The Light Across the Moor
The early light of an Autumn day was lingering beyond the horizon, waiting for the time to flood across the moor, when Fergal McEwan stepped out of the house to find his youngest son waiting impatiently in the cool air. "Don't be so eager Robbie," he told him. "You'll soon find there's no glory in grubbing about underground."
The boy had always wanted to be a miner. His family had lived and worked in the shadow of the pit since the sinking of the first shaft and building of the village more than sixty years before. To him the men of Cowdencraig were heroes whom he could not wait to emulate. As the time for him to complete his education and leave school had approached, he'd found himself becoming increasingly impatient to join the men as they went into the cage each morning to be lowered into the bowels of the earth.
"Aye, I know Pa," he said excitedly, as Malcolm followed his father out of the house and handed his brother an old worn shoulder bag.
"You're in such a hurry Wee un, you forgot your crib. You can't get any food down there you know,"
Robbie smiled. He felt a little stupid at forgetting a thing of such importance. His reputation as the family's hungriest member was at stake. "Ta Malcolm. I'd not last long without food." He hung the strap over his shoulder and glowed with even more pride at wearing this symbol of his new status as a miner. "And you're not old enough, or big enough to call me Wee un."He laughed and followed his father along the close, instinctively turning to give his mother a little wave as she stood for what would be the only time, to wave him off to his new life as a working man.
Robbie had worked hard at school, earning himself the support of his family to break convention and stay on until the age of fourteen. When he left it was with one of the best reports that the village school had issued to a leaver for a long while. His parents were very proud of him, and his mother in particular had hoped that he would be the one male member of the family who would not have to go down the pit.
At the end of the close they turned towards where the large wheel on its tower could be seen in the distance; slowly rotating as it raised and lowered the single cage, and Robbie could hardly contain himself. He would soon be in that cage and moving down into the mine for the first time. Then he would really be a miner; would have caught up with the other boys of his age who had been working down there, and earning a wage, since the age of ten.
As they walked through the village they were joined by increasing numbers of men moving doggedly towards the colliery; few of them speaking, and Robbie soon learned that his pleasant greetings to the men he recognised were mostly wasted at that hour. He waited at the company store, while his father and brother joined the queue to pay their farthings for a cigarette and a light.
Malcolm was the first out. "There's no point you getting all excited," he teased. "She's in there far too busy to notice you out here."
Robbie shuffled uneasily, and lied unconvincingly. "I'm not worried about seeing anybody."
At the pit head, when he stepped into the cage, the boy felt a great surge of emotion rise up within him. He had great difficulty hiding his feeling of pride from the other men who appeared not to be concerned with any admiration of their situation, but more with a zombie like acceptance of the way of life that it had been their misfortune to have been born into.
Robbie was intrigued by the short journey down the shaft in the open cage. He had been warned to keep his arms in although there appeared to be plenty of room between the sides of the cage and the walls of the shaft, with just a wooden bar around the edge of the cage to prevent the men from falling. The dim illumination provided by the miners' lamps reflected off the wood shoring used to reinforce the vertical tunnel through which they were travelling, giving the impression of higher speed than was the case.
At the bottom of the shaft Robbie was told to await the foreman who would get to him very shortly; there were other new boys to be allocated work. He would never forget the first impressions his eyes beheld that day, as he stood waiting for his instructions. The gloomy, smelly, dusty and claustrophobic atmosphere invaded his senses, permeating his whole being, and injecting the first doubts into his young mind.
"How tall are you Laddie?" asked Donald Ballentyne, the kindly but efficient and hard working foreman of the section that Robbie had been allocated to. Tough and sinuous, he wasted no time, sizing up Robbie as he approached him; noting the youngster's strong tall frame.
"About five feet ten inches, I think sir." He knew the foreman by sight already, having seen him around the village. But now he was a figure of authority; his gaffer.
"Don't call me sir Laddie. I'm Mr. Ballentyne to you. Come with me."
Robbie spent his shift standing up to his knees in water in a road that was to be reopened after flooding; taking the weight of the roof timbers on his shoulders whilst the rotting uprights were removed and replaced with new wood. At times he was left alone for a few moments that seemed like hours, his shoulders sore and aching as the rough wood dug through his jacket and into his flesh. On these occasions his anxiety tended to turn to fear of being left alone to hold up the roof until it all collapsed and buried him alive. Then the relief of seeing the other men return with more uprights, and being told he could relax again, was partially counteracted by the pain he felt as the pressure came off his shoulders.
Mr Ballentyne was pleased with him, and told him so. But the fourteen year old knew, if he had a mind to admit it to himself, that it would not be long before he acquired the same haggard and disinterested look as most of the other men.
His shift over, Robbie emerged from below ground into the cool clear late afternoon, to find the sun nearing completion of its daily journey. He stood aside from the other men for a few moments to take several deep breaths of the sweet fresh air and rid his lungs of coal dust. He had looked forward so much to going down the mine; to being a miner. But his imagination had not prepared him for what it was really like. Coming back out into such a lovely day tended to re-enforce the falseness of his previously held impression. His whole body ached, especially his back and sore shoulders. But, he supposed, he would get used to it; as would the other new boys who were considerably younger than he was. None of them had much choice; they all had to earn their living now.
Robbie caught up with Malcolm and waited outside the store again; watching the three men who were playing pitch and toss and sharing a jug of beer on the sun hardened mud, while his brother purchased his cigarette and a light.
"Hello Robert." Margaret McWhirter squinted in the fading sunlight as she came out of the poorly lit store, but her radiant smile compensated him somewhat for his hours in near darkness. It pleased him that she always used his name correctly. "How did you like your first day down the pit then?"
"Auch, it was alright ye ken." He was trying to look as if being a miner, and a man, was very natural for him. He always felt shy when she was around and he fidgeted with his empty lunch bag. But he was very pleased she had seen him.
He had gone through all the normal boyish trends where girls were concerned, and as he had known her practically all of his life she had been tolerated, disliked and liked. But as he had passed puberty his thoughts of her had become far stronger, and different. She was no longer a pretty girl; to him she was a lovely woman, blossoming as his feeling for her had blossomed.
She raised the toe of her worn left boot a little and pivoted on her heel, gently kicking a small stone with her other foot; the frayed hem of her dress dragging on the ground, and impressing him with the femininity of the movement. "I saw the rector today; Reverend Frazer. He said if I saw you I was to let you know he would like to see you. What does he want you for Robert?"
"He's been trying to get me to go to the Kirk on Sundays, but he knows my parents are against it." Robbie removed his cap, studying it for a moment as if wondering why he had taken it off, and then replaced it. "He'll just get me into trouble with Ma."
His knowledge of girls was limited; mostly acquired and largely inaccurately from other village boys. He was not sure that some of his thoughts were normal, or decent. Shame was what he felt at some of his fantasies of her.
But even at his young age; standing looking at her there in that bleak setting, on that rough and uneven ground outside the old wooden shack that was the company store, he knew that there was no harm in the admiration he felt for her beauty.
He was also sure that he would never have the courage to tell her how he felt, apart from his being too young to be allowed to think of such things, and her being a year younger. He knew they were both really still children. And anyway, she would never be interested in him in that way; her father was the company storekeeper, and he was just a common miner.
"Why are your parents against you going to church Robert?" She did look a picture in her faded green dress, that fitted her trim maturing figure so cosily. With her starched white apron gleaming where it was not smudged, and stained with beer. And her light brown ringlets cascading down around her shoulders were a perfect background for such a beautiful face. "Pa and I go to church every Sunday, and so do lots of other people. God would like you to go."
He took the strap of his lunch bag off his shoulder and rotated the shoulder to ease the soreness he felt in it. "Well! My family are all against it. I don't really know why."
He looked so grown up now, she thought. Like the other men, with his blue eyes shining out from his coal blackened face surmounted by his dirty cap; a cap already worn out by his brothers. If you didn't know it, you would never guess his hair was nearly blond.
Clasping her hands behind her back, Margie twisted her body from side to side, and cast her grey green eyes down towards the ground; not convinced that she should ask. "Pa says that none of your family has ever been christened. Is that true Robert?"
He felt guilty at having to admit it to her. He could lie to his brothers, but not to her. "Aye Margie. That is true."
Malcolm's short bulky shape came out of the store followed by Margaret's father. The girl started to walk towards the shop door, sensing that her parent was a little angry. When he spoke he confirmed her fear.
"Now you know what I've told you girl, and I need you to help serve. Get back inside." He waited until she'd passed him, pausing and holding the doorframe for a moment to regain his breath a little, and following her back through the doorway with hardly a glance at Robbie.
As the youngest of ten surviving children, Robbie was last to use the iron bathtub that stood in a corner of the kitchen, after his father and the two brothers who were on the day shift. The water, which was carried from one of the village pumps that they were lucky to be quite close to, was heated in a cauldron on the fire and used to replace some of the dirty water after each bath. It was never more than tepid in use, and the coal dust in it did not allow the hard soap to produce much of a lather, even though the water from the moor was very soft.
Most of the families only bathed occasionally, and some of the miners never; believing it weakened their backs. But Mrs. McEwan had always been very strict about them all having their bath once a week, and every day if they had been down the pit. It was a lot of work for the three girls, Margaret, Sadie, and Jenny, who stayed home to help their mother look after the welfare of the men, who brought in most of the money by toiling at the coal face.
When they were all seated around the scrubbed wooden table eating their meal and teasing Robbie about his new status, it was his mother who injected a more serious side into the happy conversation.
"I think it is a sad thing that young Robbie had to go down the pit with the rest of you. He did so well at school. It made the struggle to keep him there worthwhile, and I had hoped he would be the one man in this family who would do better for himself."
Robbie was a little embarrassed. "Oh Mam. We've been through all this. Can you not leave it?" He glanced at his father, knowing that insolence to his mother would bring a quick rebuff. But his father remained silent, looking around at their faces with pride on his own. Now that Robbie had started work, they were virtually all grown up. Pity poor Jack could not be here with them.
Granny was sitting by the fire on the very edge of her chair, looking as if she was about to fall off. She usually had her meals on her lap in the chair, but was not eating now. She would have something later.
"Auch, they have it so easy now," she announced suddenly. "I was down the pit for nigh on twenty years, carrying up the coals. I had to carry loads of over a hundredweight up the ladders. We had no cages in those days to take us up and down. Even your own mother was down there for a wee while. And the little boys had to drag the coals along the roads to the shaft for us women to carry up."
They'd heard it all before, and it was a bit of a family joke. They waited, knowing that she had not yet finished what she had to repeat yet again.
"You girls would have been down there too if the law had not been changed. Aye, and the wee bairns still."
She paused and rocked her short dumpy body back and forth, still precariously perched on the edge of her chair; her grey hair bun moving like a counterbalance; looking for all the world as if she would end up in a pile in the grate.
"And my poor Dougal died down there because a law was not changed soon enough. He was trapped by the fire, and there was no way out. They changed the law to have two ways out in 1852, the very year he was killed." They knew she had finished when she removed her glasses and rubbed her eye to relieve the strain.
Their father took up the conversation; replying to his frail elderly mother. "Aye Mother, we know all that; and at one time you couldn't leave the pit once you'd started work there. It was against the law to try to change your employment if you were a miner." He looked across at Robbie. "But things change and improve. At least the laddie does not have to stay down the pit if he does not want to, and can get a chance at something else."
"Oh aye Pa; what else?" said Robbie indignantly. "And anyway, I've always wanted to be a miner. At least, I have since I realised I couldn't do what I really wanted. It was a waste to keep me at the school so long."
"I've always wanted to be a miner," mimicked Malcolm, causing a ripple of laughter, his round face beaming.
Jenny, Robbie's one year older sister, looked across at Robbie and smiled. "Take no notice Robbie. They're all jealous of you doing so well at the school."
"Did you fill the kettle again, Jenny Hen?" asked her mother. She turned to her eldest daughter as she spoke. "Would you like another cup Isobel?"
"Yes Mam. I did fill the kettle again, as I always do," said Jenny. Then anticipating her mother's next words. "And yes, I will get my sister another cup." She got to her feet. "Would you like another cup Pa?"
"Thanks Jenny," said Isobel, raising herself from her chair with the intention of helping.
Her mother scolded her pleasantly. "Sit you down Isobel. Jenny can manage on her own. She hasn't just walked an hour home from the brick works."
Stirling, the next older boy to Robbie since Jack had been drowned in the Brechie Burn at the age of seven, was the next to speak. He changed the subject as he rose and went towards the door. "I'm off away out."
"Remember what I told you now," warned his father. "Don't let me hear you've been at the pitch and toss again. I know you think you are grown up, but seventeen is no age to be at the gambling." He waved a finger as an indication of how serious he took the matter. "And anyway you can't afford it. Don't expect the rest of us to pay your debts if you get into trouble."
"Aye; alright Pa."
Robbie followed Stirling out of the house with his mother's voice behind him. "Don't you be too late home Robbie. You're not used to working yet."
"No Mam." He went to call for his pal Sam Fry. They had been friends, on and off, since either of them could remember; although quite different physically, with Sam being several inches shorter than Robbie, and dark.
They both tended to be more academic than the norm for the village, with Sam trying to make up for his short education by reading whatever he could. Their long conversations were a pleasure to them both, often taking them miles across the moor when the weather was suitable. Sam's great regret was being compelled to leave school early, but as an only child his parents could not manage without him earning as soon as was possible. He joined Robbie, and they strolled slowly through the village in the moonlight.
"What did you get to do then Robbie, on your first day?"
"The foreman said you had to be special to do my job. It was very technical."
"Oh aye. What do you mean by special?"
"Tall. I had to hold up the roof with my shoulder while the props were replaced." They both laughed. "It may be funny, but it was hard work"
"It was hard work for me today," said Sam. "I had to help draw the hutches. One of the ponies broke its leg and had to be shot. We had to load its carcass onto one of the hutches and send it up with the coals."
"The poor wee thing." said Robbie. "It must be unpleasant for the creatures, working down there all the time."
"Aye! well I had to do their work today. It was hard going." Sam shrugged his shoulders resignedly. "Auch it's not so bad. That poor old pony was a lot worse off than me."
They strolled in silence for a few moments, both minds on the plight of the pony, and with Robbie conscious of his new appreciation for the cool evening air, until Sam continued speaking.
"The worst part of the day was when that Angus Livingston turned up with the manager. He's only two years older than us but they were all frightened of him; just because he's the owner's son."
"What was he there for?"
"He's being trained in his father's affairs during his college holidays I think. That's what I was told. He thinks he's God. While somebody went for a gun to shoot the pony he was going to smash its head with a lump of wood. The foreman had to practically plead with him not to do it."
They wandered on in silence for a while, Robbie still considering the pony's tragic situation. Then he said, "I saw Margie WcWhirter today, and she says the rector wants to see me."
"What for? He knows what your family think about religion."
"Aye. I don't know what he wants. But I bet he'll not come to our house to find me. Ma would send him packing. I think he wants to try to get me to go to church."
"Well, there's nothing wrong with that. I go to church; and it is his job."
"Aye. And Margie thinks I should go. But I don't know why I should. Nobody else in my family would go into a church."
"You're sweet on Margie, aren't you Robbie?" Sam noticed his friend's hesitation and continued quickly. "Auch! you can tell me Rob. I won't give your secrets away."
Robbie replied coyly. "I do think she's very nice. But we're still bairns. Margie's only thirteen and I shouldn't be thinking the way I do sometimes. Anyway; she's not interested in the likes of me, and I'm sure her father doesn't like me."
"She's a bonnie lassie," said Sam thoughtfully. "And it won't matter if you both only think about it." Then after a short silence he continued. "Why don't you go and see the rector now; and solve the mystery?"
"Will you come with me?"
"Aye! if we're not too long. Pushing those hutches today has made me very tired. And you must be feeling it after your first day down there."
"Alright," replied Robbie, changing his direction quickly and heading for the rectory with Sam having to catch up. "Let's away now and see if he's at home."