The Bargain  
    Mary McCluskey

It is my mother's face that burns my memory of the night that the mine collapsed. Her face was white; her eyes fixed on the shaft where the cages would emerge from underground. She was very still. She said my brother's name only once, then her lips moved in what seemed like prayer. I had never seen her pray before.

There are other pictures: the lanterns swaying, light spilling on the women as they waited at the top of the dark pit, some holding babies or clutching the hands of small children they'd pulled from bed when the siren sounded. The faces were gaunt, shadowed. Some children whimpered. I was twelve: too old to cry.

"Mam," I whispered.

"Wheesht!" As if silence could save them, trapped down there.

"It's so dark." I reached for her hand, and she pulled me into the light of the lanterns.

Until that night, I had seen the lanterns shine only on the coal-blackened miners as they walked home from their shift, their smiles white in gray, smudgy faces. We loved to watch them, my sister Lily and I, as we stood holding hands on the edge of the cobbled village street. Lily was ten and loved the singing. It was a big mine, some families came from Wales to work in it, and the Welshmen would sing with soaring tenor voices, glad to be going home to warm soup, a bath. A few Scots like my own dad would join in.

The Karley Pit controlled everything in our village. We lived in tiny houses owned by the mine, attended a school built by it. The very air we breathed was heavy with coal dust. It thickened the summer breezes and the winter winds. It dusted our clothes, our hair, and the grass of the garden. It floated and settled even inside the house. Even on a white tablecloth, newly placed for tea.

"Och, look at it, " my mother's vexed voice as she shook the Sunday-best starched cloth. "And it just washed and ironed."

And the dust rose in a fine soft cloud, then settled again.

It powdered the daffodils and bluebells that grew wild beyond our house and the dandelions and marigolds my mam would pick for her medicines. She mixed lavender and chamomile for poultices for Lily's chest, rosemary and chamomile to soothe my father's back. My father, injured by a collapsing tunnel, worked on the surface of the mine, with the women and the old. He was often in pain and it made him angry. He would stare into the fire then suddenly curse, bang his stick, so that my mam, peeling potatoes in the narrow back kitchen would jump and chide him.

"Enough, John. Enough."

But my brother Jimmy was the one most in need of mam's ministrations. Jimmy was a boy who seemed destined to die of an accident before he could even grow up. He was a reckless boy. A hothead. And he was awkward as well. Two left feet, my father would say. The lad would trip on his own wee shadow. . A face thin and freckled, always a tooth missing. He fell from trees, and down steps. If a cricket ball came flying from a game far out on the farmer's barren field it would hit my brother always, right between the eyes, and a bump would pop up and then a bruise as blue as the speedwell my mother mixed with her herbs to treat it.

And his destiny was the mine. At age fourteen like every other boy in the village, there was nothing for him but to walk the dark streets to his shift, then take the cage down under the earth. A tomb for many. A coal dust grave. Since the Great War, my father said, there had been two mine collapses, one cave-in, one fire and one gas leak. Fifty-three men and two women had died in the mine.

My mam fought this destiny for Jimmy. She begged in the village for someone to take him on. She tried to apprentice him to the old cobbler, who mended the boots of the villagers and shoed the farm horses too. She tried to find him work as a butcher's boy. Jimmy was not good at book learning, so a trade was his only way out. But there were no trades to be learned in our village. On Jimmy's last day at school my mother tried once again to beg the butcher.

"I can't pay him missus."

"Harry, he could help you," she pleaded. "He's strong."

Harry was red-faced and heavy and he wheezed loudly as he lifted a side of beef and dragged it through to the back.

"I can't make enough for myself. How can I take on a lad?"

Jimmy was foolish enough to be excited about working in the mine.

"A man now," he said, the day before he began work. He was fourteen.

Lily and I were on the floor, cutting out pictures of lovely ladies from the Regency Romances Lily loved.

"Don't look like a man," I said to him.

Lily was more gracious.

"You have your own snap box," she said. "I'll help make it for you."

He gave that silly gap-toothed grin, his shoulders shooting back.

His first day he was exhausted and fell asleep in the bath. My mam and dad lifted him and carried him up to bed. It took but a week for the light to go out of his eyes, the excitement at being a man. But my dad could now cut back his hours, fifty hours a week were necessary for a family to keep the mine's house, and only now do I understand what it cost my father to say the words I overheard a week later.

"You're on the north seam at pit, laddie?"

"Aye. The north."

"The hardest."

"So they say."

"Never thought I would be a short-shift sorter with the women while my son works the north seam," said my father.

Jimmy turned to look at him.

"Easier on your back though dad, is it?"

"Oh yes, laddie. My back is feeling much better."

My brother smiled.

On Jimmy's fourth week, he was placed on the second shift, an evening shift. An hour after he left the house on his first night the siren sounded all over the village. The sound screamed and between its screams there was total, shocked silence. My mam was in the back kitchen washing dishes, and she lifted her hands from the bowl and slowly wiped them on her apron. Then she ran. She ran to the mine so fast I could hardly keep up with her, lifting her black skirts, her bare legs longer and whiter than any I had ever seen, and ran with such grace and speed I could never have imagined it.

At the top of the mine she waited, panting. My dad was with the surface workers, crowded on the other side of the shaft, a foreman calling to them. They were to carry out the wounded. Or the dead. I could hear my mother's fast breathing. She stood still, her hands clasped together, her lips moving in a way that was strange and frantic and frightened me. The other women were silent around us, as they waited for the cages to come up from underground. The lanterns swayed.

The first cage held ten men, four upright, holding up four others. Two men were on the ground. The foreman and six men, my father among them, moved forward to help. The bodies in the cage looked so black I could not tell if one was Jimmy, but my mother knew.

"Oh please. Please," she whispered. Then turned way, taking a long breath. The next cage seemed so long in coming. I remember the screeching sound of the winch and the rope. Then the cage stopped. Ten bodies were crammed together and they tipped sideways, falling. . This time my mother ran forward. She held Jimmy in her arms as both of them sank to the ground. I had seen this in a picture at school. It was called a pieta.

Jimmy was bruised by falling beams, and he was crying and choking hard on the dust that had blackened his mouth and throat. Two men helped us get him out into the air. Then my dad appeared beside us. He was out of breath and his hand on his back and his gray face showed he was in pain, but he knelt beside Jimmy, then let out a long sigh.

"Ye can manage him?" he asked my mam. "Get the lad home? We've all to stay."

"Och aye," said my mother. "We'll get him home."

Slowly, half dragging him, his arms draped around each of us, my mam and I carried him home. My mother made a bath for him in the tin tub, dragging it in from the coalhouse to place in front of the fire. He sat in it like a king while Lily and I poured water all over his head.

The next day mam told him he must stay home; the mine had said so. A lie. Then she began to scrub at her arms and face in the cold back kitchen and finally she took off her pinny, so she stood awkward, unfamiliar, in her plain black dress.

"I'm off for a bit."

I stared at her. She never went further than the corner shop, or the bakery or behind the house to pick her herbs and flowers. Or took off her pinny except for special occasions.

"Where you going, Mam?"

"I'll be back."

She had wrapped her shawl around her, and put on her heavy boots. Lily, drawing pictures of ladies in wide brimmed hats, looked up.

"Can I come, Mammy?"


She was back an hour later, with a paper in her hand.

"Emma, I need you to help me," she said.

A form to be filled in. She couldn't read well, nor write much more than her name. But that was all it needed. It was an Agreement to work at the mine. It stated her wages, her allowed coal, the penalties for loss. If coal was missing it came out of the wages no matter who took it. This provision was to make sure that the women policed each other.

She'd got a job as a surface worker, a coal sorter.

"Jimmy can help Harry at the butcher. Your dad can stay on the surface. We can manage on that."

"But Harry can't pay Jimmy, mam."

"No matter. He'll feed him. And it's a training."

My dad's face was a mask when she told him that evening. At first he said nothing and simply hurled his stick to the floor. Lily picked it up, touching his hand as she placed the walking stick in his fist.

He gestured for us to leave the room.

"Away wi ye, girls. Upstairs."

Lily and I scampered up the stairs, but stayed in the stairwell, sitting on the top step to listen.

"Why?" he asked.

We could not hear her answer. Lily's hand slipped into mine.

So Jimmy became a butcher's boy, and my mam a miner, and our house was quiet with people too exhausted to talk in the evening, and it fell to Lily and me to cook the soup for dinner, for our mam was often late home. But we seemed settled and so it was a surprise when, six months later, Jimmy left the house very early, dressed in his Sunday best, telling no one where he was going. He had asked for a day off, the butcher said. He didn't know why.

We waited for him to come home.

It was close to midnight when the back door creaked. Lily and I ran downstairs when we heard Jimmy's voice. He said he had taken two buses and walked five miles. My mother stood, rigid, my father sat erect in his chair, holding his stick, waiting. Jimmy took a breath, glanced over at us.

"Joined the Navy," he said.

No one spoke at first, though I was excited by this news and Lily's eyes were wide and round. My mother silently studied her son's face.

"When do you leave, son?" my dad asked finally.

"Two days."

Jimmy turned to mam.

"I'll send back my wages," he said.

She shook her head.

"Och. Hold your wheesht, lad," she said, and walked slowly upstairs to bed. When Jimmy had left, when we became used to the house without him, I asked my mother why she did not leave the pit.

"Mebbe. In a month or so I will."

But she never did. Though the work tired her so, she stayed. There was always something needed, one of us sick, my father's pain medicines. Lily's cough. And all the time she waited for bad news about Jimmy. A telegram to say that Jimmy, her only son, her hothead, had died, been killed, succumbed to the sea or scurvy or TB or some foreign disease. But the dread news never came. Jimmy stayed strong and healthy and she wore down a little each day.

"Why don't you stop now, Mam. Stop this work?" I pleaded with her before I too left home, to start my nursing training in Birmingham.

"I'm fear't," she said, looking hard at me. A challenge.

"Why? Why are you frightened?"

"I think I made a bargain. For Jimmy."

She had never talked of religion. Only once, at the top of a dark mine shaft, had I ever seen her pray.

"A bargain? With God?"

"I don't know what with," she said.

Mary McCluskey is a British journalist, now living in the California sun. She is the author of Match (with Bryan Breed) (John Clare Books, UK) and Bel Air (Pinnacle). Her short fiction has been published in Francis Ford Coppola's Zoetrope All Story Extra. Linnaean Street Literary Magazine, Andrei Codescu's Exquisite Corpse, and Vestal Review. A story is upcoming in the November edition of Atlantic Unbound. She is presently editing her novel "White Nights."

In Posse: Potentially, might be ...