Jimmy Wilson, a small child with jet-black hair, was incredibly strong, a little battler by all accounts who let nothing stand in the way of him doing anything he chose to do. That was a good trait to for him to have, considering his family were so poor. You see, his father had died when Jimmy was only four years of age, leaving his wife, their poor bedraggled mother, to rear him, his brothers (Bill and Jack) and sisters (Doreen and Kathleen) all on her own. In those days, in the nineteen twenties, life was incredibly hard, especially so in the impoverished northeast of England, There was social welfare system to fall back on, to help you out in the hard times. It was survival of the fittest, nothing more nothing less. However, she tried, their poor mother tried so valiantly to eke out an existence, a decent life for herself and her five children, to give them some semblance of the carefree, happy childhood all children truly deserve.
Although his father had died when he was young, Jimmy insisted that he remembered him, and nothing gave him more pleasure than listening to his mother recounting stories about his father. Each evening, when she had tucked Jimmy in bed, he listened to them. “Mum, tell me the story about the time dad found that piece of coal, you know, the one that was a big as a house.” This was Jimmy’s favourite story, he must have heard it a hundred times, but he never tired of it.
Smiling, she said, “Okay, but only if you promise to fall fast asleep as soon as I have finished it.”
“Yes, yes, I promise,” Jimmy answered, settling into his pillow, ready for his all-time favourite story.
Staring down at her son, the mother saw her beloved husband’s eyes staring back at her. Wiping away a tear, she began the story…
When the story was finished, his mother bent over and kissed her sleeping son on the forehead. Glancing across two her other sons, she saw that they too were asleep.
After blowing each of them a kiss, she made her way out of the room, pulling the door closed behind her. Looking into the adjacent room, where he daughters shared the same bed, she saw that they too were sleeping peacefully. Shuffling down the stairs, to the front door, she pushed the bolt into its night-time position. Returning upstairs, she climbed into her bed – alone. Missing her husband so much, she cried herself to sleep.
Next morning, Jimmy, as per usual, was first to awaken. It was five-thirty. After donning his clothes, then having a quick wash in the basin on the tallboy, he made his way downstairs, to the kitchen. Pantry would better describe it, because it was TINY. Jimmy, however, had no idea that it was so small. Why would he? Where they lived, everyone’s kitchen was of the same diminutive size. It was normal as far as he was concerned, perfectly normal.
After pouring some oat flakes into his bowl, a cracked and chipped affair, Jimmy poured in a smidgeon of skimmed milk. Picking up his spoon, mixing the milk and raw flakes together, he scoffed the lot back with such gusto anyone watching might have thought he had not eaten for a week.
The breakfast over, Jimmy hurriedly donned his duffle coat and gloves. Picking up the coal bucket and shovel, he made his way across the cold tiles of the hallway to the front door, where he carefully slid back the bolt to its daytime position. Opening the door, he stepped out, into the darkness of the early morning.
It was cold and bleak outside; a weak, waning moon hung low in the sky. A coating of frost covered everything in sight. Shivering, pulling up the hood of his coat, Jimmy made his way down the lonely cobbled street…
Although Jimmy tried to be quite, not to awaken anyone in the small terraced houses bordering the street, his galvanised bucket would every now and again let out a bang and a clatter loud enough to awaken the dead, as its handle caught on the mountings supporting it. Like everything his family owned, the bucket was well past its best.
Stilling the bucket with his gloved hand, after it made a particularly loud clatter,
Jimmy felt the cold of its metal leech through his thick woolen gloves. He shivered.
“Hello, Jim,” a cheery voice called out from the darkness, opposite.
Scanning the street, squinting, trying to see through the weak, watery moonlight,
Jimmy made out the shape, the outline of another child. It was Eric, his best friend Eric. “Oh, it’s you,” he said gloomily.
“What’s up, Jim?” Eric asked, sensing his mood.
“Oh, it’s nothing, really…”
Placing his bucket onto the timeworn old cobbles (it banged and clattered so loudly, Jimmy feared everyone in the entire street might be awoken), then folding his arms,
Eric said, “Come on, out with it, Jim.”
Pointing to his bucket, Jimmy said, “Pick it up, I’ll explain along the way.”
As the two friends made their way down the desolate street (taking special care that their buckets remained silent), Jimmy began speaking, he said, “Eric, you know, I won’t always be poor… We – all of us – won’t always be poor…”
Smiling, Eric replied, “I know that, Jim. There’s a rainbow out there, somewhere, with a pot of gold at the end of it, with our names inscribed indelibly upon it.”
“I mean it, Eric, I really do!” Jimmy insisted, thinking his best friend was not taking him at all seriously.
“I know you do, Jim,” he replied, “I really do.”
Stopping alongside a fence bordering the street they had just entered, Eric leant down and tugged at its base. It lifted. “Go on,” he said, “You, first. I’ll pass the buckets in through to you.”
Being so small, Jimmy passed easily under the fence. Eric, however, was another matter. “Here you are,” he said, passing the buckets to Jimmy. Crouching down, on all fours, Eric began crawling under the fence. However, he became stuck. “Are you holding it up all the way?” he called out from his undignified position below.
“Yes, I am.”
Then why am I stuck?”
“Because you’re too big,” Jimmy explained. “I told you only last week this would soon happen. “You are growing too fast. This hole is now too small for you.”
Huffing and puffing, Eric would hear none of it, and he tried even harder to pass through the small space. RIP. Accompanied by a loud ripping sound, he suddenly shot through the gap under the fence.
“There, I told you I could do it,” Eric said triumphantly, trying to forget the sound he had just heard. “Come on,” he said, “we have a good way to go, yet.” With that, he began sliding his way down the steep incline ahead of them.
From behind, Jimmy’s eyes were drawn to the consequence of the ripping sound, a sound they had both heard whether Eric admitted it or not – a tear in the seat of his pants. “Eric, wait!” he called out. Eric, being Eric, would hear none of it, and he barrelled on, slipping and sliding his way down the slope.
By the time Jimmy had caught up with him, at the bottom of the slope, his best friend had come to realise the errors of his ways. Feeling rather embarrassed, he asked,
“You wouldn’t happen to have a pin handy, would you?”
Laughing, Jimmy rummaged through his duffle coat pockets, to see if he had anything resembling a pin. Withdrawing a gloved hand, he sorted through the various items upon it. There was a pencil, a rubber, two blackjack sweets, a half-eaten sherbet fountain, a three-quarters licked gobstopper covered in fluff – and a pin. Eric was in luck. “Ah, here you are,” he said, separating the pin from a sticky bit of something that might have once been a piece of licorice shoelace.
With the problem of the torn trousers thus sorted, the two friends began the task they were there for – to collect coal, the coal their families desperately needed to keep warm. You see, from the moment they had passed under the fence, they had been within the grounds of the local coalmine. Now, well within it, at the base of the largest of its many slagheaps, where the best bits of coal tended to fall and collect, silence and subterfuge were paramount. The only problem, however, was that the owners of the coalmine also knew this, and men, guards, patrolled it day and night, to stop the likes of them taking even one small piece of coal.
This was a bone of contention for Jimmy, because the owners of the coalmine ignored the slagheaps, allowing them to grow bigger and bigger. In his young mind, he could see no problem, nothing at all wrong with collecting the pieces of coal that gathered there.
“Hurry up, Eric,” said Jimmy, who had already half filled his battered old bucket.
“I’m going as fast as I can,” Eric replied. Stopping, cocking his head to one side, he asked, “Did you hear something?”
Holding a lump of shiny black coal in his hand, Jimmy froze with fright. However, he heard nothing, not a thing. Finally, picking up enough courage to speak, he said, “It must have been a piece of coal falling down the slagheap.” Relieved, the two boys resumed their coal collecting duties…
When their buckets were full, Jimmy and Eric began the long, torturous return journey back up the slippery slagheap. It would have been a hard enough task for an adult to try, but for two small children encumbered by buckets filled to the top with heavy coal it was a slow, painful, torturous process that took them a full thirty minutes to do. Their fingers ached from the frost and their toes were numb. It was going to be a very slow climb indeed.
After climbing for thirty minutes, the two boys were barely thirty feet higher from where they had started. It was beginning to get bright; the weak watery moon gone, replaced by a golden globe rising slowly above the eastern horizon. Although its rays were weak, they were warm enough to begin melting the frost. It was a double-edged sword. As their fingers and toes began to defrost, so too did the slagheap, making it all the more slippery underfoot.
Again thinking he heard something, Eric looked down over his shoulder. At the base of the slagheap, he saw a man, a guard staring up at them. “Oi! You two!” the man hollered. “What do you think you’re doing?”
Hearing this, the boys stopped dead in their tracks, hoping they might blend into the slagheap and thus disappear from sight.
Shouting up at them, the guard said, “You’re trespassing! You do know that, don’t you?” Receiving no reply, he said angrily, “Trespassers get shot!”
Well, that certainly did it, on hearing those words Jimmy and Eric dropped their buckets, coal and all, and scorched their way up the remainder of the slagheap so fast the guard was left speechless. He was also left hurt, as the two buckets came tumbling down the slagheap, smashing into him, knocking him for six.
Eric had no problem passing under the fence, this time. He shot through the gap as if he had lost several pounds in weight, and he kept on running, way ahead of Jimmy, all the way home. It was only when he entered the safety of their own street did he slow down, allowing his friend to catch up.
Puffing and panting, the two boys struggled to catch their breath. People were beginning to stir, people with questioning faces, wondering why Jimmy and Eric had coal dust all over them, but no coal in evidence to see. Embarrassed to have returned empty-handed, Eric suggested, “Same time tomorrow?”
Smiling, Jimmy replied, “You bet!”
“But we have no buckets!” Eric bemoaned.
With a mischievous grin, Jimmy replied, “That guard has another thing coming if he thinks he’s keeping my bucket! Don’t worry, Eric. We will retrieve our buckets, and he will get his comeuppance! See you tomorrow, bye.”
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