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Clive’s Journey

by Keith Wallis

Clive kissed his wife roughly before he ran from the house. The air outside, chilled and smoky, struck his lungs like a mallet, causing him to cough. It was the usual, pit village smog-filled street, its rows of drab, terraced houses sagging on parade. A daily dressing of ash shrouded the red doorsteps, ready for the attention of miners’ wives. The cobbled road beneath his feet glistened with dew for a few yards, then faded into the choking mist that always seemed to cloak the working pit.

All around him, every familiar house, every night-worn stray cat, every nook and ledge declared ‘we are rock, we’ll never change’. Always, always the same, a monotony of a hundred score of days without renaissance.

Why then, on this day, should he think the brief kiss he’d offered poorly represented his love? Where did that thought suddenly spring from? It seemed strange too that he should want to drink in all the sameness of his world with all its dirt and grime. Yet, he thought, it looks no different from normal. Get a grip, man.

Pulling his oversized, coal-grimed coat around him, he stuffed his hands into the pockets and paced down the hill. Nearer the pit head a few friends in converging paths exchanged their greetings. “Hi Clive, how’s th’ wife?” asked half a dozen voices in half a dozen ways, but Clive was more reticent in his replies than normal. The usual crack and banter of friends and workmates, who’d always lived in the streets they’d been born in, passed over his head this morning.

The workmates didn’t ponder Clive’s quietness but beefed and guffawed through other conversations as they walked, their sentences punctuated with the cough and spit of contaminated lungs. Clive, in his world, searched for the difference in that day.

He passed the main gate, paused to punch his clock card like he bobbed to the altar at Sunday mass. The familiar ‘ding’ of acceptance as the machine pierced his card heralded the start of just another shift. Careful as always, he changed into his safety gear, checked more meticulously than ever that everything was in order today. He looked up at the board of tokens, removed the one with his name on it and put it round his neck.

As he stepped into the cage he smiled at the gateman and the cage soon filled. Men packed close as sweat in the metal prison. Once the gateman had closed up the safety, smiling and probably glad not to be joining them, he sent them down on their journey into the well in which they worked.

Everything was the same, the tedium of the familiar gnawing at his spirit and ‘mining’ the life out of him.

As he walked to the coalface in the candled gloom, Clive thought of his wife and how they had weathered their first two years together. He even smiled at the thought of those who had said they weren’t right for each other, how wrong those folk had been.

When he reached the coal face, he stopped thinking of her and realised he was alone. His workmates were further back down the tunnel; he must have walked faster than usual. Here, he was alone, his thoughts and that foreboding his only near companions. Lamps approached, bobbing up and down, playing shadow puppets on the walls as he watched; he wouldn’t be alone for long. How he wished he could shake off that strange, dark, feeling.

“Tear arse,” shouted a voice from the gloom, “you’ll not finish any earlier than end of shift and we’re not rushin’ on full breakfasts.”

At that moment, before he could reply, a roof support groaned. Clive froze. Death, fierce and ugly, called his name. A surrendering beam fell beneath the burden and tons of geology filled all space. That morning’s kiss, however hurried, was so much tenderer than this embrace.

Clive’s eyes stared into the darkest darkness as dust and debris filled his lungs. Rock pressed down overcoming every resistance, crushing every breath, every pulse and thought.

Clive would have smiled at the irony as he was buried again later that week. All the flowers on the grave wouldn’t console his wife as she wept and treasured that last, rough, insufficient kiss.

Copyright © 2009 by Keith Wallis

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