Martin walked in the morning sun to the market, to buy bread and meat for dinner. The road carried on away from the cluster of shops around the Inn selling hardware and cloth. The market was further down the valley, at the bottom, past the main entrance to the mines.
Martin walked along, humming to himself. He nodded to the people as he passed the scattered dwellings. He was starting to get to know them by name from the conversations with Gwen and with the customers in the Inn each lunchtime and the logn evenings when the whole town seemed to crowd and push themselves into the inn, enjoying the companionship and the warmth. And Gwen’s foaming beer, and plates of roast mutton as well of course.
There was Megan, sitting out in her front garden among the flowers she had loved to tend when she was young enough to do so. Now just enjoying the flowers her daughters planted and pruned for her. Julian, a pleasant fellow who enjoyed a pint or two of an evening down the Inn. Geoffrey, leaning on the fence post watching the world go by, nowadays needing to be tied upright by his son George to prevent the old man falling over.
Lillian, always so pretty. But her looks had gone after that last bad childbirth and she kept herself to herself these days, moving back in with her mother, gazing out of the window, her face hidden by a wide brimmed hat that her mother had bought for her, quiet and still in the shade. Ian, the clown of the valley, always the one in the centre of a crowd of laughing young men.
And Frederick and Randall and Darrell and Julian, all brothers who worked together. They couldn’t work now but were kept comfortable enough by their elderly parents, liking to stand in their neat new coats, strapped to posts in the ground by the roadside, shooting the breeze with passers-by.
As Martin grew near the mine he noticed the commotion. Men were spilling out from the black hole of its entrance like termites from a kicked mound. They shouted wildly to each other, grabbing hold of men who rushed forward to meet them. There was the scent of stone dust in the air, and underneath it, something else that made Martin’s hair stand on end and his heart beat faster.
And Martin ran over to see what the turmoil was about and as the miners stopped running and a group among them gathered together they began to congregated around a central point, which Martin headed towards, pushing past the others who staggered forward, faces black, or just stood where they had come to, bewildered in the sunlight.
And at the centre was a figure, fallen and prone on the dirty ground. And Martin stared into Theodore’s sightless eyes, blankly looking up at the unfocused sky. And the miners gathered him to the side and Wilbur spoke out.
“He’s alright,” Wilbur said with a strength of certainty his eyes didn’t show. “He just got caught in the backdraft. Stand back, give him room.” He held the others back as they crowded round. Martin say Theodore’s chest and left arm was bare, the cloth burned away and the skin blackened and split like a log in the fire. His face was a violent red and blistered with great orange pustules. He wasn’t moving.
“Will he be able to work again?” another asked.
“I doubt it.” Wilbur said. “Lucky beggar,” he added, with forced jollity. He bent down to his childhood friend and looked at the blood matting his crushed skull, the bits of brain spilling from the scalp. “It’s a crippling injury. No, looks like it’s the life of Riley for Theodore now.”
Kenneth laughed. “He’ll be in the Inn every day now he’s got the chance,” The other miners laughed alongside him.
“Well lads, back to work, we’ve got a rockfall to clear.” The foreman cried. “We’ll be behind on our quota now.” The foreman shouted orders and in small groups the miners dispersed. The ones standing at a distance, looking on, or staring at nothing, gradually responded to the foreman’s yells and began to drift back to the mine. Those that didn’t, their team leaders went up to them and put their hand on their shoulders and reminded them of things. And the miners shook their heads to clear them, and unstiffened their backs, and returned with them, the firm hand on their backs steadying their steps.
Martin stood in the open space outside the mine, alone but for Wilbur, the foreman Oliver, and Theodore.
“You can take him home later. Who’ll look after him?” Oliver asked Wilbur.
“He’s got his sister Patricia over the other side of the valley. She’ll give him a bed for the night.”
“Ok. He’ll be fine sitting there until lunchtime. You can take him over to his sisters then. It’s not like he’s going to get any worse.” Oliver said. Wilbur grinned but the grin was cold and something was struggling behind his eyes.
He looked up at Martin as Oliver strode back to the mine. Their eyes met and Martin was fixed to the spot. The smile died and disappeared and Wilbur was lost, his throat moving, his eyes trying to speak but unable to find the words. And then he lowered his eyes, and his shoulders slumped. And he turned and walked back to the mine, leaving Theodore laying in the dust.
Martin looked at the prone figure lying on the ground, looking up at the sky that was too high above them. He tried to think of something cheerful to say but he suspected it wouldn’t mean much to Theodore. He doubted anything he could say would make Theodore feel any better about what had happened.
Martin backed off and started to retrace his steps. He wanted to get back to the Inn, where he had felt safe, secure. He wanted to lay in his bed and wrap himself up in a blanket and stare at the walls.
There was nothing wrong of course, Theodore was fine, in the grand scene of things, he might not be able to work again, but the valley would look after him, as they looked after all their retired friends. But he still felt bad. Actually he felt terrible. He felt like someone had died. His whole mind seemed to shadow, as though a cloud had covered the sun. And when he looked up, he saw that a great dark cloud was gathering, a huge, heaped up, ponderous mass, heavy with its burdens and straining to fall.
There were the brothers, standing in the road, cheerful, always with a smile for passers-by. But they didn’t move when Martin approached, they hung limp on posts, thin cords strapping them tight to wooden stakes driven through the ground, perfume hiding a smell that reached Martin even so.
He noticed that their faces were peeling. Their eyes were gone. Lillian’s face was hidden, but under the hat, under the gloom, white bone stared out at a world that didn’t even admit she was different from when she danced in the barn with the young men and met her husband and caught his heart in hers and whirled around and around, the music carrying them to the sky.
And now her mother brushed her skull and twittered in her missing ears the gossip of the day and she sat and listened because she could do no else. And the ancients, the ancestors of the valley, staring down from balconies and upper windows and from perches on the rocks, sitting in porches and front yards. Skulls wearing new hats and bones draped in expensive coats to keep the cold out and all energy was gone and all vitality was missing and this was supposed to be life.
The dead surrounded the valley, surrounded the road, everywhere he looked they hung and sat and perched like birds, watching him, waiting for him to join them. Martin started to run.