Tight Situation - Runner Up

Alexis Cunningham

Runner Up
Collier Lads Forevermore
Tight Situation


Raised in East Anglia, Alexis has a bachelor's degree in sociology and a master's in creative writing, and an imagination that asks 'what if heaven outsourced its paperwork to hell?' and 'Is it better to be eaten first in a zombie apocalypse or hold out for salvation?' This didn't help much in a clerical career in health and social care, but did help get her horror-fantasy short stories published in two US anthologies, as well as help her (unpublished) YA fantasy novel, Soul Strife, make the Mslexia novel prize longlist earlier in 2022/3. She is currently submitting her novel to agents and publishers, and is very grateful for the boost in confidence from this prize!

Collier Lads Forevermore By Alexis Cunningham

You that breathe the upper air don’t know this but what we have here is what us lads in the trade call a tight situation. Well, gentle sirs and ladies fair, in all honesty, the lads around me are calling it lot of other things, none of which I’d repeat to a minister, if you catch my meaning? And begging your pardon for the vulgarity. But the situation is a mite precarious. You see the Davy Lamp’s a-flickering blue but the blasted trapper’s only gone and jammed the trap, ain’t he? That’s us done for, most likely. Stuck in this shaft when the fire-damp burns us all up. Then its kingdom come and an appointment at the Pearly Gates.

How little you know, walking o’er my head, how we get on below. We are all here, trapped in the dark. The drawers, the cutters, and the blasted mule. Up the shaft a ways, I can hear the trapper bleating. He’d better not waste his breath on complaints or by God, my last act on this Earth shall be walloping the little blighter. One job he’s got. Open the trap for the loads and seal it up again while we work. The lad’s only gone and fouled it up. Samuel’s youngest, the nipper’s all of ten now and should be used to the pit ways.

Sam’s elder boys, Jim and Georgey, took to the life well. Least ways they did ‘til the Pit did for them last year. Explosion took my John, too. God rest his sweet soul. You’ve no mind for what our toil costs us, sirs. Your copper warming pan has my boy’s blood on it. Now Sam’s missus draws for us, though lord knows how long that’ll last with the way Sam clouts her about. She’s slow, he says, and I reckon rightly that he’s speaking truth, but she’ll get no faster after a knock to the noggin. 

I can tell you’re wondering about our situation. You’ll be wanting the specifics, I wager. Well, if you hadn’t clocked already, I reckon Sam and his boys and the missus will soon be a family altogether again. I’ll be seeing my John once the mine-damp’s blown through. It’s always hot as hell down here and black as the grave, but the Davy Lamp’s done its job. It warned us of the foul gasses massing, but that’s precious little use if we’re sealed away down here like the already dead.
A blast of air might dissipate the mass, like clearing out the shaft’s humours, if you will, but air we don’t have and the tiniest spark could spring the mine-fire on us.

Do me a favour, good sirs and gentlewomen, and think of our Sam and my John next you take your coffee from that shiny pot or set to asking the servants to polish that there brass candlestick. That shiny stuff came from some deep mine, much like this one. A miner does what he can, you see, to get you stuff for your tea kettle, your pots and your pans. Deep as the sea, the shiny was got by me and mine. Remember that next you take your repast. I dare say you’ll think no more of me elsewise. 

I worry about my Molly, I must confess. I forbid her to come down the pit, you see, and glad I am for that bit of foresight, but what’s to come of her and the girls when I’m gone? The pit’s done well for me, I’ll not lie. Twenty years of toil and before it all I had scant two clean shirts to call my own. Now we’ve a roof o’er head and food for the table. That’ll end not long ‘ere I’m gone. Sirs, you’d not countenance to see your pretty girls lining up for soup, but if I don’t work, they don’t eat and if I don’t live, well, let’s just say my prayers in this tight spot, ain’t for me.

Collier lads forevermore. If I had a penny now, I’d make a wish, and it wouldn’t be for another gill. Or perhaps it would. No sense in sobriety in this situation, one might say. There’s some lads here, the old heads who’ve breathed in the miasma of the pit a mite too long, who keep to working. Spark what may. Doing what they can, with might and skill, as the song tells it.

What difference does it make to us what we do, good sirs and gracious ladies? We’ll either live to breathe upper air or we’ll know paradise, sure enough. Me, I’d sooner take the rest for my aching back. The preacher says I’ll eat pie in the sky when I die. But me? I’d sooner make sure I’ve got some strength in case Heaven demands more of me than I can give.

One of the drawers has scuttled up the shaft to see what can be done. Though how she thinks she’ll get around the cart lodged there, I don’t know. Still, Ellie, she’s a sharp lass. Edward Scanlon’s girl. She took up the girdle when his heart gave out. Someone’s got to put food on the family’s table and her brother only went to war. You’ll forgive me for saying this, but what’s the use of dying to French musket fire if your sister’s left drawing for men like us?

Ellie might have made a good marriage, lived to see her hands go soft and smooth. Now she’s complaining she’s gone bald where her head knocks against the loads. But that’s the price the pit asks. Hauling’s not light work and the toil takes its toll. We’re working close to hell here. And don’t we know it.

Gert Scanlon will be in bind just like my Mol, ‘ere this is all over. No sons to pick up the slack. Gert’s health is not so good. She’ll not long last, I reckon. Begging your pardon for my frankness, but as a man about to die, I find my patience near its end. The newspapers will be all over another fire down here. They had a picture of the last emblazoned across the Gazette’s front page. Sam’s missus weren’t none too impressed when they got her boys names wrong. But that’s the way of the world, ain’t it? You that walk above only notice us below when the ground goes boom and shakes to all Heaven. You only care when the bodies come up instead of the shiny you want.
I was working during the last blow out. Down another shaft. Scarpered as soon as one of the trapper’s gave a warning yelp. We sealed up the deuced shaft as quick as we could. Them that were down there were already dead. The air turns to fire, you see. Like drowning in flame, it is. The fire-damp earns its name. Nasty stuff. You can’t smell it as everything stinks down here. We men sweat. We relieve ourselves as we must. Apologies to the ladies, I’m sorry for speaking coarse, but its true. If it weren’t for the Davy Lamp, the flame dancing high, its heart flickering blue, we’d have no warning at all that the air, what little there is, has turned on us.

The devil take young Sam Jnr. I’d grown to hope I might see forty. I had a dream of working my way up to overman one day. We all hate the overman we got, mind, but he gets five and sixpence just for riding up and down all day, and what man who works his muscles to wasting cutting don’t want that? I’ve given the best years of my life to the pit and, yes, gentle sirs and madams, she’s given me back a fair deal, it’s true, but I’ve a family to think of. I’d soon as not give the pit my life as well.

We’ve doused the lamps. We know what’s lurking in the dark with us. There’s no need to feed it. The air we breathe is rancid. If them up the shaft don’t get the trap open, we’ll all smother, fire-damp or no. Ah, but if I’d had another penny last week, I’d have saved it for my girls. Should I live, good sirs, kind ladies, hand on heart, with God my witness, I’ll go Temperance League and no word of a lie. I’ll put my pennies to use paying our way out of this life.

But, sirs, I’ll surely miss the lads. Collier lads forevermore. The dust gets in your veins, it speckles the skin, digging deeper than dirt; it turns a man’s heart to lead, to copper, or coal. The poison may change, but the truth does not. A collier is a collier and you that walk o’er our heads can’t know what it is to brave hard knocks to rend stubborn rocks. Or tempt the fate of a hellish roasting.

The mule is getting antsy. Things will go poorly if the creature bolts. We’re in a tight enough situation here, without the mule bucking. There’s not enough room to swing a cat and us lads are here with the mule, the cart, the chains and our picks, breathing in the air in lusty mouthfuls, as if we can swig it all down and starve the mine-fire out of it.

The Stinson lad is breathing too quick. He’s new to the mine and the dark’s yet to seep into his being. He don’t know our ways. He’ll swoon right out. I can hear the clank and slither of the cart chains, hooking on the ground, like the rattling of old ghosts. Is that you, John? Come home at last.

Somewhere above us is a cart, stuck halfway. The drawers won’t hold it up long. Today’s yield was a good one. The cart is heavy. That’s why we called for the mule to drag up the next one. When it drops, we’ll be crushed. Ah, sirs, an embarrassment of riches has befallen us poor collier lads. It seems death has come to us three ways: fire, suffocation or crushed by the weight of our labours. A very tight situation, you might say.

Judges Comments

Alexis Cunningham's 'Collier Lads Forevermore', the runner up in WM'S Tight Situation Short Story Competition, has for its tense, terrible setting a mining disaster waiting to unfold. Alexis's miners are trapped underground, likely either to suffocate, burn or be crushed by a load falling from a higher level.

Rage as well as resignation infuses this story as they wait for the inevitable: the rage of desperate people trapped in a terrible situation. The Collier Lads of the title are 18th century copper miners, and in a salty, well-conjured vernacular, Alexis's first-person narrator weighs the human cost of lost lives against the unthinking use of 'the shiny' in manufactured everyday domestic items. The narrator knows the miners are disposable commodities and there's a tragic tension in the way that at this extreme, urgent point, they're conveyed as living, breathing humans with lives, families and individual stories.

There's no way out for the miners in this  unsparing, claustophobic tale; it ends with the narrator and his companions still trapped, wondering which of the three terrible options will cause their end. Alexis has done a wonderful job in writing these lives so vividly, just at the point when they are likely to be extinguished.