(Submitted to the Under The Silver Tree Short Story competition)
Maybe because it was still dark outside, it made me think my cap lamp had died and they had left me on my own between A and B Headings. The sensation lasted as long as it took to reach the snooze button.
In the bathroom, I sit for a moment of relief. Ever since the night I went all over the seat and floor, I’ve sat for the first piss of the day. I won’t do that again; the five consecutive overtime shifts or miss the toilet bowl. My work clothes are where I left them folded away from everyone’s feet on the bench beside the resurfaced cast iron bath. The smell of sweat and engine oil in the cotton won’t come out after countless cycles through the industrial washer. Being promoted from contractor to employee and the company taking over my clothes washing was like a marital aid to Jane after years of running two machines at home.
Breakfast is toast with apricot jam and coffee. One kid, I’d say Ben, has frigged with the setting and I coat the burnt side with butter. In the fridge, Jane has packed my lunch and smoko. Last night’s leftovers and biscuits made from an online recipe which the kids decided were too sweet for their new tastebuds.
Apparently, sugar now gives us cancer.
If that’s true, I don’t know how our ancestors lived off nothing but tea, flour, and sugar, yet somehow found the strength to build this remote town while growing crops on depleted gravelly soils. Hard work and sheer bloody-mindedness conquer all.
I wedge Jane’s containers into my crib bag beside my thermos of black super sweet coffee. It’s the cheapest shittiest most beaten-up thermos yet works an absolute charm. My 17th birthday present from a girlfriend. A sensible gift, but I still gave her a look until she let me touch her boobs in her mum’s car while both our parents drank rum and coke in the garage to Jimmy Barnes screaming Working Class Man.
She told me my hands were rough. I said her skin was softer than silk, even though I had no idea what silk felt like. It couldn’t possibly be as soft as her breasts.
My breakfast mug goes in the dishwasher. I close the door to the front of the house as quietly as possible. Maybe it’s the caffeine causing the headaches during shifts. Johnno says coffee throws out his circadian cycle. I told him that’s meaningless because changing from dayshift to nightshift every fortnight means none of us have sleep cycles. Anyway, Johnno takes more prescription Stilnox than the rest of us.
Out on the road I can see my breath, but it’s not cold enough for gloves. I push my left-hand thumb through a hole in my jacket pocket as I wait for my lift and enjoy the pre-dawn air. Last night’s rain has washed it so clean I might be standing in timbered mountains instead of a suburban post-war sprawl. A crumpled chip packet on the neighbour’s lawn has moved closer to the road since yesterday.
Dakka pulls up to the curb and says it’s my turn in the front. It’s not Tuesday. In the back, Johnno and Sean have their heads against the doors. I say nothing and get in. Radio National jabbers away for the forty-five minutes it takes to get to the mine, and as we reach the tall steel gates on their automatic rollers, a slither of sun breaks over the horizon behind us.
Today we will mine 18 cut-thru tunnel off C mains heading, our Green Crew Undermanager reminds us needlessly. We started it yesterday and still have a week to finish. The ancient riverbed is hard going with lots of mesh and daily visits from the geotech engineer. His grouted tell-tales in the roof haven’t moved so we figure he just wants to get away from his computer and occasionally feel like a miner. None of us can understand what he’s saying. Half because of his accent and half because we keep a suitable distance from the second-hand garlic. Jane tells me his wife is opening a kebab shop in the shopping mall. Kebabs always remind me of the Royal Easter Show.
An alarm came through six hours into our shift. For a moment, it was like the time I watched a kid at school walk through a glass door. I froze as people rushed up and walked him coolly to the school nurse. That happened again now. An urgent calm took over the entire crew as we shut down the continuous miner and crammed into the driftrunner. Our shoulders bumped as we rocked in the seats while around us the transport’s engine roars in the rocky tunnel. I think we were calm because no one in our panel was injured. Jacko shouted that the ventilation fans had probably tripped again. I nodded because I don’t think anyone else heard him.
Undoubtedly, the roadway floor has more potholes on the way out than it did coming in. It’s pretty obvious the transport designers didn’t have comfort at speed in mind.
In the sunlight we hear about a longwall apprentice getting smashed in the face from a hydraulic hose decoupling. It embedded part of his safety glasses in his cheekbone and there were oily pinholes across his face. He’s only three years older than my kid and already booked on a helicopter ride to Sydney where they will inject him with a chemical to scan for hydrocarbons in his bloodstream and muscles. We joke to ourselves about how the girls will dig his scars, while not saying what we’re really thinking.
I catch sight of the kid lying on a stretcher wrapped in a space blanket and trying to stop his head from moving. By the looks of it, he’s had the green whistle, so won’t be feeling anything.
Fatherly hands rest on his shoulders.
The Undermanager is worried as he holds a sheet that will say, Dear Doctor, Jake Mahoney has a suspected high pressure injection injury around his face and neck. Every single person at the colliery, underground miners, and office staff alike, watches him go until we can’t hear the chopper anymore.
In the bathhouse I leave my clothes in the Easy Lads bin for a giant machine to deal with the dirt. Gary Nilsson from longwall is under the last shower with his body facing the corner. If I had a dick that big, I’d be waving it around rather than hiding it. Green soap similar to dishwashing liquid gets lathered everywhere you can imagine until it choked the drains with grey suds like ocean foam on a beach. In the next row of showers across, a fight nearly breaks out. Dakka had collected a swollen earthworm from a puddle near the bathhouse and kept it cupped in his hand. I didn’t see what happened. Sean told us on the way home about Dakka scratching his arse, then shouting and flicking the giant arse worm at a Valley Conveyors contractor.
The guys laughed about it the entire drive back. No one mentioned the longwall kid.
At dinner, I’m reminded the kitchen table is now too small for the four of us. When the kids were little, it was handy to reach across and help with the challenges of using a fork. Now that they’re in high school, our knees touch under the table and the plates are getting crammed.
‘What did you do at school today?’ I ask both the kids.
‘Nothing,’ Georgie says. She’s pushing the cauliflower and broccoli as far away from the meatloaf on her plate as possible.
I glance at Ben. ‘How about you, mate? What’d you get up to?’
‘Played soccer in the arvo with the boys. Had a double period of science in the morning.’
‘That’s good. You like science.’
‘We’re learning about climate change.’
‘Mr Forster says we need to change everything to batteries before it’s too late.’
‘Right. Too late for what?’ I say, as neutrally as possible.
‘The point where we won’t be able to stop the world from burning up. Fossil fuels are ruining the atmosphere and we gotta stop using them, otherwise the place will get too hot.’
He spears a piece of broccoli onto his fork, followed by meatloaf, then a wipe of gravy over the top. It’s a pattern he’ll repeat for the entire meal.
I give him a moment to finish his mouthful.
‘He’s given us an assignment to do on the greenhouse effect. Which sucks,’ he says.
Jane’s half-way through her dinner already and I see Georgie’s about to run out of meatloaf.
‘Have you thought more about what you want to do when you leave school?’ I ask.
Ben shakes his head as he stabs the next green flower.
‘Still keen on engineering? Good mechanical engineers will always be needed.’
‘Don’t think I’ll go to uni, dad. None of the lads wants to go to uni.’
I can feel Jane’s eyes on me.
‘Don’t waste that brain of yours,’ I say. Already knowing what his response will be, I still go on, ‘You’d be a good mine manager. Have to start at the bottom like the rest of us and work your way up. But you’d do that pretty quick, I reckon.’
‘Mr Forster says the mines are part of the problem.’
The memorial plaque at the mine entrance comes into my mind. Two lives gone in a day.
‘I’ve never met Mr Forster,’ I say quietly. ‘Let me guess. He’s from Sydney, so he knows all about the mines.’
As I brush my teeth, Jane reminds me about Georgie needing braces. She waited until then so I wouldn’t hear everything she had to say. Although I get the part about private health insurance will cover half the cost and the rest will need to be through instalments. I remember seeing the orthodontist’s Porsche at the first appointment, numberplate SMILER. It’s the kind of message you remember. That means our family holiday savings stop for a few months to pay for straighter teeth because the stats got zeroed from today’s incident, so there goes our safety bonus. Not helped by the fault zone we’re mining through equalling double the number of rib bolts and longer three metre ones for the roof. No weekly meterage bonus either.
The kids said they didn’t have any homework tonight. That leaves the adults to be grown-ups until half-way through series four of Mad Men I’m accused of nodding off in my chair. I spent half my high school with my eyes closed during class, baby. I’m a pro at looking asleep and listening at the same time.
In our bed, Jane kisses me lightly and looks at my pillow and tells me to clean my ears better. I remind her you can’t get rid of all the coal dust. Down the hall, Ben is on his Xbox shouting at his mates to stop dying.
For the first time of the year, Jane’s wearing her flannel nightie. When I nestle behind her and put my arm over her tummy, she pushes her bum against me and sighs. Her hair smells of her, but I never say so or she’ll move away.
We’ll stay embraced until she’s asleep or I get too hot, whichever comes first.
Probably me. I’ve always run hot.
With my eyes closed, the red dot of the alarm clock floats around like a devil’s flashlight flicking every time I move my eyeballs. It’s brighter than normal and keeps me awake while Jane’s breathing becomes slower and fainter.
As I begin to sweat, I roll onto my back and put an arm outside the blanket so it’s within reach of the alarm. There I wait for the Stilnox to take me away