The dirty sweat poured from his face and dripped from his nose. It stood out like small black grapes on the bent bare back and along his ribs. There was a squelching in his boots where the coal dust mixed with the perspiration.
The powerful arms and knee drove the shovel deep into the heap and the biceps bulged as he tossed the coal into the skip.
On the opposite side his mate kept pace with him, shovel for shovel, both lights bobbing up and down alternately, up and down, like parts of a machine.
As each head rose with the lift of the shovel the slender beam of light from the lamp shot into the haze of dust hanging over the skip, become diffused and lost.
Outside the narrow shafts of light was the impenetrable darkness.
The light dropped low, the shovel scraped along the floor, the light rose and the coal fell into the skip.
There was a rhythmic beat linking mate to mate.
The sounds of the shovel and the falling of coal were hemmed in by the deep darkness. It stood close up to them, like resilient folds of black velvet. The blackness retreated at each puny advance of the lamp, but flowed back immediately to bandage the thrust mark made by the rapier of light.
It was a thousand times darker than the darkest night; not merely the absence of light but a seeping something that penetrated everywhere and covered everything. Something tangible.
And Eric was afraid. Afraid for the first time in the twelve months he had worked “on the coal” as a contract miner.
The sweat that gushed from every pour was not only the measure of the weight of the shovel and the inadequate air flow, but, more than that, it was the outpouring of the fear that had been gnawing at his brain and knotting in his plexus for a long month past.
Eric and George were pinpoints of light on a blackened stage; performers without an audience.
A thousand feet above, the blazing sun wilted the leaves of the stunted box trees where the pee-wees lay cooling in the mud at the horse trough. The skip filled, George stood erect.
“She’ll do,” and cocked his ear to listen to the roof. Eric straightened slowly, listening as he did so, listening not with ears alone but with his whole body. Listening with his finger tips.
A Low sound like a gentle protesting sigh grew to a moan and built up and up and up till it thundered out, the groans of a monster in agony.
The knot in Eric’s stomach tightened and his throat contracted as he crouched instinctively. He wanted to run, to run screaming, to get miles away from it, to get into the light of day. Wondrous, beautiful sun.
The awful groaning and the shroud of darkness were pressing in on him, squeezing him, making it hard to breathe.
But the bravery of cowardice held him silent and hobbled his feet as it had done for four fearsome weeks.
George looked intently at the roof.
“While she’s talking to us, we know what she’s doing,” he said in a loud whisper. “No danger yet awhile. When she’s silent you never know, you never know.” His calm broke. “To hell with stripping pillars anyway, to hell with it! Gnawing away support that’s protecting you!”
As the groaning died away to a low grinding, a new terror gripped the younger man.
He didn’t want it to stop “talking”, talking to George who could understand it.
It didn’t talk to him, it terrified him and yet the silence terrified him even more.
He bent his back and pushed the full skip along the rails into the darkness.
Two specks now shone in the darkness, one moving rapidly away from the groan that was turning to silence. A vivid shrieking silence! The near rumble of the skip blotted out all other noises so that he couldn’t tell if the roof still talked or not.
He wanted to stop, to stop and listen. But outside lay safety, the horsedriver and rope runner to talk with, and the friendly electric light of the winch in the distance. …