A Hero of Sorts by Martyn Clayton

There’d be silence in the seconds before the explosion. Even the crash and roar, the shifting of the sand and silt above would momentarily cease. Then you’d sit there crouched in the dark wondering what had happened to your breath.  You’d count it in as somewhere ahead there’d be the movement of a body in scurrying retreat.

There it goes. The whole world has been picked up and shaken. For a second your heart stops. You don’t know if you’re alive or dead, you’re just hanging there, half a mile beneath the sea a mile from the shore.

He’d throw up every morning before he left the house to head to the mine. He’d be kneeling on the bathroom floor his head peering at the brown stains at the bottom of the toilet bowl, freezing in the unheated house.  Sometimes he’d retch up last night’s meal, his dad  hammering on the locked door, telling him to hurry up, asking why he was such a wreck.

Think of men like your grandfather. Think of those who’d died down there as the shafts had collapsed and the sea had come pouring in.  Bones slowly being covered by seaweed several fathoms deep.

The only respite back then was sleep and The Tinners. Sometimes he’d get the bus into Penzance for a change of scenery and to look at the faces of girls who hadn’t known him since he was a baby. He was surprised by his good looks and sometimes he’d wake up in the bed of a black-eyed girl, her limbs wrapped around his. She’d open her eyes, look into his and say; ‘Jimmy,’ as she pushed his curls out his face; ‘Jimmy, Jimmy, Jimmy’ as if repeating his name might make him stay.

The mine had long since closed. He was no longer a good-looking boy growing broader as he knocked on the door of his twenties.  No one thought him heroic. He’d been the last apprentice they’d taken on. It was done as a favour to his father.  Jago Williams was a hero of sorts. He’d gone down the mine when he was fifteen, they said his blood ran with pure tin but Jimmy was certain there was more than a drop of arsenic in there too. He’d managed forty-two years before the partial collapse of a shaft robbed him of an arm. It shot through his nerves too but he’d never admit it. Anyone who suggested so usually ended up with his one remaining fist squarely on their face.  It was a partially collapsing lung not a mine shaft that did for him in the end.

There were four of them left in the village who’d worked down the mine. Two of them were in their eighties, they’d somehow dodged the miner’s reaper who usually knocked on your door as you edged towards sixty.  They’d flipped to management in their forties, losing credit amongst their thick-headed peers but gaining years in existence.  Jimmy’s shot at longevity came when they closed the place down.

He couldn’t say he was too bothered back then.  He’d attended the meetings, gone on the marches, listened to speeches by old boys who’d never been down a tin mine in their lives bellowing about how it was part and parcel of the culture and needed protection. All the time he’d be thinking how to spend his redundancy money. It wasn’t much but to a lad in his late twenties it seemed like a fortune. There were sensible things he could have done with it but sense never really came into it.

He’s sitting on his usual stool in poorly lit, tucked away corner of the bar he’s made his own. Once upon a time there were a group of them drank in here but one by one people have left or settled down.

The girls behind the bar are barely out of their teens. They’re pretty and busy, their faces caked with make-up which conspires to make them look both older and younger at the same time.  They laugh at Jimmy’s jokes but it rattles out to a nothing and he’s left there all out of words sipping on his pint and staring at the bottles behind the bar. He reminds himself not to spend too long looking at the girls.  They both come from big families of a kind that was supposed to have died out but people carry on here as if nothing ever changes.

Lily the oldest of the girls was born just before Ryan. Her mum popped round the maternity ward to see Susie and the baby.   She’d been at Primary School with Jimmy even if they’d hardly spoken for years.  Jimmy had nodded and she’d proudly shown off baby Lily. Where’s your baby she’d asked?  Jimmy had told that he was being looked after in some special unit down a corridor.  Why was that? Susie had stared at the far wall not saying a word, as if someone had sneaked in during the night and stolen her speech as well as all her hopes for the future. Lily’s mum had gone quiet too. She’d stood there awkwardly for a bit and then made an excuse about needing to feed Lily. Jimmy and Susie had been left alone again.  Even then as he sat on the hard green plastic chair he’d wondered at what point he could cut loose.  They weren’t an item after all, just two people who due to boredom and alcohol and Jimmy’s lack of money for a cab ride home had fallen into bed together.  She was only 18. She didn’t need to settle down with a dodgy old rogue of 24 from a grimy tin village did she? She had plans. Or she did have.  The art college at Falmouth. That was where she was headed. She slopped colour onto canvas in the attic room of the big terraced house three streets back from the centre of Penzance where she lived with her parents. In the mornings you could hear the bustle from the docks at Newlyn.  Her parents didn’t mind what she got up to. Ageing hippies always too gone on the dope and red wine to notice.

Now he struggles to piece together what happened in those weeks and months after the birth of his son. Brain damage they said, something awful of the kind that would lead to a farmer’s shotgun had he been an animal.

“I don’t want anything from you,” she’d said as they’d sat quietly at the stripped pine table in her parent’s kitchen. “I can manage. We’ll be alright. There’s mum and dad. And friends. I’ve got good friends.”

“Are you telling me to go?” he’d asked. It was what he wanted but surely, she should have to fight for it?

“Not telling, just setting you free. I mean we’ve never really been an us have we. Just two people.”

It was five years until he saw the boy again.  He knew that Susie had left Penzance and her parents had moved back up country. She was a student somewhere up north; the boy might be dead.

As was so often the case in the village Karen Tregothan had been the bearer of glad tidings;

“I’m probably speaking out of turn here,” she’d said as she leaned her fat frame into his, the smell of stale yeast on her breath, “but your boy, Ryan. He’s at our place. Has been for six months.”

Her place. The care home in Penzance.

“What’s he doing there?” He’d tried not to be bothered. He’d just got his redundancy money. Things were about to happen, there’d be time to escape this place, be free of cramped rows of cottages and Atlantic Gales, the desperate sight of the decaying mine works every morning.  There were things you could do beyond these narrow lanes.

Karen touched his knee. He felt himself tense. She was looking up at him all doe-eyed. It was too reminiscent of that time in the car park when they were both 17, the last two to stagger home from the cove off their heads on white cider.

“They’ve left him with us and gone. Too much for them to look after they said. He needs full time care. I reckon it’s selfish. He’s your boy. That’s what I said to my supervisor.  Doesn’t poor Jimmy have rights in all this?”

He’d left the pub almost sober. He found his dad asleep on the sofa, now too weak to make it up the stairs to bed.  He’d flicked open an eye as Jimmy had closed the door. His dad had struggled to sit up, his check wool blanket sliding down his body onto the grubby brown carpet.  The fire had burnt to a few embers.

Jimmy sat in the high back chair across from his dad, the two of them drinking tea and sitting in silence. Finally, as he faced his final reckoning the rage that had animated Jimmy’s dad was now as spent as the embers in the fireplace. He looked lost and bewildered, his remaining strands of hair sticking up, his mouth always open wheezing for breath.

“My boy,” said his dad.

“I’ve got a boy,” said Jimmy. His dad had kept staring at the fire before sipping on his tea.

They’d sat in silence, his dad lowering himself back onto the sofa, Jimmy covering him with a blanket as he turned off the lights and turned in.

They were kept on longer than anyone expected. Double time too. Longer hours. They were dismantling the place, clearing up the mess. Jimmy volunteered for extra shifts. His bank account would thank him and it kept his mind clear. It was only when the final day he was required came that something moved inside him. it’s hard to know what it was but before he knew it he was sitting on the back of his spluttering, inconsistent moped as it struggled up the narrow road over the carn, past countless stone relics of ancient civilisations scattered in stone walled fields where doe eyed cows stood and watched him pass.  As he reached the approach to Penzance, the road sinking lower, he noticed the hedgerows. It was nearly June, normally he spotted the change, the way the yellow gorse signalled the return of spring, then came the campion, the valerian and campanulas, spikes of dozy foxgloves lolling under the pressure of fat bottomed bees dancing in their flower heads.

This small world was beautiful. You never saw it when you lived underground. He was glad all that ended. Not just for him but for those yet to be born too. Its certainty stopped you thinking, you rarely looked up at the moor and the hill and far blue beyond. You didn’t consider the horizon, just how far you might go given a favourable tide.

Despite one last scream of internal resistance as he reached the care home he was stood at the door with his bike helmet in his hand.

Karen was there as promised.  She gave an overblown sympathetic smile and reached to hug him. He didn’t respond. Just stood there stiff and formal and as she slowly relaxed her arms her embarrassment was impossible to hide. He was a bastard sometimes. It would be so easy to hold her for a second, to give the girl some warmth even if it would never mean anything.

Karen led him inside, she said something cryptic and procedural to an older woman. It was insider language that he didn’t understand but let you know that this tiny world was important and exclusive in some way.

He was led into a dayroom. There were people of all ages, from what looked like the young to what was possibly the old, sitting in high back chair, tea cups perched on low table, plastic glasses filled with fluorescent orange juice. A woman in the home’s green uniform a plastic pinny tied around her waist was spoon feeding a boy. He was tiny compared to everyone else, he had brown hair, his body contorting in a high chair.

“This is him,” said Karen. “This is Ryan.”

You can’t prepare for these moments. There was nothing in his short life that had readied him for a moment like this. Something powerful rose up and filled every cell of his body with emotion. He walked slowly towards the boy as the woman spoon feeding him moved to one side. Karen kneeled down to head height, pushed his brown fringe away from his face and spoke;

“This is your daddy Ryan. He’s come to see you.”

Jimmy stood there feeling lost and foolish. He was sure every eye in the room was fixed on him. Karen held his hand. For once it didn’t feel intrusive.

“Say something Jimmy.”

He opened his mouth but no sound came out. He took a deep breath and tried again.

“Hello son.”

Karen smiled, the woman with the food raised her eyebrows. The boy in the high chair rolled his head.

“I think he knows,” said Karen.

What did he know thought Jimmy? What could he possibly know. It was so hard to know much when you had a complete set of flawed faculties, what could this poor creature ever know.

“Yeah.” said Jimmy.

They found him a plastic chair and placed it down next to the boy, said they’d leave him to it, the older woman bringing him a cup of tea, two custard creams perched on the edge of the saucer.  He sat in the chair next to Ryan.  Jimmy bit down on a biscuit then struggled to swallow, his stomach a knot of anxiety.

“Nice to see you” he said. The boy didn’t look at him his eyes moving from the ceiling to the room, then back to the ceiling. “It’s been a few years.”

Jimmy felt self-conscious. He leant back in his chair and picked up his teacup. He was sure his hand was shaking but the teacup didn’t rattle. He sat in silence looking straight ahead. The boy was wriggling and writhing a hand finally resting on the arm of the high chair. Jimmy looked at it. It was small and perfect. He took hold of it in his own hand. The boy’s hand felt like it was relaxing into his. That was enough. He would sit here and hold the boy’s hand. Ryan must have grown still, and he wasn’t sure if it was the heating in the care home or just his tired, overwrought body finally giving in but he felt his eyes closing.  He passed into brief slumber.

“Hey you two lazy bones.”   Jimmy jumped up and looked around. It was Karen. She was standing there smiling at him. He was still clutching Ryan’s hand.

His visits were never regular but they kept happening. Maybe once a month, sometimes twice. He’d turn up to see the boy as he grew but never changed, his body getting bigger, his clothes becoming more adult.

He found Susie on Facebook. She was an artist, lived by the coast in Northumberland with a minted man, three healthy children.  It must have been him carrying the faulty gene.

Ryan was twelve when he died, a greater age than anyone predicted. Karen told Jimmy the day after. She felt it was only right.

“When’s the funeral,” he asked.

“Oh, his grandparents have requested the body.”

“What does that mean?”

It meant he never saw him again.

Now he could move on but the years pass and as your thirties seep into your forties reinvention gets harder. In all the time he’d been taking on casual labour and seasonal work, visiting his son and watching his redundancy money dwindle to nothing he’d lost all sight of what he wanted to do.  The girls behind the bar were probably still filled with dreams. They’d most likely move on in a year or so, head to university or fall for a surfer.  Jimmy would sit in the same place, drinking the same drink, watching the door for someone he might know but only ever seeing the same parade of tourists and incomers, the people who saw the charm where he only saw dereliction.  They were the future, soon people like him would all be gone and no one here would remember the mine.  It would just be a place for tourists to visit, buy a keyring or a packet of fudge in the shop and then tick it off their list of local must visits. There’d be the remains of the mine workings on the headland, alongside the cairns, and standing stones, the Bronze age field patterns, dead civilisations reaching out towards a piecemeal present.

Lily was leaning up against the bar at the opposite end to Jimmy talking to a young man he’d seen around the village. He had an upcountry accent. He’d be about as old as Ryan would be now.  They were laughing together, you’d probably call it flirting. Jimmy downed the rest of his pint and pulled on his coat.

The promised storm was hitting the land as he ventured out onto the main road. It was dark and cold; the extremes of this place sometimes wore you down.

He was doing ditch work in the morning, a mini-bus would pick him up from the village car park and take him somewhere up near Camborne. He’d wield a spade for twelve hours and work so hard he wanted nothing but sleep when he finally got home.

The sea was whipping up, he could hear it crashing against the rocks down below, the pub sign creaking in the dark. He placed one foot in front of the other and lowered his head. You kept breathing, you kept walking. That was all you could ever do.  Sometimes, out at sea, he was sure he heard muffled explosions.

 

Martyn Clayton

Banner Image: Pixaby.com – Cornish tin mine engine house.

 

 

 

5 thoughts on “A Hero of Sorts by Martyn Clayton

  1. Hi Martyn,
    This is a very bleak and realistic piece of writing.
    Fear was something not many spoke of. Accepting conditions and what you had to do was showcased in this powerful story.
    Hugh

    Like

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