Into the Pit
Originally published in La Fenêtre, Issue 5.
"As far as I'm concerned, Margaret Thatcher can rot in hell," Pete Brodie exclaimed with undisguised fire. The hapless tourist took a few steps back and Pete made an effort to moderate his tone, "It's thanks to her the English mining industry went down the pan. We can't compete, that‘s what they say, but I don't buy it! We have everything we need - coal, trained miners who'd begin digging tomorrow given the chance! Bloody politicians don't know what they're talking about." He glared at the tourist openly, daring him to argue, and smiled inwardly as the young man took a further step backwards.
Pete wasn't surprised the tourist was nervous. At six and a half feet tall, he was an imposing figure, especially when you took into account his powerful muscles - the product of a lifetime of hard, physical labour. His face was weathered and his chiselled features only seemed to grow harder with age. He fought back the desire to grin at the tourist's growing discomfort and twisted his lip into a snarl. Only the mischievous gleam in the corner of his eyes gave any indication that he wasn't quite as angry as was making out.
In the light of the tourist's unease, Pete was expecting him not to pursue the conversation, so it came as something of a surprise when he ventured a reply, "If there was money to be made from mining, don't you think someone would be doing it? It's sad, but the world changes. Heavy industry was yesterday and if we want to stay competitive, we have to concentrate on tomorrow. Margaret Thatcher saved this country."
Pete shook his head, glaring irritably at the knot of people assembled before him. Conducting these guided tours was an excellent way of retaining his link with the mine, but it could be incredibly hard going. No matter how vividly he attempted to describe the underground world around them, nobody could ever appreciate what it was like to work in a pit unless they'd experienced it for themselves. "Listen, youngster, it wasn't the industry that was the problem; it was the idiots running it."
"And what would you know?" demanded the tourist with newfound aggression, flapping a handful of glossy leaflets under Pete's nose. "You're a dinosaur, a useless lump who refuses to change with the times. You might try joining the 21st Century."
Pete shoved the leaflets away. "Touchy! Let me guess, you're a politician? No? Then you must be a fat-cat businessman?"
The tourist shook his head. "Wrong actually. I'm an economics student."
Pete looked him up and down. "I might have known. A frigging intellectual!"
The tourist glared at Pete, and Pete found himself becoming strangely uncomfortable. There was something in the young man's eyes that suggested he was not entirely sane. He should probably have attempted to diffuse the situation earlier.
In the next instant, the tourist had dropped his leaflets and flung himself at Pete's chest. It wasn't a particularly forceful attack, but it took Pete so utterly by surprise he was knocked to the ground. Pain lanced through his shoulder as it connected with a sharp stone. The student's bony hands locked around his throat.
He grabbed the man's wrists, pulling them away. "You're going to regret that!" He hauled him into the air by his collar. The man kicked out at him, twisting around violently in an attempt to break free, but Pete's grip was like iron. He shook his head, looking at the man's face, which was the colour of a radish. He seemed to have lost the power of rational thought and be out for Pete's blood. Pete flung him away. His head thudded into the ground and he lay momentarily stunned.
Pete rose slowly to his feet, brushing the worst of the dirt from his dark blue overall. "Tour's over folks," he announced loudly, keeping one eye fixed on the troublemaker, who was already pushing himself up onto his knees and vigorously rubbing his forehead. "Follow me.” He seized hold of the man by the scruff of the neck and hauled him roughly to his feet. "Come on you. Time to go."
Casting a cursory glance over his shoulder to ensure the gaggle of tourists were following, he led the way through the network of tunnels back towards the lift. Rarely had the mine seemed so gloomy and oppressive. Each of them had a lamp mounted at the front of a hardhat, but the darkness seemed to scorn the fragile beams of light. They walked in silence, lost in their own reflections, all except Pete's attacker, who muttered an assortment of colourful threats under his breath. Fortunately, he had come off so badly the first time around, he thought better of trying anything else.
Pete heaved a small sigh of relief as a pool of light appeared ahead. It's source was a powerful lamp on the wall by the lift, which was just around the next corner. He quickened his pace, ignoring the protests of the struggling troublemaker.
A moment later, he had reached the lift and was heaving open the heavy door. He was vaguely aware of a subdued whispering amongst the group of tourists, but was too caught up in his own thoughts to listen.
The lift’s progress up the shaft seemed painfully slow, but finally it reached its destination. He opened the door and shoved the troublemaker out into the corridor, saying quietly, “If you know what’s good for you, you’ll get out of here as quickly as possible.” The young man nodded and hurried away. Without another word, Pete strode off to join his fellow guides, who were busy retrieving property from an adjoining room to be returned to the tour group - clothing, bags, cigarettes, lighters.
He was just picking up an armful of coats, when Mr. Grant, the manager of the mine, appeared in the doorway. “I need to see you in my office, Pete,” he said perfunctorily.
Pete nodded. No prizes for guessing what he wanted to discuss.
Pete had never got on particularly well with Mr. Grant, but as he sat facing him across the cluttered desk in the manager’s office, he felt his blood beginning to boil. “I’ve already told you,” he said grumpily, making a conscious effort not to clench his fists, “it wasn’t my fault.”
“Probably true,” replied Mr. Grant, sounding almost sympathetic, “but we have to investigate the matter. This guy, Withers, is talking about filing assault charges.”
Pete glared at him. “That’s ridiculous! He attacked me. I was defending myself.”
Mr. Grant raised his hands. “You don’t have to convince me. I believe you one hundred percent, but I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place. Until we've had an investigation, I have no alternative but to suspend you.”
“I don’t believe I’m hearing this!” said Pete. “I haven’t done anything wrong.”
Mr. Grant stood up and went to the window as though he wanted to put as much distance between himself and Pete as possible. "I realise that, but this is how it has to be. The best thing you can do is co-operate. With any luck it won’t be for long.”
Pete flung his arms up into the air and stormed out of the room. He had never been suspended before, but he imagined he was supposed to leave the mine complex without delay. Instead, he turned his steps in the direction of the long stable block, where a number of aging pit ponies were living out their retirement.
He had worked closely with the horses before advances in technology rendered them obsolete and often sought out their company when he needed to think. There was one animal in particular that he enjoyed seeing. This was a dappled grey gelding with snowy white shanks which answered to the name of Sparky. He'd always felt sorry for it, because of a disease that had left it blind in one eye.
The pit ponies looked out passively as Pete trudged up to the stable. He noticed a carrot on the floor and stooped to retrieve it. Sparky’s ears perked up and he stomped his hooves excitedly. Pete held the carrot out to him and watched him chomping away on it, taking a few deep breaths to calm his temper.
Perhaps it was just his imagination, but Pete could have sworn there was an air of concern in Sparky’s manner, as though the horse knew something was amiss. This apparent compassion was a great comfort to him. He looked into the horse’s gentle brown eyes, which were like pools of liquid understanding, and felt the tension in his body easing away. By the time he was ready to go home, his mood had lightened considerably.
“Hello,” Pete called amiably, as he strode through his front door.
There was no response, so he assumed his wife, Joanne, must either have gone into the village or be out in the back garden, where she couldn’t hear him. He bent down to remove his boots, then abruptly froze. He could have sworn he'd heard a faint creaking from somewhere upstairs. An intruder perhaps? Cocking his head to one side, he waited for the noise to be repeated.
The silence seemed to stretch to eternity, but finally, the noise began again, and this time it didn't stop, but carried on sounding at regular intervals. He shuddered, for there was no mistaking what it was - the springs in his bed squeaking in protest as two people had sex on it.
His mouth fell open and he slowly straightened from the laces of his boots. Then, before he had had time to fully consider what he was doing, he was storming up the stairs, careless of the pounding of his feet or the trail of coal dust that he left in his wake. With his normally steady hands trembling slightly, he opened the bedroom door.
His face turned a deathly shade of white as he got his first glimpse of the room beyond. Lying on the bed in the throes of passion were Joanne and Eddie bloody Watts. Eddie Watts, who had worked alongside him in the mine for God knows how many years. Eddie Watts, his supposed best friend!
Joanne's head jerked around, her eyes widening in alarm, her mouth working soundlessly as she saw him looking at her. She pulled away from Eddie and scrambled out of the bed. Eddie, who evidently hadn't realised what was going on, let out a groan of disappointment. For a moment, she simply stood there, her naked body glistening with perspiration, then she began to speak. Her words came thick and fast - a flurry of garbled excuses - but Pete heard none of it. For perhaps the first time in his life, he was speechless. He looked from one to the other of them and tried to make sense of what he had seen. It was the ultimate betrayal - his wife and his best friend unashamedly fornicating in his own bed! There were no words that could describe how he was feeling. It was as though they had ripped out his heart and crushed it underfoot.
Only when Joanne tried to put an arm around him did Pete realise that he had started to shriek like a wild animal. He pushed her roughly aside and ran from the room, shaking his head in disbelief. He didn’t know where he was going; he just knew that he had to get away.
After a long period of aimless wandering, he made his way to The White Swan, his favourite pub and bought himself a shot of Glenfiddich. He felt a little better when he had drunk it, so he ordered another, and then another.
Fifteen shots later, he took a break to glance at his watch. The numbers seemed to dance before his eyes and he had to make a concerted effort to focus on them. It was past nine o’clock - high time he made some kind of decision about what he was going to do. Besides, his whirling head was telling him in no uncertain terms he'd had more than enough to drink.
As he stood up to go, a wave of dizziness washed over him. He grabbed the edge of the table, leaning on it heavily. A few minutes later, the sensation subsided and he was able to make it out of the the door. He still didn't feel right, though, so he decided to go for a walk, hoping the night air would clear his head. He started along the deserted lane, not really paying attention to where he was going.
Joanne Brodie had been expecting her husband to return home and confront her, but as time ticked by, she began to worry that something might have happened to him. She couldn’t help it. Although she'd been having an affair with Eddie Watts for a little over six months, it was Pete she loved, and it was only his tendency to take her for granted that had left her vulnerable to Eddie’s charming nature and steady barrage of compliments.
She glanced at the clock on the kitchen wall. It was half-past nine and still no word. Considering his frame of mind when he left, it wasn’t unthinkable he had done something drastic. He'd always been unpredictable. She grabbed the phone from the sideboard and hastily punched in Eddie’s number.
It rang for a moment, then she heard Eddie's voice on the other end. She told him how worried she was, asked him if he would go and look for Pete. He wasn’t particularly receptive, but after a number of impassioned pleas, he grudgingly agreed.
Continuing through the village, it wasn’t long before Pete found himself approaching the mine complex. He cast his mind back to his years working there. Outsiders saw the subterranean tunnels as dingy, but for him they had always seemed welcoming and safe. Beyond the reach of the elements, the pit was a world unto itself. When'd you'd been down there for an hour or two, life outside seemed but a distant memory.
The more he thought about it, the more he wanted to be back there. He reached into his pocket and was pleased to find that he was still carrying his keys. He unlocked the gate and hurried inside.
The inky darkness of the pit was every bit as comforting as Pete had hoped, and for a while he was able to forget the day's events. He walked along the winding tunnels and imagined he was on his way to begin work. This was easy enough to do, as the mine had been kept as authentic as possible. There were even a few bits of machinery scattered along the passageways, which the guides would refer to when they were showing people around. One such item was a 20’ drill rig that Pete had become fairly adept at operating in his years as a miner. He smiled inwardly as he rounded a corner and saw the hulking piece of equipment a short distance ahead. It was nestled peacefully in an arched hollow, the long, hydraulic arm at the front facing the wall as if it was about to begin tunnelling.
He paused beside it, gazing longingly at the array of buttons and dials in the cockpit, remembering what it was like to bore a hole. He could almost hear the throb of the engine and the grinding of metal on rock. He had a sudden urge to try starting it, so he cold hear again those imagined noises. It was a long time since anyone had used it, but as far as he knew, it was still in full working order.
The battery had been disconnected to prevent troublesome members of the public from getting up to mischief, but rectifying this was a straightforward task. He nodded in satisfaction as he hooked up the second terminal and there was a brief spark of electrical energy. Clearly, there was no shortage of power, though this was hardly surprising, as it was charged on a regular basis in case the rig ever needed to be moved.
He climbed into the cockpit, felt under the seat for the key, picked it up. Then, with a strange sense of reverence, he inserted it into the ignition and reached for the starter button.
At first, nothing happened. He bashed his fist on the dashboard. Perhaps there was something wrong with it after all. He was on the verge of giving up, when a faint sputter gave him renewed hope. The sputter became a prolonged gurgle, and a moment later, the engine roared into life.
He sat back on the tattered seat, relishing the shuddering vibrations. “Just like the old days.” He closed his eyes, remembering how it had been.
Then he smelt something burning. His nostrils twitched and his eyes snapped open. He looked around him, his throat going dry as he saw a thick cloud of acrid smoke billowing out of the air vents at the sides of the engine. It was on fire.
He turned off the ignition and leapt down from the cockpit. The smoke was thick around him. It wended its way down his throat, until it felt as though someone was slowly strangling him. Instinct told him to back away, but he ignored it, moving around to the back of the rig to investigate. He had to try and do something. The consequences of destroying such an expensive piece of equipment when he wasn’t even supposed to be here didn't bear thinking about. He peered through the vents. Hopefully the fire was small and he could put it out.
He gulped as he caught a glimpse of the engine through the haze. The fire wasn't small at all - the whole bloody thing was burning, the flames dancing across hosing and wires like angry devils, greedily devouring anything flammable. It was only a matter of time before they spread to the fuel supply. He stumbled backwards. The heat was unbearable, and already, the blaze was licking at the outer casing of the fuel tank, hungry for the diesel that bubbled within.
Even in his intoxicated state, he was compos mentis enough to realise his life was now in serious danger. He swung around and raced up the passageway, just as the fuel tank exploded in a hail of burning metal fragments. An enormous fireball erupted from the centre of the blaze and slammed into his back. He felt himself being lifted into the air and carried forwards, straight into the unyielding stone wall. As his head thudded against the rock, his thoughts started to spin and he felt consciousness slipping away.
Eddie’s first port of call in the search for Pete was the local pubs. He drew a blank at the first one, but the landlord at The White Swan informed him that Pete had been drinking there a few hours earlier and had left in a state of extreme intoxication. He paused outside the door wondering where his friend might have gone. Then he thought of the mine - their home away from home for so many years.
He paused again as he reached the entrance and saw the open gate. So he was right! Pulling his jacket tighter around him, he slipped inside and hurried across the drafty complex towards the visitor centre. Then, he heard a loud banging coming from the stables. He veered off to investigate and was just in time to see the door of one of the stalls fly open under a volley of kicks from the occupying horse.
He froze as the dappled grey bolted from the stable and turned towards him. Horses made him nervous. He started to back away, but the horse came after him. He turned around, breaking into a jog. The horse followed. He could hear it getting nearer. Any minute now it it was going to smash into him. He could almost feel its hot breath on the back of his neck.
He glanced over his shoulder. “What do you want?”
Only then did he realise that the horse had somehow managed to get in front of him and was blocking the way ahead. He stopped abruptly, staring at it. His heartbeat quickened as it began to walk towards him. This time he didn't run away, though. It was time for a change of tack. If he stayed completely still, perhaps it would lose interest. He watched closely as it came nearer, ready to flee at the slightest sign of aggression, but it seemed perfectly docile. He was expecting it to come up to him for a cursory sniff, but instead, it pressed its nose against his shoulder and gave him a gentle push towards the visitor centre.
“There’s no need to push,” he said irritably. “I’m leaving.” He decided to go back to the stables to have a more thorough look around, but before he could move, the horse gave him another firm shove in the opposite direction.
Suddenly, understanding dawned on him. “You don’t just want me to leave, do you? You want me to go this way?”
As if in answer to his question, the horse rubbed against him, gently pressuring him to move.
“All right,” he said with a shrug, “Let’s see what you want to show me.” He set off in the direction the horse had indicated, adding in an undertone, “Or how long you can lead me around the mine before they decide I’m mad and lock me up.”
Slowly but surely, horse and man made their way across the silent complex. They came to a halt outside the visitor centre and the horse looked at Eddie expectantly. Shaking his head in disbelief at the absurdity of it all, he grasped the door handle. “I take it you want me to go in.” He opened the door and was only mildly surprised when the horse followed him inside.
He made his way quickly through the darkened building, then stopped abruptly. There was a light on in the room where the lift was situated. Maybe this was where Pete had come. He trotted forward, the horse contuing to follow.
Unusually, the lift was not at the surface, but down the pit - further evidence that he was on the trail of his missing friend. He pressed the button and impatiently awaited its return. As soon as he heard it clank into position, he slid back the door and stepped inside. The horse appeared to be looking at him approvingly, but made no effort to join him, so he closed the door and activated the mechanism.
Eddie noticed the searing heat as soon as he stepped out of the lift. He bit his lip and set off along the tunnel at a jog. The further he went, the warmer it became and the greater his concern.
As he rounded the next corner, he noticed a glow in the distance. For a moment, he was puzzled, as it reminded him of nothing so much as a sunset. Then he realised what it was - a fire! “That explains the heat,” he said grimly.
The next turning brought him face to face with it. It was what he was expecting to see, and yet nothing could have prepared him for its terrible intensity. He took a deep breath and stepped back to assess the situation. It was then that he noticed Pete slumped against the wall less than a foot away from the edge of the raging flames. It seemed he had arrived in the nick of time.
Pulling his coat over his nose to protect his lungs from the smoke, he stooped to lift the inert body, only to pause. The man he was about to rescue was the one thing that stood in the way of a bright future with his voluptuous lover. He'd been attracted to Joanne long before they'd embarked on their affair and had always hoped for something more, but whenever he mentioned it, she always changed the subject. No, it was clear that whatever her feelings for Pete might be, she wasn't going to leave him. Now, here he was with the ideal opportunity to rid himself once and for all of his rival. Yet how could he do it? Pete was his friend. They'd known each other since school, spent years working together in the mine.
Reaching a decision, he let the man's body drop to the floor and stood up. The flames were so close now it felt as though they were singeing his eyebrows. The smoke stretched its pungent tendrils towards him and he coughed violently. If he didn’t leave soon, he would be putting his own life in danger. He looked upwards, wondering if there was a God somewhere above and if that God could ever forgive him. Then he took a last lingering glance at the body and turned away.
As he made his way hastily back to the lift, he could have sworn he heard a scream, but he paid it no mind, for his heart had been hardened by the fires of love. Humming softly to himself, he carried on up the passageway, and the flames behind him continued to burn.
The right of C. J. Carter-Stephenson to be identified as the author of this story has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. No part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or otherwise, without the prior permission of the author, or a license permitting restricted copying.