An extract from Daniel Wiles’ debut novel, Mercia’s Take, published by Swift Press on 3rd February 2022
Lawrence lifted his head up from his newspaper. Seeing it was Michael, he turned to the side and exhaled. Can work the nightshift if ye want. Pays a bit better. Any because the bloke who works ya stall on nights is very ill. Tuberculosis they reckon.
Thank ye very much, he said, and turned for the door.
Oh, an Michael? Doe tell a soul about it. Doe want a load a workers in ere after extra work.
He nodded and thanked Lawrence again and left.
Outside it had started to rain. And so with haste he made for the pithead and waited for his shift.
The bankswoman worked her job unloading. A skip fell to the floor, leaving its innards spilled out. She bent down with her left arm on her lower back and used her right to replace the coal. Dragged the skip to the loading cart and slowly squatted onto the black floor. Wrapped her arms around the skip and dug her fingers under it and grumbled and lifted it onto the loading cart.
People started appearing around the cage. God’s spit drenched everything. They talked amongst themselves about the weather. One of them rejoiced and others shouted at him. Cain appeared, almost as if he was always standing there.
Thought about me job offer?
He had thought about it. And the more he dwelt, the more he saw it as possible divine intervention. Perchance that was how the Lord was answering the prayer. Then he was offered more decent, honest work, and realised it wor.
They stepped onto the cage. The talk amongst the men fell away. The noise of the working colliery almost drowned out by the rain. The wind battered it against their heads. The cage moved down the gullet of the mine. The first time they all seemed pleased to be going down and the heat burying them.
At their stall they could walk around with more room than in the tunnel, the sump, or even the inbye. He was imagining the sort of money obtainable for double the work.
They peeled the coal like layers of an onion. In between them stuffings of clay and mud that formed mounds the hewers used as restbenches. They had fitted more wooden beams along the sides of the stall to support the new openings.
Recently it seemed good coal was, for the most part, along the seam of the upper wall and the roof. They hacked at it. Dust and lumps of clay and soil fell into their squinting faces. They found themselves picking their eyes with bits of wetted cotton rag. The coal itself whacked them. One decently sized lump of rock came down on Cain’s nose. He walked off ranting and raving. Michael hid his smirk.
At shift’s end everyone at the inbye collected their clothes. Michael stayed behind. The nightworkers unloaded from the cage. As the dayworkers replaced them, Cain turned to him. Comin?
Cain stopped and walked through the crowd back to him. Come on, he said, nodding to the cage.
Am on the next shift, Michael said.
Ar. Bloke on nights is sick.
Cain smiled wryly. Took his eye off Michael and nodded. See ya in the mornin then.
Then Michael realised. By nightshift’s end it would be early morning, and time for the dayshift again. He felt a dry scratching in his throat. Coughed lightly.
He waited. The young boys and girls squoze out of their shafts and ran to the cage. The undermanager was watching him with baleful eyes. He nodded. The undermanager looked away. The cracking of the chains as the cage lifted up. The nightworkers milled about.
To ya stalls! the undermanager said.
Who’s on five? Michael shouted to him.
He was ignored. He took his shirt from the floor and wiped the sweat off his head and neck.
It came from a bald man standing against the support beam removing his trousers.
He nodded. Name’s Michael.
Bill, the man said, fetching a pickaxe from the bucket.
Ow’s ya stallmate?
He’s dead. Shall we? Bill smiled a friendly, welcoming smile.
It wor any different work at night. Everything was exactly the same. Bill worked slower than he or Cain but took less breaks. He coughed less an all. It seemed as though he was happier in general. He whistled and hummed as he picked.
We bin workin the ceilin today, Michael said.
On nights we doe tend to mess about up there.
Ar. Think it was juss we fancied more headroom.
Bill laughed. They carried on picking. The wicks from their Davy lamps wilted when gas passed through them. They projected onto the pantherblack walls. The light tinged them bourbon.
Michael picked hard into the wall, separating a large section of coal that showed itself through cracks that ran down to the floor and formed the shape of a foxglove bud. He lifted the light to it and examined it slowly. Replaced the lamp. Drew down hard onto the wall. And again. Returned to his inspection. The foxglove bud portion of coal was huge and separated more prominently now. He left the light on it and drew his axe again, hitting it flush in the centre. It split along the middle. A further flurry of strikes took it totally apart and it fell to the floor. A heap of powdery coal.
He had made a crater deep enough to fit the full of his hand. When bending down to shovel the lumps he noticed inside the wall a small fleck of shine. It reflected off the lamplight. He fingered it. The black from his hands dulled its glint. He got the lamp and held it closer to the wall. With his free hand he lightly chipped away at the rock around the flecked reflection. It trailed like veins under the surface.
He replaced his lamp on the floor once more and pulled the axe back and hit three measured strikes around the shine. It fell to the floor. Kneeling, he fished around the rubble and spat on it and took a damp bit of cloth and rubbed away the soot and dirt. A scrap of yellow gold the size of a shirt button. He halfgasped and started to cough.
Quickly wrapped it in the cloth and slid it into his boot. Bill was still hard at work on the other side of the stall.
Michael held the lamp to where he had found the nugget. It was shining still.
What ye gorpin at? Bill said.
He rose quickly and started picking at the coal above. Nothin. And when Bill continued picking, he scraped clayed dirt from the floor and pasted it over the shine.
Bill and the nightshift left up the cage. Michael remained. In between shifts he pissed against the tunnel wall. Coughed dark phlegm into cotton rags. Lay on the floor and looked at the gold. It caught the lamplight when he moved it tentatively in his filthy hands.
This was it. Everything he had been waiting for. He thought his luck was in when he was afforded extra work. Now he cor believe his luck. The Lord is not a charm of fortune, the vicar had said. More fool him now. This was everything. And there was more.
He set about mining as much as he could before the morning shift came down. There were men moving about and working, but in the hours between the main shifts the mine was plenty quieter. He could have spent this time topside, resting or even sleeping. But not after this.
After scraping away the paste he had covered the shine with, he realised the veins and fragments were deeper inlaid than he had first imagined. He had to work at separating the surrounding rock to bring the treasure to the fore.
About an hour later, as he was starting to break in the rock around the shine, carefully making sure not to damage any of it, the floor started to shake. Footsteps. Echoed grumbling. The men walked past. He watched and nodded to a few of them. Cain came last. He looked surprised.
Ye wor jestin then!
Michael shook his head.
An yowm fit for purpose?
Fit as a fiddle, me. Michael leant a sly eye towards the shine and then stepped in front of it.
Cain laughed. Bess get to it then. If ye need a brek juss tek it. Bin out all night meself. Could do wi a few breks an all.
Michael was still looking at him. Had been for a while. Could he trust him? No. But what else could he do? It would be impossible to hide what he was doing.
So he held the stare on his stallmate. Took Cain a bit to realise it. Eventually he stopped picking and stared back. His face already wet with sweat and lit a dim red.
What? he said.
Michael stepped aside and left free and protruding was the bulbous growth of rock, chipped away at its border, veining and clumping with golden reflections.
Cain frowned and moved towards it and knelt. Wait, he whispered, and scrambled for his lamp and held it on the rockface. Ya jestin. Gold? He looked at Michael and frowned. Only his warmly lit bust visible in the darkness.
Certainly looks like it, Michael said, and he started to laugh. Cain grabbed him by the shoulder and smiled.
They concentrated their blows around the gleam. Working in tandem. They hit a rhythmic knock onto the wall. Each of them striking the exact moment after the other. They broke off the heap of coal that within it had golden veins. Then with chisel and hammer they broke apart the smaller pieces and started to form a parcel.
Individually they worked the gold out of the lumps. It was a delicate job. They had to try and keep good pieces as joined together as possible.
Cain went to the inbye and returned with his shirt and they placed their treasure inside. They took hardly any breaks. Michael was so exhausted his body became numb. His eyes so heavy with tiredness and the sweltering heat sapping the last of his energy.
He day want a partner on this. But at least this way, Michael woe have had to keel over to mine all of the treasure. As much as he day like Cain, he respected the man’s work ethic.
By the time there was a few handfuls’ worth, the wall turned clay and black again. They wrapped the shirt. They were boneweary. They said not a word for fear of neighbouring stallworkers with pricked ears.
At shift’s end they left the mine as usual. Cain held his heavy balled shirt against his hip. Michael stumbled across the bank, his legs like giant lead weights. He heaved and retched coughs that sounded like the cries of a trapped animal.
At the edge of the colliery the two men leaned against a dilapidated stone wall. In the near distance now the lanterns that threw light on the colliery. He had forgotten what day it was, what time it was. Everything was dark, and seemed like it always had been.
Cain unfurled the shirt. There they sat. Glimmering in the glow yet dull still. The reflections casting small shapes subtly onto their faces.
Pawner closed by this time, Cain said. Less one of us tek em for now. We can split it in the morra when we’ve daylight. Or juss tek em to the pawner together. Let me tek em. Oll clean em up nice an all.
Iss me who fount em. Any fair I tek em for the night.
Cain looked at him and day speak. It was that look paired with silence that suggested doubt. Sure? he said.
Ar, Michael said, rubbing his forehead with the back of his wrist. He swayed lightly. His knees shook.
Goo on en. Puttin me trust in ye, Michael.
They transferred the metal from shirt to cloth rag. The new parcel placed under his arm. They shook hands firmly. Michael’s knees buckled and he almost fell over.
Ye sure ye can mek it back alright?
Om fine, he said, and stumbled away.