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Until the Rain Stops

A Story

By EJ FergusonPublished 2 years ago Updated 2 years ago 10 min read
First Place in Return of the Night Owl Challenge
Until the Rain Stops
Photo by Clemens van Lay on Unsplash

10:21am

The steam whistle blasts and echoes through the valley, and the noise of it haunts the people there. A daughter in her apron is in the kitchen, scrubbing the grease of last night’s rarebit from the pan. She hears it through the window and gives a low cry as the blood turns to glass in her veins.

Wild and bony children kicking tin cans in the street flinch like strays expecting a kick. They drop their game and scatter down the winding row of terraced houses, hollering into letterboxes. Alarm. Alarm.

The clerk at the tommy shop is weighing out a portion of cheese. The miner’s wife at the counter is reaching into her coat pocket for the chits to pay. When the whistle sounds, they freeze frame like actors on stage when the spotlight hits. There are tremors in her hands and fat tears roll down her cheeks. They are both stuck, staring at one another.

And the men off-shift are at the pub, filthy and exhausted. It is crowded inside, the air filled with chatter and smoke. They hear it anyway. They leave their pints of lager undrunk and step outside under the gently dripping eaves. They turn towards the noise, shivering.

At the top of the valley, the cast-iron headgear looms in the murky wet. A monumental silence falls. The echoes fade, leaving only the patter of falling rain.

It is dreaded down to the bone, that sound.

Alarm. Alarm.

Disaster at the mine.

5:56am

It has been raining for so long that the world is bending beneath the weight of it. The sky is flooded with cloud, bruised, silvery and fathomless. Whales could swim in those clouds. John Thomas thinks that his fingertips have been wrinkled since March. It's nearly May and still the rain pours down.

The ground is sodden and strewn with the flabby corpses of earthworms washed free of the soil. The road to the colliery gleams in the grey. Mud glistens. Raindrops splash into smithereens in silver puddles and rainfall sucks at the soles of his boots. It trickles under his collar and drips down to the small of his back. His trousers are soaked and cling to his thighs. It itches. In a drain, a soggy foil chewing-gum wrapper flutters in the run-off. John Thomas feels a kinship with it so strong that he almost stops to fish it out.

The iron bridge over the river thrums in the downpour and hums underfoot. The river itself is swollen and gushing and umber. On its waterlogged banks, trees shimmer with dripping new leaves. A sycamore has been pulled loose and sucked into the current but the tangling of its branches has stopped it fast. Its roots are protruding from the rush of water, raw and grasping. Perched on the knot is a barn owl with bedraggled honeycomb feathers and a face like the moon. It ruffles its feathers as it watches John Thomas cross the bridge. Is it trapped there? Perhaps owls can't fly in the rain.

Corpse bird, he has heard it called. It is sometimes spotted from the bridge, on the late night or early morning commutes. It makes some men uneasy with its phantom wings that are as big as sails when it soars aloft. It is as white and soundless as a wraith in flight with eyes as black as coal. It's bad luck to see it. Rumour was that it swooped over Davis Williams the night before he was killed by a tram cart breaking loose.

John Thomas doesn’t believe in portentous things, but there is an eeriness about the owl. It is unlike any other bird, impressive in its strangeness. It seemed almost an unnatural thing. Witchlike.

It is still watching him.

He crosses the bridge and is glad to be out of its sight.

6:19am

The clean end of the baths smells of petrichor. It always does.

The dirty end smells like a cave, of moist earth and dank water, the mustiness of rotting moss. John Thomas changes into pit clothes that are stiff as boards from layers of dried muck. He goes to the boot-room to grease his boots. Someone has lit a Woodbine and is passing it around. It tastes of smoke and warmth.

The lamp-room for a light and then out into the rain again for the walk up the gantry to the pit head. Muddy droplets run over his hands, leaving black stripes on his skin. There is grit in his teeth already.

Someone walking behind him curses the rain.

He sends a brief prayer to the heavens for it to stop today.

6:32am

The headgear turns over gears as the bond-cage sinks down and down. John Thomas is waiting a turn for descent. There is a queue lined up against the wall in the airlock at the mouth of the shaft. The air breathing out of it is warm. It will be hot as hell at the bottom. The only sounds are the grinding of the headgear in operation, the sniffing and muttering of men and the soft chime of metal as they idly tap their boots against the tram tracks while they wait.

There is a piece of coal in his pocket. He finds fragments that take his fancy lying around now and again. It’s a fist-sized lump that smudges his pruned fingers with black dust and leaves gritty tracks in the lines of his palms.

His father carved coal. John Thomas tries but it takes the skill of a diamond cutter. The carbon either yields to the blade of his pocket knife too easily or not easily enough. It crumbles or flakes or grinds to dust. It's maddening, like carving melted butter or butter that has been melted but then congealed. Pressed too hard in the wrong place, it splits.

“See the river?” Morgan Ap-Morgan speaks to no-one in particular, but Mordecai Edwards is standing next to him, leaning against the wall. Mordecai nods.

“Aye,” he says in a low rumble and he tugs on the brim of his cap.

"Tynewydd had a shaft flood, an’ a group of sinkers in the sump, night before las’. Platform they were standing on broke and tipped them in. Twenty-five feet of water, they reckon it was.”

Someone whistled, long and low, at the news.

“They make it out?” asks Mordecai Edwards.

“Some of ‘em, aye. Those who didn' drown.”

The piece of coal John Thomas is carving is anthracite. When it fractures, the inside is slick and submetallic, glossy and sable like the void of space. It holds the lustre of stars without any of their light.

Space is what most people think of when they think of nothingness – an empty void. John Thomas has spent most of his life underground. Down there, nothingness presses in; a thing of substance, of rock and earth.

The lift clatters shut then squeals and grinds as the next group descends.

“My brother’s at Tynewydd. Not getting paid for today, nor tomorrow.”

There was a general discontented muttering at this.

“It’ll reopen soon enough.”

“Now ain’t soon enough. Didn’t get paid for yesterday, neither. We can't eat coal, can we, eh?”

“Tynewydd ain’t as close to the river as us,” says someone else.

Nobody answers that. There's nothing to say that will make any difference. They would work until there were new names on the death roll and afterwards, those not added to the list would keep working.

Black gold. It comes from seams in the deep, fragments of void they wrench from the earth to burn. It makes a good, clean flame.

John Thomas uses the tip of his pocket knife to whittle a shape out of it. Slowly, carefully, it becomes an owl.

6:59 am

The cage doors rattle shut. They are packed in tight. A miner begins whistling a tune. One by one, the others join in.

The 7 o’clock hooter blows.

The cage drops like hell and then stops dead. Someone remarks that Evans Cwm Du is driving the winder. Too fast, as usual, so the overwind device kicked in. Without it, he’d kill everyone.

The next descent is smoother. The lift cage lands with a shudder and thump on pit bottom.

9:12am

The shot-firers are working at the rockface and so the colliers have stopped for a breather. John Thomas’ knee pads are cutting into the back of his knees. He’s wearing his sweat like a second skin. The heat presses in, down his throat, up his nose, into his eye sockets. It's unbearable if he thinks about it. He leans against the wall of the mine shaft. An old, deep cold seeps from the rock and the dank chill soaks into his shirt. He welcomes it.

The overman ducks by him with a Davy lamp. The flame is low and steady. The explosives will go off soon and then it'll be back to work.

There have been mutterings about the sump – it's filling up and there’s talk of the sinkers having to make it deeper. The water seepage is worse than usual.

Away from the rockface and the clash of tools and grinding of the coal belt, John Thomas can hear it. The clinking of water droplets is making music. They are all different notes, tapping and drumming and trickling away. It is melodic and jarring, a strange mix of harmony and discord like jazz from the bowels of the earth. He listens for a rhythm and when he finds one, it vanishes and reappears somewhere else. He follows it, only to lose it again a moment later. It is futile and mesmerising. He tries to stop and can't. His mind is lost to echoes.

The blasts come and there is a brief wait before the sentries shout the all-clear. He grabs his own Davy lamp and heads back to the seam.

9:56pm

There are shouts from the overseer. His words bounce along the tunnel, tangling with echoes. He beckons them back up the shaft and rushes off. John Thomas throws down his tools and goes to stand with the others. Morgan Ap-Morgan is sour-faced as he drags a forearm across his grimy face. "Now what, lads, what's the hold up?"

"Something about water -" one of the others starts to say.

Then comes thunder.

10:14am

His ears are bleeding. It's the pressure. His head pulses with it. The river burst its banks and the shaft is flooded. The water has stopped rising for now, but it's only feet away, black as tar and icy cold. The pressure is holding it at bay.

When the river rushed in, it knocked Mordecai Evans off his feet. He is shivering now, drenched to the skin. They huddle with their backs to the coalface, swamped rats on a patch of dry ground at the end of the shaft. One of the helper lads is Mordecai's son, fifteen years old. His nose is bleeding and beneath the dirt, his skin is the colour of eggshell. Mordecai Edwards claps a hand on his shoulder and the lad winces.

They have one lamp left.

12:07pm

The flame is more blue than he'd like.

The water drips and drips.

Who knows how far it goes, and how deep?

2:15pm

Mordecai Edwards decides to try and swim for it. He's not gone long. When he comes back, he is shivering hard.

All the heat is gone. There is not much air.

There was knocking on the walls and they shouted back, and now there's digging on the other side of the wall. There's thirty-six feet of coal between them and rescue. The digging is frenzied. Frantic.

Someone mentions extinguishing the lamp in case of firedamp but they can't quite bring themselves to do it. The flame is steady. Each of their faces is a pale moon in the dark. Their eyes are shadows. It looks unnatural. Witchlike.

5:17pm

John Thomas pulls the coal owl from his pocket, and turns it over and over in his hands. He’d carved the whole thing without it breaking. It is rough but whole. Its eyes hold the lustre of stars without any of their light.

The flame of the lantern is growing larger. It’s the colour of summer sky at the edges. He shuts it off and darkness plunges in.

The only sound is the rasp of breathing and water lapping.

8:21pm

The cold touch of water pressing in. Mordecai Edwards starts to sing a hymn. One by one, voices join in. John Thomas closes his eyes, but it makes no difference in the blackness.

The water laps at his hands and he lifts them out of its reach.

9:39pm

His voice is hoarse. He sings anyway. Their voices shake from the cold and from the weight of the nothingness pressing in. He can hear voices calling through the walls, but they're far away. Too late. They're going to be too late.

There's not much air and no way out.

The water is up to his chest. It is numbing cold.

11:43pm

He tilts his face up as it laps at his chin. Maybe he's crying. His face is wet, everything is wet. It's pitch dark. Hard to tell.

The singing stops.

There is only frantic, hoarse gasping. A hand grips very tightly at his arm. He's not sure whose it is.

John Thomas imagines that above ground, the clouds are breaking up. Sunlight falls and touches raindrops everywhere; on tree leaves and beaded blades of grass, on the windowpanes of houses and on the spiders' webs between fence posts, on the rushing surface of the river and on an owl's ruffled feathers. It spins the droplets into diamonds until the whole world glitters.

It is the last thing he thinks of...all that light.

*

The steam whistle blasts and echoes through the valley, and the noise of it haunts the people there. The cast-iron headgear looms in the murky wet. A monumental silence fall as the echoes fade, and the world bends beneath the weight of rain.

Short Story

About the Creator

EJ Ferguson

EJ Ferguson is a UK-based writer and occasional poet. She holds a BA in Creative Writing from University of South Wales, and is perpetually working on a debut novel. She is often found buried beneath soft blankets and two enormous cats.

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Comments (6)

  • Christy Munson2 months ago

    I am drenched with sorrow having read this magnificent tale. Powerfully written!

  • Daphsam6 months ago

    Very well written.

  • KJ Aartila2 years ago

    This is a good one, though. :)

  • Dean F. Hardy2 years ago

    This is the best story I've read on this platform.

  • Lakingya Johnson2 years ago

    You cast a spell. Truly the writing of my dreams.

  • Craig Rose2 years ago

    Absolutely mesmerizing!

EJ FergusonWritten by EJ Ferguson

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