Shuttlewood

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Other  |  House: Booksie Classic
Aftermath of the Markham mine disaster, told from the viewpoint of a contractor working on a residential street.

Submitted: February 15, 2012

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Submitted: February 15, 2012

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Shuttlewood

 

“It must be twenty years since I’ve been down here, in fact it’s longer – I was only twenty, so it’s forty years.”

“That was before you met Nana then Grandad?”

“No, we were courting, but not married, and a good few years before your mum came on the scene.”

He slowed the car down and pulled in to the side of the road.

“It’s a bit of a strange place” she said.

She was right. Two long lines of terraced houses with grass and municipal type walled gardens between them where the street should be, set in the rolling countryside of Northeast Derbyshire at least half a mile from any other buildings. Around the backs of the houses were two access roads.

“It seems as if it’s the wrong way around” she said staring out of the window “as if it’s been turned inside out.”

“In a way it has” he said “it was all very different the last time……………………………………..”

“Come on, get that bloody van out of here” the foreman shouted, “It’s nearly a quarter to eight!”

We piled into the van, the qualified electricians in the three seats, and the apprentices in the back amongst the reels of cable and the bags and buckets of tools.

“God I wish this bloody contract was finished” moaned Baz, the lead electrician,

“So do I grumbled Al, “I’m broke.”

“Serves you right for playing cards with the builders – how much did you lose last Friday?”

“Too much!”

I sat in the back of the van on a cable reel and leaned back against the side trying to make myself comfortable. Yet another day of bashing cable channels out of walls, and wiring up lights in filthy false floors.

Like the other three lads in the back, I started to doze a little until I was jerked into wakefulness by the sound of emergency bells, and Baz veering the van into the side of the road.

“Jesus – he’s going some” exclaimed Baz. The ambulance shot past us on the opposite side at what seemed a ludicrous speed, followed by another, and then a third.

“Bet there’s been an accident on the Motorway. I knew that was gonna happen when they opened the dammed thing last year.”

Excitement over, drifted back into my doze and stayed there until the van pulled into the street.

“Three months in and only halfway down” muttered one of the lads.

“Shut up whining, “snapped Baz “and get in there and put the flamin’ kettles on!”

Slowly, like we had been incarcerated in the van for eons, we dragged ourselves out and wandered into the murky depths of number forty-two.  One of the other lads started mashing the tea, and I put the radio on.

By the time the rest of the crew had got into the room, the radio was blurting out rock music and we all settled down for a cuppa before starting yet another day of “housebashing.”

One of the builders came in to cadge a fag. “Have you heard, there’s been an accident at he pit. They reckon there’s one or two badly hurt.

“Yeah, we saw ambulances on the way here – that must have been where they were going,”

“Come on you lot,” Baz yawned, stretching, let’s make a start.”

My job was to channel out the wall in the front room to get the new cables into the fuse box in the corner. It was a hateful job with the walls made from what seemed to be bricks made of iron and only a very thin layer of plaster and only a hammer and chisel to do it with, so it took hours and I took frequent little rests, spent staring out of the window. That was why it was me who saw the police car slowly making it’s way up the street between the kids playing and the contractors’ vans.

It stopped outside a house just a few doors up on the other side of the road from the empty one we were working in and two grim faced policemen got out and knocked on the door. An attractive young woman answered it, her face falling when she saw her callers were the police. They briefly spoke to her, and she just collapsed into their arms, as if she was a puppet and someone had cut her strings. She started shaking, and then she screamed, and screamed, and screamed.

Women from the surrounding houses peered out of their doors and windows and rushed over to her. The police gently and quietly withdrew, leaving her in the care of her neighbours.

I stood open-mouthed. I’d never seen anything like this before. Baz strode into the room and clipped me on the ear for not working and I tried to explain what I had just seen, but he wasn’t interested – until one of the plumbers burst in, tears streaming down his face. He had been working in the house next door to ours and had seen it all.

As we stood there, another police car came slowly up the street, and that was when we first heard it. A strange unearthly wailing, as women spilled out from the rest of the houses, watching the car with dread – willing it to pass their house, yet knowing what that meant for one of their neighbours.

The car stopped, and before the doors could open, it was surrounded by women, some clutching infants, all of them with the same dreadful, haunting expression, of fear, and hope that the police would be talking to someone else, not them, please, not them.

The nose was horrific, indescribable.  The police found their target, this time a middle aged woman, with curlers in her hair and wearing a brightly coloured pinafore. I remember she was still holding a scrubbing brush, as if she had simply come outside to do the front step.

The noise took on a new intensity, rising in pitch as well as volume until we  put our hands over our ears, even though we separated from the street by the glass in the window.

Another Police car came into the street – then another. Five times this scene was repeated, like grisly encores of a macabre play. I will never, ever forget it. The scene replayed over and over again, and the noise, the noise. It was as if the first one drove a splinter into my soul, with each successive police car like a sledgehammer driving it further and further in.

We did no more work that day, nor did we play cards or listen to the radio. Mid afternoon we returned to the yard and the Coal Board suspended the contract out of respect.

Nineteen men lost their lives that day, seven of them from that one street alone. Some women lost both husbands and sons; everyone on the street was touched by death in some way.

I never went back. When that contract resumed, I was travelling all over the country doing electrical installations in factories.

 

“Are you alright Grandad?” said my beautiful grand-daughter. I dragged myself out of what was, and back into what is, wiping away the tears that had somehow formed in my eyes.

“Yes love”, I said, my voice muffled as I pulled out a handkerchief and blew my nose. “Let’s get off and see your Nan.”

The street looks quiet and peaceful now, with coloured flowers and shrubs were the police cars once crawled. All that’s left are the splinters in people’s souls, and the indescribable screaming in my head that can only be quietened – never stopped. 


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