I am the grandson of a miner and when I began writing and looked for a suitable subject for a short story, I dredged this one from my memory. It is in essence true but it may have become slightly coloured with the ravages of time. . . . . . . . .
Little Robert thought that his grandfather was the wisest person in the whole world. The wiry, nearly five year old spent the best part of each day following in his hero’s footsteps. Grandfather’s name was Robert too, although his wife called him ‘Our Bobby’ and most of the other residents of the northern mining village knew him as ‘Auld Bob’.
Bob had been a miner of the old school, revered as being as tough as a pit prop by his former mining pals or ‘Marrers’ as he fondly called them. They told tales of his strength, of huge amounts of coal he had hewn by hand in a day’s work and of large weights of laden coal tubs lifted for a bet.
They spoke in hushed tones of his wise leadership when as a charge hand he had led brave rescue attempts in two separate mining disasters.
Young Robert loved to be at his Grandpa’s side as they sat on the seat in the village centre. He listened while the old men talked. They yarned about mysterious potions that they recommended for either ailing homing pigeons, or to grow outsize leeks. A lot of the talk went over his head and soon the lad began to balance along the chapel wall as he used it as an imaginary tightrope. He wasn’t at all surprised that the men always seemed to be asking his Granddad’s advice because Robert’s Granddad knew everything.
Some days the couple could be seen with the old man wheeling his bicycle. He had Robert sitting on the saddle and a large wicker basket fixed to the rear luggage carrier as they took their pigeons on a training flight from the hills that surrounded the village. On these days the pair refreshed themselves with a lunchtime drink before returning home to wait the return of the birds. Robert felt very grown up as he sat on the bench outside the pub with lemonade and crisps.
Another day the two could be seen on the bank of a reservoir near to a disused coke works. The old man very patiently passing on his angling skills to the boy. Perhaps the next day would see them supping a strong brew of tea, sitting in their allotment shed as they rested after their labours of tending the neatly groomed garden.
A favourite game that the lad enjoyed once a month, was when the local colliery delivered free coal to the miners, who lived in the back to back houses. A perk enjoyed by the workers and their retired colleagues alike.
Each little house had an identical whitewashed coal shed at the rear, where the back yard led to the alley. As the lorry stopped at each house, it left a heap of coal on the roadway to be moved away by each recipient.
This was the day that Robert became a collier lad as he helped Bob to move the coal with shovel and wheelbarrow and they filled up the coal hole. Both becoming as black as any miner at the coal face.
Each time this chore was completed and the two grubby and tired but happy ‘marrers’ retired to the bathroom to clean up, granddad would regale the boy with stories of how he had to wash in a tin bath in front of the open hearth each day when he came home from underground in the days before the pithead baths were built.
It was the free coal that was the topic of conversation among the old men at their morning meeting place, or rather it was the disappearing stocks of free coal from their coal stores.
Even the boy began to take an interest when neighbour after neighbour began telling Bob of regular amounts of their coal stocks disappearing from their barns and each asking for advice from their former charge-hand.
It appeared that thefts of coal were taking place, not a lot of coal, but all the miners had been losing some from each of their sheds on a regular basis. All of the coals stores had by tradition, been left unlocked and all were easily accessible from the alleyway.
There was little doubt in anyone’s mind that the coal was not taken by a miner. In recent years, s jobs were being lost in the colliery; new factories were being built attracting newcomers to the village.
Such was the closeness of the tight-knit community, that no-one would consider reporting the thefts to the local policeman – No, they all turned to Auld Bob for his advice – He would know what to do.
The little boy was fascinated as he watched his grandfather put on the face of King Solomon as her asked questions and considered the problem.
The next few days saw the boy and his Grandfather working in their allotment shed. Unlike when they went fishing of flew their pigeons or attended any other daily tasks, the old man did not take time to explain what he was doing. The boy just watched without questions because he knew, untold that it was the right thing to do.
Auld Bob collected a number of choice lumps of coal, polished black and shiny and just the right size to put on the fire. Rather puzzled but still unquestioning, the lad watched as the man slowly and painstakingly drilled a neat hole in each piece. When he finally finished his task, he tidied up the coal lumps and his grandson swept up. Bob closed the shed door and told the lad it was time to go fishing.
What Robert didn’t know was that Bob returned later after the fishing trip, to work a little more on the coal lumps and then distributed each piece with careful instructions to his friends.
They met again the next morning when all of his friends sat around the seat near the war memorial. It was a noisy gathering, full of laughter. A lot of the men were patting Bob on the back. The boy heard that the cause of their merriment was the news of a small explosion that had occurred the previous evening.
It appeared that the bang had happened in the hearth of the village police house. Probably a detonator had been accidentally mixed up with the Bobby’s coal, they said with a wink and the story continued with the description of a hole in the wall behind the fire.
The little boy didn’t really understand why everyone was so pleased with his granddad but he knew that he could be proud of him as usual. He supposed that bob’s mates were using his other nickname “Blaster”, because of his old job as a charge-hand at the pit.
His Grandpa had told him that the position had meant that not only had he been in charge of a gang of men but also it was his responsibility to drill and set charges of dynamite, to blow coal from the coal face. He had been very skilful and could be relied upon to bring down just the right amount in exactly the right place.
The old man tousled the boy’s hair as they walked away hand in hand to fly their pigeons.
Only the names have been changed in this story to save any red faces and it has nothing to do with the fact that I trained in underwater demolition when I became a big boy.