It was three o’clock when it happened. I know, because my eyes had glanced at the clock on the wall, willing the hands to move forward to the blessed release time of four, when the factory whistle would blow and we would all stream towards the exit, chattering and excited, ready to start our weekend.
The siren was a sound most of us had never heard, and the sound that just a few older women had heard once before and prayed never to hear again. It was the siren that signalled a disaster, that something had happened at the pit, where our husbands, boyfriends, brothers or sons travelled thousands of feet down into the dark mineshaft in search of coal.
There was a collective intake of breath, and a pitiful cry from a woman whose twenty-year old son had been killed in the last pit disaster, eighteen years earlier, as the siren triggered the painful memories of that time. The machines were immediately stopped as women stood, poised to race to the source of the sound that they knew probably meant pain and loss for some of them. The factory manager came into the room.
“Now Ladies, no need to panic. I’m sure it will just be a safety drill. How about I go and find out what’s up, while you finish off that order we need to send off tonight.”
But his words were ignored. Sod the order. There was a mass stampede for the exit.
The factory was half a mile from the mine, and we younger ones set off at a sprint, leaving the older, less agile women to trail behind. I was up near the front, praying inwardly that he was safe. He won’t be hurt. Not my Jack. Not the strong, vital man I shared my life with. The man who could crush me with his arms, so strong were the muscles in his chest and biceps; and yet a man who was so gentle with me. Who would run his calloused hands over my skin as lightly as a butterflies wings, while his lips and tongue explored every inch of me, as we lay on the bed with the brass knobs on each corner, which we had bought when we first married.
I still remember going into the store to choose it, and Jack making my face red as he bounced on it and called out so that everyone in the store could hear.
“Just checking that it will be strong enough to withstand the action it’s going to see when I get you on it, pet.”
He had laughed when he saw my red face. How he loved to tease me sometimes.
“Dunna worry, pet. These are all people of the world. They know what goes on in the bed of a newly married couple.” He turned and winked at one of the salesgirls, who laughed at his cheek.
We reached the pit, where there was a lot of activity. The presence of the mine rescue vehicles told us what we needed to know, and we stood in shocked silence as men walked briskly around, trying to look as though everything was under their control. But it wasn’t. There had been a tunnel collapse a thousand feet below us and thirty-two men were unaccounted for. And my Jack was one of them.
We waited hour after hour. The mine rescue people increased in number as they arrived from all over the country, fellow miners who always came to the aid of their own. The local mobile fish and chip van arrived and handed out free suppers and cups of steaming tea to the waiting women, but not everyone could stomach food while they waited so anxiously. Soon the press and television cameras arrived, and bright spotlights were set up as the cameras filmed the men walking to and from the mine entrance with grim expressions on their faces.
I refused to allow myself to believe that Jack was hurt, or worse. He would be safe, my husband of just three years. The man I loved so much that my chest sometimes ached with the passion swirling around inside me. He was my first love and my only love. I had been shy about my inexperience, but he had smiled and said he would teach me, and he did. He explored every inch of my body and told me to not be afraid to explore every inch of his.
“I don’t believe in God, pet. But if I’m wrong, and there is one, then his most beautiful creation is a woman’s body. Look how your hip curves here, and how soft and round are your breasts. Then just look at that bum of yours, I could sink my teeth into it, it looks so delicious, like a big, juicy peach.”
He was no poet, but the words he whispered into my ears as we writhed on the bed were more beautiful than any poem I had ever read. And those whispered words led me to a level of pleasure I had never dreamed was possible as I called out his name in my moment of release.
At the pithead the waiting women were largely silent now. Family and friends had brought coats to protect us against the cold night air, for we refused to leave until we had news of our menfolk. Benches were brought for us to rest our weary legs, but I wanted to remain standing so that I could see him the moment he came from the pit shaft entrance. I paced backwards and forwards, preventing my mind from dwelling on whether he was alive down there. I only wanted to concentrate on how much I loved him, and how much I needed him, willing him with every fibre of my body to walk through that shaft entrance.
I remembered the night of our wedding, when we went upstairs at the hotel where we had our reception. We were spending our first night as man and wife in their honeymoon suite. Truth was that the hotel was small and a little shabby, and the honeymoon suite turned out to be a medium sized bedroom and small bathroom, but that was all we could afford. And anyway, we didn’t much care. We just wanted to spend the night in each other’s arms after the exciting, but exhausting day.
He had jumped on the bed, lying on his back with his arms folded behind his head.
“I want to watch you undress. Don’t be shy, pet. Show me your beautiful body.”
So I had unzipped my wedding dress and let it drop to the floor around my feet, standing in the white basque and lace-topped stockings that I had bought as a special surprise for my new husband. He gave a low whistle, and I could see from the bulge in his trousers that he was aroused.
“You will need to get me out of this thing,” I said, laughing. “It took Mam and our Brenda ages to pull it tight enough to fasten the hooks. I don’t think I’ve been able to take a deep breath since I put it on.”
But he had been too impatient to undo all the tiny hooks. Instead he put one of his strong hands on either side of the garment at the top, and with an almighty rip he had pulled the two sides apart, the hooks flying off in all directions.
“I hope you weren’t planning to wear this again, pet.”
We moved into our own, rented house after the honeymoon, unlike some of our friends who had started married life living with parents.
"Thank God that I can fuck my wife without my in-laws hearing every last squeal and bed creak," he said. "Because I fully intend to make the bed squeak and you squeal a great deal." And I must admit, the thought of having my Mam and Dad hearing us would have certainly put a damper on it for me. Jack was as good as his word; his roaming fingers and lips tormenting me so that he had me begging him to let me come.
"All in good time, pet. The longer you wait, the better it will feel, remember that."
And he was right.
Noise and movement at the pithead interrupted my recollections. We strained our ears to try and hear what was happening, and were relieved when the Mine Manager came over to us. His voice was sombre.
“I’m sorry to have to tell you that there have been some fatalities.”
There was a collective sucking in of air from the waiting women, and one or two began to sob. The Manager continued, trying to offer us some hope.
“We haven’t found the others yet, but we have reason to believe that there are some men alive on the other side of the collapse. We’re trying to dig through to them right now.”
Immediately there was hope again. Everyone was fervently hoping that their loved one would be among that second group, while knowing that not all would be so lucky.
I thought back to the previous evening, when Jack sat in the bath as I washed his back. He always had a shower at work before he came home, but somehow that was not enough to wash the grime of the coal dust from his body. As my hand swept over his muscular chest I remembered shivering, knowing that shortly I would have my arms around that body in our bed. Even on the rare nights we didn’t make love, we always held each other tight before we slept.
“You dreaming, pet?” I realised that my arm had stopped, lost as I was in the daydream of our lovemaking.
“Mmm, I was just thinking what a lovely body you have. I don’t think I will ever grow tired of feeling it pressed against me.”
He reached out and took my other hand and pulled it down into the water, where I could see that he was already hard for me.
“And I don’t think I will ever grow tired of feeling your hand around my cock.”
I ran my hand up and down it at the same slow speed as my other hand ran up and down his back, my hands made slick by the soap.
“That’s right, pet, make it nice and clean. I fancy that this cock might see the inside of your mouth before the night is out. I’ve been thinking about that all day at work, and it made me right hard, I can tell you. It’s a good job its dark down there, or I would have got a lot of stick from the lads.”
And his cock did see the inside of my mouth, as I later crawled up the bed to where he was lying naked on his back, waiting for me with a grin on his face and a twinkle in his eyes.
“Aw pet”, he murmured, as my mouth got to work on him, “If there is a heaven, then it’s got to be where the angels look just like you, and suck cock just as good.”
I remembered that moment now, as the Manager came over to speak to us.
“I want to be honest with you Ladies. We’ve made contact with the men who are alive beyond the collapse and it seems that there are only six of them.”
He went on quickly as someone shrieked and slumped onto the bench, to be caught by the women on either side of her.
“That doesn’t mean that there are no more left alive than those six. It just means that we haven’t heard from any others yet. The rescue teams estimate that they will break through to the six within the hour.”
I sat down hard on the bench. A doctor was attending to the woman who had collapsed, and the local vicar and some of his congregation were moving among the women, trying to soothe and reassure the anxious group. I felt a hand on my shoulder and an elderly woman looked down at me.
“Hold on there, me duck. Have faith that he will be safe.”
Nearby the vicar was praying with two women, and although I wasn’t a religious person I was grasping at anything I could to give me the belief that my Jack would come out alive. So when the vicar said “Amen”, I repeated the word quietly to myself.
Forty-five minutes had passed since the Manager’s last pronouncement, and a flurry of activity at the pithead told us that something was happening. I heard men’s voices being raised in jubilation. There was some cheering and clapping, and then, by the light of the overhead arc lights, a group of men came walking towards us. They were covered in coal dust from head to toe, and in the dark it wasn’t easy to tell one from another. I looked desperately for someone who walked in the same jaunty way as Jack, who had the same broad shoulders and thick, brown hair.
I called out “Jack” in a loud voice, and one man stopped for a second and looked towards me. I jumped up and began running towards the man I now knew was him, and ran straight into his coal dust covered body, not caring how filthy he was, so long as he was safe. We both burst into tears as we hugged each other tightly, and kissed each other with a force we never had before. “Jack…thank God…” was all I could say before I covered his coal-stained lips with mine.
Jack attempted some humour to take away the huge emotion that coursed through us and around us.
“You didna’ say you were meeting me from work tonight, pet. Is this a special occasion?”
I attempted an equally light-hearted reply.
“Of course it’s a special occasion, Jack. It’s pay day, and you said you were taking me out dancing.”
“Yes, I did, didn’t I? Sorry I’m a bit late, pet. Work went on a bit longer than I expected. You don’t mind if we just have a bath and an early night, do you?”
“That sounds wonderful, Jack. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else but in bed with you. It sounds perfect.”
Life, for me, had begun again.
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