen with a fine silver nib with which to inscribe his name on the flyleaves. God knows how much they had all cost, and now here they were – covered in dirt, while this vile thug read out their titles in a clipped, mincing voice, a parody of his own. It was intolerable – a violation.
Adam grabbed at the mathematics book in Rawdon’s hand but the boy was too quick for him, throwing it over Adam’s head to one of his friends who caught it and threw it on to another. But Adam didn’t turn round. He realized in that instant that there was no reasoning with his tormentors, that the only solution was to fight this boy, Rawdon, and to fight now while the anger was red hot inside him, giving him courage. He took a deep breath and charged forward. Perhaps Rawdon had underestimated his enemy, believed that he really was an effete southerner unable to stand up for himself, but he certainly wasn’t ready for Adam’s frontal attack. Their heads clashed and he fell to the ground winded, the spine of one of the textbooks cracking under his weight.
Immediately Adam got up, holding out his fists, and Rawdon’s friends stepped back. ‘Fight, fight,’ one of them shouted and the rest took up the refrain. Adam glanced over at Ernest who nodded his understanding – Adam had at least succeeded in dividing Rawdon from his supporters. The fight would be between the two of them now – much better odds than they had been a moment before.
Slowly Rawdon got to his feet, his dark blue eyes fixed on Adam. He dropped his hands and then suddenly delivered a hooking punch up towards Adam’s jaw. Instinctively Adam pulled out of the way, but he still felt the full force of Rawdon’s follow-up blow, delivered hard to the chest with his other fist. He felt a dense pain followed immediately by a sharp nausea. But he refused to give into his hurt, remembering instead how his father had kept his head, fighting the huge gypsy in the Islington marketplace all those years before. Adam sensed he was his adversary’s equal in strength, and, remembering Rawdon’s limp, he knew he had an advantage in mobility if he could find a way to exploit it.
He moved back, shifting his weight from foot to foot, waiting for Rawdon’s next move.
‘What art thou then? Some sort o’ prancin’ ballet dancer?’ sneered Rawdon. ‘Did you learn that down in London too?’
The other boys laughed but Adam didn’t hear them. He had that rare ability to shut out all distraction when he wanted to, and to operate without emotion when the need arose. He was naturally brave and he had already put aside his anger. Fighting was about control – if he kept his self-control he sensed he could win.
He jabbed with his fist at Rawdon’s face, cutting him under the eye, and then danced back, easily avoiding Rawdon’s heavy-armed response. And then repeated the move again, aiming always at the same place, watching as the blood seeped out from under the skin and trickled down his enemy’s cheek. Now it was Rawdon’s turn to become enraged. He rushed at Adam, kicking out with his hard boots, reaching up to pull him to the ground. But Adam was too quick for him. He’d seen what was coming and stepped neatly out of the way, connecting with a hard punch to the side of Rawdon’s head that sent him sprawling on the ground.
He lay face down in the dirt for a moment and then started to get up with his fists clenched.
‘I’ll ’ave thee,’ he shouted, his bleeding face twisted in rage, but Ernest stepped between him and Adam, pushing him back with his outstretched hands.
‘That’s enough, Rawdon,’ he said. ‘You lost the fight and that’s an end of it. You must shake hands.’
‘I’ll be damned if I will,’ Rawdon shouted. But he had lost the support of his friends.
‘Ernie’s right. Shake ’is ’and, Rawdon,’ said the tallest of them, a handsome boy with jet-black hair, putting his hand on Rawdon’s shoulder.
Rawdon shook him off but, looking round, he knew the game was up, at least for now. Ernest gave him a searching look and stepped aside and Rawdon touched Adam’s outstretched hand with his own and then turned away. ‘Some o’ us ’round ’ere ’ave to go to work,’ he said, walking away towards the railway line. The rest of his friends followed him but the tall one stayed back, picking up the mathematics book from the ground and dusting off the dirt as best he could with his hand.
‘You fought well,’ he said, handing the book to Adam. ‘You’ve nowt to be ashamed of.’
‘Who was that?’ Adam asked, watching the boy walking quickly across the green to catch up with his friends.
‘Luke Mason. He’s all right. And the girls like him,’ said Ernest with a grin. ‘Most of the lads aren’t so bad when you get to know them, but Rawdon’s different. He’s angry all the time – it’ll be someone else’s turn tomorrow, I’ll be bound.’
Adam smiled, grateful for his friend’s attempt at reassurance, although he didn’t believe it was genuine. Rawdon’s antipathy had been deeply personal, not some offshoot of a general resentment against the world.
‘What did he mean about my father taking his father’s job?’ he asked.
‘Rawdon’s father, Whalen, wanted to be the union secretary when old Harris retired. It goes with being checkweighman, which is a nice job – good pay and up on the pithead, not down below. Whalen’s very political, very involved with the union, and he thought the job was his for the asking. But my dad wouldn’t have it – he wanted your dad after what he read about him in the paper. And what my dad wants is pretty much law down the pit.’
‘The Herald. They reported all about the strike your dad organized and about what happened to your mother …’ Ernest stopped, clearly embarrassed at his casual mention of Adam’s bereavement. ‘I’m sorry. I didn’t mean …’
‘It’s all right,’ said Adam. ‘Thank you for helping me today. I won’t forget it.’ The bus had arrived while they were talking and he reached over and shook Ernest’s hand before he got on. He meant what he’d said – it was a long time since he’d felt he had a friend.
On Sunday Daniel took his son to church. Adam was surprised. He vividly remembered the division in the house in London between his mother’s devout Christianity at one polar opposite and his father’s outspoken atheism at the other. According to Daniel there couldn’t be a God who would allow the world he’d created to be so unfair, so cruel to the vast majority of those who had the misfortune to be born into it. And since his mother’s death Adam had been inclined to agree with his father. The God to whom he had once prayed to find his father work and watch over his family seemed like a foolish figment of his childhood imagination, a cardboard cut-out figure with his big white beard and all-seeing eyes.
‘Why are we going, Dad?’ he asked as they walked up the hill together in the cold bright morning, leaving the mine and the streets of grey terraced houses behind them.
‘Because your mother would have wanted it,’ said Daniel. ‘It’s one of the only ways we can honour her memory.’
Adam nodded, accepting the explanation. ‘Does Edgar know we’re going?’ he asked. Like many of the miners, Daniel’s cousin was not a religious man. Church for him was where the owners and the managers went: its doctrines of social respect and obedience were useful tools to buttress their control of the workforce.
‘Yes, he knows. And he understands why,’ said Daniel. But Adam sensed an unease in his father’s voice that belied the certainty of his response.
The church was beautiful. It was smaller and simpler in design than the church in Islington, made of an old silvery-grey stone that was cold to the touch. There was no stained glass and the morning light poured in through the high leaded windows of the clerestory. The brick floor of the nave was uneven, worn down by centuries of use, and the carvings on the oak-wood chancel screen were primitive and mysterious – flat ancient faces with thin mouths and opaque eyes. The building was timeless, far removed from the ugly excrescence of the mining town stretching out behind it down the hill.
It was a family church built and maintained through the centuries by the Scarsdale family. Their huge marble mausoleum surrounded by iron railings and encrusted with black names and dates dominated the churchyard; and inside, a baroque tomb of two seventeenth-century ancestors carved in relief, lying side by side on a stone bed in the south transept, struck the only unharmonious note in the church’s architecture.
The empty front pew was reserved for the present occupants of Scarsdale Hall who had not yet arrived when Daniel and Adam took their seats at the back of the church. They came in just before the service was about to start: the father, a straight-backed, thin-faced man in his fifties with a long aquiline nose and a short clipped grey beard and moustache, was dressed in the severe formal fashion of thirty years before, and had on his arm a younger wife, who moved slowly up the aisle, her movement sharply constricted by a wasp-waisted hobble skirt that reached narrowly down to her ankles. The wilting sleeves of her silk blouse dripped with expensive lace and a wide-brimmed hat covered with artificial flowers was perched on the front of her head at just the right angle to show off her conventionally pretty face.
They were an ill-assorted couple, Adam thought: the husband making no effort at ostentation and the wife self-consciously fashionable and excessively over-dressed for the simple country setting. And behind them came their younger son, Brice, a boy of Adam’s age in an expensive suit with a carnation in his buttonhole and a gold-topped walking cane and pearl-grey silk hat in his hand. He looked very like his mother and yet he hadn’t inherited her good looks. The slightly drooping edges of her full mouth conveyed an impression of sensuality but the same feature on her son gave him a look of bored condescension, and while her dimpled chin was pretty, his small version made him seem weak and petulant.
Adam liked the parson, Mr Vale. He seemed down-to-earth and preached an inclusive gospel based on the second commandment, although there were precious few miners there to hear him. They were either Methodists attending the chapel on the other side of the valley or non-believers like Edgar, who saw the sabbath as an opportunity to catch up on sleep after the heavy demands of the working week. None of the family had been out of bed when Daniel and Adam had left for church in the morning.
The parson was waiting at the lychgate in his surplice with his daughter beside him when the congregation came out after the service. She was the most beautiful girl Adam had ever seen; she stopped him in his tracks at the door of the church, staring at her wide-eyed over the gravestones. She was dressed in a plain black dress with lace-up Oxford shoes and a bonnet. Nothing special, nothing fancy – just dark liquid eyes and rich dark hair and skin like white honey and a way of looking about her that seemed shy and tender all the same time. Adam thought that if he had been asked to write down every feature of the perfect female face then each one would have been hers, and yet he had never imagined her face in any of his dreams.
He stayed just outside the porch feasting his eyes on her, memorizing her, and prayed that she wouldn’t look back in his direction. He didn’t want to embarrass her but he didn’t want to stop watching her – the way she bent her slender neck forward to listen to her father, smiling in a way that lit up her face from inside as he spoke to the parishioners passing through the gate. And she didn’t notice him, didn’t feel his gaze. Someone else did instead – the owner’s son, Brice Scarsdale, the boy with the gold-tipped cane and the weak chin. He’d been standing watching the girl too and now he realized suddenly that she had another admirer.
He left his parents and came over to Adam. ‘What’s your name?’ he asked angrily, twirling his stick.
‘Adam Raine,’ said Adam evenly. ‘What’s yours?’
‘Never mind that. Don’t you know it’s rude to stare at a lady?’ Brice demanded angrily.
‘Yes,’ said Adam, looking him in the eye. ‘But you were doing the same.’
‘How dare you!’ said Brice. ‘Why, I’ve half a mind to—’ He raised the stick but then dropped it, remembering where he was. ‘You should learn some respect for your betters,’ he said and turned abruptly on his heel, walking quickly over to his parents, who were at that moment climbing into their chauffeur-driven motor car. And as they were driven away, Adam had the exquisite pleasure of being introduced to the parson’s daughter. Miriam was her name and she smiled at him as he took her hand.
In the afternoon there was a visitor at the house in Station Street. Luke Mason, the boy who’d spoken to Adam after the fight, was at the door holding a football under his arm.
‘Do you want to play, Ernest?’ he asked. ‘It’s a fine day. An’ thy friend can come too if ’e wants,’ he added, nodding to Adam.
Adam did want to; he could think of nothing that he wanted to do more, in fact. Days sitting on the bus or in classrooms had left him pent up with nervous energy. And he liked football. It had been one of the street games he’d played growing up, although the makeshift balls they’d used had been nothing like the heavy dark brown leather object that Luke was carrying.
What’s it made of?’ Adam asked.
‘It’s a rubber bladder inside an’ then tanned leather on top, eighteen sections of it all stitched together. Look, you can see the seams: it’s beautiful work,’ said Luke, holding the ball out for Adam to inspect. ‘Our team won it two year ago when we won the Mines Cup. Not the proper one, mind, but the one for kids our age. ’Twas the match ball an’ we won in the last minute. It was a great day, weren’t it, Ernest?’ said Luke with a faraway look in his eye, remembering past glory.
‘Yes, it was,’ said Ernest, smiling. ‘There’s never been a better.’
‘Who scored the goal?’ asked Adam.
‘Rawdon. An’ ’twas Ernest that gave ’im the cross,’ said Luke. Adam liked the way Luke wanted to tell everything correctly, to ensure that everyone got the credit he deserved.
‘Will Rawdon be there today?’ asked Adam.
‘Yes, but there won’t be any trouble. I can promise thee that. It’s the game that matters,’ said Luke. And Adam believed him.
The football pitch was on the edge of the town. It was surprisingly well kept with nets behind the goals, benches for spectators, and a single-storey wooden pavilion for changing with a green and white scoreboard on the outside.
There were about fifteen boys already there when they arrived and they started playing almost straightaway. Adam was on Luke’s team. He could see Rawdon down at the other end of the field, standing between the other side’s goalposts.
‘You look like a runner,’ said Luke. ‘So try it on the wing. See what you think.’
The game was played at a frantic pace and the tackling was hard. Like the ball – when Adam headed it he felt as if he’d been hit with a lead weight, and Luke laughed. ‘Hurts the first time, don’t it? But you’ll get used to it.’
Several times they had to stop to reinflate the ball’s bladder and the boys drank water from the standpipe. Some of them had brought oranges and they ate them, leaning with their backs against the pavilion. Adam recognized several from the day of the fight but they were friendly now, united in their love of the game and the exhilaration of running in the open air after a week of working in the mine.
Near the end, when the score was tied at one apiece, Adam got the ball far out on the right and, instead of passing it as he had done up to then, he ran at the other side’s full back, feinting to the outside and then cutting back in, leaving his opponent wrong-footed as he went past. He looked up but there was no one on his team nearby and so he ran on, heading towards the goal where Rawdon stood waiting for him, holding out his arms to make himself big and cut off the shot.
Adam could see that Rawdon had positioned himself well and that the angle was too tight to score. He’d taken one too many strides and his only hope was to go round the goalkeeper. And so at the last moment, just as he was about to collide with Rawdon, he twisted his body to the left, kicking the ball away from Rawdon’s outstretched hand. Rawdon had already committed himself and, charging forward, he knocked Adam to the ground. It was a mirror image of what had happened on the day of the fight. One of the defenders rushing back was in time to kick the ball away and out of danger.
As Adam got to his feet, he found himself surrounded by the other players. They were arguing amongst themselves about what had happened; about whether Rawdon had committed a foul, whether there should be a penalty kick.
‘’E ran into ’im. There wor nowt Rawdon could do about it,’ said one.
‘Rawdon took ’is legs. The new kid would’ve scored if ’e ’adn’t,’ said another.
There was no referee to make the decision and Adam couldn’t see how they were going to resolve the dispute until Luke stepped in.
‘What do you think, Rawdon?’ he asked. ‘Was it a penalty?’
Rawdon hesitated, surprised to be asked. The rest of the players fell silent, waiting. Adam could see that it was a clever move by Luke. Would Rawdon take his own side or would he want to look fair? And the second choice also gave him a chance at glory if he could save the penalty kick.
He glanced at Adam, looking him up and down for a moment, and made his decision. ‘I reckon it was,’ he said. ‘But e’s got to take it. Not thee, Luke. You know our rules.’
‘Good,’ said Luke. ‘I agree.’ And he handed the ball to Adam, pointing at the almost invisible white spot painted into the muddy grass twelve yards from the goal.
Adam took four steps back and braced himself, trying to concentrate on the ball and not look at Rawdon, who was staring at him from the goalmouth. He’d decided to go to the left. He didn’t know why but he was certain of his decision, and yet the knowledge didn’t stop his heart thumping in his chest. It felt like a hammer beat, but there was no time left to calm down. It was just a kick, he told himself as he got ready to run; just one stupid kick, and yet in that instant he wanted it to succeed more than he could ever remember wanting anything. Perhaps he wanted it too much, which was why he half slipped as he went forward, scuffing the shot so that it lost most of its power as it travelled towards the middle of the goal. It should have been easy to save but Rawdon had read Adam’s intentions too well. He dived hard to his right and watched helplessly as the ball rolled past his feet into the net.
Adam’s team cheered. They’d won the match and it didn’t matter if the new boy had got lucky. He’d played well and he’d made the chance for himself. They laughed, clapping him on the back as they walked off, and even some of the other team’s players joined in. But Rawdon stood watching him with a look of concentrated hostility. He waited, leaning against a goalpost, until they were alone, facing each other.
‘It don’t matter what ’appened,’ he said, looking Adam in the eye. ‘It don’t matter how many goals you score. You don’t belong here wi’ us. An’ you niver will.’
He didn’t wait for a response but walked quickly away, limping slightly as he went.
‘What happened to Rawdon?’ Adam asked Ernest as they began the walk home. ‘Luke said he used to score goals so why’s he the goalkeeper now?’
‘He hurt his leg down the mine,’ said Ernest. ‘The pony he was driving got scared of something and bolted. And then pulled up short and kicked back – britching, we call it. Rawdon caught his leg in the limmers—’
‘Limmers? What are they?’ asked Adam, interrupting.
‘The shafts they put on the pony’s harness to link him up to the tubs. You don’t know anything, do you?’ said Ernest, smiling. ‘Any road, Rawdon broke his leg in three places. He must’ve been in agony – he was white as a sheet when they brought him out but he didn’t cry out at all. Rawdon’s always been a brave lad, I’ll say that for him. And then the hospital didn’t do a good job with the operation, or at least that’s what Rawdon’s father Whelan said, although I reckon he was just after trying to duck out of the responsibility. He should have been watching out for his boy. Rawdon was only thirteen when it happened and maybe he wasn’t ready for the tubs, although I suppose you’ve got to start somewhere. Except maybe with him it would have been different.’
‘What do you mean?’ asked Adam, not understanding.
‘Because of the football. Rawdon was really good, better than you can imagine. He could go round you before you knew what had happened, like he was picking your pocket,’ said Ernest, smiling at the memory. ‘And a lot of us thought he’d end up playing for one of the clubs, earning proper money, having a life that the likes of me can only dream about. But the mine’s got a way of claiming you back when you’re thinking of escaping it, and it’s got Rawdon for life now, whether he likes it or not.’
‘I suppose it would’ve been different if he’d stayed at school,’ said Adam. ‘Then he wouldn’t have got injured.’
‘I suppose,’ said Ernest. ‘But it’s not the way here. I got good marks at school and my mother would have liked me to go on, but my dad wouldn’t hear of it. Bought me a pair of moleskin trousers and a cloth cap for my fourteenth birthday and took me up to the manager’s office to sign on the next day. And that was that.’
‘And you work while I sit in school,’ said Adam. ‘But it’s not easy to be different, you know, Ernest. You don’t belong anywhere. People resent you.’
‘Well, you shouldn’t worry about him. He resents everyone. Play football like you did today and you’ll be all right,’ said Ernest, clapping Adam on the back.
But Adam did worry. Not just about Rawdon but about who he was, where he was going. He was an outsider, living in a town that he was striving to escape, learning Latin and Greek at the board school so he could move away and better himself, while everyone else in Scarsdale had their gaze fixed forever inwards, their lives dominated by the mine. It was like a magnet drawing men and boys down deeper and deeper into its black passages, while the women and girls slaved away in their mean box-like little houses to service their needs. Adam saw how Annie, Edgar’s wife, toiled ceaselessly, washing clothes, baking bread, cooking meals, maintaining everything in a constant state of readiness for her menfolk, who often returned home at different hours of the day or night as their shift times changed from week to week. Sometimes she didn’t go to bed at all but just dozed on a chair in front of the fire ready to jump up and wait on them when they came in. And perhaps the constant activity was a good thing, keeping her distracted from the gnawing fear that one day Edgar or Thomas or Ernest wouldn’t come home at all, falling victim instead to one of the terrible underground accidents that seemed to happen almost every week.
The mine was cruel and the mine was king. And yet Adam had never once been inside it. He knew that he was frightened of it – terrified even. It was the embodiment of his worst childhood nightmares when he’d dreamed over and over again of being stuck fast in a narrow space in the pitch-black darkness unable to move, buried alive without hope of rescue. And yet he hated the fear too. Adam was brave by nature and his secret shamed him, becoming a challenge that he had to overcome. If he gave into it he wouldn’t be able to hold up his head in front of the boys his age who worked down the mine every day. He needed to understand their experience; he needed to know what he was working so hard to try to get away from.
He waited a few days, screwing up his courage, and then asked his father to show him the mine. He had been anticipating opposition but instead Daniel seemed pleased by the request – once he had got over his initial surprise at being asked; he knew full well his son’s fear of going underground.
‘Come to the pithead tomorrow morning and I’ll show you round,’ he said. ‘There’s a lot to learn and it won’t hurt you to miss one day of school.’
At first Adam was alone as he walked down the street from Edgar’s house, but by the time he reached the station he had become part of a crowd of miners all heading the same way towards the valley bottom with their snap tins and drinking flasks dangling from their hands. The rising sun was shining on their backs and they seemed happy and carefree: laughing, smoking, jostling each other – a sea of cloth caps moving towards the headstocks whose wheels were running fast now, hauling the cages up and down the shafts. The men’s mood increased Adam’s sense of isolation – none of them could imagine the dread he was feeling in the pit of his stomach. He had to force himself to go on, placing one foot in front of the other.
Further down the road, they started to meet miners coming the other way, returning home from the night shift. They were black with coal, blinking bleary eyes in the sunlight as they shuffled wearily along. And now the road became a path, winding its way through a grey barren waste ground littered with the detritus of the mine – discarded feed sacks for the ponies, broken coal tubs and timber props, pieces of rusting machinery whose purpose Adam couldn’t determine. Railway lines snaked here and there with the main line running on towards the screens area where Ernest worked.
Adam could see him with a group of other boys and men, standing on either side of a wide belt of moving coal, their hands in a constant flurry of motion as they pulled out stones and rubbish and threw them aside, although not fast enough to satisfy a corpulent red-faced man in a low round-crowned black hat who was standing on a gantry above the screens, shouting at the workers below, berating them for being too slow or too careless with a stream of profanity that never seemed to end.
It looked like terrible work, Adam thought. As fast as they worked, the coal kept on coming, tipped down a series of chutes on to the sorting belts by tippler machines. On and on, hour after hour, until it was time to go home and catch a few hours’ sleep before beginning again. Adam wondered at his friend’s patience and good humour. If he were in Ernest’s shoes he thought he’d go mad within a week or at least throw a lump of coal at the slave-driving tyrant up above; anything to make him shut up if only for a moment.
‘Not easy, is it?’ said Daniel, who had been looking out for his son and now came up to him, observing the appalled look on his face. ‘But at least the screens are above ground – I suppose there’s that much to be said for them.’
‘Why does he have to shout like that?’ asked Adam, pointing up at the fat man, who was now threatening to dock the screen workers’ wages if they got up to any more of their ‘damned dilly-dallying, playin’ the fool on his lordship’s time’.
‘Because that’s the way he is,’ said Daniel with a smile. ‘Atkins’s bark’s worse than his bite but you’re right – no one likes him much. Except the manager maybe – the cleaner the coal the more money it gets. And make no mistake – money’s what this is all about. Sell the coal to the highest bidder and pay as little as you can to get it out of the ground, which is where I come in, of course – trying to make sure that the men get what they deserve, which isn’t easy when you’re dealing with people who worship profit margins like it’s their religion. Come on. I’ll show you where I work.’
The weighing office was one of a group of mismatched buildings standing at different angles to each other around the base of the headstocks. Through an open door Adam glimpsed the blazing red fire of a blacksmith’s forge and the acrid coal smoke mixed in his nostrils with the tarry, oily smell of the huge steam engine that was powering the headstock pulleys. Close up, the clank of the pistons, the hiss of expelled steam and the general roar of the machine made it hard for Adam to hear what his father was saying, and Daniel had to shout to make himself understood as he described how the tubs of coal came up out of the cage with the collier’s motty tags attached, ready to be weighed.
‘The owner’s man weighs them and then I do the same so the colliers can be sure they’re getting paid properly for the coal they’ve mined,’ said Daniel. ‘It’s a big responsibility but I like that they trust me.’ The pride in his father’s voice gave Adam pleasure. He had refused to buckle in the face of a terrible adversity and now here was his reward. But Adam sensed a new humility in his father too – it was as if suffering had added a new dimension to his personality, taught him that life was precarious and had to be treated carefully.
‘So, are you ready?’ asked Daniel, handing his son a lamp. Adam nodded, swallowing. He was sweating and his hands were shaking so he found it hard to attach the lamp to his belt as his father was doing.
‘You don’t have to do this, you know,’ said Daniel, looking hard at his son.
‘Yes, I do,’ said Adam. He’d used up almost all his stock of bloody-minded determination to get this far and he didn’t think he’d be able to try again if he turned back now. And he needed to be able to look at himself in the mirror without having to turn away – he couldn’t bear to be less than he hoped he was. It was a virtue and a fault that he would carry with him all his life.
‘Where do we light it?’ he asked, pointing at his lamp.
‘We don’t – the overman does that down below. And if it goes out then we have to walk back to the lighting station to get it relit. You can’t have any fire inside the mine – it’s far too dangerous.’
‘Because of the gas?’ Adam asked, shuddering as he remembered Edgar’s account of the two boys trapped by fallen rock after an explosion.
‘Yes. You can’t smell it and you can’t see it, but it’ll explode if it gets near a flame. More miners have lost their lives from gas explosions than roof falls so we have to be careful all the time. Back when I was young miners used to take canaries down – once they stopped singing you knew it was time to go. But now they make the lamps so the light expands when there’s gas about. They’re ingenious these inventors – that’s something I’d like to have been if I’d had the brains,’ Daniel said wistfully.
Adam was grateful to his father for his flow of chatter. Daniel wasn’t talkative by nature and Adam knew that he was trying to keep him distracted from the ordeal ahead. But now there was no escaping it. Wreathed in jets of steam, they had joined a group of miners climbing up the wooden stairs leading to the cage platform; for Adam they were just like the steps going up to a monstrous gallows. He looked up as if expecting to find the noose, but instead saw the spokes of the great wheel flickering in the sunlight as it pulled the cage up to the top of the shaft.
The men inside walked out and the banksman beckoned them inside. Adam hesitated, looking wildly around. Away down below he could see bottles of tea left to warm beside the steam engine that was driving the mechanical screens. At that moment his life felt just as insignificant. He wanted to run back down the steps and up the hill away from the mine, putting it behind him forever, but he couldn’t. He’d come too far to turn back. With a last despairing glance back at the sunlight, he took a deep breath and followed his father inside the cage and closed his eyes.
All around him the men were talking, without a care in the world. He could hear an electric bell ringing somewhere down below and one nearby answering it and then the clang of the gate as it slammed shut, and they were falling, slowly at first and then faster, faster than he would have thought possible. He was going to die – he was sure of it. He felt his stomach lifting up into his mouth and his feet coming up off the floor and someone – it had to be his father – holding him by the back of his collar, and then the brake kicked in and they were down below.
Adam opened his eyes. There was a little light coming down the shaft and he could dimly see the faces of the miners queuing up at the lighting station. He was relieved to see that they paid him no attention – clearly no one except his father had noticed his distress in the cage on the way down. With their lamps lit, the miners walked away down one of the three sloping tunnels that radiated off the maingate, as the central area around the cage was called. Almost immediately they became no more than tiny points of light in the inky blackness before disappearing from view.
It was cold and Adam shivered, unprepared for the sudden change in temperature. The anxious sweat was now freezing on his skin. But he felt better – he’d overcome his fear, proved to himself that he was no coward. His overactive imagination had been the real enemy, he realized: the mine was never going to be as terrible as he’d built it up to be in his mind’s eye.
They went first to the stables, which were still in the main landing area, not far from the cage. Daniel had made friends with the ostler and he took them from stall to stall, describing the merits and demerits of each pony. Some were hard workers; some liked to go on strike, refusing to move if you harnessed them up to too many tubs. And some could give you trouble, britching and kicking if you didn’t get in there first and show them who was boss.
‘Like the one that hurt Rawdon?’ asked Adam.
‘Whalen’s boy? ’Twas ’is fault what ’appened to ’im,’ said the ostler, his face darkening. ‘Ridin’ on the back o’ the pony when ’e shouldna done. That’s how accidents ’appen. An’ then the pony ’ad to be put down when ’e didna need to be. Whalen made sure o’ that, damn him.’
The stables were clean and well kept and the ponies were clearly well looked after, but Adam still felt sorry for them, living their lives in the God-forsaken darkness, hauling coal up and down through the dusty black tunnels until their strength gave out and they were put to merciful sleep. It seemed wrong, not what they had been born for, but that was true of the miners too, although at least they got to leave the pit at the end of the day when their work was done.
‘Do they ever get out, have time up above?’ Adam asked.
‘Aye, they goes up once a year for respite. They ’ave races and the men bet on ’em. They’re good days, they are. But it’s hard to get ’em back down afterward. Needs all thy strength to push ’em into their boxes.’
‘Perhaps it would be better if they didn’t know,’ said Adam pensively.
‘About the sun and the wind and the rain. Then they wouldn’t miss them.’
‘O’ course they don’t miss ’em. They’re ponies, for Chrissake,’ said the ostler, sounding irritated. ‘He’s a contrary lad, thy boy, ain’t ’e?’ he added, turning to Daniel.
‘That he is, Joe. That he is,’ said Daniel, affecting a false jocularity that jarred on Adam. ‘But he doesn’t mean any harm, do you, Adam?’
‘No, I don’t,’ said Adam uneasily. He was sorry that he’d got on the wrong side of the ostler, who seemed a good man, genuinely concerned for the welfare of the animals in his care. It wasn’t the first time since he’d come to Scarsdale, Adam realized, that he’d put people’s backs up just by being himself. His different voice, his book learning as they called it, made people suspicious of him or even dislike him – like Rawdon, who’d wasted no time becoming his sworn enemy for no reason at all except the spurious one that their fathers had been rivals for the same job. Adam wondered where Rawdon was now – he’d be working somewhere in the mine and Adam hoped that their paths wouldn’t cross. He didn’t want Rawdon to see him when he felt at such a disadvantage.
‘Where’s Edgar working?’ Daniel asked the ostler, changing the subject.
‘In Oakwell,’ said the ostler. ‘Same as before. ’E doesna stop carpin’ about it, but ’e’s earnin’ good money. There’s good coal in there still even if you has to work hard to get it out.’
‘All right, Oakwell it is,’ said Daniel. ‘Thanks for showing my boy around, Joe.’
The ostler nodded, but without looking at Adam. He was clearly still disgruntled by Adam’s contrariness, but there was no time for Adam to attempt any further apology as Daniel had already set off along one of the wide tunnels that led down into the mine.
‘What’s Oakwell?’ Adam asked, catching him up.
‘One of the districts.’
‘Yes; they’re the different seams in the mine. There are three active ones in the Scarsdale pit as well as several more that have been exhausted, and they call them after football grounds. Oakwell’s where Barnsley play. I’m surprised you haven’t found that out yet. People round here are mad about football.’
‘I know, Dad. I’ve been playing it, remember?’
‘Yes, I do and I’m pleased you are,’ said Daniel warmly. ‘It’ll help you make friends, get accepted. I know it’s not easy—’ He broke off, but Adam knew what his father had been going to say and he was right – it wasn’t easy living in Scarsdale and not being a miner.
It was much darker now than it had been back in the whitewashed stables: pitch-black outside the pools of light cast by their lamps. But the tunnel was still far less daunting than Adam had anticipated. A succession of curving steel supports holding up the roof gave him a sense of security and the generous height and width of the roadway were enough to keep his claustrophobia at bay. But it was still a ghostly place – water dripped continuously from a pipe running along the crown of the roof down into puddles on the ground in which Adam caught faint reflections of himself and his father in the lamplight.
The tunnel was empty except for two roadmen hard at work repairing the narrow railway that ran down the centre, constructed on top of wooden sleepers bolted together with fishplates. The noise of their claw hammers echoed off the walls – a clanging percussion that broke off suddenly when they got up and moved quickly to the sides of the roadway. Adam and Daniel followed suit, ducking into one of the manhole niches that were built at regular intervals along the sides of the tunnel. A pony was coming up the slope hauling a line of coal tubs each full to the brim and marked with the iron motty tags that Daniel had told his son about earlier. As it came abreast of where they were standing, Adam saw that the pony had a rider. Rawdon was lying flat on the animal’s back, his hands on its black ears, his head turned sideways in their direction. He caught Adam’s eye as he passed and smiled – a cold contemptuous smile that made Adam feel that Rawdon had seen right through him and felt the toxic fear that he was working so hard to keep under control.
‘The boy’s an idiot – that’s how he hurt himself before,’ said Daniel, looking back at the train of tubs as it rounded a corner in the tunnel, its wheels rattling on the rails. ‘His father would be furious if he knew.’
‘Will you tell him?’ asked Adam.
‘No, Whalen wouldn’t want to hear it from me,’ said Daniel, shaking his head. ‘And anyway today’s about you, not Rawdon Dawes. We don’t need to get distracted.’
‘About you’ – once again Adam wondered why his father had been so quick to grant his request to see the mine. What was it he was hoping to achieve?
He wanted to follow his father’s advice and put Rawdon’s sudden apparition out of his mind, but it was hard – the encounter seemed like an ill omen, coming so soon on the heels of his wish that their paths shouldn’t cross.
And it didn’t help his peace of mind that the ceiling was getting lower now as they went further down into the mine so that they had begun to have to bend their necks forward as they walked to avoid hitting their heads on the overhead struts. Adam wasn’t used to walking in a crouch and his back started to ache, but still his father pressed on.
And it was getting hotter too, so hot that Adam took off his shirt to better feel the soft breeze that the mine’s ventilation system was blowing down the tunnel behind them. But even with the ventilation, he was starting to find it harder to breathe – the air was thick with dust and the stale sulphurous smell of the black powder used to blast the coal from the seam. Low stalls led off passages from the main tunnel in which Adam caught glimpses of miners working. They were down on their knees, stripped to the waist like him, and their torsos, black with coal dust and sweat, gleamed in the light from their lamps. On all sides there was a constant noise of hammering and hewing and breaking.
Adam felt his senses being overwhelmed as if by a raging tide. He wanted to scream out loud, but he doubted his father would have heard as he had hurried on ahead, looking for Edgar. All the time the tunnel was narrowing and the roof was getting lower. It was supported on timber props now, which left it sagging in places.
And then, just as Adam felt he had come to the limits of his endurance, just as he had decided to tell his father that he could go no further, Daniel stopped, standing at the entrance to a stall from which Adam could hear familiar voices coming.
Looking over his father’s shoulder, Adam could see Edgar and his older son, Thomas, lying on their sides working at the face. Edgar was using a mandrel, a straight-bladed pick, to hack the coal from the seam and Thomas was shovelling it back into a waiting tub. Their lamps and most of their clothes were hanging from nails hammered into the wall and they both were naked apart from their underwear, boots and padded caps. Adam felt embarrassed, out of place. He wished he hadn’t come and hung back behind his father, hoping that Edgar would not see him, which at first he didn’t.
‘Welcome, cousin, to my ’umble abode,’ said Edgar, doffing his cap and laughing at his affectation of a city voice. ‘What brings thee down ’ere out o’ the sunshine?’
‘To show his white-fingered son ’ow the other ’alf lives,’ said a caustic voice behind Adam, who turned round and came face to face with a thick-set, bald-headed man about his own height. He seemed to be about the same age as Edgar and like him was stripped to his underwear with his face and skin blackened with coal, but his outlandish appearance clearly had no effect on his confidence. The dirt was a badge of honour, an outward manifestation of his class credentials.
Because Whalen Dawes was a fanatic. Adam could tell that straightaway; it was clear to see in the hard chiselled set of his chin and in his unforgiving flinty grey eyes – different coloured eyes from his son, who was standing behind his father, watching with that same look of dry amusement that Adam had seen on his face before. After he had delivered the coal tubs, he must have ridden the pony straight back from the maingate to wherever his father worked in time to tell him about the visitors and give him the opportunity to intercept them.
Now Adam truly regretted asking his father to show him the mine. He’d hoped that the experience would bring him closer to the miners, help him to understand them better, but instead it was just going to make them see him as even more of an uppity outsider.
‘Is this true, Daniel? Is that why you’re here?’ asked Edgar, who had now come forward and caught sight of Adam.
‘No, of course it isn’t,’ said Daniel. ‘Adam wanted to know what the mine was like, which is natural – he lives here after all, and so I agreed to show him.’
‘Agreed to show ’im cos you want to scare ’im, make sure ’e don’t end up down ’ere, cos you thinks ’e’s too good for the likes of us,’ said Whalen, pressing his advantage.
‘No, that’s not true,’ said Daniel angrily. But Adam knew that Rawdon’s father was right – his father had been trying to scare him. He’d asked the ostler where Edgar worked but he hadn’t needed to because he already knew. And he’d taken him to the Oakwell seam because it was the narrowest, lowest part of the mine, the place most likely to trigger his claustrophobia.
It made Adam angry to have been manipulated, and angry too that he had allowed it to happen. But there was nothing he could do. His father’s plan had fully succeeded: panic was welling up inside him like a flooded dam about to burst its banks.
For a moment everyone was silent. It was as if they were all waiting on Edgar as he opened up his flask and took a long slow drink of the sweet milky tea that all the miners took with them into the pit.
‘I don’t know,’ said Edgar pensively. ‘Whalen likes nowt more’n to make trouble, I knows that …’
‘I tells the truth,’ said Whalen vehemently. ‘If that makes trouble, then I makes no apology for it.’
But Edgar held up his hand, insisting on finishing his thought. ‘As I says, I knows that. But that don’t mean what ’e says ain’t true, and I have to say, Daniel, that I doubt thee sometimes. I wish I didn’t but I do.’
There was an uneasy silence, broken when a pair of rats scurried across the floor of the tunnel, causing Adam to jump instinctively out of the way. Rawdon laughed. ‘You’ll ’ave to get used to them if you’re goin’ to be makin’ a habit of comin’ down ’ere,’ he said. ‘We likes the rats, don’t we, Dad – when they scurry about it gives us fair warnin’ that the roof might be about to cave.’
Whalen looked at his son and then over at Adam, seeing how he was swaying on his feet. Just a little push would send him over.
‘You’re right, Rawdon,’ he said. ‘Same as the timber props – we prefers ’em to the steel ones cos you can hear ’em creak and whine afore they go.’
Adam didn’t know if he could hear creaking or whining. But he could feel the millions of tons of earth and rock over his head bearing down on him, ready to bury him alive. It was intolerable, insupportable, more than he could stand. The tidal wave of his panic burst out, swamping his consciousness, and he fell to the ground in a dead faint.
On an afternoon in the late summer Adam went for a walk with Ernest, who had the day off from the screens. Coming out of the house, turning away from the mine and into the light of the rising sun, they raced each other up the hill to the oak tree on the ridge. Adam was far ahead by the time they reached the top. He was a natural athlete and his growing prowess at football had helped him win friends in the town, even though there were still some who continued to give him the cold shoulder. Rawdon was their leader and he never tired of telling anyone who would listen how Adam had gone down the mine to ‘see ’ow the other ’alf live’ and had had to be hauled out unconscious in an empty coal tub.
The shame of his misadventure gnawed at Adam far more than he was willing to admit. It wasn’t just the humiliation – his struggles with adversity had given him a strong sense of his own worth and he was never going to be fatally undermined by jibes thrown at him in the street. It was his verdict on himself that made him suffer. He had set himself a challenge when he went down the mine and he had fallen short. And it was hard to look a miner in the eye when he knew and they knew that he could not last a single morning in the subterranean darkness where they laboured all their lives.
Adam wasn’t used to failure. His instinct was always to try and try again until he had overcome the hurdle that had first defeated him, but this time there was no opportunity for redemption. He wouldn’t be allowed back in the mine even if he asked to go. Not after what had happened. And so every day he was left to gaze over at the giant headstocks with their great spinning wheels and feel their reproach. Except that today they were standing motionless and from their vantage point at the crest of the hill Adam and Ernest could see lines of dejected men trooping home from the pit. They had been let off early for the third time that week. There was less demand for coal in the summer and so there would be less in the men’s pay packets come Friday night.
‘It’s hard on my mother, hard on all the women,’ said Ernest, leaning back against the tree trunk with a sigh. ‘It’s the old story: prices go up and wages go down. And when the women complain the men slink off out the back door to drown their troubles at the King’s Head where they’ve got a nice fire and a smiling barmaid, and then there’s no money left to pay the bills.’
‘It was like that in London too,’ said Adam. ‘Except that it was the other way round: the building trade was slack in the winter and picked up in the summer.’
‘Well, the answer’s the minimum wage,’ said Ernest. ‘Everybody knows that. But the owners won’t pay it so something’ll have to give.’
‘There’ll be a strike – is that what you mean?’ asked Adam. Just saying the word made him nervous, bringing back those terrible last days in London and his mother’s untimely, unnecessary death.
‘Yes, I expect so. My dad wants to do something, I know that.’
‘And mine doesn’t?’ asked Adam.
‘I don’t know. My brother says he’s trying to negotiate but there’s a feeling that that’s not going anywhere, that the owners are just playing him along.’
‘Taking him for a fool?’
‘I didn’t say that,’ said Ernest sharply. ‘Look, I don’t know much more than you do. My dad doesn’t say much and a lot of what I hear at the pithead is just rumour – men complaining, letting off steam.’
Adam nodded, but he knew himself that all was not well between his father and Edgar. Ernest’s father had gone out of his way to be kind to Adam after the debacle in the mine, telling him that a lot of ‘first-timers’ found it hard to cope with the bad air and the noise in the deeper seams, but, as far as Adam was aware, there had been no rapprochement between the two cousins. They seemed ill at ease in each other’s company and the atmosphere in the house was strained as a result. Adam remembered the rebuke that Edgar had administered to his father before he fainted away, and he wondered how much longer he and his father would be welcome under Edgar’s roof.
But the ill feeling had certainly not affected his friendship with Ernest. As the months had gone by, he had grown to trust and admire his second cousin. He liked Ernest’s lack of prejudice – the way he insisted on making up his own mind about issues even if the majority disagreed with him, and the way he never complained about his lot; this quality seemed even more impressive to Adam after he had seen at first hand the awful driving monotony involved in working on the pithead screens. If Ernest had a fault it was a lack of ambition. His world was what it was and he had no hope of changing it. He was stoic without being cynical, and his loyalty was absolute.
‘Come on,’ he said, getting to his feet. ‘We’re not here to talk about the mine, not on my day off. There’s somewhere I want to show you.’
They followed the path over the ridge and were suddenly in a new world. The mine and the grey monochrome houses of the town disappeared as if by magic, replaced in an instant by a pastoral landscape of woods and fields and streams unchanged in centuries. There was the sound of birdsong in the air and a red kite circled slowly overhead, allowing the fluctuating eddies of the faint breeze to direct its flight.
After a mile or so Ernest stopped, pointing down to his left where they could see over a long grey brick wall to where the pale stucco exterior of a substantial country house glittered in the golden light of the afternoon against a background of thick-leaved elms and, closer in, rows of tall cypress trees, pointing like long dark green fingers up towards the sun. Between the two wings, the Palladian façade with elegant sash windows rising symmetrically on either side of the entrance portico was half reflected in the still surface of a lake, which abutted a wide manicured lawn that descended on a gentle slope from the quadrangular courtyard and ornamental stone terrace at the front of the house. Two regal swans were floating on the water, preening their long white necks.
‘Scarsdale Hall,’ said Ernest, theatrically waving his hand. ‘Home of Sir John, who pays me a pittance for cleaning his coal.’
‘I’ve seen him,’ said Adam. ‘He comes to church sometimes with his wife wrapped up in furs and a son who doesn’t like me.’
‘Because he doesn’t think I’ve got the right to look at the parson’s daughter.’
‘Miriam – she’s pretty, isn’t she?’
‘Yes. How do you know? I thought your family never went near a church.’
‘We go there for funerals. Everyone does, whether they believe in it or not. A miner who’s got blown to bits in a firedamp explosion deserves a good send-off; and it makes the family feel we care, which is what matters. The parson understands that – I’ll say that for him. And Miriam looks beautiful in a black dress,’ said Ernest with a grin.
‘You like her, don’t you?’ he added, laughing now at Adam’s discomfort. He’d noticed how the colour had risen to his friend’s cheeks each time he said her name. ‘Well, all I can say is: Don’t let her mother know how you feel or she’ll have you locked up. She’s an invalid, never leaves the house, but that doesn’t mean she’s not the one who wears the trousers in the marriage. The parson’s hard up and Mrs Vale wants her daughter to marry money so I suppose Brice Scarsdale would fit the bill.’
‘Don’t say that,’ said Adam fiercely. ‘She deserves better than him. He’s the worst of his kind – stupid, selfish, arrogant—’
He broke off, suddenly self-conscious, and Ernest looked at him curiously. He was unused to his friend becoming so emotional, spitting out his words like venom.
‘You’re right,’ he said. ‘No one likes Brice and Miriam’s a nice girl, but their lives aren’t like ours. The Parsonage and the Hall are close to where we live but they might as well be on a different planet. See what it’s like in church next time you go there: the poor and the miners at the back; the shopkeepers and the managers and the farmers in the middle; and Sir John up at the front. Everyone has their place in the world and you know where ours is.’
‘Well, I don’t accept that,’ said Adam. ‘She shouldn’t have to marry a worthless parasite like Brice just because her mother tells her to. She should be able to choose whom she wants when the time comes.’
They relapsed into silence, each lost in their own thoughts, interrupted only when Ernest produced two slices of his mother’s freshly baked fruit cake from his snap tin which they ate slowly, savouring the taste as they gazed down at the great house and the sun glinting on the golden weathervane up above the stone gables.
‘It’s beautiful, isn’t it?’ said Ernest.
‘But paid for with so much suffering,’ he said thoughtfully. ‘Look down there, outside the wall – see the farmworkers’ cottages all nicely thatched and weatherproof. Must make Sir John feel like he’s a model landlord when he drives past them in his Rolls-Royce, but the truth is they’re just a sideline. The real money comes from the mine and he never goes near that; leaves it instead to Atkins and the other managers to get their hands dirty. It’s over the hill and out of sight. And what you don’t see, you don’t have to feel responsible for.’
‘And I suppose it’s my dad’s job to try to make him see,’ said Adam.
‘Yes, that’s right, and I don’t envy him the task. With Whalen and my dad on one side and blind Sir John on the other, he’s got to feel like he’s being pulled apart by a couple of riled-up pit ponies,’ said Ernest, shaking his head.
‘Do you know who Whalen reminds me of?’ asked Adam, remembering his encounter with Rawdon’s father in the mine – the hard unforgiving voice and the cruel flinty eyes.
Ernest shook his head.
‘My dad – he used to be just like him. Any excuse to fight the oppressor and too bad if people got hurt in the process. He was a fanatic, a true believer, until my mother died. And then everything changed. He’s a better man now, more sensible, more reasonable, but it’s also like he’s lost his spark, his passion – whatever you want to call it. It’s like something in him died when she died. God knows how it’ll all end,’ he finished sadly, sounding like an astrologer who’d lost his ability to read the stars.
‘I’ll tell you how it ends,’ said Ernest, looking hard at his friend. ‘No, better – I’ll show you. Come on. It’s not far.’
They walked on quickly now with Ernest setting the pace. Over another hill and down into a valley where the path passed through the cool shadows of a beech wood, where bluebells grew in clusters beneath the gnarled mossy green trunks of the old trees. And then out into the open again as they climbed up the other side, walking between tall grasses under the cloudless azure sky.
‘You’re a liar,’ said Adam, stopping to wipe the sweat from his brow. ‘This is twice as far as we walked before.’
‘But worth it,’ said Ernest, beckoning to his friend to join him on the ridge. ‘Worth it to see what the end of the world looks like.’
Adam stood stock still, staring down into a bowl-shaped valley similar to the one containing the Scarsdale pit but smaller and with just a single headstock at the bottom that had toppled over on to one side. Its wheels were brown with rust and the shack-like buildings around the pithead were in a state of pitiful disrepair, left to rot amid a sea of weeds and strangling vines. And the same was true of the miners’ houses that stretched up the sides of the valley – the same mean streets as in the Scarsdale valley but built here of less durable materials which hadn’t stood the test of time. A few of the windows still had broken glass but most were just holes in the walls – openings into black empty interiors, home to rats and spiders.
‘What happened?’ Adam asked.
‘The seam was exhausted so they went down deeper; too deep, and the mine flooded. Some miners were drowned and the rest were laid off, so they moved to Scarsdale or other pits and the village died. Thorley it was called, and now the name means nothing.’
‘When did it happen?’
‘Fifteen years ago – same year I was born. In another fifteen there probably won’t be anything left and no one will even know that there was once a mine here and a village and a pub and a union. And one day Scarsdale will go the same way and there’s nothing my dad or your dad or Whalen Dawes can do to stop it.’
They had gone down the hill a little way to where a street of tumbledown houses began. On a whim Adam pushed open the rotted door of the first one they came to. It creaked on its rusted hinges and immediately a pair of angry black birds – rooks or crows, it was too quick to know which they were – flew past him up into the air where they were joined by a flock of others, rising in a whirr of wings from the eaves of the other houses. They circled overhead, cawing angrily at the interlopers.
‘Be careful,’ said Ernest, who had stayed back in the street. ‘The roof will cave in if you give it half a chance. A lot of them already have from the looks of it.’
But Adam didn’t respond. He had moved to the centre of the room, standing gingerly on the rotten joists that were all that was left of the floor as he listened intently to a sound of rocking that was coming from the upper floor. In the corner a rickety staircase was missing several of its steps. He didn’t need Ernest to tell him that it would be stupid to climb it and yet he didn’t think twice. He had to see who or what was making the noise above. He was halfway up when it stopped and the stairs began to give way beneath him. The nightmare memory of falling in the pit cage flashed across his mind and he reached out and grabbed the newel post at the top of the stairs and pulled himself up to safety just as the staircase collapsed behind him and the house seemed to tremble on its foundations.
He was in a square room, standing across from a small sash window that had long ago lost all its glass. Below the sill an emaciated black-and-white cat was standing, precariously keeping its balance on a rocking chair that was rocking violently to and fro again, responding to the shaking of the house. The animal was clearly enraged – its fur was standing on end, its back was arched and an angry snarl had exposed its teeth. Adam just had time to take a step back and put his hands up to protect his face before it sprang at him through the air, scratching his arms before it leapt down through the hole in the corner where the staircase had been and disappeared.
Adam looked down and inspected the damage: livid lacerations along the backs of both forearms that were starting to bleed. He took off his shirt and used the sleeves to staunch the blood. He felt faint and sat down on the cherry-wood chair, keeping his feet on the floor to stop it rocking. He could see it was handmade, each arm and leg lovingly carved and crafted to enable it to stand the test of time. The miner who had lived here had made it, Adam guessed, for his wife perhaps to sit at the window and look out at the sun rising over the hills.
He closed his eyes for a moment, imagining the past, and was startled by Ernest shouting his name from down below.
‘I’m all right,’ he said, getting up and leaning out of the window. ‘I’ll come down in a minute.’
‘How? You’ve broken the staircase, you idiot. I told you to be careful,’ said Ernest, laughing. ‘Wait there and I’ll find something for you to jump down on to.’
Adam turned to go back and sit in the chair but jumped, knocking it over, when a mouse scuttled under his feet, looking back at him for a moment before it vanished into a hole in the wainscot. And down next to the opening, he saw a toy train half hidden by some rags. He bent down and picked it up. It was made out of the same shining cherry wood as the rocking chair with each detail beautifully executed down to the wheels that slowly turned as he rolled it to and fro along a floor plank.
The chair for the wife and a toy for their child: Adam could see them in his mind’s eye, looking out of the window at just this time of day, waiting for the miner to return home, putting their trust in a future which was about to be snatched away from them. Just like his own mother had in London. And thinking of her again, he suddenly saw her bedroom in the house in Islington as clearly as if he had been transported back in time and was standing on the half-landing looking in. There was the little desk in the corner where she did her accounts, there the cross on the mildew-stained wall, and there the empty bed covered with the cheap eiderdown to which she would never return. She had hoped and dreamed too, unaware of what lay in store for her just around the corner.
‘Come on,’ shouted Ernest, his voice breaking in harshly on Adam’s reverie. ‘Time to jump!’
Adam looked down and saw that Ernest had dragged an old mattress below the window.
‘Better land on your feet,’ he said. ‘I wouldn’t want to put my face in this fleabag.’
Adam tried to lift the sash but it came away in his hands and so he knocked away the rest of the frame and laughed when he hit the ground amid an explosion of dust and feathers. He was young and the strong blood pumping through his veins wouldn’t let him stay melancholy for very long.
They had been at Scarsdale for almost a year and Adam had his own life now. He rose early to take the bus into Gratton and worked hard at his books all day and in the evening too, when he laboured over Latin and Greek translations, straining his eyes to read by the light of the dim oil lamp while Ernest snored in his bed on the other side of the room. Adam loved the ancient world. He’d first heard many of the stories from his mother. She’d begin by reading from books but would then put them down and carry on the narrative herself in her own words. She had a gift for painting word pictures and he could remember how as a child he’d seen in his mind’s eye Odysseus and his comrades waiting nervously inside the wooden horse as the unsuspecting Trojans dragged it inside the gates of their city or Caesar stabbed to death on the ides of March. Listening to her, the heroes and villains of the past became more real than the people in his own life; and now, reading the ancient books, Adam felt the same thrill again.
He liked the school and he enjoyed being the headmaster’s prize pupil. But in the house at the end of Station Street he was less happy. The atmosphere remained strained and he could see how his father was being eaten up with stress and anxiety. Daniel’s proud receipt of the glowing reports that his son brought back from school seemed to be the only times when Adam saw his father happy. Otherwise he was a shadow of the man he’d been in London and it was hard for Adam to recognize him as the same happy-go-lucky person who had challenged the gypsy champion to a boxing match in the market square and come away with ten shillings jingling in his coat pocket.
It was Daniel’s isolated position as negotiator between the union and the owners that was the source of the trouble. As he had promised Adam he would do in the train coming north, he had tried to negotiate solutions to disputes rather than use them as an excuse for escalating conflict. And in the process he had developed a good relationship with Sir John Scarsdale and the managers, but mutual respect had not brought with it significant concessions. The essence of the problem was that Scarsdale was an old pit. In its day it had filled the coffers of Sir John’s father and financed handsome improvements at Scarsdale Hall, including the renovation of the agricultural cottages that Ernest had pointed out to Adam on their walk. But since the turn of the century productivity had steadily fallen. In response the miners had dug deeper and the narrow Oakwell seam had recently yielded good coal, but the greater depth brought more risks and the need for increased expenditure on safety.
Sometimes there were ad hoc union meetings on Friday evenings at Edgar’s house after the week’s money had been divvied up among the butty teams, and, from his bedroom up above, Adam would hear voices rising in anger and accusation. It was usually Whalen Dawes who took the lead. He had a way with words and knew how to play on his audience’s fears, turning Daniel’s long hours closeted with Sir John and the managers against him.
‘You’re cosyin’ up with ’em,’ he’d say, taunting his enemy. ‘That’s what you’re doin’. Scarsdale gives thee a nice glass o’ wine from one o’ his deecanters an’ calls thee a gen’l’man an’ soon you’re eatin’ out o’ ’is ’and like a pussycat, while the likes o’ us are left to suffer, ’ackin out ’is coal in the dusty black darkness, earnin’ next to nowt.’
Daniel would deny the accusation but his words sounded empty and hollow when he had so little to show for his efforts. And when he was absent, Whalen would go further. ‘’E’s not one o’ us; ’e’s a southerner an’ ’e doesna think like we do,’ he would say, watching Edgar all the time out of the corner of his eye to gauge his reaction while the other miners muttered amongst themselves. He was itching to have Daniel removed as checkweighman so that he could be appointed in his place and take control of the local union, but he could not move without Edgar’s support and he wasn’t sure of that yet.
He decided instead to act when the chance came to take on Sir John himself. The deaths of two Scarsdale miners gave him the opportunity. For whatever reason there had been a recent dramatic increase in the number of firedamp explosions in the mine. The cause was in dispute: the management blamed it on the growing depth of the seams being mined, but the men said that the deputies were not taking enough precautions to measure methane levels before work began each day.
This latest disaster had been particularly bad as the exploding gas ignited the coal dust on the walls of the main tunnel in the Hillsborough district, causing a flash fire which trapped a collier and his filler inside their gate, so that by the time the fire truck arrived they had burnt to death.
The whole town turned out for their funerals, walking up the hill to the church in a solemn black line behind the two widows and the men’s brothers, who carried the Miners’ Federation banner unfurled above their heads. The colliery brass band brought up the rear, playing the funeral march. Walking beside his father, Adam felt moved by the silent dignity of the mourners, their steps measured against the muffled beating of the bass drum.
But when they got inside the church they stopped in surprise. Whalen and Rawdon were sitting in Sir John Scarsdale’s pew at the top of the nave, facing the parson in his black vestments, who was walking to and fro in front of the two coffins, which had been set up on trestles in front of the altar. He seemed agitated, apparently at a loss for what to do.
For several tense minutes there was a stand-off, broken only when Hardcastle, the mine manager, went up into the pew behind Whalen and leant forward, telling him in a loud whisper that he had to leave. But Whalen studiously ignored him, staring forward, waiting for the service to begin.
Hardcastle came back down the aisle and spoke to Daniel. ‘You’ve got to get him to move,’ he said.
‘Why? Is Sir John coming?’
‘Yes, he’s outside now with Lady Scarsdale. I sent Atkins back to stop them coming in but I can’t hold them much longer.’
‘I’ll try,’ said Daniel, getting up. ‘But I doubt it’ll do any good.’
Adam watched as his father went up to Whalen in the front pew and tried to get his attention. This time Whalen reacted. ‘Get thy arm off me, you lackey,’ he snapped, shouting out the insult for everyone to hear as he pushed Daniel violently away, causing him to stumble back and half fall on to Miriam, the parson’s daughter, who was sitting across the aisle.
Daniel picked himself up and pulled out his handkerchief to give to Miriam who was clearly distressed by what had happened. He hesitated and then beckoned to Adam to come forward from the back of the church.
‘Can you take her home, Adam? I would but I’m needed here,’ Daniel asked. ‘I’m so sorry, Miss Vale. This was the last thing I intended.’
Miriam nodded, accepting the apology, and instinctively Adam offered her his arm for support, flushing deeply when she accepted. As they walked back down the nave, he was intensely aware of her to the exclusion of everyone else around him. He felt the touch of her hand on his arm like electricity and could hear each rustle of her long black dress as they walked. He felt an exultation that made his heart pound, although it shamed him when he remembered it afterwards, thinking of the coffins behind him at the altar and the reason why they were all there. The raised voices and the confusion that had taken over the church were entirely outside his consciousness and he only came back to his senses when they got outside and saw Sir John standing with his wife and son and Atkins the under-manager over near the lychgate.
‘You’re Daniel Raine’s son, aren’t you?’ said Sir John, coming up to them. He was clearly agitated, unable to stand still as he moved his weight from one foot to the other.
‘Yes, I am,’ said Adam.
‘Can you tell me what’s happening in there?’
‘Whalen, Mr Dawes—’
‘Was in our pew,’ said Sir John, interrupting. ‘Yes, I know that. But has he been removed?’
‘No,’ said Adam. ‘My father was trying but it didn’t work.’
‘Oh, this is so ridiculous,’ said Sir John. ‘I only came to show support because I thought it would give the families some comfort. If I had known—’ He broke off, distracted by a sudden flurry of movement at the entrance to the church where several of the pit deputies had appeared, manhandling Whalen out into the churchyard where he stood, dusting himself off, looking delighted with the turn of events.
‘You’re a disgrace, sir,’ said Sir John, going up to him. ‘You should be ashamed of yourself.’
‘Nay, sir, it’s thy treatment o’ us miners that’s the disgrace,’ said Whalen, looking Sir John squarely in the eye. ‘An’ it’s thee that should be ashamed. Come, Rawdon, it’s time to go ’ome,’ he added, looking over at his son who had followed his father out of the church and was looking on with a shocked look on his face.
Adam watched the two of them walk away down the hill. He disliked them both cordially and was appalled by the father’s behaviour and yet he couldn’t help but admire his fearlessness. He turned back to Miriam, who had been standing beside him until a moment before, but found that she was gone and the feeling of disappointment struck him like a sudden and unexpected blow to the heart.
Feelings in the town ran high in the days that followed. The miners were angry with Whalen for using the funerals as a stage for his demonstration, but they also respected his pluck. There was a consensus that something needed to be done even if Whalen had gone the wrong way about it; that they couldn’t allow Hardcastle and his lot to carry on taking advantage of them.
And they were quick to rally round Whalen when the manager announced that he had been suspended from work. Daniel’s appeal to Hardcastle to think again fell on deaf ears and most of the miners downed tools and walked out of the mine when they heard the news. They assembled in a crowd on the football ground, ignoring the steady drizzle as Whalen addressed them from a makeshift platform set up in front of the pavilion. The women were there too, standing further back but just as angry as the men.
‘Thank ye for your support, comrades,’ Whalen shouted. ‘Solidarity’s what’s been missin’ in our union up until now: leavin’ our brethren in Wales to suffer alone while Churchill’s thugs killed ’em with their batons and the black-’earted owners starved ’em to death. We need to stand up and be counted; we need to show Sir John Scarsdale and ’is like that they can’t treat us like animals, payin’ us next to nowt and not carin’ tuppence about our safety, jus’ so they can increase their profits. We’ve got to stop this lyin’ down and lettin’ ’em walk all over us; we’ve got to draw a line and say enough’s enough. We’re men too, just like them, entitled to the same respect as they get – more in fact, cos we work and they don’t.’
The men cheered and raised their hands in a unanimous show of support when Edgar proposed that they refuse to work until Whalen had been reinstated, and then walked back to the town over the muddy fields, sinking their hands deep in their pockets to keep them warm. It was the end of autumn and the last curled brown leaves were blowing down from the black trees, while behind them the wheels of the headstocks stood motionless, wreathed in the misty grey gloom of the early evening. The rain continued to fall steadily and they quickened their pace, needing the solace of alcohol and the warm fire at the King’s Head if they were to maintain their spirit of defiance.
The streets were empty when Adam got off the bus and walked home. Everyone seemed to be inside the pub or the Miners’ Institute on the other side of the green, talking about the strike and Whalen Dawes. And Edgar’s house was deserted too, so Adam revived the fire and set the kettle to boil, lit the lamp, and sat down at the kitchen table with his books spread out in front of him.
The rain was coming down harder now, beating against the window panes so that at first he didn’t hear the knock on the door. And when he opened it, he barely had time to take in the unexpected figure of Mr Vale, the parson, standing on the doorstep before a sudden squall of rain-drenched wind blew them both back into the house. They clung to each other for support for a moment and then both started laughing.
‘I’m sorry,’ Adam said, shutting the door. ‘Edgar’s not here and nor is my father. I don’t know which of them you came to see?’ He was surprised by the parson’s visit. Edgar and his family were non-believers and Adam’s father had no contact with the church other than when he accompanied Adam to the service on Sunday mornings, and he hadn’t even been doing that in recent months, excusing himself on the grounds that he had too much work. As far as Adam knew, Mr Vale had never been to the house before.
‘It was you I was looking for,’ said the parson, smiling as he bent to unfasten the bicycle clips from his trouser legs and took off his cape, which Adam hung on one of the hooks by the door.
‘Yes, I wanted to thank you for helping my daughter at the funeral. She’s a sensitive soul at the best of times and the occasion was always going to be difficult for her. Perhaps it would have been better if she hadn’t come but she insisted. My wife is an invalid and so Miriam felt that she should come in her stead. And then the scuffle by the altar distressed her. As you may have heard, Mr Dawes did not go willingly and so it would have been even worse for her if you hadn’t come forward to rescue her from the mayhem.’
‘It was the least I could do,’ said Adam. ‘I was pleased to be able to help.’
‘And then she told me that she left without thanking you in person. It’s perhaps understandable as she was frightened that there might be more violence when Mr Dawes was thrown out of the church, but it must have seemed rude to you.’
‘No, not at all,’ said Adam awkwardly. The idea that he had been offended by Miriam when he remembered the few minutes that he had spent with her on his arm as being several of the most wonderful in his life was so absurd that it left him at a temporary loss for words. He covered up his confusion by offering the parson a seat at the table while he busied himself at the fire making tea.
‘You’re learning Latin,’ said the parson who’d been looking at Adam’s books and now picked up his well-thumbed copy of Tacitus’s Annals. ‘We have something in common – I was never happier than when I studied the classics at Oxford. Do you like it?’
‘Yes, very much, although it seems a little useless sometimes—’
‘Useless?’ interrupted the parson sharply. ‘Why do you say that?’
‘Because it was all so long ago; so far away from where we are now.’
‘Was it? I often think there are real parallels between the Roman Empire and our world. A ruling class that has become decadent, utterly given over to the pursuit of pointless pleasure, supported by a slave population—’
‘We don’t have slaves,’ Adam protested.
‘Technically, no. I agree. But the conditions in which most of the population lives aren’t much better than slavery. In fact I’d say the Roman slaves had a better diet than the poor do in this country.’
‘You sound like Whalen Dawes,’ said Adam and then immediately regretted his words, worrying that the parson would be offended by them, although he showed no signs of being so. In truth Adam was shocked: the parson preached the Christian virtues in his Sunday sermons, but he never talked like this. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘I shouldn’t have said that.’
‘No, I understand what you mean. But I assure you I’m not like Dawes. I believe that society should be more just but that doesn’t mean I believe in using violence to overthrow it as Dawes most certainly does. He wants to start a revolution and, like all revolutionaries, he doesn’t care who gets hurt in the process.’
‘What do you think will happen?’ asked Adam. He was enthralled by the conversation and didn’t want it to stop. It was the first time in his life that a clever and educated man had spoken to him in this way, treating him as though he was an equal.
‘I don’t know,’ said the parson. ‘I have to say I fear the worst – although whether it will be the Irish or the trades unions or the ridiculous German Kaiser with his dreadnoughts who pushes us over the edge I don’t know.’
‘I saw him,’ said Adam.
‘Did you? When?’
‘At the old king’s funeral. It was only for a minute.’
‘And what did you think?’
‘I thought he seemed wound up, like he could get angry and make some terrible mistake,’ said Adam slowly, groping for the right words. He had thought of the encounter many times since it happened but he still remained unsure what to make of it.
‘He wants every day to be his birthday. That’s what Bismarck said about him and it’s certainly a dangerous trait,’ said the parson, finishing his tea and getting up to go. ‘I’ve enjoyed our talk,’ he added. ‘Perhaps you would like to come to the Parsonage some time. I have some books about Rome that you might like to look at and it would do me good to discuss antiquity with a fellow enthusiast.’
‘I’d love to. I mean I’d like to very much,’ said Adam, trying not to sound too childishly enthusiastic. Not only would he be able to talk about Rome with the parson; he would also be able to see Miriam again and there was nothing he wanted more than that.
At the door they met Daniel coming in. He was excited, telling his news in a rush as he shook the parson’s hand. ‘I persuaded Sir John to reinstate Whalen,’ he said. ‘And not only that – he’ll invest more money in pit safety. There’s new breathing apparatus and protective clothing Hardcastle can buy, and he’s going to give instructions to water down the dust more between shifts. I must say he was very reasonable, although it was hard to get him to change his mind about Dawes …’
‘I’m not surprised,’ said the parson. ‘Sir John’s a good man at heart and he wants to do the right thing. But he’s also a traditionalist, a dyed-in the-wool Tory, and property rights are a religion to him. And Dawes knows that. He’s no fool. He knew exactly what he was doing when he sat in Sir John’s pew – he couldn’t have chosen a better symbol to attack.’
‘Yes, you’re right,’ said Daniel. ‘Is that why you’re here, Mr Vale? I don’t think Dawes’ll do it again, if that’s what you’re worried about. He’s got what he wants from the church; the mine’s where he’ll be directing his attention from now on.’
‘No, I agree with you,’ said the parson. ‘I came to thank you for your help. I don’t know how we would have managed without you. And I also wanted to thank your son for helping my daughter when she was distressed. He was very kind and considerate – you should be proud of him.’
‘I am,’ said Daniel warmly. ‘Sometimes I wonder about my future here – Dawes wants my job and he wants a strike and he may well end up getting both, the way we’re going. But as soon as I’m about to get miserable I look at Adam and I feel better. I think he’s going to go far, make a name for himself in this world.’
The parson looked at Daniel carefully for a moment before he answered. ‘I think so too – Adam’s a good lad and he certainly deserves to do well,’ he said. ‘But you must look after yourself as well, Mr Raine. You look pale and careworn, if you don’t mind me saying so. Adam needs you too – you should remember that. Come to church – I should like to see you there.’
‘I’ll try,’ said Daniel, shaking the parson’s hand and watching with Adam as Mr Vale got on his bicycle and rode away up the hill. The rain had stopped but the wind was still blowing and the parson’s billowing cape made him a strange, spectral figure in the twilight.
‘He means well,’ said Daniel. ‘But he doesn’t know what it’s like for us. It’s the same with all the gentlemen – none of them do.’
Daniel’s agreement with Sir John got the men back to work but it didn’t stop the grumbling and it did little to enhance his standing with them either. Below ground, Whalen and his allies harped constantly on the checkweighman’s close relationship with the owner. ‘’E’s spendin’ too much time up at the Hall bein’ wined and dined; ’e’s gettin’ a taste for the high life; ’e’s sellin’ us down the river.’ It didn’t matter that none of this was true; the constant drip of innuendo had a cumulative effect which Daniel was powerless to counteract. And Whalen was preaching to an increasingly receptive audience. All over the country there was a new mood of militancy among the miners. The talk everywhere was of the minimum wage, guaranteed to be paid regardless of fluctuations in profit. It was a principle that the employers could not or would not accept and as the year came to an end it became clear that a national strike was inevitable. The miners came out en masse on 26 February 1912 – a date they soon had cause to regret as it was still cold in the north and they quickly began to miss their free ration of coal. In Scarsdale they took their children’s prams up to the slag heap and picked through the shale in the rain, looking for lumps of coal in the grey waste to wheel home, and the more enterprising sank a pit outside the town, going down in turns to dig for coal by candlelight while the others used a pulley suspended from an old penny farthing bicycle wheel to bring what they could find up to the surface. By mid-March everyone was feeling the pinch and the union opened up a soup kitchen on the green.
But it was hard for Adam to share the general sense of despondency. Throughout the week he was away in Gratton where the school provided meals and the teachers lauded his academic prowess. And on Sundays after church he would go over to the Parsonage and drink a glass of sherry with the parson in his study. Soon this became the highlight of Adam’s week. To begin with they talked about Greece and Rome, looking over the books that Mr Vale had kept from his university days. Adam had always loved books, associating them with the magical childhood world that he had shared with his mother when she read to him in the house in Islington, and he was flattered by the way that the parson seemed genuinely interested in what he had to say when they sat talking on either side of the fire in Mr Vale’s study with the carefully tended lawn glistening silvery green in the winter sunlight outside the bow window.
And later, as they got to know each other better, the parson would talk to him about the present as well as the past. It was a frightening world that they lived in, he said. Everywhere there was conflict – not just between the miners and the mine owners but between all the workers and their employers. There was talk of the trades unions banding together to threaten a general strike, while in London the prison authorities were force-feeding the suffragettes through tubes thrust into their nostrils, and the Ulstermen in Ireland were openly preparing for rebellion. And beyond the shores of England the great powers jostled against each other, defining and redefining their competing spheres of influence.
‘One spark could set it all off,’ said the parson. ‘And once a war has begun they won’t be able to stop it even if they want to.’
‘Because the continent of Europe has become like a house of cards. Once one falls, they all do. The countries are prisoners of their alliances and the armies are too big to call back once they have begun to mobilize. And yet everywhere the rich and powerful go on as if they haven’t a care in the world, spending money like water, living only for pleasure. Perhaps they sense the end is near. I fear for our future, Adam. Truly I do.’
‘What can we do?’
‘We can pray. I don’t think our country has ever stood in greater need of the good Lord and his teachings.’
But these moments of gloom were few and far between at the Parsonage. Generally Adam found Mr Vale to be good company, and there was also the exquisite pleasure of the time he was able to spend with Miriam. She would often come and sit in the corner of the study and listen to her father and Adam talk, supporting her pretty chin on the back of her hand as she stared at each of them in turn, absorbed in what they had to say. Adam wanted to include her in their conversations but she was naturally shy and he desisted when he saw how confused she became when he asked her opinion. But that was because she was in awe of her father; on the few times that they were left alone she was quick with her questions. And she asked them not for form’s sake but because she wanted to know: about London, about the house in Station Street, about the strike and about his disastrous visit to the mine. She laughed when he told her about the ignominious way it had ended but that was because he had deliberately made his unconscious exit in the bottom of the coal tub appear comic, and indeed the experience seemed more absurd than terrible when he was in Miriam’s company, and he laughed too at the memory.
But their laughter got them into trouble, leading as it did to Adam’s first encounter with Miriam’s mother. Adam had never seen her in church for the very good reason that she never went there. As a self-declared permanent invalid, she never left the Parsonage, but she was nevertheless keenly interested in everything that went on in Scarsdale and at the Hall, relying on a network of contacts in both places to keep her informed, periodically rewarding them with small presents from her purse. She knew all about Adam’s rescue of her daughter from the church on the day of Whalen Dawes’s demonstration but she didn’t feel grateful to him like her husband. On the contrary, she saw Adam as a possible emerging threat to her plan to marry Miriam off to a rich, well-connected man. Her own husband was respectable but he had no independent means, and she wished that she had detected his sad lack of worldly ambition before she made the mistake of marrying him. She was not one to waste time on past regrets, but she was determined to use the family’s most precious asset, her daughter’s beauty, to achieve financial security for her old age, and she was certainly not going to allow a penniless young man to get in her way.
‘Miriam, where is your father?’ she asked, not coming into the study, but standing in the doorway, looking at Adam with beady light grey eyes that were utterly unlike the beautiful heavy-lashed garnet-brown eyes of her daughter.
‘He had to go over to the church. One of the bell-ringers needed him. He said he’d be back very soon,’ said Miriam, getting up nervously from her chair. Adam was struck by the dramatic effect that her mother’s appearance had had on her. She was suddenly forced instead of natural, and she seemed to be making excuses when she hadn’t yet been accused of anything. It was Miriam’s curse that she could not be herself with either of her parents. With her father whom she loved she couldn’t think of anything to say, whereas with her mother whom she feared she couldn’t stop talking.
‘This is Adam Raine,’ she said, pointing to Adam who had also got to his feet. ‘His father works at the mine—’
‘I know who he is,’ said Mrs Vale, interrupting coldly. ‘And Mr Raine’s business is with your father, not you, as I’m sure you’re well aware, Miriam.’
It was part of the beauty of Miriam’s face that it vividly reflected the changes in her emotions; she had no art of concealment, and the pain that she felt now in response to her mother’s harsh reprimand and rudeness to their guest was plain to see. Adam was distressed by it; he wanted to ride to her defence but he was clear-headed enough to see that anything he said would only make things worse for Miriam.
‘I am sorry that my husband has caused you this inconvenience,’ Mrs Vale said, turning her attention back to Adam once her daughter had passed by her out of the door. ‘I will speak to him about it.’
And clearly she did because Adam and Miriam were never left alone together after that. But the parson also went out of his way to encourage Adam to continue his Sunday visits and Miriam sometimes still joined them, although this occurred less frequently than before. From all of which Adam concluded that Ernest had been exaggerating a little when he said that it was the parson’s wife who wore the trousers in the marriage, although he had a vested interest of course in wishing that not to be true.
Early one Saturday morning Adam was shaken awake by Ernest, who was standing fully dressed by the side of the bed.
‘Can you keep a secret?’ he asked.
‘What are you talking about? What kind of secret?’ asked Adam. He was still bleary-eyed from sleep and he wondered if he was still dreaming. It was dark outside the window and the guttering candle in Ernest’s hand was throwing weird shadows on the walls.
‘No, that’s not the way it works,’ said Ernest. ‘You’ve got to tell me you’ll keep it first. You’ve got to promise.’
‘All right,’ said Adam doubtfully. ‘I promise. So what’s the secret?’
‘I’ll tell you when we get there,’ said Ernest, laughing. ‘Now get dressed. We’re supposed to be there in ten minutes.’
Everyone in the house was still asleep and they crept down the stairs quietly and closed the door softly behind them. The sun was just beginning to rise in a pink mist over the far hills, dimly illuminating the silvery crystals of the hoar frost hanging on the trees and hedges, and their breath hung white between them in the cold air as they got on their bicycles and went freewheeling down the hill past the station, where they could see the silhouettes of the coal trucks that had been lined up empty and idle on the sidings since the strike began.
The mist was thicker, grey and fog-like in the valley bottom, and they could hardly see a yard in front of them when they dismounted, leaning their bicycles up against the side of the deputies’ office.
Ernest whistled twice and waited a few seconds before whistling again and then after a minute the same signal was echoed back to them.
‘Who is it?’ Adam asked.
‘Luke,’ said a familiar voice, close by but invisible. ‘An’ ’Arry and Davy MacKenzie, an’ I hope you can keep a secret, Adam Raine?’
‘He will,’ said Ernest, answering for Adam. ‘I got him to promise before we left.’
‘Fair enough,’ said Luke, coming forward out of the mist and clapping Adam on the shoulder. He and the two boys with him were smoking cigarettes and the burning ends illuminated their faces. Adam knew them all from playing football.
‘What’s the secret?’ he demanded. He’d been amused and irritated in equal measure by Ernest’s refusal to tell him what was going on, but his frustration was getting the better of him now that he seemed to be the only one of the five of them who didn’t know why they were there.
‘Come on,’ said Luke. ‘You’ll see.’
The boys followed Luke as he led them over to the big shed-like building that housed the stores for the mine and produced two keys from his pocket.
‘Where did you get them?’ asked Adam, starting to feel worried.
‘One of the deputies left ’em lying around an’ Davy ’ere was sharp enough to nab ’em without anyone noticin’, said Luke, pointing to his friend, a boy of his age but of much smaller stature with curly sandy hair and a round cherub-like face that reminded Adam of the carvings in the church in Islington that he used to go to with his mother. Davy was constantly getting into trouble, letting off fireworks or pilfering from the village store, and relied on his false air of innocence to escape punishment. His twin brother, Harry, looked nothing like him. He was tall, dark-skinned and serious, and had a precocious talent for playing the violin that he had never been able to properly develop as he had been required, like his brother, to join their father and uncle down the mine on the day following their fourteenth birthday. The strike had given the boys their longest holiday since then even if it had also made them cold and hungry.
Luke fitted one of the keys into the lock on the door of the stores and they went inside, leaving Harry outside to stand lookout.
Luke and Davy lit candles and began to pick their way up and down the narrow lanes between the tall stacks of equipment piled up on all sides – ropes and rails and wheels and steel and timber roof props – before Luke gave a triumphant whistle as he halted in front of a tall cupboard at the far end of the shed which had the word ‘DANGER’ painted in big red letters on the door under an image of a skull and crossbones.
The second key opened the padlock and the door swung open to reveal shelves of the various explosives used for shot firing in the mine. Luke carefully selected two sticks of dynamite.
‘One should be enough; t’other one’s just in case,’ he said as he relocked the door.
‘What the hell are they for?’ asked Adam, now feeling seriously alarmed. He was angry too. ‘You should have damned well told me, Ernest, that you were planning to blow up the mine before you hauled me out here,’ he told his friend, taking hold of his arm. ‘If I’d known, I wouldn’t have come.’
But Ernest shook him off and laughed. ‘Who said anything about blowing up the mine?’ he said. ‘We’re going fishing. That’s what we’re doing.’
The roads were still deserted as they rode their bicycles out of the town, heading past the football pitch into the open countryside. Away from the valley bottom the early spring sunshine was burning off the mist and the clean cold air filling Adam’s lungs gave him a sudden feeling of exhilaration as the boys increased their speed, weaving in and out of each other’s paths but somehow never colliding. They halted at a crossroads a few miles from Scarsdale, arguing about which direction to take.
‘It’s up there,’ said Davy, pointing to the left where the road narrowed as it climbed up into a beech wood and disappeared. ‘I know cos this ’ere is the cross lanes where they ’ad the iron gibbet back in the olden days. They used to ’ang the ’ighwaymen up ’ere in chains after their executions as a warnin’. Pitch on their faces; tar on their bones. Imagine the wind blowing through the bars of the cage rattlin’ their skeletons; imagine the sound o’ it in the moonlight,’ he said, dropping his voice to an enthusiastic whisper.
‘You’re makin’ it up,’ said Luke, pushing Davy playfully back with his hand. ‘I think you’re maybe right about the lake, but the rest is nonsense, ain’t it, ’Arry?’
‘Nay, it’s true,’ said Davy’s brother. ‘Our granddad told us about the gibbet the year afore ’e died; ’e said ’e’d seen it ’ere when ’e was a kid.’
‘An’ I s’pose you’re sayin’ that’s what’s we’ve got comin’ to us for stealin’ the dynamite?’ said Luke, grinning.
‘Nay, ’angin’s too good for the likes o’ us,’ said Davy, shaking his head in mock despair.
Laughing, they got back on their bicycles and pedalled hard to put the cross lanes behind them and reach their destination.
They slowed down once they reached the wood. They had to as the road quickly became no more than a dirt track and they bounced along in single file over the exposed tree roots until they reached a rise and stopped, looking out in wonder at the still waters of a semi-circular lake ringed by weeping willow trees whose leafy branches were trailing down into the water.
The boys waited while Luke lit the fuse on the first stick of dynamite and threw it into the lake. Almost immediately a column of foaming water exploded upwards from the surface and with it came scores of fat fish glinting silver in the sunlight. They flew up through the air before cascading back to float stunned or dead on the surface, ready and waiting for the boys who were already wading out into the water with the nets that they had brought from home extended in front of them.
They sorted through their catch on the shore, looking for the green-scaled perch with black stripes down their flanks and a spiked dorsal fin on their backs. The rest they threw back. Adam was told off to gather twigs and branches for the fire while the other boys descaled and filleted the fish ready for cooking.
‘Perch are the best to eat. And this lake’s known for them. The carp taste of mud and the chub are full of forked bones and taste of mud too,’ said Ernest, grinning happily as he took the wood from Adam and built the fire.
Adam watched the quick way the boys worked together preparing the meal with a twinge of envy mixed with regret: there had been no opportunity for him to learn how to live outdoors back in London. Over the course of the last year he had come to love the countryside around Scarsdale, gazing out at it with pleasure every day from the window of the bus, but he still felt like an outsider looking in, utterly ignorant of how nature or agriculture actually worked.
But Adam’s despondency was fleeting, chased away like a stray cloud by the delicious scent of the cooking mixed with the smell of smoke from the fire. Ernest had come equipped, producing a frying pan and flour and a bag of lemons from his knapsack, and the breakfast was the best and most satisfying meal Adam had eaten in as long as he could remember. The food prepared by Ernest’s mother had always been bland, and quantity as well as quality had sharply deteriorated since the privations inflicted by the strike had begun to bite into the family’s income.
Afterwards Adam lay back on the mossy bank with his eyes closed, using his rolled-up jacket as a makeshift pillow, and let the sunlight warm his face as it dappled down through the branches of the willow trees. He idly listened to the laughing voices of his friends, not taking in the words but letting them intermingle with the sound of birdsong and the tap-tap-tapping of a woodpecker further back inside the wood. The mine and the strike and the unresolved issues in his life seemed faraway and inconsequential, subsumed for now in a deep contentment. And later, in the midst of war and misfortune, he thought back on that moment lying beside the lake as the one where he had been most completely happy, wanting for nothing, at peace and in perfect harmony with the world around him.
In April the union voted to return to work. An Act rushed through Parliament by the Liberal government had appeared to answer the miners’ demands. But it soon became apparent that they had achieved far less than they had hoped. The new law set up district boards made up of employers and employees to agree a minimum wage in each district, and when the Scarsdale Board failed to reach agreement, the Chairman, Sir John Scarsdale, used his power under the Act to set a five-shilling minimum.
At demonstrations all over the north the miners had chanted their slogan: ‘Eight hours’ work, eight hours’ play, eight hours’ sleep and eight bob a day,’ and now they felt betrayed. The sacrifices they had made during the strike had been for nothing and they wanted someone to blame. Daniel Raine provided the obvious scapegoat.
Edgar had long ago come to regret bringing in his cousin to run the local branch of the union. It hadn’t taken him long to realize that the cousin who had stepped off the train from London was not the same man as the firebrand strike leader that he had read about in the newspaper, and only a personal dislike of Whalen Dawes and a stubborn unwillingness to acknowledge his own mistake had kept him from switching his allegiance before now. Where Edgar led, the rest of the miners followed and in quick order at the next union meeting Daniel was removed as secretary and replaced by Whalen, who also took over as checkweighman. Not one miner spoke out in Daniel’s support.
Returning to the house at the end of Station Street, Daniel told Adam to pack his bags as they were leaving the next morning. He’d seen what was coming and, knowing that they couldn’t continue to live at Edgar’s, he’d found them temporary lodgings in a widow’s house close to the pithead. He’d also been to see Hardcastle, the pit manager, and got a job working as a tub-filler underground. Once he’d learnt the trade he could become a collier but until then money was going to be tight.
They left at sunrise, hoping to avoid awkward goodbyes, but Edgar was already downstairs, eating his breakfast at the table.
He got up and helped the carrier load their meagre belongings into the pony cart that Daniel had hired for the move, and then shook Daniel’s hand.
‘I wish thee the best o’ luck,’ he said. ‘I know we ’aven’t seen eye to eye recently, but that doesna mean we aren’t still o’ the same blood, an’ if there’s anythin’ you need …’
‘Thank you, Edgar,’ said Daniel. ‘You’ve been very good to us but it’s time we stopped being a burden; we should have found our own place months ago but there was always something else to think of. You know how it is.’
‘Aye, I do,’ said Edgar warmly. ‘I do indeed. An’ I wish thee luck too, young man,’ he said, turning to Adam and putting out his hand.
‘Thank you,’ said Adam. But he wouldn’t take Edgar’s hand, acting as though he hadn’t seen it as he climbed up beside the carrier. He was angry, and shaking hands would have meant condoning Edgar’s treatment of his father. If Edgar was feeling guilty about what he’d done, then he would have to live with it; it wasn’t Adam’s responsibility to salve his conscience.
And Adam was frightened too: frightened for his father going down into the pit to work; frightened of what would become of them. If they couldn’t live, they would have to go to the workhouse and Adam thought he would rather die than go back there. He sat tense and unhappy as the pony trotted down the empty road in the grey early-morning light past the sleeping terraced houses, its hooves ringing out on the hard tarmac.
He looked over at his father, leaning forward on the box with his brow furrowed and his unseeing eyes focused on some inner struggle, and felt a sudden wave of protective love flood through him. They had drifted apart in the year since they had come north. It had not been Daniel’s intention to allow his preoccupation with his work to create a gulf between him and his son, Adam realized that, but nevertheless that was what had happened. And as Daniel had withdrawn from his son’s life, Adam had filled the space with new friends and interests which he did not share with his father. He felt guilty when he realized that he had begun to see the parson as a new father figure in his life. The comfort and softness of the Parsonage and the conversations about history and politics were experiences that Daniel could not provide. Adam had grown up and grown away and it was hard now for him to reach out across the emotional barrier, but he forced himself to try, laying his hand on top of his father’s, causing Daniel to look up, called back for a moment from his own inner turmoil.
‘It’s not your fault, Dad,’ said Adam. ‘It was in London but not this time. You worked night and day for the men and they’re plain ungrateful to throw it back in your face like they have. And Edgar’s the worst of them,’ he went on, raising his voice as his anger got the better of him. ‘He’s got a lot of nerve, pretending like everything’s all right after what he’s done.’
‘No, you shouldn’t blame him,’ said Daniel quietly. ‘He thought that he was getting a class warrior when he brought me up here and he deserves credit for putting up with me for as long as he has once he realized I’d changed my spots. I’ve got a lot of sympathy for him, in fact. He wants the best for his people and God knows they’re not getting the best now: they work in terrible conditions for far too little money. But the trouble is Sir John hasn’t got enough to give them what they want. The mine’s old and the coal’s not good enough to fetch good prices and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. Facts are facts. Of course Sir John should have offered the men more when they went back, but it was never going to be as much as they wanted. I’m glad I’m out of it, to be honest with you. Let someone else try their hand at making one and one add up to three.’
They relapsed into an uneasy silence. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the past, it didn’t change the fact that they would have far less money now. Adam didn’t know if his father had any savings but they couldn’t amount to much.
‘I wish there was something I could do to help,’ he said. ‘Maybe if I got a job on the screens with Ernest? Then at least we’d have a bit more to go around.’
‘No,’ said Daniel, practically shouting the word. ‘The only thing that keeps me going is that you’re doing so well at school and knowing that you’re going to make a better life for yourself than I’ve had. Don’t worry, Adam – we’ll be all right. I’ll make sure we are.’
Adam saw no reason to believe his father, but he knew there was no point in arguing. The pony had halted in front of their new home, a small squat house in a dismal narrow street close to the mine. Its peeling paint was blackened with soot and the grimy windows looked as though they had never been washed. Adam shivered as his father opened the door and they went inside.
The house belonged to a miner’s widow whose husband had died from tuberculosis several years before. She still wore her widow’s weeds and moved about the dimly lit rooms in a state of permanent misery, living as far as Adam could tell on an unchanging diet of cold tea and porridge. A sampler invoking the Lord to ‘Bless This House’ gathered dust over the mantelpiece in the parlour above a faded photograph of the widow and her late husband on their wedding day. Even the aspidistra in the corner, the hardiest of indoor plants, wilted miserably, waiting to die.
Daniel and Adam had the upstairs rooms and shared use of the kitchen. There was a permanent smell of mouldy dampness in the air that fires could never quite chase away, but Daniel did his best to brighten the place up, pinning coloured pictures from penny magazines over the mildew stains on the walls and bringing home two matching armchairs to stand on either side of the fireplace – bargains bought from a family that was moving away and had no further use for them.
He never complained, although Adam guessed from the stiff way his father walked that he wasn’t finding it easy to adapt to the hard manual labour and the cramped conditions inside the mine. And it was strange for Adam too seeing his father come back from work all black and dirty from the coal. He winced when he washed his father’s back, seeing the cuts and abrasions – the physical toll exacted daily by the pit.
It was strange: adversity seemed to soften rather than harden Daniel, and in the evenings, father and son were often happy, sitting side by side in front of the fire, toasting bacon on a fork and catching the fat on their slices of bread. They played chess on a handmade board and Daniel listened while Adam told him about the heroes and villains of long ago, just as Adam had listened to his mother reading him the same stories when he was a boy, so that sometimes the dead world of the ancients seemed more real to them than the mining town lying quiet outside the window.
And when Adam had finished his storytelling, they talked about issues such as whether the senators had been right to assassinate Caesar – Daniel thought they were but Adam was less sure; and whether the Roman Empire had been doomed from the beginning. They argued sometimes until the candles had almost burnt away, and Adam smiled, thinking how unlikely such conversations were to be taking place in these shabby rooms in this shabby little house in the middle of nowhere, while the widow snored down below.
But later, lying in bed, Adam would see the lights sprawling over the dark ceiling from the lamps swinging in the hands of the late-shift miners as they came tramping down the road outside on the way to work, their voices rising and receding as they passed the house. And he would feel fearful of he knew not what, like a weight was pressing down on his abdomen, a sense of foreboding that would keep him awake late into the night.
The day began much like any other. Daniel was working the early shift and the house was cold and silent as Adam got dressed and gathered his books for school. He had an exam to take and he was nervous, hoping he would do well. Outside, the women in their workaday aprons were gathered on their front doorsteps gossiping. They stopped talking as he went past, looking after him as he went up the road. They weren’t hostile but they weren’t friendly either. Adam had lived in Scarsdale long enough to no longer be upset by their response. He wasn’t one of their own and he never would be – he spoke differently to them and he didn’t work in the mine. But nevertheless, the old sense of not belonging added to the free-floating anxiety that he hadn’t been able to shake off since he woke up. He felt burdened by an invisible weight, the same feeling he had sometimes when a sixth sense told him it was going to rain but the heavy clouds stayed hanging overhead, refusing to open. Not that that was the case today – it was a bright June morning and he increased his pace, breathing the fresh air deep into his lungs in a largely unsuccessful attempt to lift his spirits.
The siren sounded just as he reached the corner. The mournful inhuman cry, the signal for disaster, broke out from the pithead and reverberated through the town. Adam was shocked by the noise and yet it also felt like something he had been expecting ever since the day his father left the safety of the checkweighman’s office, forced to try to earn his living underground.
All around doors were opening and people were spilling out into the street, pulling on their coats as they headed down the hill towards the mine. Everyone was talking – asking questions and getting no answers and passing out of hearing as Adam stood, rooted to the spot, looking back at the headstocks. They seemed like huge alien shapes lit up by the morning sun, hostile visitors from some other planet.
Voices rose and fell as rumours flowed up and down the hill, until suddenly Adam heard a name he recognized – Oakwell: the district where Edgar worked and now his father too; the district where he’d disgraced himself, fainting in front of Rawdon Dawes and his vile father. Just the other day Daniel had told Adam that he’d been sent there. He’d seemed pleased, stupidly pleased, happy that he would be working where the coal was more plentiful so that there would be more money in his pay packet come Friday evening, but what he didn’t say and Adam knew from Ernest was that the Oakwell seam was deeper and narrower and less safe than the old ones – it was where the two miners had died in the winter.
Adam began to walk towards the mine, carried forward ever more quickly by the press of the crowd that was surging tide-like down the hill. At the pithead there was chaos, although the cage appeared to be operating normally and there was no smoke billowing out from the opening or other outward sign of the trouble down below. Atkins and a group of deputies were making ineffectual attempts to keep an open corridor for rescuers to get to and from the shaft, and a man with a camera was getting in everyone’s way taking pictures. Some of the women were crying, desperate for news, but no one seemed to have any definite information about what had happened or who was dead or trapped.
Adam didn’t hesitate. He bore no resemblance to the sweating, shaking version of himself that had climbed the pithead stairs on his last visit, feeling as though they were the steps up to the gallows. Now he waited until the cage was almost full and then rushed forward, joining the throng of rescuers inside. The banksman was too distracted by the growing hysteria of the crowd to notice the late arrival and slammed the gate shut with a clang. Forty-five seconds later Adam was released out into the mine.
As soon as the cage lifted back up, the men at the bottom went back to filling coal tubs with water from the sump at the bottom of the shaft. The full tubs were then wheeled to the stables where they were coupled up in lines to the limbers of the pit ponies whose boy drivers drove them away into the mine, passing other ponies that were coming back up the tunnels the other way pulling trains of empty tubs ready for refilling.
All around, the lights of the miners’ lamps were dancing in the blackness like white dots as the men moved to and fro, but, unlike up above, their hectic activity seemed cohesive and organized as they battled against a common enemy: invisible, inaudible, but utterly real away down the black tunnels beyond the stables. And the enemy was winning – or at least that was the impression that Adam was getting from listening to the snatches of passing conversation that he was able to pick up from the out-of-the-way corner into which he had retreated while he worked out his next move.
‘Fire’s like a bloody dragon; it’s got a thirst that canna be quenched.’ ‘Like lookin’ in the mouth o’ hell, it is.’ ‘I pity the poor bastards that got caught …’
It made Adam sick to his stomach to hear what the men were saying. He felt sure that his father was one of the poor bastards they were talking about, and he knew he had to try to reach him, even if there was nothing he could do to help when he got there; even if it was already too late. He felt no fear, just desperation because he realized that he had no chance of finding his way to the Oakwell district unaided: he’d be lucky to get round the first corner before he was trampled by one of the pit ponies. His only hope lay in hitching a ride on one of the water trains that they were pulling. But no driver would take him willingly – he had no right even to be in the mine. If he revealed himself he would be thrown back in the cage and sent back up to the surface in a second. His only chance was to stow away in one of the tubs.
His mind made up, he left his bag of books on the floor and began to edge his way carefully along the wall. Without a lamp of his own he was invisible in the darkness. Up ahead he could hear familiar voices: it was Joe the ostler talking to Rawdon Dawes. They were at the door of the stables, their faces lit up garishly by their lamps, standing next to a pony that seemed larger than the others and angrier too. It was neighing and stamping its feet, shaking its leather harness so that the shafts connecting it to the water tubs behind were creaking and clanking.
‘Don’t ride ’im, Rawdon, you ’ear me? I’ve told thee before – ’e’s a wild one; ’e’s not like t’others,’ said the ostler. There was a desperate urgency in his voice, mixed with what sounded like frustration, and he was gripping Rawdon’s shoulder as if to reinforce his words. But Rawdon was pulling away, anxious to be gone. The ostler was a small man, almost a foot shorter than Rawdon although three times his age, and there was something comical about the two of them, pulling each other backwards and forwards as they argued.
‘I wish you didna ’ave to take ’im but t’others are all out,’ the ostler continued mournfully.
‘I know,’ said Rawdon impatiently, getting on to the bumper of the first tub and taking hold of the limber chains connecting it to the pony. ‘You’ve already told me that, Joe, remember.’
The ostler was about to respond but Rawdon reached forward with a stick he was carrying in his hand and tapped the pony’s hindquarters. Immediately the animal leapt forward, pulling the train of water tubs behind him. And at the last moment Adam ran out and vaulted over the side of the last tub; he landed in the water inside, which splashed over the side, soaking the astonished ostler. He shouted out but Rawdon was concentrating on trying to control the pony as it charged away down the tunnel and didn’t turn round.
Adam was shoulder-deep in water, soaked to the skin. It had been cold at the maingate but now it felt as if he was being burnt in ice. And the water was foul too, drawn from the stagnant sump at the bottom of the shaft. He hadn’t been able to avoid taking a mouthful as he jumped into the tub and he was still retching it up as he struggled to come to terms with the pitch-blackness all around. The tub’s wheels screeched over the rails and up ahead the pony’s hooves pounded through the coal dust that swirled in the air, making it hard to breathe.
Above the noise Adam could hear Rawdon shouting commands at the pony. But they were clearly having little effect. Their speed increased on the downward slopes and Rawdon’s voice rose to a scream as they reached a sharp corner and the tubs swayed hard from side to side, almost turning over. A lot of the water was spilling out over the side and at the back of the train Adam was fighting a losing battle to stay upright, using all the strength in his cold aching arms to maintain his grip on the side of the tub. He knew that he would likely drown if he allowed himself to be thrown about inside the tub, hitting his head against the iron sides until he lost consciousness and the foul water filled his lungs.
The end came just as he felt he couldn’t hang on any longer. They rounded a bend and the pony smelt the smoke of the fire up ahead. Terrified, it reared up on its hind legs, and then made a violent right-angled turn to the left where a narrow side tunnel led off the main roadway. Showing remarkable presence of mind, Rawdon stood up on the limbers and jumped clear as the pony ran forwards for a few yards and then came to a shuddering halt as the tubs behind left the rails and slammed into the wall at the corner of the junction.
In the darkness at the back Adam had no chance to take evasive action. He was thrown forward and then sideways as his tub crashed into the one in front and turned over, spilling its water and Adam out on to the thick dust covering the floor of the tunnel. He came to, looking up into the glare of the lamp that Rawdon was holding up over his head.
‘I don’t believe it. Of all the fuckin’ people—’ Rawdon broke off, taking a step back as he tried to absorb the double shock of discovering not only that he had been carrying a stowaway but also that that stowaway was the person he disliked most in the entire town. ‘What the ’ell are you doin’ ’ere?’ he demanded as soon as he had had time to recover at least some of his composure.
‘Looking for my dad – he’s down there somewhere,’ said Adam, pointing down the pitch-black tunnel. There was no visible sign of the fire but the smell of smoke was getting stronger and Adam coughed violently as he tried to get to his feet. Rawdon had to put out a hand to stop him falling over.
‘I’m sorry to ’ear that,’ said Rawdon. ‘Well, you’re welcome to go an’ find ’im if you like, but I ain’t givin’ thee my lamp. If you helps me with the pony, I’ll maybe take thee down there, but, as I say, you’ll ’ave to ’elp me first.’ He gestured behind his head to where the pony was still standing in the side tunnel, snorting and kicking as it tried to break away from the train of overturned tubs that were now half blocking the entrance.
Adam hesitated. He desperately wanted to go on – he was frantic with worry for his father – but he knew it was suicide to venture forward without a light. The next water train that came down the tunnel would run him over even if he didn’t get lost. He thought of trying to take the lamp from Rawdon by force but he couldn’t bring himself to try. He couldn’t in all good conscience leave Rawdon alone in the dark to cope with the maddened animal and, besides, the lamp would almost certainly get broken in any struggle. It was a miracle that Rawdon had been able to keep it intact through the crash. And if he helped Rawdon with the pony and the tubs, then they could go on together.
‘What do you want me to do?’ he asked.
‘’Old on to ’is collar while I take off the limmers – otherwise ’e’ll run off up that side passage an’ God knows where that goes,’ said Rawdon, smiling his trademark cold smile. He’d kept the light on Adam while he was thinking and was sure he could read what had been passing through his enemy’s mind. ‘’Ere, you can give ’im this,’ he added, handing Adam an apple that he had taken from his pocket. ‘’E likes apples.’
Adam had no experience of ponies and this one scared him with its neighing and whinnying and stamping feet. But he faced down his fear and edged his way into the side tunnel and along the near wall, holding his hand lightly against the pony’s sweating flank as he felt for the harness straps. The water from his sodden clothes dripped down on to the dusty ground.
‘What’s his name?’ asked Adam, thinking it might help to talk to the pony.
‘Masher,’ said Rawdon, laughing. ‘Good choice, eh?’
But Adam had no stomach for laughter. His heart was beating hard as he felt the pony’s hot breath on his hand and, forgetting the apple, he reached up and wrapped his hands around the collar, holding hard.
‘I’ve got him,’ he shouted back. And immediately he could hear Rawdon working at the pony’s back, uncoupling the shafts that connected the harness to the overturned tubs behind. But then, sensing he was free, the pony lunged forward, kicking out with his hooves. Adam just about kept his hold on the collar and he was aware of Rawdon, who was now on the other side of the pony’s head, trying his best to bring the animal under control. Using all their strength, they were just about able to stop its forward momentum, but then they couldn’t stop it reversing direction, kicking backwards into the timber props that held up the entrance to the passageway. There was a noise of creaking and cracking and the roof began to collapse in a roar of sound that was like a vast ocean wave crashing down on to the shore. Adam and Rawdon ran down the passage, trying to drag the pony with them but where they led it could not follow: the falling cascade of shale and rocks poured down on its hindquarters, trapping it where it stood, and cutting the boys off from the main tunnel. The pony’s front half was curiously unaffected as it sank to the ground, mortally wounded.
The animal was clearly in intense pain. The thick muscles under its skin were visibly trembling and the pupils were dilated in its glassy eyes. It panted out each laboured breath through its flared nostrils but it would not or could not die.
‘We can’t leave him like this,’ said Adam.
‘I know that,’ said Rawdon angrily. ‘’Ave you still got that apple I gave thee?’ he asked.
He took it from Adam and held it to the animal’s mouth but it couldn’t eat.
‘Joe uses a spiked cap when ’e has to do it,’ said Rawdon. ‘I’ve seen it; ’e keeps it in the stables. Got a ’ole in the middle where the bugger’s brain is and ’e bangs in the spike with a ’ammer. Me, I got to use a bloody rock.’
He reached over and picked up a big jagged stone that had fallen from the ceiling, set his feet, and then brought it down with all his might on the pony’s head. Again and again, until there was no possibility that the animal could still be alive. For some reason he didn’t understand, Adam forced himself to watch. It felt like an obligation and, looking back on it afterwards, he wondered at the paradox that the act of terrible violence against the defenceless animal made him think so much more of Rawdon than he had before.
Rawdon’s hands were shaking when he was finished and he stood for a moment with his hands on the wall, drawing deep breaths of the hot air into his lungs as he tried to steady himself before he bent down and picked up the lamp. ‘All right,’ he said, turning his back on the dead animal and setting off into the darkness of the passageway. ‘Let’s get on our way, although I doubt we’ll be much better off than Masher afore this day is done. Ain’t nobody’s ganna come lookin’ for us – they don’t know you’re down ’ere and they won’t be frettin’ about me.’
‘Because I weren’t in the fire. They’ll know that. An’ my father’s got other things on his mind than worryin’ about where I’ve got to.’
‘Like startin’ the bloody revolution,’ said Rawdon bitterly. ‘’E’s been hopin’ for a disaster like this to ’appen for as long as I can remember.’
They walked in single file, soon losing all sense of direction as the passage twisted and turned this way and that. And their feet were sore and aching when they stopped to rest after what seemed like hours of wandering, although without watches they had no way of knowing how much time had elapsed. They sat with their backs to the wall and shared the apple that the pony hadn’t been able to eat before it died.
‘You know, if I ’ad to make a list of all the people I’d least like to spend me last day on earth with, I reckon you’d top the list,’ said Rawdon conversationally.
‘Higher than Joe?’ Adam asked.
Rawdon laughed in spite of himself. ‘No, maybe you’re right,’ he said. ‘Joe’s a pain in the backside, ’e is.’
They went on in silence with Rawdon leading the way, holding the lamp aloft. Here and there, on either side, they passed old stalls where miners had once worked. There were chalk marks on the walls and sometimes a scrawled name. Adam picked up a cloth haversack from a wooden shelf and it fell apart in his hands, the stitching long since gnawed apart by rats. Each time they stopped, they could hear them scurrying away through the dust, squeaking news of the boys’ arrival as they ran. The noise reminded Adam of when old Beaky had shut him up in the school cellar when he was small and the remembered sense of claustrophobia made him shudder, weakening him at the knees.
All at once the tunnel widened out and they felt a sense of space opening out around them. In the lamplight the boys made out a succession of tall black columns on all sides, supporting the roof. Adam gasped in surprise, momentarily forgetting their plight. The place was beautiful; it was like a crude version of one of the old Greek temples that were illustrated in his school textbooks.
‘What is this place?’ he asked.
‘Old workin’s – pillar an’ stall, they call it,’ said Rawdon. ‘Sometimes they mine like this, leavin’ pillars to support the roof, although they usually takes ’em out at the end. Lucky for us, I s’pose, that they didn’t.’
Whenever the path significantly divided, as it did on the other side of the pillared hall, Rawdon stopped to sniff the stale air on either side of the crossgate, trying to work out which way the oxygen was coming from. The air quality was poor, but the fact that they were able to breathe at all meant that there had to be a way back to the upcast or downcast shafts if only they could find it. Sometimes they were encouraged as they felt the ground rising beneath their weary feet but then for no apparent reason they would start going downhill again, back down into the labyrinth.
The gradient changed but the heat and the darkness remained constant. They had found no trace of the mine’s ventilation system since the rock fall and they’d long ago stripped down to their underwear. Thirst was fast becoming the worst of their problems. Rawdon had a half-full water bottle and they used tiny amounts when they stopped to rest to wet their lips (despite his reminder of their declared enmity Rawdon seemed to take it for granted that everything they had should be shared equally between them), but there was not enough in the bottle to enable them to take a proper drink and the coal dust that flew up into the air as they walked got into their mouths and added to the parching of their throats. The overhead pipes dripping water that Adam remembered from his last visit to the mine were absent from this district and he looked longingly down at the puddles of black water that lay here and there on the ground, although he didn’t need Rawdon to tell him that they were poisonous, impregnated with coal, and gas too probably.
Above their heads the roof sagged and Adam sensed that it was only a matter of time before some of the rotten timber props gave way and another rock fall left them buried alive, dying slowly and painfully without even the hope of the bloody euthanasia that had delivered the pony from its suffering. They were both exhausted and, although he wouldn’t admit it, Rawdon’s bad leg had begun to cause him intense pain. Adam could see him wince with every step they took.
Despair overtook them when the passage opened out again and they emerged into the same pillared hall that they had passed through hours before. Rawdon sank to the ground, leaning his back against one of the black columns and closed his eyes.
‘I’m done,’ he said. ‘You carry on if you want to. I knew this mine’d be the death of me the first day I went down it. I’d ’ave been better off if I’d cashed in me chips when that friggin’ pony kicked me. It’d ’ave saved me a lot o’ grief.
Adam tried to find some words of comfort or encouragement but he could think of nothing. All that was keeping him standing was the stubborn animal refusal to be beaten that had enabled him to endure so much misfortune already in his life. It was an undying spark somewhere deep inside him that stopped him giving in even when his brain told him there was no point in continuing, and now it forced him to bend down and pick up the lamp and go on.
‘I’ll be back,’ he said, looking at Rawdon for a moment before he left him in the darkness. But there was no reply: Rawdon had slumped over on to his side and seemed to be asleep.
Once again, passing between the pillars of coal, Adam thought of the beautiful silver-white temples of Greece and Sicily, bathed in sunlight, that he now would never see. The outer columns collectively called the peristasis which surrounded the pronaos, the four-sided porch that led in turn through a beautifully carved set of double doors to the cella, the holy of holies at the centre of the building that housed the exquisite statue of the god which only his priests were ever allowed to see.
Except of course that there was no God or gods – of that Adam was by now quite certain. His mother and Parson Vale and the ancient Greeks were fools – poor credulous fools; at the centre of everything was nothing, just a vast emptiness in which your voice echoed back off the walls. Echoes of echoes: that was all.
At the end of the hall, Adam reached the crossgate where he had stood with Rawdon hours before. He was almost certain they had gone to the right, although the more he thought about it, the less sure he was. The darkness unsettled his memory and he hesitated, turning the lamp from side to side in a vain attempt to find something he recognized before he followed his first instinct and went left.
Almost immediately the path sloped uphill and the quality of the air seemed to improve. A few turnings later and he stumbled out into a wide open space and looked up to where the downcast shaft rose up half a mile to the surface. At the top the underside of the suspended cage blocked most of Adam’s view of the sky and the dim light which did get through gave him no clue as to the time of day. He shouted for help until he was hoarse but there was no response except the mocking echo of his voice bouncing back to him off the red bricks lining the sides of the shaft. Rawdon had been right – there was nobody looking for them.
But there was still hope: from just above Adam’s head an iron ladder cemented into the brickwork ran straight as a die up the side of the shaft towards the surface. In the lamplight Adam could see its rusty brown side rails and narrow treads ascending into the gloom.
Rawdon was asleep on the floor when Adam got back to him, and he had to shake him awake.
‘Maybe we can wait,’ said Rawdon as he limped after Adam. ‘The miners’ll be back down ’ere soon. When no one’s working, the owner’s losin’ money and that matters to ’im a sight more’n respect for the dead, you mark my words.’
‘You’re worried about the ladder?’ asked Adam when they got back to the shaft.
‘Of course I bloody am. It’s been there forever an’ no one ever uses it or keeps it repaired. We’ll get ’alfway up an’ then we’ll come fallin’ back down again an’ drown in that sump down there,’ he said, pointing to the evil-smelling black pond at the bottom of the shaft.
Adam examined the bottom rungs of the ladder with the lamp and found it hard to disagree with Rawdon’s verdict. The brick lining the shaft was damp and mouldy and the brackets holding the side rails in place gave way alarmingly when he pulled on the two that were within reach. There had to be over a thousand treads between them and the surface and what were the chances that they would all hold?
He hesitated, uncertain of what to do. His instinct was to climb but common sense told him to wait. And perhaps he would have stayed below if the changing light of the lamp hadn’t taken the decision out of their hands. The flame had seemed to expand when they came out on to the landing by the shaft and now there was no mistaking its signal. There was firedamp in the air, probably spreading back from the fire, blown down the tunnels by the mine’s ventilation system. They couldn’t sit and wait for it to explode.
‘You go first,’ said Rawdon. ‘I’ll follow.’
‘Why?’ Adam asked, surprised.
‘It doesn’t matter. Just do it,’ Rawdon said irritably.
Something in Adam always rebelled against being told what to do when he wasn’t given a reason for doing it, and he was about to argue the point further – but then stopped, biting back his words, as he suddenly grasped where Rawdon was coming from. With his damaged leg Rawdon was clearly the one most likely to fall and logically that meant he should climb behind. If he went first he would bring Adam down when he fell; going second, he would fall to his death alone.
‘I’ll not go too fast,’ he said, looking Rawdon in the eye as if making a promise.
Rawdon nodded brusquely and then turned away, picking up the lamp. ‘Here, you’re going to need this – fasten it on to your belt,’ he said, showing Adam how the attachment worked.
‘Thanks,’ said Adam. He breathed deeply, wiped the sweat from off his hands, and began to climb.
To begin with, he made the mistake of looking up above his head, trying to measure the distance to the top. It quickly made him giddy and he had to hold still, waiting for the nausea to pass. And looking down was worse: below Rawdon the black water at the bottom of the shaft seemed to rise up to meet him. Slowly he trained himself to keep his eyes fixed straight ahead on the damp bricks passing slowly by as he climbed higher and higher up the rungs of the ladder.
But even if Adam wasn’t looking down at Rawdon, he could still hear him, and it was obvious from his laboured breathing and half-stifled cries of pain that the climb was taxing him to the limit of his endurance. Again and again Adam had to force himself to wait so that Rawdon wouldn’t get left behind in the darkness.
It quickly got colder as they neared the top so that the rusty red side rails felt icy in their sore hands, and as they gripped them harder, the iron brackets cemented into the damp wall seemed to give. Only one needs to come away, Adam thought, only one, and it will all be over. And part of him welcomed the thought – an end to the pain and the struggle and the terrible fatigue as they fell down, down, down into nothingness.
But it wasn’t Adam who fell; it was Rawdon. And it wasn’t a loose bracket or a broken tread that made him lose his footing; it was a rat. They’d heard them scuttling away into niches in the sides of the shaft as they climbed but this one was different. Perhaps it was sick and that was why it stayed lying on the tread as Adam went past it without noticing, but it was alive enough to react fiercely when Rawdon’s hand, following behind and reaching for the rung, came down on its back. The rat’s head shot round and it bit down hard on his wrist. Rawdon screamed – a terrible gut-wrenching scream that reverberated up and down the shaft – and pulled away, throwing the rat off so that it flew back against the opposite wall and then fell, turning over and over, bouncing off the masonry until it landed with a splash in the sump at the bottom that the boys would have heard if they had been listening.
But they weren’t. As the rat let go of Rawdon’s wrist, Rawdon let go of the ladder. Falling back, he instinctively grabbed hold of one of the steel guides that the cage used for its descents, and after a moment he was able to loop his feet around it too. But that was the limit of his good fortune. The guide was just too far away from the ladder for him to be able to reach it with his hand. He realized immediately that there was nothing he could do to save himself and he clung to the guide with his last remaining strength only in order to prepare himself to fall.
Adam had climbed back down opposite Rawdon and now turned half to face him, keeping one hand behind him on the ladder as he tried to measure the distance between them. The light was poor and he couldn’t risk trying to unfasten the lamp from his belt but he guessed that Rawdon was about five or six feet away.
‘There’s a chance,’ he said.
‘No, there isn’t,’ said Rawdon. ‘I’m fuckin’ done for and I’m not takin’ you with me if that’s what you’ve got in mind.’ It cost him an effort to speak and his words came in gasps. Adam wondered how much longer he could hold on.
‘Listen, I think I can get hold of your hand if you reach it out as far as you can. And if I can do that, I can swing you round on to the ladder.’
‘No, you can’t. You’re not strong enough.’
‘Try me,’ said Adam, forcing a smile. And without waiting for a response, he reached out towards Rawdon with his hand, pushing away from the ladder so that his other hand was stretched out behind him, hanging on to the rung.
He was looking straight at Rawdon, willing him to try. He could see the cold sweat on Rawdon’s forehead and the tears that were forming in his eyes. ‘Do it,’ he said, making it sound like an order. And Rawdon closed his eyes and let go, reaching out across the abyss.
Adam felt Rawdon’s hand close on his own in a death grip and the next moment he felt a pull on his arm and shoulder the like of which he had never known before, but somehow they didn’t rupture; somehow he managed to keep hold of the ladder at his back as he swung Rawdon in and felt him stick firm as he caught hold of a rung one or two below where he was standing.
Afterwards they shook, each trembling uncontrollably one above the other as they gripped tight on to the ladder, waiting for their strength to return. And then slowly, very slowly, they climbed the remaining rungs, edging past the empty cage hanging on its steel rope, until they got to the surface and emerged out into the twilight of a day that had come so close to being their last.
‘You saved my life,’ said Rawdon simply as they stood together at the mouth of the shaft, looking back down into the darkness. His voice was quiet and he sounded bemused, as if he was examining a strange artefact he’d just found, uncertain what to make of it.
‘You’d have done the same,’ said Adam lightly.
‘Would I?’ said Rawdon, as if it was a question to which he did not have the answer.
He shook his head and turned away; and stumbled down the stairs to the standpipe at the bottom where he drank greedily before he sank to the ground, dully watching Adam as he did the same. A moment later his eyes closed and he was asleep where he sat, overcome with exhaustion.
Adam could see no sign of anyone at the pithead, but there was a light coming from the stores building. Leaving Rawdon where he was, he pushed the door open: it wasn’t locked – not like the last time Adam had been inside when he’d helped to steal the dynamite for the fishing expedition. That carefree day seemed light years away now, as if it belonged to a different world.
Inside, an area had been cleared in the centre of the floor with the mine equipment pushed back against the walls, blocking the windows, and in the open space eight trestle tables had been set up in two lines facing the door. On each one a man was lying, covered up to his neck by a white sheet that smelt strongly of carbolic acid. Adam stopped in his tracks, unable for a moment to go forward as he wondered if his father was among the dead.
What light there was in this makeshift morgue came from a few oil lamps and guttering candles set up here and there, and the darkening shadows creeping in on the areas of isolated light around the bodies reminded Adam of the Rembrandt paintings of anatomical lessons in seventeenth-century Amsterdam that he had once seen in a book at school. But there was no sign of any doctor here; only Parson Vale, who was trying to console several women who were sitting on folding chairs beside the bodies of their dead husbands or sons. Some were clearly beyond the reach of comfort, crying out their pain as they rocked backwards and forwards, unable to cope with their grief, while at the opposite extreme another woman sitting closer to the door was still as a statue, making no sound at all. Taking a few steps forward, Adam recognized her with a jolt as Annie, and the body beside her on the table was Edgar’s.
It was hard at first for Adam to believe he was dead. He could see that Edgar hadn’t been burnt by the fire; it must have passed him by as it roared down the tunnel after the explosion, not needing to seek him out in his stall because he would have already been gone, overpowered in a moment by the firedamp gas that had suddenly swamped the seam.
Adam felt cold and nauseous. He had never seen a dead man that he knew before and he had to fight for a moment to stay upright before he forced himself to inspect the other tables. As far as he could tell, none of the other corpses was his father’s, but it was hard to be sure as many of the faces were badly burnt and disfigured.
He looked up and saw that the parson was watching him from the other side of the room.
He clearly knew what was going through Adam’s mind.
‘Don’t worry,’ he said. ‘Your father’s all right. Wait for me a minute. I want to talk to you.’
Adam nodded. Relief flooded through him, making him weak at the knees. But he felt guilty when he looked back at Edgar who hadn’t survived but had instead been cut down in the prime of his life. Adam looked at the thick muscles in Edgar’s neck and the broad set of his shoulders. He doubted he had ever seen a stronger man. And yet now this powerful body was no more than a hollow shell, a husk emptied of meaning. Soon it would fall apart and rot, food for worms in the damp ground.
Adam closed his eyes and remembered Edgar’s ebullience: the way he seemed to fill a room, coming out of the scullery in his soapsuds in the evening and squatting before the hot fire to get dry; or singing snatches of old songs in a pitch-perfect baritone as he mended his boots – his voice vying for ascendancy with the hammer.
I’d shake thy hand, lad, but it needs washing first. Edgar’s first words to him came floating into Adam’s mind as he recalled that first morning when he and his father got off the train from London and met the miners coming home from the night shift. And then a year later he had refused to shake Edgar’s hand when they left the house in Station Street. It seemed a petty gesture now.
He glanced over at Annie. She hadn’t moved since he had come into the shed and she seemed completely unconscious of his presence. She was dry-eyed, staring unseeing into the middle distance behind his shoulder. Only her hands were active, pulling repetitively at the stitching of her husband’s cloth cap, which she was holding in her hands. She was wearing her best black dress and a hat decked out with black imitation fruit. He wondered if she’d already known or suspected that Edgar was among the dead when she’d gone to the pit after the alarm was sounded and had dressed up for the occasion. He realized that it was a question to which he would never know the answer.
‘She’s in shock,’ said the parson, coming up to Adam and drawing him aside. ‘Grief can take people this way as well – they just shut down because the loss is more than their minds can accept, at least to begin with. She’ll be better later, I hope.’
‘What about her son, Thomas?’ Adam asked, lowering his voice. ‘He was working with his father last time I was here.’
‘Yes, he was, but he got lucky – I think he’d gone back to fetch something when it happened. So he’ll be able to support his mother. Others haven’t been so fortunate. She’s lost both her sons,’ he said, pointing over at the woman who was crying the loudest, shaking uncontrollably as the sobs were torn from her throat.
‘Where is everyone?’ asked Adam, looking away. ‘There’s no one outside.’
‘They’ve gone to the Hall with Whalen Dawes. Surely you know that?’
‘No, I was in the mine with Rawdon. We were lost and we just got out.’
‘I didn’t know he was a friend of yours,’ said the parson, raising his eyebrows.
‘He’s not. Or he wasn’t,’ said Adam, stumbling over his words. ‘Has my father gone too – to the Hall?’
‘Yes. And I fear the worst, to be honest with you. Whalen’s worked the men up to a fever pitch, saying that the accident’s the owner’s fault; that he doesn’t care; that he thinks the miners are like the third-class passengers on the Titanic – not worth saving …’
‘Well, that may be true, but that doesn’t make it Sir John’s fault. What’s Whalen’s basis for saying that?’
‘He says that if they’d had reverse ventilation then they could have taken the air away from the fire, starved it of oxygen. There was a law passed last year requiring mine owners to install it but it’s expensive and so they were given two years’ grace, so I suppose you can argue it either way. What matters is that Whalen’s been waiting for something like this to happen ever since he took over from your father – he wants to start the revolution here in Scarsdale and he thinks this is his opportunity.’
‘What about my father? What did he do?’
‘He tried to talk the men out of going and I did too, but they wouldn’t listen. They’re angry and they’ve taken Edgar’s death very hard. He was their real leader, but I expect you know that.’
‘How long ago did they set off?’ Adam asked.
‘Fifteen minutes; maybe more. I got Mr Hardcastle to call the police in Gratton so I hope they’ll get there in time. And he called Sir John as well to warn him. I don’t know what more we can do.’
‘Well, I’m going after them. Have you got your bicycle here, Mr Vale?’
‘Yes, but …’
‘I’d really like to borrow it. I’ll look after it, I promise,’ said Adam, putting his hand on the parson’s arm to underline the urgency of his request.
‘But I don’t think you should go,’ said the parson anxiously. ‘As I said, I fear the worst.’
‘Please, Mr Vale. I have to. Where is it?’ asked Adam, refusing to be put off.
‘Outside, around the back,’ said the parson, bowing his head. And, reaching in his pocket, he handed Adam the key to the padlock.
‘Thank you,’ said Adam, turning to go. But at the door he came back. ‘I don’t like to ask but can you make sure Rawdon’s all right before you go? We had a bad time in the mine and his leg is hurting him. We almost didn’t make it.’
‘Where is he?’ asked the parson.
‘He’s asleep over by the pithead steps.’
‘You can rely on me. And I wish you luck. I think you’re going to need it,’ said the parson, putting out his hand.
‘I think I will too,’ said Adam with a faint smile. He shook the parson’s hand and was gone.
The hours of anxious wandering, breathing in the fetid, stale air of the mine, followed by the frightening climb up the ladder had left Adam exhausted, and he cast an envious look back at Rawdon before he pushed off, pedalling hard as he began the steep climb up the road to the station with the bicycle’s oil lamp flickering in its case above the back wheel. The town was quiet with a sense of foreboding in the air, and he jumped, almost losing his balance, when a stray dog ran out of a side street barking viciously at him as he rode past.
Out in front the moon hung pale and full over the eastern horizon, illuminating the church tower at the top of the hill, but down below the trees and the houses were fast disappearing into the evening shadows. Flocks of birds wheeled overhead and flew away, screeching and crying. And Adam shivered, gripping the handlebars as his mind raced, wondering what was happening up ahead.
On his left he passed Edgar’s house. There were no lights on inside and he wondered where Ernest was and whether he yet knew about his father. He remembered the torment he’d suffered when his mother died and it hurt him to think that his friend would now have to undergo the same searing experience. There was no escaping the open wound of grief; only time healed or at least dulled the pain of loss.
At the top of the hill he had to stop to catch his breath, resting the bicycle against the wall of the graveyard. The moon had temporarily disappeared behind a bank of clouds, but the light on the parson’s bicycle enabled him to make out the dim outline of the pitched tile roof covering the lychgate, and he remembered with a sudden intensity how he had stopped dead in his tracks when he came out of the church on that first Sunday in Scarsdale, arrested by the sight of Miriam in her simple black dress standing there beside her father. The organ had been playing in the church behind his back: a rousing fugue filling the morning with a crescendo of sound – not faint like the music he thought he could hear now, little more than a breath on the breeze, coming up soft and muffled out of the valley below.
He wiped the cold sweat from his brow with the sleeve of his jacket and rode on, accelerating as the road ran downhill into the open countryside beyond old Scarsdale village. And now he knew he was not mistaken: he could hear the music up ahead – the rich, mellow horns and cornets of the colliery’s brass band playing ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic’, and rising up over the sound of the instruments a great swelling of men’s voices singing out in unison:
‘I have seen Him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps,
They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps;
I can read His righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps:
His day is marching on.’
Adam rounded a corner in the road and stopped, momentarily confused. The miners were close by. He could hear their marching feet, pounding the ground to the rhythm of the song’s chorus:
‘Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Our God is marching on.’
And yet the road ahead was empty. He could see no lights in the darkness.
He rode on a little way and then braked hard as the brick wall on his left ended in a pair of high columns surmounted by stone lions with thick silver-coloured manes, staring fiercely out into the night. The wrought-iron gates between them were half pushed back, giving Adam the sense that they had been forced open, and he felt an upsurge of anxiety as he turned the handlebars and headed down a wide tarmac avenue lined on both sides with ancient elm trees.
Now there were burning lights up ahead, and as he got closer he was able to see that they were flaming torches being carried high above their shoulders by the men. They weren’t singing any more and the brass band had fallen silent too, except for a single drummer beating out a monotonous tattoo. Adam slowed down, staying back just behind the marchers, not wishing to draw attention to himself until he had found out what they were going to do.
They went on at an even pace and then abruptly stopped as the line of trees came to an end and Adam caught sight of the façade of Scarsdale Hall up ahead, looming high above the miners’ heads. The house looked very different now to how Adam remembered it on that summer afternoon with Ernest when it had seemed to glitter invitingly in the warm sunshine. Now, illuminated by the pale moonlight, it had a sinister appearance. Perhaps that was why the miners had come to a halt. Adam sensed their uncertainty and he could hear Whalen’s voice up ahead, trying to encourage them to go on. At first it was hard for Adam to make out what he was saying, but as Whalen’s voice rose and the drumbeat ceased, Adam realized that he was talking about the house and what it meant:
‘Beautiful, ain’t it?’ Whalen’s voice was thick with angry sarcasm. ‘But you know who paid for it?’ He paused for effect before answering his own question. ‘You did. That’s who. Ev’ry last fuckin’ penny of it, with back-breakin’ toil an’ with yer blood.’ Again he stopped before going on in a louder voice so that he was almost shouting: ‘Yes, an’ with our comrades’ burnt black bodies lying under cold white sheets in the tool ’ouse back yonder. An’ now Sir John, ’e must account to us for ’em; an’ if ’e won’t, why, we mus’ make ’im. ’E canna ’ide from us, not this time.’
Adam shivered, feeling the raw power of Whalen’s words, and they certainly seemed to have the desired effect on his listeners, who roared their approval and resumed their march at a faster pace than before.
Soon the drive swung away to the right, curving round the side of the ornamental lake which reflected the red and yellow lights of the miners’ flaring torches on the still surface of its black waters. Adam was frightened: pushing forward, he could feel the miners’ rising anger and determination. Whalen had talked of blood and he sensed that there would be more spilt before the day was done. He needed to find his father, extricate him from what was coming before it was too late. But it was too dark to see people’s faces and nobody seemed to hear him when he asked about Daniel. Adam was sure his father was there somewhere but it was as if he was invisible in their midst.
A little further and they reached a fork in the drive at the front of the east wing. The parson’s bicycle was an encumbrance now and Adam abandoned it in a recess, taking care to padlock the front wheel before following the marchers into the stone quadrangle facing the house. Behind them the manicured lawn ran back down from below an ornamental terrace to the shore of the lake; while in front and on both sides the house was dark, although here and there faint gleams of light were visible behind tightly drawn curtains. Mixing with the moonlight, the flickering flames of the miners’ torches played up and down the pale stucco walls and across the silent windows.
The miners had fanned out, filling the quadrangle in disparate groups, all with their eyes fixed on Whalen as he strode unhesitating up the curved flight of steps leading to the entrance portico and banged the golden lion’s head knocker against the ebony-black front door. Once, twice, three times but each time there was no response.
‘Come out, Sir John!’ Whalen shouted, bellowing out his challenge to the established order. ‘Eight good strong men died in your mine today an’ you need to come out and tell us why. You can’t hide from us an’ you can’t hide from them.’
Adam could feel the tension among the miners all around him. They were angry, inspired by Whalen’s fearlessness, but they were frightened too. No one made demands of the gentry like this; no one except Whalen. It was breaking a taboo and they sensed there would be consequences; evil consequences that might affect them all.
Whalen went back to the knocker again but harder this time – a flurry of blows that would have broken a less solid door. But still nothing happened – no sound came from the house at all and no movement except one: a curtain in a ground-floor window across from where Adam was standing was pulled back and a face looked out: only for a moment before the drapery fell back, but it was enough time for Adam to recognize the thin ascetic features of Sir John Scarsdale. And enough time for Whalen Dawes to see him as well. He’d been watching the window out of the corner of his eye because he knew it was the window of Sir John’s study, having been there several years earlier when he’d come to the Hall with a union deputation, and he’d been fervently hoping that the class enemy would respond in some way to his provocation.
‘I saw ’im. ’E’s in there,’ he shouted, coming back down the steps and pointing over at the study window. ‘Peepin’ out from behind the curtain like an ol’ woman. Waitin’ for the police to come an’ do ’is dirty work for ’im.’
It was the wrong thing to say. The lack of any response from inside the house was making the miners restive. They had started to sense that Whalen was lacking a strategy for how to proceed and his mention of the police made them think twice about what they were doing. A few of them began to back away out of the quadrangle.
And Adam could hear his father encouraging them to leave. ‘This isn’t the right way to go about this,’ he said, moving from one group to the next. ‘Sir John’ll never listen to you if you threaten him. No good will come of this – you should leave now while there is still time.’ For a moment Adam could see his father’s strained, anxious face lit up by the torchlight but then he was lost again in the crowd, apparently unaware of Adam stepping forward and calling out his name, trying to attract his attention.
But Whalen knew what his rival was doing. ‘Don’t listen to ’im,’ he shouted furiously. ‘’E’s not one o’ us; ’e’s Sir John’s lackey – that’s who ’e is, ’e doesn’t care tuppence about any of you.’
But his words had little effect. The murmuring among the miners grew louder and more and more of them began to retreat. And Whalen, sensing that he was losing them, took a stone out of his pocket and threw it hard at the study window. The glass cracked but it didn’t break until he threw another. The noise stopped the men in their tracks and for an instant everything seemed to be suspended in mid-air, waiting on what would happen next. The future was hanging in the balance, and when Whalen seized a torch from the man nearest to him and threw it through the broken window it seemed to Adam like an exhalation, a moment of final decision.
Immediately the red damask curtains ignited and as they burnt away, Adam could see the fire spreading through the study. Sir John was still there, standing by a desk in the centre of the room, madly searching through the drawers, while behind him a tall bookcase was alight and flames were licking up the papered walls towards the high ceiling. And then thick black smoke began to billow out through the broken window, blotting out the interior.
It was hard for Adam to know what was happening. All around him people were shouting, screaming for water, crying for help as they ran this way and that, their stricken faces white and wild with fear as they emerged out of the swirling clouds of smoke and then disappeared back into the blackness. Suddenly the remaining glass in the study window exploded outwards, shattering in the heat, and the fire shot up the outside wall for a moment before falling back. But, as far as Adam could tell, it did still seem to be contained in the ground floor of the east wing, and he even began to feel a little encouraged when he saw a group of men, stripped to the waist, dragging a huge linen hose up from the direction of the lake.
In the midst of the cacophony he thought he could hear someone shouting his father’s name from over by the front door. It was wide open now and a melee of servants was spilling down the steps, running away from the house. The chaotic scene was lit up by the blazing lights in the hall behind them. Without thinking Adam rushed towards the voice, but almost immediately he was knocked backwards. Luck was on his side and he was just able to retain his balance and so avoid being trampled underfoot, but the impact had winded him and he stayed doubled over for a moment, fighting to regain his breath.
The crowd was mostly gone when he straightened up and he could see as if through a window in the smoke a man bent almost double, staggering down the front steps, carrying another man on his back. At the bottom he slipped down on to his knees, gasping in the smoky air like a drowning man, allowing his burden to roll away on to the grey flagstones beside him. He looked as though he was praying but Adam knew he wasn’t; he couldn’t be: the man on his knees was his father.
Adam ran to his father’s side, calling out his name. But Daniel didn’t seem to hear him – he’d turned away and was bent down over the man he’d rescued, alternately holding Sir John’s long aquiline nose clipped between his fingers as he blew air down into his mouth and then releasing his head to frantically massage the unconscious man’s chest. Over and over again until everyone around had given up hope and Sir John faintly shook and then spluttered heavily back into life.
Daniel got to his feet, swaying slightly, allowing the Hall butler to take over from him supporting Sir John’s back. Adam recognized the butler from the church where he had often seen him, sitting straight-backed at the end of one of the pews reserved for the Hall servants, singing out the hymns in an excellent baritone. Now he was dressed in immaculate evening dress and Adam noticed how alone among the servants he had made no attempt to loosen his white bow tie and high collar, even though he was obviously finding it as hard to breathe as everyone else.
‘Thank you,’ he said. ‘Thank you for saving my master’s life.’ Looking over his father’s shoulder, Adam could see that the butler’s gratitude was heartfelt: there were tears in the man’s eyes. But Daniel didn’t respond – it was as if he hadn’t registered the butler’s words just as he remained unaware of his son standing beside him. Instead his eyes were looking up, darting this way and that as he peered back at the east wing through the swirling smoke.
‘There! There’s someone up there,’ he shouted, pointing at the window of the room above the study. ‘Who is it?’
At first Adam could see nothing. But then the smoke cleared for a moment and he saw that his father was right. There was an old woman looking out, a mass of unkempt grey hair framing her small pinched face. She was clearly terrified – her mouth opened and closed like a fish pulled out of water, but they couldn’t hear her. The window was closed and she seemed unable to open it. Perhaps the handles were too hot – in front of her, flames were licking the sill as the fire reached up to the second storey.
‘It’s the dowager – Sir John’s mother. She’s an invalid and she doesn’t walk very well,’ said the butler. But Daniel was no longer listening – he’d turned away, making for the front door. At the last moment Adam reached out his hand and caught hold of his father’s shirt, pulling him back.
‘You can’t,’ he said. ‘It’s too dangerous.’
‘Adam,’ said Daniel, aware of his son’s presence for the first time. He looked at him, staring into his face as if memorizing his features, and then reached out and stroked his son’s cheek with the tips of his fingers.
‘I have to,’ he said softly. ‘You know that.’ And then without warning he pulled violently away.
‘No,’ Adam cried as his father’s shirt tore away at the shoulder and he was left helplessly holding the sleeve in his trembling hands. And looking down, the white material seemed to Adam just like a flag of surrender.
Adam sat wide-eyed and sleepless beside the lake as the sun rose up from behind the gently rustling elm trees and began to sparkle on the pearl-grey surface of the water, which was lapping gently against the sloping banks of the grassy island in the centre to which generations of Scarsdales had rowed out on summer days, just like this one, to eat picnics under the flat dark green boughs of a cedar of Lebanon tree that was just now reaching the full glory of its maturity.
It was dawn at its most beautiful but Adam didn’t see it, just as he didn’t feel the wet dew that was soaking through his clothes.
Behind his staring eyes, his mind was repeatedly replaying the events of the night in an endless loop of tortured recollection. Once again he saw his father running up the steps to the front door while he stood there helplessly watching. Once again he saw the crazed old woman screaming soundlessly at her window and his father coming up behind her, fighting to control her arms as she lashed out in terror, before he lifted her up and put her over his shoulder as he turned away. And then once more, a moment later, he heard the thunderous explosion reverberating in his inner ear as the fire finished eating through the timber joists and the floor collapsed, crashing down into the inferno below, swallowing up the old woman and her would-be saviour in the flames.
Adam had known they were dead in that instant; he hadn’t needed to stay and watch the men with the hose fight to bring the fire under control and carry out the charred bodies under a pair of white sheets while the remains of the east wing smoked and smouldered behind them.
And so he’d gone down to the lake to be alone with his grief and a succession of questions to which his dead father could provide no answers. Why hadn’t he followed him into the house? Why hadn’t he tried again to pull him back and save him from himself? Was it because he knew that it was hopeless; that his father wouldn’t listen to reason because he was determined to atone for his wife’s death? And that only the highest price would provide the redemption he so desperately craved? Was that the difference between them – that his father wanted to die, and he wanted to live? Life was terrible, never more terrible than now, but Adam knew that he didn’t want it to end.
‘Adam, I’m so glad I found you.’ Parson Vale’s voice cut into his thoughts, jolting him back into consciousness of his surroundings. He looked up into his friend’s kind, compassionate face, ravaged like his own by trauma and lack of sleep, and immediately turned away. He didn’t want sympathy, however well intentioned. All he wanted was to be left alone.
‘How long have you been here?’ the parson asked.
‘I don’t know,’ Adam muttered. ‘I’m sorry about your bicycle. I had to leave it …’ He stopped, unable to finish the sentence. Talking meant cutting through the numbness which was enveloping him like a protective skin, and he willed his mind not to think. He knew that grief was waiting for him around the next corner, ready to take him unawares if he relaxed even for a moment, and he was determined to keep it at bay for as long as he could.
‘Don’t worry about that. It doesn’t matter,’ said the parson. ‘Do you know what happened – to your father?’ he asked, steeling himself to ask the question.
Adam nodded without looking up. ‘I don’t want to talk about it,’ he said fiercely. ‘I can’t …’
‘I understand,’ said the parson. He fell silent, looking out over Adam’s head towards the trees on the other side of the lake, and when he spoke again, it was as if the words had been torn from him, forced from his lips. ‘Oh, God, how can you allow your children to suffer such pain?’ He looked up into the empty cloudless sky as if expecting an answer to his question but there was none, just a flurry of cawing blackbirds flying up over the water, disturbed perhaps by his distant cry.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said, wiping the clammy sweat from his brow. ‘It’s been a long night, one of the longest I can remember.’
Adam nodded, remembering the candlelit morgue at the pithead and the bodies laid out in rows on the cheap trestle tables. Edgar so alive and yet so dead.
‘How’s Ernest?’ he asked, looking up. ‘Has he been told?’
‘I don’t know,’ said the parson, shaking his head. ‘I assume his mother has, or his brother. I don’t envy them: it’s a terrible thing to have to tell a boy. I’m glad that you already knew.’
‘Yes,’ said Adam, flushing. He’d felt better for a moment thinking of Ernest sharing his pain, but now he was ashamed of himself, realizing he’d been trying to derive comfort from Edgar’s death.
‘Have you thought about what you are going to do?’ asked the parson. ‘There’s nothing I’d like more than for you to come and live with me but I know my wife won’t allow it. And with Miriam …’
‘Please. You don’t need to say it. I understand,’ said Adam, holding up his hand. ‘The truth is I can’t think now. I need some time.’
‘Yes, of course you do,’ said the parson hurriedly. ‘But I want you to know that I’d like to help. Your father would’ve wanted you to finish your education. He was so proud of you—’ The parson broke off, seeing that Adam was becoming distressed. He had put his hands up over his head and his body was convulsed by a series of sobs.
‘Thank you,’ said Adam, regaining his composure with a huge effort. ‘Like I said, I need a little time to think, a little time on my own. And then maybe …’
‘Of course,’ said the parson. ‘You should take all the time you need. And you can rely on me to make the arrangements, you know, for the—’ He stopped, not wanting to say the word ‘funeral’ for fear of upsetting Adam again. And when Adam nodded, he felt his meaning had been understood.
He was about to leave but then changed his mind, putting out his hand instead and placing it on Adam’s shoulder. Over the last few months he had come to love the boy and the physical touch seemed to be the only way to tell him that. He stayed, standing over Adam’s seated figure for a moment, looking out at the water, and then turned and went back to the house without saying anything more.
The following days passed in a blur for Adam. He walked and walked, hardly ever stopping, tramping the roads around Scarsdale in every direction, sometimes going as far as the outskirts of Gratton, until his boots were all worn through and he had to pawn his watch to buy some more. And at night he returned to the widow’s house, falling into bed when he was too exhausted to walk any further. His father had already paid the rent for the month and the widow left him alone, making no reference to Daniel’s absence when she passed him in the hall so that he sometimes wondered whether she even knew about the fire. He fell asleep in his clothes, sleeping dreamlessly until the sun woke him in the morning, streaming in through the open window of his bedroom. And then he hurried out, avoiding the other rooms, avoiding anything or anyone that might remind him of the life he’d shared there with his father. He knew what he was doing: he was a veteran of grief, remembering how he’d got past his mother’s death eighteen months before, and he was stronger now, almost a man.
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