“It’s gone!” he said.
“What?” asked teenaged Val, as she scrambled, full of energy, out of the small English car. Sixty, no, sixty-five years on, he should have expected something of the kind.
“What’s gone, Gramps?”
“Don’t use that word, Val,” said Helen her mother, his daughter. “You know we all hate it.”
Val strode impatiently to the solid‑looking, five-barred gate that prevented their driving
up the lane. It was festooned in barbed wire but she set out to climb it anyway. Little Tracey, the most Australian of the family, jumped out after her sister and took a hesitant first step onto the lowest bar, fumbled to reach the second. Helen, gracefully but urgently, slipped out of the driving seat and followed the children to restrain them.
Grandfather Peter sat a little longer. Old men don’t weep, he told himself, though he was close to doing so.
The damp, cold air of the plateau, carrying a drizzle of rain, swept through the overheated, stuffy vehicle but his shivers were not caused only by the chill. He remembered how the wind used to blow like this, how the rain came with it, often driven almost horizontally as cold, ice-laden sleet. Too rarely, the sun shone and the landscape opened to display magnificent vistas; tall crags, escarpments capped by black gritstone cliffs, the vast sweep of open moorland, purple heather, grey-green rough pastures, isolated field barns hidden in sheltered folds. Here and there, there, used to be other works of man, tall, skeletal steel frames with large wheels that, back then, used to turn. And there, just up there, at the end of this narrow track, there had been a mighty, square, stone chimney. Gone!
He left the car at last, not bothering to lock it. There was no‑one but his family in sight and he didn’t expect others. If there were gypsies living in this bleak upland, they might appear, he supposed, yet he couldn’t believe they would still be here. Who, now, would choose to dwell in this exposed place, in a caravan? He had never been quite sure there were gypsies, anyway. There had been someone…. Someone, some… thing.
His three females were all at the gate, Helen looking quizzically over her shoulder at him. Val had climbed to sit on the top rail, with her back to the car, carefully keeping her blue‑jeaned bottom away from the spikes. Tracey was still struggling to join her. The bolts that held the gate together were zinc plated and in good condition. There was a massive padlock. That had not always been so. There used to be a gate here but it was broken, rotten, greasy with lichen and fungus, the bolts rusted until they flaked and broke. The top rails had been altogether missing then, token strands of wire hanging slack. Boys could get over easily with a single tall stride. Boys did.
It suddenly seemed impossible that one of those boys was himself. There had been a lad with his name, Peter, nine years old, who had straddled that wrecked barrier and followed the track beyond it. That little boy was alien, a stranger to him now. He had no sense of continuity between his present existence and that distant past. Yet who else could that have been? That boy… he… had surmounted the old gate, walked up that rough lane, more than once. The last time, soon after his tenth birthday, he had run down it, weeping.
The district did not seem to have changed much. The cottages in the dale must surely have electricity, gas and water laid on now. In his time…not his time… back then… in that other country which somehow was never his, when that sad boy lived with Mr and Mrs Dane, it was oil lamps. Water, from a stone trough in the street, was carried by Mrs Dane with two buckets hanging on a yoke across her shoulders. The house was built into the steeply sloping valley side. The only door opened directly to the street. There was no back yard, no rear windows or way in there. Young Peter could step straight from the grassy bank directly onto the roof. Inside, the wall on that side was perpetually damp behind the lath and plaster lining. Several similar cottages in the row were built into the bank in the same fashion. As you entered you had to go down a foot or so onto a flagstone floor through which the damp rose. That floor was never really dry even in summer. The windows on the street side were set in walls three feet thick. There were wide sills with enough room for a boy to sit and curl up. The boy had done so. Yes, he had.
There was an outside earth closet. It was across the road, backed up under overhanging rocks on that side, one of a row of them serving these dwellings. Behind each rickety door there was a bucket under a wooden bench seat with a hole. No-one seemed to notice the stench. The horse-drawn shit cart that slopped, stinking, through the village once a week, passed within inches of the cottage door. The privies still look much the same, but padlocked. They might, he guessed, be used as tool and bike sheds now.
“What’s gone, Grandpa?” demanded Val again.
“The chimney. They must have demolished it. And the engine house. It was called the New Works, but it was old already… when… I knew it.” Tracey nearly spiked herself on the barbed wire and Helen fussed a bit to make it nearly better. The wind maintained a steady force on their backs, the clouds pressed down, whirling like bush fire smoke around the blackish crags that loomed above them on the right. Bush fire smoke? It was hard to imagine anything ever burning here. The rain continued. Huge blocks of stone seemed always poised on the edge above, ready to crash or roll down, but he remembered the shapes of some of them. They had not shifted.
Val zipped up her quilted parka to the neck, pulled the hood over her head and tied the strings, then jumped off the top rail and strode away up the lane. It was almost overgrown now with soggy moss and waist‑high bracken. It used to be clearer, enough for a horse and cart. There had been a truck, once, and an ambulance. The lane hadn’t been wide enough. He remembered the wind, the mist, the cold, the truck, ambulance, and the tears. Yes, oh yes, that was me, he forced himself to acknowledge. That was Peter.
“Be careful!” he called. Val wagged a careless hand but did not look back. Helen, delicately, climbed over the gate. With some difficulty he helped Tracey over to her and followed carefully, slowly and stiffly. It was hard work and his sense of balance was not good now. Helen steadied him as, clumsily, he fumbled. The wire got him in the hand and drew blood. On the other side, they struggled slowly up the overgrown path. Wet bracken fronds, last year’s growth now scratchy and brown, soaked his trousers so that they clung, cold, around his legs. Water squelched in his shoes. Tracey complained that she was being lashed by the ‘horrid’ stuff. Bracken was wholly new to her. Somewhere he had read that it had started flourishing where it never used to be, invading the pastures. Helen had to placate Tracey or they must go back to the car. Val forged on, far in front. This made him uneasy. There was danger up there. There had been danger.
He thought he had wanted the family to see what his world had been. Had it ever been his? Now it was making him cold, wet and miserable. That wasn’t new; cold, wet and miserable, again. It seemed beyond credence that he, that boy with his name, had ever dwelt in the dale. He was a foreigner here, always. A furriner. No, this never had been his world. Why had he brought them here?
In 1939 thousands of kids, carrying smelly, rubbery gasmasks in square cardboard boxes hung on string around their necks, struggling with untidy bundles of spare clothing, were separated from parents and relatives to be taken to safety in the country. The crowd he was with were transported what seemed, to them, a vast distance. A fifteen mile migration, a commuter’s trivial, an easy trip now. They do things differently there. It took all day. Few people had cars, certainly no-one that he knew. Their journey began by tram from Attercliffe, a dingy, soot laden area of poor housing on the east side of the city among the steelworks. Off the tram they were herded onto a steam train that chuffed through suburbs and a long tunnel to a succession of little country stations with a brief pause at each, decanting a few wretched kids at a time. After what seemed an age, the engine stopped finally, hissing impatiently. The last dozen were called to scramble out and into an old, draughty bus that barely managed to groan and rattle its way at five miles an hour up the long dale road, twisting, turning, climbing. Pathetic handfuls of children, the younger ones sick or wailing, usually both, were dumped in what seemed random fashion at each stop. The road narrowed. Endale was the last stop, high at the top of the narrow and ever narrowing valley, shut in on three sides by steep slopes and high crags. Four boys, they never knew why they were the last, dismounted and were paraded in what was euphemistically called the village square. It was hardly more than a place where the bus could turn. Mrs Dane picked him out and marched him off further up the village. They came to the end where the road became no more than a bridle path. Here were the last cottages cowering against the slopes.
In the living room was a vast, black kitchen range, coal fired. The staircase was precipitous and narrow, entered through a finger‑latched door, contained entirely within the thickness of the wall. It was perpetually dark, one either took a torch or felt one’s way up to the bedrooms in blackness. Peter’s bed was in a room that had once been a hayloft. Beyond the end wall was the cowshed, under the same roof. At night he could hear the animals grunting and was woken, most mornings, by the bell‑like sound of the first milk being squirted into a bright pail. Mrs Dane did the milking. She was large and strong; had to be so. She kept a couple of cows and some chickens on the slope immediately behind the house. On wash and bath days she made the trip to the water trough three or four times.
The Danes were not farmers. Dane was a miner. His was a ‘reserved occupation’, which kept him out of the army. Each morning, he would put on his great boots and clomp off up the track, joining the handful of tough, solid men who, like him, walked a couple of miles over and through the dale head and beyond to the mine. Surrounded by corrugated iron sheds and mud, it was known locally as Black Sam’s. This was the only mine still open near Endale. They had once extracted lead there. Now they continued only because there was fluorspar, an essential flux for the steel city, Sheffield, to the east of the crags. Dane was slow and taciturn, a man of whom the boy saw little. He was nearly always at work or sleeping when Peter was about the house.
It was Mrs Dane, not her husband, who explained this strange, hard world to him. She had a few books and some maps, but more importantly, she was an acute observer of everything about her and she like to share her knowledge. Since Roman times, she said, men have scratched, dug, drilled, mined and latterly blasted this region. Much of the land on the limestone side is irregular with ancient diggings and spoil heaps, wormeaten with old collapsed tunnels and the silted up remnants of shallow pits. There are long, rough scars, running for miles across the country, up and over the ridges, where the once-productive veins crop out on the surface. These she called rakes, narrowly confined between drystone walls, where the ground has been dug and re-dug for centuries. Sharp‑edged crystals of calcite, brown-stained fluorspar and occasionally the dull metallic glitter of galena, the ore of lead, can be turned up with the fingers. Specialised plants, sometimes poisonous to cattle, grow, fenced off by those walls. A new industry had developed lately, the child learned, re-working the old dumps for the fluorspar that had been neglected before.
On the other side of the valley, layer upon layer of resistant sandstones and shale lie over the limestone, forming high plateaus and peaks, dark gritstone country, beautiful but hard and threatening. The precious minerals in the substrata may be reached, if at all, only by deep shafts. Very deep, deep shafts. Peter, the old man, shuddered at the boy Peter’s memory.
Mrs Dane, unknowingly, started this alien boy on the path to a lifelong interest and profession. It was, he began to see with her, as if the village had grown out of the very rock. All the cottages on this side of the road, she pointed out, were built from dark, flat sandstone slabs quarried from the very ground on which they stood. On the other side the houses were made from limestone. This comes in chunky, grey blocks. There was, and is, in this narrow dale, no brick building, not a single red roof, everything is the colour of weathered grit on one side, or limestone on the other. Most of the roofing is overlapping slabs of inch-thick sandstone pegged to the rafters, or dark Welsh slate. When Peter was in bed, his head was a few inches from the ancient, twisted beams sagging beneath the huge weight of a stone roof.
The evacuees from all the villages attended the little elementary school in Nether Sough, at the lower end of the dale where it debouched into the broader Derwent valley. The little band of four from Endale had to walk a mile down to the next village, Clough, to get the school bus. All the newcomers, city kids, stuck together to begin with, in tight bands to maintain a front against the local toughs who abandoned their various rivalries temporarily in order to torment the furriners. Their worst crime was that they wore leather shoes instead of clogs. The clogs were carved from solid lumps of wood, but had steel toe caps. They were good weapons. When Mrs Dane saw his bleeding shins he soon had a pair of clogs himself. A truce was eventually established.
The devastating air raids, expected before Christmas, had not yet come. Most of the evacuees went home again after a few weeks, before the end of the year. They were collected by their parents, or received the fare money and went home by themselves. Many ran away and took their own road back to the city. They were nearly all back when the bombers came, a year later.
In this lad’s case, it was not so easy to return. His mother became very ill soon after he went away. His father, a skilled foundryman, could not cope with a sick wife and a child as well. He wrote that his son must stay where he was and sent a little extra money for his keep to the Danes. They rarely heard from him after this, for he was not a writer and there was no telephone at either end. Soon Peter was one of only two city boys left in the entire dale. The other, whom, perforce, he got to know well in the ensuing months, was Andy Wallace, who boarded with a family in Clough. Andy’s parents had separated and virtually abandoned him. They took the evacuation scheme as a release from all their responsibilities towards their child. He had a letter once, only once, from his father, who went to a new job far away in Scunthorpe. He never heard from his mother again and was wretchedly unhappy. Although he was more than a year older, he and Peter were driven together. The school had only four classes including infants and seniors, so in spite of the difference in age, they sat in te same twin seated, iron-framed desk, and were together most of the rest of the time. Peter didn’t find it hard to keep up with Andy in the school work.
There was one other foreign boy; Roger Seldon, who lived with his mother and three teen‑aged sisters in a large Elizabethan manor house further down the dale beyond Clough. Their father was a regular naval officer who had seen the war coming and moved his family early, away from Portsmouth, where they had been living. The Seldon girls were rarely at home, for they attended a swell boarding school. This itself had been evacuated en masse to a vast country house somewhere. Roger, the boy, attended a small, semi-residential, prep school in the Hope Valley, coming home for weekends. With Andy, Peter met Roger occasionally and in the holidays. He had a self‑confident, patronising arrogance that prevented the Attercliffe boys from really liking him, though he was not a bad sort and lacked friends, as they did. Roger had an air rifle. To load, he showed them how he could break the gun open, exposing the breech end of the barrel where, normally, he would insert a single leaden slug. Slugs were hard to get now. Instead, you could force in a little plug of potato and shoot that. They played soldiers and Roger shot potato at them. He was a good marksman and usually hit what he was aiming for. It stung when he caught a cheek or an ear. They occasionally got a turn with the gun, but never hit anything. Mrs Seldon clearly did not care for them at all. Perhaps her stand‑offish manner concealed something warmer but if so, it was well hidden.
The Seldon girls were altogether off the planet to the two lads, but it was a meeting with them, in the winter holiday of January 1940, that brought Peter to the New Works for the first time. Peter. It must have been him.
There was not a lot of snow at first, just bitter, bitter cold. The trough in the street froze and Mrs Dane had to take an axe to break the ice. Weird festoons and curtains of icicles hung from the crags and from the roofs. Late one Saturday afternoon, under a clear and cold sky, Andy and he were strolling up the dale from Clough, wondering what to do, when they met Roger Seldon and his sisters coming down the other way. Each had a pair of skates hanging round their necks, all were dressed in smart, snug garments with bright scarves and woolly caps. They had been skating. “Wasn’t it obvious?” the girls sneered. Where? On the reservoir at the New Works! “Where else could one skate in this ghaaastly district?” Neither boy had ever heard of the place. The Seldons would be going again tomorrow, if the frost had not broken. They were permitted to join them, Roger said, if they must. “Bring your skates.”
They had no skates nor nice, hand knitted woolly caps with bobbles, but determined to go anyway. It would be a fair walk to get there.
Andy called for him next morning and they hung about until the others came past the cottage on their way. The girls tossed their heads indifferently, Roger fell back to chat. The track they followed led slantwise up the valley side, over the brow onto the high plateau. As they puffed up the slope, Roger commented rudely on their lack of gear and what he called ‘decent’ clothing. The path passed between two black tors and emerged onto the upland. There were a few wind‑tormented trees just beyond the crest, but beyond, open, rolling country. The drystone walls were higher than their heads but by standing tall occasionally, they could see a high chimney, alone on the flank of a gritstone ridge and overlooked by another, still higher, black, ice-bound scarp. As the path meandered this way and that, the walls cut off the view. The stack seemed to drift mysteriously from place to place. When first sighted it was far away to the left. Glimpsed again at the next turn, it was to the right, but hardly any closer. They trudged on. The track widened, straightened and ran at last into a good surfaced road. Now the dark column was directly in front, looming large. The wall enclosing the abandoned works was in much better shape than those marking ordinary property boundaries. The coping stones along the top were cemented together, or had once been so. Frost and rain had nevertheless dislodged some of them. They came to the collapsed remains of the gate and stepped easily over the fallen timberwork onto the lane leading further up towards the tall square, tapering pillar. The girls turned aside at once and climbed up a steep artificial bank on the right. The boys scrambled after them. On the other side was a perfect, rectangular sheet of ice. An embankment, faced with stone blocks on its inner surfaces, enclosed it on all four sides. It had been the water storage for steam winding and pumping engines, long dismantled. Now, it served as a skating rink.
Within a few minutes, the Seldons, pretending to greater expertise than they truly possessed, were showing off their skills. They could at least stay upright and move with some grace. They excited sufficient envy and admiration from the Sheffield boys. After watching for a while, Andy and Peter made a slide, launching themselves from the stonework on one side of the dam and trying to float smoothly all the way to the far bank in one go. They never got near the other edge without falling or having to shuffle, but marked their best efforts with small pebbles and gradually improved. They wondered why none of the boys from the dale were here, and why they had never mentioned this place.
The girls had brought a basket with flasks and food for themselves and Roger, but invited no-one to share their frosty picnic. The pair had not thought to bring anything.
They continued their game and suddenly were joined by another boy. He was not one they had ever seen at school, or anywhere. He was smaller than either of them, yet seemed older, dark of complexion, his face lined, his forehead broad, half hidden by a ragged fringe of greasy hair that hung down over his eyes and ears. His chin was sharp and the cheekbones high so that the face seemed almost triangular, elfin, with large eyes, dark brown and well spaced. Another furriner? A gypsy? None too fastidious themselves, they noticed that he was very dirty. His clothes were ragged and filthy, streaked and stained. Through holes in his jacket and trousers, which did not match and were too large for him, they could see he wore several sets of underwear, holes in the outer layers being opposed by better bits in the garments underneath. He had no shoes. His feet were wrapped, several layers thick, in sacking. He uttered little yelps and seemed to be clowning for their benefit, though unsmiling. He slid and tumbled deliberately and grotesquely on the ice, falling in a heap, somersaulting, sliding on his belly for yards, humping himself along with his elbows, all the time gasping and muttering. The Seldons took one horrified look when he first appeared, then strove not to notice him again. His show was all for the two boys, though he often looked at the others as he performed, as if hoping also to excite their admiration.
After a while, tiring of their limited sliding, leaving the ice Andy scrambled up the stonework, slippery as it was, and stood on the bank of the reservoir to stare around. Peter followed. Seizing this chance, the dark, dirty boy climbed after them and, drawing them closer with a secretive gesture, spoke. It was a few seconds before they realized that the sudden, rancid stench came from him. He spoke slowly, with an oddly formal tone although his dialect was thick even to their ears.
“Coom oop! Ah’ll shuur thee summat!”
“Worr is it?” said Andy, wrinkling his nose and backing off a step.
“Coom oop!” The boy jerked a hand over his shoulder, turned and trotted off, leaping and sometimes jumping with both feet together as he went. Stopping momentarily, he cocked his head back and said again, “Coom oop!” They followed, stumbling over the hard, ice‑bound tussocks of silverhair grass, up the rise towards the mighty chimney.
There was a large shed at the base, with tall but splintered wooden doors hanging crazily half open. The roof, stone flagged like other roofs in the region, had fallen. There were huge, heavy but broken beams and shattered roof slabs piled up everywhere within the shell of the walls. There was no sign that there had ever been an engine inside.
The little black figure skipped past the ruin, scrambled up a high bank that glittered with shards of white, crystalline spar, and with a last beckoning wave, disappeared behind the corner of the chimney. They found him standing against, or rather hanging on, a tall, strong, barbed wire fence. The posts were well braced, the top wires higher than their heads by a couple of feet. The dirty boy, spreadeagled against it, was staring somberly through. On the other side, yawning open, was the pit.
It was a huge, elliptical hole, lined with dressed stones, some of which were bound with iron. The edge was crumbling and festooned with mosses, frozen now. Green, slimy algae trailed down, encrusted with ice. The fence stood back from the edge and their view down was cut off after a few feet. The far wall of the hole, which was all they could see of it, was covered with solid ice, ridged and rippled, where, in warmer seasons, a spring must trickle down. Andy and Peter gazed in awe, the dark child remaining perfectly still and, now, utterly silent. The nine year old felt suddenly uneasy. The ground beneath them seemed less solid. It might so easily soften, crumble, slide down like sludge into that dreadful hole, taking them with it. Was it only the frost that bound all together? Or was the freezing more likely to burst everything apart? He looked away and up. The huge black chimney towered above. A few drifting wisps of cloud made it seem to be toppling towards him. He clutched the fence. It trembled under his hand. The dark child felt the wire web shake, and emitted an eerie crooning sound, a keening.
“If we drop a rock down, us can count the seconds and see ‘ow deep it is,” said Andy. He turned away to scratch round for a stone, coming up with one almost at once.
“Right, start countin’, one an’ two an’ three…” There was a sharp click. Andy looked at his friend, disappointed, but there was another click, louder, and another. Then, no more. They strained their ears. It seemed there was, from some immeasurable depth, a deep, deep rumbling.
“I know wot,” said Andy. “T’stone hit t’side and bounced. It’s too small. Le’s find a bigger rock and chuck it straight down t’middle. He found a lump bigger than his hand and carefully lobbed it over the wire, aiming for the centre of the great hole.
“One, two, three, four,” There was a bang, immediately followed by another and more, multiplying. The stone must have leapt wildly from side to side, careering down from wall to wall as it went, ricocheting to and fro at an increasing rate. The echoes swelled, then faded gradually until Peter again detected the rumbling from far, far down. Was it louder now?
“It’s bloody deep. Let’s get a bigger one!” Andy ran down the bank to a place where an old wall had collapsed and came back with a stone as big as his head. He pitched it, with an effort, over. There was brief interval, then a loud boom, like a crack of thunder close by, followed by a prolonged roaring as if the entire shaft were collapsing. Peter ran, stumbling down the bank a few yards, horrified, turning back reluctantly, expecting to see the earth crumbling. Nothing happened. Andy had not moved. Ashamed at his panic, he crept back cautiously. The subterranean rumbling seemed louder now. Was it only that his ears now were attuned to it? The shaft, in truth, was never silent. Had Andy disturbed some awful subterranean creature that would suddenly emerge in fury and devour them? The small, dark spider‑like figure was still hanging on the fence and let out another weird cry that might have been laughter.
“It must be miles and miles deep!” Peter gasped.
“Get some more rocks.” Said Andy. They didn’t have to look far, raiding the crumbling engine house for some of the big, flat slabs from the roof, and filching stones off the broken wall. Andy tried to pitch each one down the exact middle of the hole, but always hit the side of the shaft after a few seconds. With the bigger lumps the noise was enormous, overwhelming in deep‑throated power. Andy, obsessed, could not find a rock big enough, could not get it to fall right, could not make enough din. They never heard any final crash, no definite end to the echoes. Sometimes the little black figure, hanging higher now, thin legs and arms spread widely, more than ever like a spider waiting on its web, let out his eerie wailing and shook the wire so that it rattled, but he did not speak.
Evening was hastening upon them. The wispy clouds were becoming thicker, a chill wind was blowing and it was time to go. They had miles to walk.
“Tha knows, we mote look down it!” said Andrew, after a last boulder had tumbled down, helped on its way by the two of them heaving together, “What d’ya say? Crawl up t’edge and look over!”
“Tha’s daft. Tha’d see nowt. It’s dark, black.”
“We c’d get some cans and oily rags, and set light to ‘em, and chuck ‘em down. Tha’d see summat then, Pete, eh?” Andy had a wild glint in his eyes. They left the spider boy hanging on the wires, and walked back to the pond. Peter’s legs felt a little weak. The winter sky was rapidly darkening and heavy clouds streamed from the north. The Seldons had left. They hurried. Andy was determined to come back the following day, with the crude flares he had suggested. As they reached the tors marking the edge of the high ground, they caught sight of those bright bobble caps, far ahead and below.
That night the great snow came. Drifts six and eight feet deep formed and re‑formed in the blizzard, even roof high across the village street. The high crags vanished under huge, fantastic frozen quilts of white with overhanging fringes. Sheep caught on the high ground died in deep drifts. Endale was entirely cut off, even from Clough, for three days. Peter had time away from school. Council workmen came eventually with a crude snowplough. Even then, movement off the road was impossible. Each night the wind blew under the roof slabs of the boy’s bedroom carrying fine, powdery snow inside, and once there was an actual drift three inches deep where the draught curled under the door. Dane moved his bedding downstairs where he was warmed by the range. That was a bad winter.
When, after two months, the snow began to go from the lower slopes, the whole countryside ran with water. To leave the made roads was to slither impossibly in slush and mud. The pumps at Black Sam’s could not cope with the thaw and finally failed altogether. The mine flooded and closed, probably for good. Dane’s occupation was gone. He expected to be directed to another mine somewhere.
Late in March it was possible again to move freely. Andy, one Friday, proposed that they should make the flares for dropping down the mine.
“Ah’ll get some rags, an paraffin. An matches, an a tin can wi ‘oles in it. Peter hesitated.
“Tha’s sceered,” Andy said. He denied it.
“If tha’s not sceered, coom tomorrow. Sithee.” Peter nodded, doubtfully.
Next morning, Andy did call. He had two cans stuffed full with rags and had punched numerous holes in them. He had found paraffin in his foster-father’s shed, stolen some of it, and matches, for he dared not ask. Peter felt guilty already and, right enough, was scared when they had crawled under the tall fence and there was nothing between them and that mighty hole but a yard or two of crumbling, gritty wet ground and the slimy, hairy green fringe. There was much more noise. Every joint and crack was oozing and dripping with water. Each tiny droplet set up echoes. The shaft yawned as they edged towards it. It sounded as if water was pouring into the pit in a thundering torrent. Flat upon their bellies, daring each other to move forward, Andy and he inched towards the chasm. The last bit sloped inwards, funnel‑like, so that to get their eyes over the edge they had to wriggle with their shoulders unsupported. Little bits of muck broke loose, rolled forwards and vanished downwards. They made the last small fraction and could see straight down. The hole seemed bigger than ever. There were little fronds of fern between the joints in the greasy, wet, green, slithery stonework. Beyond was blackness and that all‑swallowing roar.
“A mote light the can, then just drop it straight, so it won’t hit owt,” said Andy, scratching with the match. His voice trembled. The can took fire. He held it poised for a moment, hand shaking, then let go. The flames snuffed out instantly and they had only a glimpse of the can, seeming to float in the darkness rather than falling, before it vanished.
“Bugger!” said Andy, and scuffed gingerly around behind him for the other can, lit it, and this time made sure it was well alight, burning his hand, before letting it go. It went down, and down, and down. At first, between them and the flickering, receding bundle, the whole tunnel was lit. They saw the masonry, wet and foul, but soon the flames illuminated only rough‑hewn walls of rock, jagged and unsupported. As the flare dropped further, further, further, the darkness closed in above it, the light touching only a few yards of shaft above and below its momentary position. All sense of distance was lost. They saw a ring with a bright centre, getting smaller and smaller and fainter. Soon there was only a tiny red dot which did not seem to move at all. The can then must have struck the wall of the shaft, for there was a sudden flaring and the red spot broke up into many fragments, some of which vanished instantly while separate pin points of light drifted this way and that, falling, falling, falling, and as far as they could tell, never reaching the bottom. The sparks at last went out or became too small to be seen.
Peter was conscious only of dark, dimensionless black space, a velvet emptiness in which a boy might float or fly, supported for ever and ever, like those faint sparks. He did not feel afraid any more but lay entranced, dreaming. A droplet trembling on the tip of a frond, swelled and fell, vanishing at once. Gradually he became aware of the wetness soaking through his clothes, sharp and gritty bits of crystal digging into his knees. He awoke fully, became aware of his precarious position, saw again the green slime, the fronds of fern, the dribbling, slobbering mouth in front of him, heard again that awful roaring, the thunder of great rivers echoing and re‑echoing below. He had that terrible sensation of falling that sometimes comes just before sleep. His first frantic movement backwards found him slithering the other way, hands slipping out over the brink, legs and feet scrabbling uselessly. Perhaps he did slide an inch. Then he broke away and flung himself back, uncaring when he slammed full tilt into the barbed wire. He clutched it, cutting hands, knees and face but not feeling, and looked back. Andy was still lying face down at the edge. Opposite, beyond the shaft, in silhouette against the sky, was the dark boy. He was on the inside of the fence now, a terrible spider, hanging, keening, waiting.
“Andy, Andy!” Peter yelled. The spider jerked sharply and the web quivered. He yelled again, and all at once Andy was with him. They scrambled through the wire, rending their clothes, and pelted away down the track, over the gate and along the enclosed way. The black chimney, when they dared to look, seemed to have shifted its position. Of the small black figure they saw nothing more.
Mrs Dane was horrified at his condition, for he was scratched, bleeding and exhausted after running all the way home. Andy and he had parted somewhere. Stupidly, he lied and made up some tale about falling into brambles. She didn’t believe him, but patched him up and put him to bed. He woke up in the night, yelling, and brought her, grumbling but concerned, to shut him up. He slept uneasily through most of Sunday morning. It rained in he afternoon, continuously, and he spent the time curled up reading on one of the broad windowsills. He was beginning, gradually, to understand some of Mrs Dane’s geology books.
The Danes took the chance to question him closely and seriously about the previous day. They guessed the boys had been up to mischief of some kind. At last, they reduced him to snivelling and got the truth, or as much of it as he dared tell. At the mention of the New Works mine, Dane made the longest speech he had ever heard from him.
Never mind chucking things down. It was, he said, a bad and dangerous place. The local boys knew it, and had the sense to keep away. He must do the same. It always had been bad.
“The old man (he meant the old‑time miners) never got ‘owt from it but a few tons of low grade rubbish. They dug the shaft down through the gritstone into the lime, found nowt, dug deeper, found nowt again, deeper, and nowt, nowt, nowt.” Where they had expected rich veins of ore, they found empty caverns and deep potholes, water thundering down them. It had broke the owners, and broken some of the men who went down. There was a boy lost there, never did find him, left behind when the mine closed. Peter must never go there again, nor Andy, nor anyone.
“I think he knows,” said Mrs Dane. “He’s not a fool, this boy. Tha’s learned summat? Eh?” she said. The boy nodded. “I think he found out for hissen!”
“Reckon so,” said her husband.
But not all the local boys kept away, Peter thought. There was one who didn’t. He had said nothing about the spider boy. Where had he come from, who was he? What was he?
Back at school, with bits of plaster and iodine dabbed all over them, Andy and he drew strange looks from the teacher and rude remarks from the boys. On the Friday afternoon Andy drew him to one side, gripping his arm as they left the playground.
“Ah’m goo’in back termorrer. Wil’ta coom wi me?”
“Back? Back weer?”
“If tha wants ter go, go thissen!” Peter pulled away from the clutching hand.
At school on the following Monday, Andy admitted he had not after all been again to the New Works. The weather was too bad, he said. It was a weak excuse, the younger boy thought. Andy had been frightened too. He told Andy what the Danes had said, added, not quite truthfully, that he had promised never to go near the place again. Andy sneered.
Andy was curiously silent and humourless during the following few days. He was not at school on Friday. Was he sick? After leaving the bus, Peter called at Andy’s place to ask.
“Gone, the little buggar,” said his foster mother, shortly. “Gone back home.” Andy’s words were interpreted differently here. He was thought to have gone back to Attercliffe. He hadn’t a home to go back to, Peter knew. When he tried to explain, he roused only anger. Andy, the woman said, was an ungrateful boy, never responding to her kindness and now he’d buggered off without so much as a goodbye. She had told Constable Thornhill, down the dale, that Andy was missing. All she could do, all she was going to do. It was not the first time an evacuee had run away.
Next day Peter tried, nervous but growing more anxious, to tell the policeman what he believed. This was not a local man. He was another foreigner, near retiring age and tired. He had been posted to this remote station from county H.Q. ‘for the duration of hostilities only’, and didn’t know what the boy was talking about. He insisted there weren’t any new works with open pits. The only mine in the district that he knew, Black Sam’s, was flooded and deserted, the shaft there was well covered, he was sure of that.
“Andy didn’t say ow’t to me about goin ‘ome!” The bobby was not much interested. “Well, ‘e likely wouldn’t say exactly. You might have told on ‘im. ‘Goin’ back’, he said, din’t ‘e? It’s clear enough. Not far for a lad to walk down to t’bus, on the spur of the moment, like. He ‘ad some pocket money, adn’t ‘e? Bus and train and he’s back in Attercliffe. You’ll see, he’ll turn up. You say his dad’s in Scunthorpe? Well then, that’s where he’ll be, by now.” It seemed a reasonable argument, even reassuring. What was a man supposed to do, anyway? Thornhill considered his duty done when he told the city police to look out for a missing lad.
In that fine, but disastrous, summer, adults had enough to worry them without fretting over one little boy who might, or might not, be lost. Ships were being sunk every day in the Atlantic. Denmark and Norway were overrun, another British aircraft carrier was lost. Belgium, Holland and France collapsed. What was left of the British Army came back exhausted and virtually without armaments, from Dunkirk. The Local Defence Volunteers, in July re-named the Home Guard, drilled in the school yard in the evenings and at weekends. They had no rifles and made do with improvised pikes, elderly men or some temporarily unemployed, like Dane, waiting for their call up papers or direction to new jobs,
The villagers saw nothing of the great aerial battle far to the south. On the radio the kids heard the tally of planes, theirs and ours, destroyed. It was like hearing the scores of some remote sporting event and the children believed everything that was told to them. They played Spitfires and Messerschmitts, rushing round the school playground screaming and firing imaginary machine guns. They had no conception of the realities.
Nothing ever was heard of Andy. Roger Seldon now was Pete’s only friend, if he could be so called. They met more often at weekends now but they did not enjoy one another’s company much. Roger made no secret of his contempt for the village louts, as he called them, and did not think much better of this one, a scruff from what his mother called the slums. There was resentment and argument after this remark, but the two had found an interest in common. Roger had developed a collector’s passion and had taken to scratching around the spoil heaps in search of minerals; calcite, galena, fluorspar, and fossils which abounded on the limestone side of the dale. Thanks to Mrs Dale, her Attercliffe boy also now knew something about the different rocks of the district. He collected a few bits and pieces himself, laid out on the windowsill of his bedroom and neatly labelled. Roger had his much larger collection proudly and expensively displayed in a special case. Yet the Seldon boy’s attitude was shallow. He collected, but he did not study. He had little conception or interest in what his finds signified, made no connections with the shape of the land, the quality of the pastures, the structure underneath it all. Mrs Dale’s boy did not study seriously either, there were words and whole passages in her books that made no sense to him at all. He could not even read, much less comprehend some of them. Yet with her guidance he became aware, increasingly, that there was something fascinating here, connections to be made with everything he saw about him. The very walls of the cottage and the slabs of stone so close above his bed, spoke to him of geology. He could relate the various changes of vegetation and land use to the underlying strata. There was much to see and understand.
One Sunday morning very early, still dark, he was woken by the sound of boots and voices outside the cottage. Someone knocked at the street door. He went to the window. The group of men, Constable Thornhill among them, were carrying unshielded torches, ignoring the blackout regulations. Dane, woken from sleep, spoke briefly with them, hastened to dress and put on his boots. The boy could not hear what was said but watched and saw them move on, turning aside at the dale head. The lights, like a string of dim glow worms, crept up the slanting track to the tors, and there disappeared. He thought it might be some sort of Home Guard exercise, or perhaps a plane had come down on the moors. They had had heard there was one such last month, away at Lathkill. Might someone even have seen a German parachutist coming down? That was an exciting thought. Half asleep still, he went back to bed.
At breakfast, Mrs Dane told him that Roger Seldon was missing. When he had not come home by tea time last night, his mother had raised the alarm. His hobby, visiting old diggings and quarries, was well known. At first it was thought he might have sprained an ankle or even broken a leg, but nothing had been found last evening at any of the likely places near Clough. The search was now spreading further out. After a hurried breakfast, Peter insisted he must follow the search party up the scarp. Mrs Dane protested but she had to admit, he knew Roger and where he was likely to go. She could not deny that his knowledge might be useful. He must not be stupid and must not get in the men’s way, but she let him go. He was sure it was on Roger’s list of places waiting the collector’s attention.
The searchers had plodded carefully to every other conceivable site on their way and had arrived at the pit shortly before, breathlessly, he joined them. He was superfluous after all and had nothing new to tell them. They had looked carefully at the reservoir and scouted the engine shed and its rubble. They were gathered gloomily at the fence, conferring. They made no attempt to get through. They could see there were, perhaps, some fresh marks on the edge of the shaft. Or had those scratches been there for weeks? A stub of pencil that might have been Roger’s, or might have been anybody’s, was lying near. They had not visited the place themselves for years. They could not tell for sure. What use would it be to get through that fence?
“Ah’ll tell thee, if the little bugger’s gone down that bloody ‘ole, ‘e’ll stay down,” said the former manager of Black Sam’s.
“’Ow deep is it?” asked the constable.
“Its deep enough. If that’s weer he is, you’ll not gerrim out. And that’s t’end on it.”
“We’ve got to try. We’ve got to look.”
“Ow the bloody ‘ell do you think you can do that? We’re wasting time here. There’s a hundred other places to look right now. If we don’t find ‘im today, you can think about this place again. But I’ve telt ye, if that’s weer he is, that’s weer ‘e stops.”
The party moved on. Sadly, Peter walked slowly back to the village. He was feeling desperately alone.
In Clough three days later, there appeared a dozen, brown boiler-suited men with helmets. They were army engineers, the pioneer corps. On their khaki truck was a large winch with steel cable, shear legs and a pulley block. It took them most of the morning to get to the shaft, for the lane was narrow and they had to knock down walls to make a way. An ambulance, also painted khaki but with huge red crosses on white circles, struggled after them. Peter and a few village lads, skipping school, pursued the little convoy in a gang, but the other boys all stopped at the old gate. They would not approach the pit. He went on alone, fearfully. As he got nearer, he thought he glimpsed a little black figure scuttling away to vanish over the hill. It might have been his imagination.
The men cut the fence and backed the truck through, carefully, standing by with baulks of timber to chock the wheels. A few miners stood around, watching. Their former boss was not present, but a man in tweeds who may have been the landowner, conferred with both the local constables and a senior army officer of some sort. Mrs Seldon was there, white, strained, alone. There was no sign of the girls or her naval husband. One of the men chucked a rock over, and listened. The boy had heard that sound before.
“Bloody ‘ell!” said the man.
“Steady on, you fool. You could hit him,” said the man in tweeds.
“Can’t see as it makes any difference. Bloody ‘ell!”
It took another hour to get the apparatus up and secured. The men now hesitated and looked at one another.
“Who’s it to be, then?” said their officer. They stood quietly, looking at the great chasm. Then one of them went to the back of the truck and dragged out a sort of harness, made of canvas and with heavy buckles. He began to put it on, helped by the others. When he was ready and hooked onto the cable, he was carefully swung out and suspended above the hole.
“What about gas?” asked the man in tweeds. “Shouldn’t he have a mask?”
“It’s not a bloody coal mine. There’s no gas,” said a miner.
The man carried an electric lamp, a telephone with a curved mouthpiece that hung on his chest. There were tools, coils of rope and an axe dangling about him. When the swinging steadied, the winch motor rumbled into life and he was lowered slowly out of sight. No‑one crept to the edge to watch him go down. All turned to the man who had the other end of the telephone line and paid it out carefully off its own spool as the main cable drum rolled. The officer spoke to him quietly now and then, and he nodded. Flanked by the miners in their huge boots, the boy watched the cable sliding smoothly off, through the pulley block and down. At first it was bright and silvery with use, but as more came off the drum it changed hue to grey, then to greasy black.
“Fookin ‘ell, it’s bloody deep!” muttered one of the men.
Still the cable unrolled and the telephone called for more.
“It can’t be that deep!” said the tweed clad man, desperately.
“It fucking can. It bloody is,” said a miner.
“How much more is there on that drum?” said the officer to the winch man.
“Not much more.”
“Stop ten turns before the end.”
They could already see the steel of the drum core itself being exposed slowly as more turns of cable peeled off, and then it stopped. The cable hung, bar taut, down the hole, moving slightly from side to side.
“’E can’t see owt.” The man with the telephone said, “’e can’t see bottom. An ‘e says it’s bloody wet and cold.” The man in tweeds went over to Mrs Seldon. She turned away after they had exchanged a few words, and he came back, grimly.
“Bring him up.” The motor rumbled again, and the winch began, with a jerk, to turn in reverse.
“Stop, stop!” yelled the telephone man. Simultaneously, the cable made a twanging sound, the motor coughed and the truck jumped.
“Jesus Christ, jam those timbers under it”, yelled the officer, and the men shoved hard.
“Stop, stop!” yelled the man with the phone again.
The truck’s slither was arrested, the drum stopped with another jerk, the cable hung down.
“Is he awright?” There was a moment’s awful silence, then relief.
“’Es OK, more or less. The cable’s swinging ‘im back and forth, ‘e keeps ‘itting the sides. ‘E says, go very slowly, so ‘e can keep fending ‘ isself off. An for the sake of bloody Jesus, keep it smooth.”
“Right! Slowly then, slowly. Take it easy, and keep those wheels chocked solid.”
The motor belched a little, the drum began, gingerly, to rotate. It took a long time to wind the dark, oily wire back to the silver part, and then at last the man emerged, swinging. He had been violently sick, and was shaking with cold and terror too much to help himself get rid of the harness. The ambulance men had something to do after all.
The boy ran down the lane, weeping, past the silent cluster of gaping young ruffians at the gate, and met the anxious Mrs Dane halfway to the village. She hugged him closely and took him home.
The Seldons left the district. The naval husband came on compassionate leave and took them all away. The manor house stood empty. The boy stayed with the Danes for only a few more weeks. Dane was indeed directed to a mine in Cumberland and his wife must close up the cottage and join him there. Peter might have gone back to the city, but his mother was still sick and he had won a scholarship to the Derwent Grammar School, one of several kids in the dale who did so, that year. The school took a few boarders. His father, earning good money in his essential industry, could afford the modest fees. He was sorry to part from Mrs Dane. She had been kind and he owed her much more than she ever knew. Otherwise, he escaped Endale with a sense of relief, and till now he had never been back.
In this other age, when his little family reached the place where the chimney and engine house had stood, they found a patch of rough ground overwhelmed by bracken and some of those poisonous plants. A few grubby sheep ran off as they approached. Where the pit had been was a great, square slab of concrete, laid over the top of it like a huge trap door. He supposed they had dynamited the chimney and the shed, bulldozed the rubble and the spoil heaps into the hole but hadn’t, even then, filled it up entirely. He doubted if they ever could do so. In the middle of the slab, it looked as if there had been a metal plate once, but it was gone now, with whatever inscription it might have carried. For a wild instant he imagined the trap door flying open and a monstrous black spider leaping out at them, filthy, stinking, with fangs and large, well spaced eyes.
“1 don’t like this place” said Tracey.
“Nor do I,” said Grandpa, shaking. Helen stared at him.
There is a good bitumen road through the dale head now. Otherwise Endale still looks as it was. It is within the National Park and there are protection orders on almost every building. Little has changed but everything is different. Cow barns have been converted to desirable residences with multiple bathrooms. The cottages are occupied now by commuters with cars and computers who can afford the stupendous prices demanded for housing within an half an hour’s drive of the cities. Television reception is perfect and there is broadband for those busy folk who need it. They are busy folk.
So after all there are furriners living in those houses built into the bank. The back walls have been thoroughly waterproofed and the floors are dry. The stone flagged roofs are well supported with new beams, sarking and insulation. Snow doesn’t blow into the bedrooms. Everyone has flush toilets. No‑one wears clogs.