The Bowels of the Earth

A few weeks ago I was tidying up at home when I came across a tobacco tin lying at the back of a drawer. I prised off the ornate lid and, inside, I found the original gold paper lining and a collection of seashells from South Wales. When I raised the open tin to my nose, I could smell the faint aroma of tobacco and the pungent odour of the sea still clinging to the salty shells and, just for a moment, I was a little girl again, holding my grandfather’s hand on the beach at the Mumbles and looking out for unusual shells.

When I was a child we spent the school summer holidays in South Wales at Granny and Grandpa’s house. Grandpa always greeted my sister and me with the enthusiasm of an unruly Labrador, snatching us up together in his arms, holding us in his vice-like grip and shouting,

“I’m going to squeeze all the juice out of you!”

In so many ways my grandfather was different from other people’s grandfathers. Other people’s grandfathers would not climb into an old lady’s garden and lie in a bed of mignonette because they loved the tiny flowers’ smell. Other people’s grandfathers could not lie on a riverbank and catch trout with their bare hands. Other people’s grandfathers did not have blue noses.

We loved Grandpa’s blue nose. The bridge was humped and the end was a rich, vibrant periwinkle blue and gnarled with scar tissue. He had blue scars scattered all over his body: some little nicks and some sprawling railway tracks, every one with a story behind it. They came from being injured under ground at the coalface. When the coal dust gets into an open wound it can never be cleaned out, and the skin heals over it and traps it there forever, where it looks like a piece of cobalt embedded inside the body.

One of our favourite pastimes was to sit on Grandpa’s lap and choose a big scar to point at, and ask,

“How did you get this one, Grandpa?” and he would tell us the whole story behind that scar. He never thought any story was too gory or horrific to recount, even when we were tiny. He usually told them in a funny way to make us laugh. There was only one time that the story was not funny at all.

I was on my own with him this time, because my big sister was fast asleep in bed. By then Grandpa was working as a night watchman in a factory which made wire cables, a job he considered ridiculously cushy. He took us there once to see the wires he protected, all coated in bright coloured plastic, thin wires and thick ones coiled up on gigantic spools. Some had different layers of colours inside them which you could see when you looked at the cut end, and some of them were so fat that if you put your arms round them, cuddling them, you could not make your hands meet the other side. At least, not if you were six years old.

I had heard the bolt on the back door rattle, and a heaving, gut-wrenching cough echo around the back yard, so I knew Grandpa was home. Sometimes he would be outside for more than ten minutes fighting for breath before he came inside, insisting he was fine. Some years later, when he had lung cancer, he still insisted he was fine, right up until he could not speak any more.

It was only four-thirty in the morning, but the sun was just beginning to peep over the trees at the end of the garden and dry up the dew on the grass. I swung my bare feet over the side of the bed and ran downstairs in my pink stripy nightdress, scampering into the kitchen where I let out a little gasp at each step because the stone floor was so cold, and jumped up into Grandpa’s chair before he could get to it. He usually pretended he had not seen me when I did that, and made as if to sit on me, feigning astonishment at my squeals of protestation. But this time he flung me under one arm as if I were a rolled-up newspaper and then whirled me around the room, first one way then the other, asking himself in a loud voice:

“Now, where did the little girl get to? I swear she was here just now,” shouting down my peals of laughter and ignoring the fact that I was kicking my legs and squirming and struggling like a piglet. Still shaking me round, he set the table with two bowls and spoons and then all of a sudden he sat down, plonked me on his lap, and started pouring breakfast cereal into one of the bowls. Although shaking a small child around for three minutes was no exertion at all for a man of his strength, his breath fought its way in and out of his lungs in ominous wheezes. His face, always ruddy, was redder than usual and clashed magnificently with his chestnut-ginger hair which shone like fresh conkers when their spiky outer shell has just cracked open.

Grandpa ate the same brand of cereal for breakfast every day and used to read the ‘nutritional content’ section with glee. Each morning he would pick out one particular vitamin or mineral and tell us what it would do for us. When he read, he ran his index finger along the line of writing as he followed it from word to word. I could read faster than he could by the time I was eight years old. Whenever I listened to him reading about the vitamins on the cereal box, I was mesmerised by his hands. Most of the scars on Grandpa’s hands were not more than an inch long, but they were so plentiful that they formed a fine lattice all over. I could not imagine Grandpa’s skin ever having had a smooth texture. It was how I imagined real dinosaurs’ skin to have looked.

“How did you get that one, Grandpa?” I asked, as he scooped up a spoonful of cereal. “That great big one on your arm?” I pointed to a jagged blue line, which zigzagged its way from his right index finger to halfway up his forearm.

“Oh, that,” he said. “That happened a long time ago when your daddy was a skinny little boy about your age.” Then he stared hard at one of the window panes as if he were watching a rugby match on a television screen, and I watched him close his mouth firmly and clench and un-clench the muscles of his lower jaw a couple of times. He stayed like that for about half a minute, till I thought he no longer wanted to talk, and I was just about to swing my arms round his neck and kiss his lumpy nose when he suddenly cleared his throat and said,

“I was with Huw Evans when I got this,” and then swallowed another spoonful of cereal. “We were crawling along a narrow tunnel underground. Sometimes coal comes in narrow seams, see, it gets narrower and then a bit deeper and then narrower again. Where we were working was one of the deeper parts, but we had to walk along the narrow part of the seam to get out after our shift was finished. Where we were was only three feet deep, so we were going along in a tiny space like this,” he indicated with his hands, “bending right over and walking with our knees bent, just putting one foot in front of the other and keeping on and on, me in front and Huw right behind me. There were other men ahead of us, but we two were working together. Suddenly, I heard a deep rumble from behind me, and the air was filled with a cloud of dust. I knew what was going to happen but I couldn’t do anything, see.”

miner-crawling

He looked at me, smiling with his mouth but not with his violet-blue eyes.

“What was going to happen?” I asked.

“The walls exploded inwards, the ceiling fell down to the floor and I was buried alive in lumps of coal. My lamp went out immediately, of course, so I couldn’t see anything. The dark in coal mines isn’t like the dark at night, because above ground there’s always some light. There are stars and the moon and street lights. Even when you close your eyes, you can see light through your eyelids. Under ground, the darkness is absolute. It’s like having no eyes at all. Anyway, I called out to Huw but I couldn’t hear anything at all, either. Not even my own voice. Total silence. Maybe the noise of all that coal crashing around me deafened me for a while. I tried moving one hand,” he wiggled the fingers of his left hand up in the air, “and the other hand, then my left foot, then my right foot, so that was good, I knew they were all still with me, like.

“Then I realised there was a little space under my chest, and I managed to grab a lump of coal that was in front of me, and pull it down into that space under my chest. I pushed it as far as it would go, and then I took another one, and pushed that away underneath me as well, so then I could move forward a few inches. All I could move was my arms, and use them to pull my body forward on my elbows as I was lying down. Then I moved another lump of coal, and dragged myself forward, and I moved forward inch by inch like that, pulling the coal from in front of me, and pushing it down behind me.”

He laughed as he recalled it, and repeated the words,

“Pulling the coal from in front of me, and pushing it down behind me. It was quite a way I went like that, and it took more than four hours. I was already so tired, I’d worked an eight hour shift and we were on the way home when it happened, see. I kept thinking I’d come to a rock that was too big for me to move or to fit underneath me, or that the coal from above would collapse on me again, but it didn’t. Sometimes I would just stop and lie there for five minutes for a rest, and then carry on, tunnelling away like a mole, deep in the bowels of the earth.”

“Was it cold?” I asked. I associated darkness with cold, and imagined how scary it must have been.

“No, no, no,” he answered. “It’s very hot in coal mines.”

“Why?”

“Well, the inside of the earth is all fire and it’s so hot, even rocks melt to liquid and boil. When you go under ground you’re closer to the fire.”

My eyes opened wider.

“What does it smell like?” I asked. He chuckled before replying.

“Dampness. There are no flowers or plants or anything, just dead rock and men’s fear. It’s like switching off all your senses when you go under ground.”

“So, what about the scar?” I asked. “When did that happen?”

“Well, I carried on tunnelling, praying all the time for strength, and then I heard another rumble, louder than the first one. It was such a deep sound it made my guts shudder and I thought that was the end of me. Then all of a sudden there was a shaft of light, just for a few seconds, and then everything collapsed on top of me. Next thing I remember, there were two lads dragging me up and shouting ‘He’s alive! He’s alive! It’s Dai Hughes and he’s alive!’ While I was digging out, they’d been digging in with machines, to get to us. They were finding men one by one, getting us out as they came to us. My arm was opened up right to the bone when I came round. The doctor stitched it up for me there are then, there at the colliery, before I went home. I was covered in cuts and bleeding all over but I didn’t feel a thing at the time. I didn’t realise till afterwards. But God chose to spare me that day. Twenty-six men died down there. It took till the evening of the next day to get all the bodies out. Two of them were brothers, who died together on the same day. They were all friends of mine.”

“Why did they all die?” I wanted to know.

“Well, God puts us here on this earth and one day he decides to take us back again. It’s up to him when and how he takes us.”

“What about that other man who was with you, Grandpa?” I enquired as I reached out to feel the raised ridge along his arm. There was a long pause as he fought to draw in a pained, rattling breath. He stuck his head out of the back door to take a few breaths of the cold morning air to help him clear his lungs. When he came in his eyes glistened with tears.

“Damned grit getting in my eyes,” he muttered, but he hadn’t fooled me, so I put my arms round one of his legs to make him feel better. I realised he was not going to finish the story, not that day, anyway. And when, later on, I did learn how it ended, I wished I had never asked him about that scar in the first place.

bowels-of-the-earth

“Look, you still haven’t started your breakfast,” he observed suddenly. “You pour the milk now, Vach.” He always called me and my sister ‘Vach’. It means ‘Little’ in Welsh. “That milk will make your teeth lovely and strong, strong enough to chew Granny’s roast potatoes,” he said, chuckling to himself as he took the first mouthful. “Full of lovely calcium.” At last his lovely violet-coloured eyes were sparkling again.

His cheerful laughter turned into another coughing fit that made his eyes turn bloodshot. The way he had to fight to draw a breath sometimes made me fill with panic. Before I was born, when he was about forty-five, he had been diagnosed with coal worker’s pneumoconiosis. The miners often called it black lung disease.

“Once the coal dust has settled in your lungs, nothing can get it out,” he told me when I was much older, the year that he died. “At first you cough it up, but sooner or later it settles and then you start to lose your lungs. I think they start to die from the bottom up. The doctor told me I’d lost forty-five percent of my lungs, which was why I was out of breath and coughing all the time. I used to smoke when my lungs got too full, to help cough out some of the dirt. Nearly all the miners smoked to help get the coal dust out. The doctor said smoking made things worse, but he’d never even seen the inside of a mine in his life. He didn’t know what the coal dust feels like on your lungs, how heavy it is. It’s hard to cough it up. Having a smoke helps loosen it. He was a good doctor, though. He saved a lot of men from lives of disability or disfigurement.”

I never followed Grandpa outside when he went out to cough as he said he felt ashamed of coughing so horribly in front of the family. When the coughing died down to a kind of wheezing, though, I wandered outside after him and saw him gazing over the wall into the neighbours’ garden. Next door lived two elderly sisters, both spinsters, Miss Jones and Miss Jones. They had a flower garden with a magnificent herbaceous border full of deep violet and yellow pansies, pink and blue forget-me-nots, a sea of day lilies and marigolds and a honeysuckle draped all over the back of the house, with a hedge of the most sweetly scented tea-roses I had ever smelled along the end wall. In place of a lawn they had planted herbs in the form of a knot garden, with zesty peppermint and heady rosemary, parsley and clipped little sage bushes laid out in heart shapes and circles. My grandfather, years before, had once sneaked into their garden uninvited and lain down in their bed of mignonette because he could not resist the wonderful perfume of the tiny green flowers. He was detected simultaneously by his wife and the two Misses Jones.

mignonette

“You could hear him laughing in delight from about three streets away,” recounted my grandmother. “It was so mortified I hid in the house for a week.”

He had done this two days after being trapped for five hours under ground up to his chest in water. One of his cousins and three other workmates were drowned. The Misses Jones were very forgiving but my grandmother made him do odd jobs for them for the next fifteen years in atonement for crushing their flowers. These odd jobs included constructing a chicken coop for them behind the shed, which my father swore could have been used as a bomb shelter, and rebuilding their garage when it partially fell down, which he did by sharpening old railway sleepers to points with an axe, one-handed, and then hammering them eighteen inches into the ground.

“It was well worth it,” Grandpa told me in secret during one of our early morning breakfasts together. “In that horrible black water in the dark bowels of the earth, I felt as if I was already dead and my body was decomposing. There’s nothing in the world more beautiful than fresh flowers in the sunshine. It made me feel alive again.”

Perhaps he was recalling once again the pleasure of that outrageous act of naughtiness, because he was smiling broadly. When we went back inside the kitchen he rolled himself a cigarette from his green and gold tin of loose leaf tobacco. He would take a cigarette paper and place a tuft of tobacco in the centre, spreading it out patiently before rolling the edge of the tissue paper inwards and deftly licking the adhesive. I loved the aroma of the fresh tobacco but the moment he lit his cigarette, and the smoke hit my nostrils, the smell was ruined. I hated the smell of smoke and I hated the sight of it coming out of his nostrils.

“This’ll open my lungs up a bit,” he said as he lit up.

Later that morning we had been planning to collect shells on the beach but Grandpa said he wanted to catch some fish for lunch, so we walked up into the mountains with my Father. Grandpa’s story was still on my mind and I looked at the scar on his forearm quite often after he had rolled up his shirt sleeves. We followed the curves of a small stream as it meandered down the vivid green hillside, the crystal water flowing towards us as we hiked up towards its source. Sometimes we would meet a few grubby sheep drinking from it and sometimes we lapsed into silence to listen to the exquisite sound of the water gurgling over heaps of stones on the river bed. Grandpa was far less talkative than usual and I could tell Daddy was worried, because he was being abnormally respectful and did not tease him at all.

How were they going to catch any fish? They had no fishing rods and I had not seen a single fish in this tiny brook. I thought they were planning a practical joke, especially when they separated and both lay down on the river bank with one hand dangling in the water and then seemed to go to sleep.

“Step back, Vach,” whispered Grandpa, when I moved closer to check if his eyes were open. “You’re casting a moving shadow on the water. The fish won’t relax.”

I sat on the grass a few yards away from them and started making a daisy chain to wear as a necklace. And then, just when I was fully absorbed in digging my thumbnail into a stalk to insert another daisy, a fish flew threw the air and landed at my feet, flipping wildly, arching through the air and glistening like living silver, like mercury, as it jumped all dripping and glittery back towards the river. Grandpa sprang to his feet, threw himself on top of it and knocked it neatly on the head with a stone before I had even had time to stand up. The next thing I knew, my father had performed the same bizarre ritual and, after a couple of hours, they had enough little fresh fish for everyone to taste a bit with their lunch.

Grandpa untied the jumper from around his waist and used it as a kind of sling to carry them in, and headed off home to get them gutted and ready to cook, while Dad and I meandered down at a more leisurely pace.

“Why did those fish let you grab them, Daddy?” I asked him as I scampered along beside him, trying in vain to take gigantic strides as long as his.

“Did you notice how the grass verge by the river was overhanging the water?” he asked. “The fish pause in the cool shadow it casts, and you very gently tickle their tummies. They love it so much they gradually drift off to sleep, then you flick them out of the water as fast as you can. Your grandpa taught me the secret when I was a kid.”

I asked him if he really used to be a skinny little boy about my age.

“Oh yes, a few hundred years ago,” he answered.

“Do you remember when Grandpa got buried and pushed himself out of a tunnel and it was dark and hot and everyone died?” I asked.

Dad’s face darkened.

“Yes, I do.”

He left a long pause, but I was used to my father doing this. He would often seem to think carefully before he spoke, and then tell me all kinds of incomprehensible things as if he thought he were talking to a grown-up.

“I was older than you when that happened. I was eight or nine. We children heard there was an accident at the colliery, and your grandmother was out of the house when he got home, down at the colliery trying to find out what had happened and if he was alive or dead.

“He came home almost naked. There were just a few shreds of underpants left on him. His whole body looked like a piece of raw steak; all you could see was red blood. He had no fingernails left. He didn’t say a word when he came in, he just got down on his knees right in the middle of the living room and prayed non-stop for over two hours, sometimes in Welsh and sometimes in English, thanking God for sparing him and praying for the men who died. It was after that that he started crying out in his sleep.

“Every single man came out of that mine dead except for him. Twenty-six men died that night. Three of them were cousins of his. The miners worked in pairs and when they got to his partner Huw, right behind him, he was completely crushed to pulp. They found him right beside your Grandpa, so he had dug his way all along that tunnel behind him and then got killed when they used the machine to try to get him out. They gathered up what they could of him, but there was hardly anything you could recognise. The only part you could say for sure was Huw, was his left foot with the boot still on it.

“His wife was pregnant at the time and she insisted on having his body. She went to the pit and demanded they gave it to her. She went a bit hysterical. I remember her during the night in the street, screaming ‘I want my Huw. I want to see my Huw. Why won’t they give me my husband?’ My old man went to see her and told her that Huw had spoken to him under ground while they were digging their way out. It was a load of rubbish, of course; they couldn’t hear each other and he didn’t even know that Huw was right behind him, digging along all the way. He told her they had talked about what they wanted for their funerals, in case either of them didn’t make it out of there. He swore that Huw had told him he never wanted his wife to see his face cold and lifeless. He also said they had a pact to look after each other’s families, if one of them didn’t make it, that he’d promised Huw he’d look after her and her unborn child if he died. That was an excuse to help her out with money, too, you see. The miners’ widows felt so humiliated “accepting charity,” as they called it, but my old man found a way to help her. He spent a long time at her house and eventually she accepted what he said, so they nailed what they had of Huw inside his coffin before she saw it.”

He rubbed his hands roughly over his face and eyes, which were watering.

“Are you crying, Daddy?” I asked him. “Grandpa cried, too.”

“No, no, no,” insisted Dad. “It’s this damned piercing sunlight, I can’t stand it.”

We walked on for a long while in silence.

“Let’s look for some flowers to pick for your Grandpa, shall we?” suggested Dad eventually. “We’ll choose all the ones with the strongest scent.”

As we walked along I sprang from bloom to bloom, sniffing out the best ones to pick for Grandpa.

“I’m surprised Grandpa told you that story,” said Dad eventually, when we had got together a ragged posy of wild flowers. “He’s never been able to speak about it since it happened. He was never the same afterwards. It broke him. Deep down, I think he spent the rest of his life feeling guilty for being alive.”

When we got home, Grandpa buried his big, blue nose deep into the middle of the posy we had gathered, and his ragged face broke into a blissful grin. And that was how I pictured him as I snapped the lid of the tobacco tin shut and hoped I had trapped some of the precious smells inside, the tobacco and the seashells, preserved for another time I might come across the old tin unexpectedly. Just as Grandpa had his favourite smells which transported him to other places, to places he would prefer to be, I have my own.

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. Ricki says:

    The story of your grandfather floored me. Beautifully told. I love Wales AND Sicily.

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