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The Coal Miner’s Son is Book 2 in the House of Grace trilogy. Read a sneaky preview below.
The Coal Miner’s Son
A Family Saga
Patricia M Osborne
Shuffling feet, giggles and chatter filled the school corridor. Ben pushed me into the cluttered coats making me land on my bum. Luckily for me Miss Jones wasn’t around yet. We charged into the classroom and raced to our seats at the back. I won cos my legs were longer. Mam said I was like a stick. Eight of us sat round two tables squashed together as boy-girl-boy-girl. I shifted away from my neighbour, Susie Smith, a small girl with ginger frizzy hair and blotchy skin. Ben sat opposite her. Miss Jones strode into the room clapping her hands. Forty chairs scraped across the floor as everyone stood to attention and our rickety seats squeaked like mice when we sat back down.
Miss Jones wrote 11th June 1962 on the blackboard. ‘Open your exercise books and practise the “Seven Times Table” in your heads. I shall test you after break.’
Paper rustled as pages turned. I got to four times seven when I heard the usual trickling. I bent down and found pee running close to my feet. Not again. I looked up towards Ben and rolled my eyes. He sniggered. I put up my hand.
‘What is it, George?’ Miss Jones said.
I signalled to Susie.
‘Oh dear. Would you mind fetching the mop, George? Susan, you go too and find Nurse.’
I dragged my chair back to stand up and the whole class turned to watch as I strode out of the room with Smelly Susie wriggling behind me. Why hadn’t she put up her hand to ask to go? No wonder no one wanted to play with her.
Humping the mop and bucket round to my table, I soaked up the puddle. The stink made me want to spew like when Mam asked me to put our Beth’s smelly nappy in the bucket.
Miss Jones patted me on the shoulder. ‘Thank you, George.’
I turned around and looked up into her light blue eyes. My heart banged like a drum. One day I was going to marry Miss Jones.
On my way back to the classroom the bell rang so I ran to catch up with Ben who was already nearly out of the door. We whispered and giggled.
‘George, can you wait behind please?’ asked Miss Jones.
She must’ve heard us laughing at Smelly Susie. Now Mam would find out, she’d tell Da and it’d be the slipper for me. But it wasn’t fair, why didn’t Ben have to stay behind too?
‘Sit down, George.’ Miss Jones pointed to the wooden chair next to her desk as she crossed her long legs. She looked like Marilyn Monroe with her blonde wavy hair. Da was always saying Marilyn Monroe was the most beautiful woman in the world, next to Mam and our Alice of course. I hadn’t known what Marilyn Monroe looked like so Ben had showed me a picture in a magazine.
I crept towards the chair.
‘Don’t look so worried. I just want a quick word.’ She flipped through the pages of my exercise book. ‘Look at all these red ticks.’
I gawked at the pages.
‘There’s not one sum wrong,’ she carried on. ‘You’re a bright boy. What would you like to be when you grow up?’
I shrugged my shoulders. Ben reckoned he was going to live with his aunty in America when he grew up. He wasn’t going down the mine. It wasn’t fair. ‘Dunno, same as Da and his da, I s’pose.’
‘That would be a waste. You could go to grammar school and get a good job. You’re bright enough to do your eleven plus early. I could help.’
‘But Miss, I’m only just nine.’
‘Yes, George.’ She smiled. ‘But you’re as bright as any ten-year-old. I’d like to speak to your mother. Is she home tomorrow morning?’
‘I also wanted to thank you for clearing up after Susan every day. You’re a good boy, George Gilmore. I can’t understand why Mr Mason complains about you.’
I shrugged my shoulders to pretend I didn’t know why Sir used Percy Pump on me. I was never naughty for Miss Jones cos she was lovely and that’s why I cleared up Susie’s pee.
Miss Jones passed me the biscuit box that sometimes came out at break time. ‘Take two.’
I sank my teeth into a melting chocolate finger, it was scrummy. I saved the other one for Ben.
‘George Gilmore.’ Mr Mason slashed a ruler down on my table. ‘Dreaming again, boy? Stand up and spell Encyclopaedia.’
I nearly jumped off my chair and quickly covered my exercise book. I didn’t want him to see the George and Janet heart I’d drawn on the back cover. I didn’t know Miss Jones’s first name but she looked like a Janet to me.
‘Come on boy.’ Mr Mason smirked.
He thought I didn’t know how to spell it, but I did. The funny ‘ae’ in the middle helped me remember. I didn’t want it to look too easy though as some of the lads already teased me cos I was clever and cos I helped Miss Jones. I took a deep breath. ‘E N C err Y? C L O P E, oh no I mean A, E D A, sorry Sir I mean, I A.’
Sir’s eyeballs bulged like frogs’ eyes. He moved his speckled beard closer to my face. ‘Excellent, Gilmore.’ His sour breath made me gag. ‘Does everyone else know how to spell it?’ he asked, breathing all over me.
The class kept their heads down.
‘Gilmore, write it on the blackboard. Class, watch carefully.’
Thank goodness, my chance to get away from the giant with bad breath. I stopped pretending I wasn’t clever and bolted up to the blackboard. I picked up the white chalk and made it squeak as I wrote ENCYCLOPAEDIA in big letters under the date.
The bell rang. I escaped into fresh air.
Ben nudged me. ‘Come on Brain Box.’
We skedaddled out to the playground pushing each other.
Mam was on the couch with her face hiding in Mrs Deane’s chest. Why was she even here? She didn’t even like Mam, she thought Mam was too posh. Our headmaster had sent everyone home early today because there’d been an accident at the mine. The road to the pit was blocked and bobbies were all over the place, dust flying everywhere. I tried to push through the barriers to find Da but the policeman wouldn’t let me through, said it was off limits so I asked him about Jack Gilmore but he just told us to get on our way and ‘straight home, mind.’ Alice pestered me all the way back to our house, questions like, what’s going on and is Daddy all right. ‘Yes of course he’s all right,’ I told her. I hoped I was right.
Mrs Deane eased Mam away from her. ‘Now that the bairns are home, Mrs Gilmore, I need to get next door to check on Nancy. And that little one needs feeding.’ She pointed to Beth lying in her cot. Mrs Deane stood up and patted Mam on the arm. On her way out she tapped me on the head. ‘Look after your Mam, there’s a good lad.’ She waddled over to the door and closed it behind her.
‘Mam, what’s happened? I asked.
She covered her face with her hands.
‘Is Da alright? Alice, get Mam a cup of water.’ My chest started thumping.
Alice passed me a chipped mug. ‘What’s wrong with Mammy?’
‘Here, Mam, drink this.’
Beth started howling so I strode over to the yellow carrycot and picked her up. She stopped crying when I rocked her in my arms. ‘Mam, I think she’s hungry.’
Mam took Beth, unbuttoned her blouse and stuck the baby on her bosom. Beth made smacking sounds as she sucked.
‘What did Mrs Deane want?’ I looked round, there was no pan on the stove. ‘What’s for tea? Da will be home soon.’
Mam just stared into space.
‘Shall I peel some spuds?’ If I got grub ready, Da would walk through the door. Mam always said he could smell food a mile off.
Mam’s face was white. ‘George, come and sit down, you too Alice.’ She patted the couch next to her, still holding the baby. Alice and I snuggled up to Mam and Beth, making the springs ping. I placed my arm around Mam’s neck. My throat closed up.
‘How much did your headmaster tell you?’
‘Something about an accident at the mine,’ I said.
‘You know your father loved us all very much, don’t you?’
‘Yeah.’ My chest thumped faster.
‘Your fa…’ She sobbed making her body shake. ‘Your fa…’
‘No, not Da.’ I squeezed my eyes.
‘I’m sorry my darlings. I’m sorry but your fa…. A policewoman came around earlier to tell me that your father… he was in the mining accident.’
‘But he’s going to be all right, isn’t he?’ I clung to Mam.
‘I’m sorry George, but no. No, he’s not. I’m sorry but Dad’s gone to Heaven. They said he wouldn’t have been in pain. He didn’t want to leave us. He couldn’t help it.’ She squeezed us both tight, so tight, I couldn’t breathe. Her tears wet my cheeks.
‘No, you’re wrong. Daddy’s coming home in a minute.’ Alice broke away and shrieked, ‘George said so.’
I wanted to believe Alice was right but I said under my breath, ‘He’s dead.’
Alice punched me. ‘Stop it, stop saying things like that. I hate you.’ She ran upstairs bawling.
I peered around the room. Da’s best boots stood by the door. His clean white shirt hung from the pulley and his pipe lay in the ashtray.
I opened the solid oak wardrobe door and stared at the two dresses adjacent to each other. The first, a white lace gown with a broderie-anglaise bodice boasting tiny silk roses, and the second, an elegant black satin frock draped just below the knee. Neither reflected the right emotions.
It seemed a lifetime ago, much more than nine years, since I stepped into the wedding dress, experiencing only sadness, nerves and loneliness. I ran my fingers over it. If only things had been different, Grace would have been my bridesmaid. How we used to giggle as girls growing up together, chatting about our wedding days.
My mind slipped back to walking down the aisle at Loxhurst Cathedral, my arm hooked into Father’s. Our feet paced in rhythm to Richard Wagner’s bridal march, Here Comes the Bride. Faces I didn’t recognise squinted their eyes to capture a view of me, the teenage bride, in my crisp silk-laced gown, trailing six-foot on the ground. I cuffed a bouquet of red roses dressed with gypsophila tightly between my fists. Strangers, daughters of Father’s business acquaintances, tailed behind as bridesmaids in lemon, clasping baskets of mix-coloured chrysanthemums. I turned around to see the three-year-old twins, posing as pageboys, chasing behind in green plaid kilts. Martha, our housekeeper, her grey hair piled into a bun, pointed a stern finger at them. She mouthed towards me, face the front, where the large-framed man in his fifties, barely any hair on his round head, stood at the end of the first pew waiting eagerly for his prize.
I fingered the black, silky folds of the second dress. I flushed, remembering how I stood over his grave, in the pouring rain, with false tears, unable to mourn this man, my mind blank as the coffin was lowered. I’d shivered in the wet weather, and cringed as, one by one, I shook the hands of Father’s and Gregory’s business acquaintances while they offered their condolences.
How foolish I’d been to think my problems had been over. Two weeks after the funeral I was weeding the spring flowerbeds, enjoying the daffodils and red tulips dancing in the light breeze, when Winnie, the new maid, hurried into the garden. Why had Gregory employed her? His explanation to take the burden off me, somehow didn’t ring true.
‘It’s the solicitor, Ma’am. He’s waiting for you in the library.’
Finally, I was free. With renewed energy, I strode into the house.
‘Mr Simpson.’ I took his hand to shake. ‘What’s the news?’
He shook his head. ‘It’s not good, Lady Giles, I’m afraid there’s very little left.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Too many creditors, I’m afraid.’
I blacked out, opening my eyes to Winnie holding a glass of water under my nose. ‘Here, Ma’am. Drink this.’
The solicitor was fidgeting with his hat. ‘Are you all right, Lady Giles? Perhaps I should return another time?’
‘No, no, I’m fine now. Please continue.’
‘I’m sorry to be the bearer of such bad news.’ The solicitor rustled his papers. ‘Might it help if I notified Lord Granville, and filled him in with the details?’
As usual I’d need to rely on Father because I had no idea what to do. ‘Thank you, Mr Simpson. Yes please if you don’t mind.’
‘Certainly, Lady Giles.’ He shook my hand again. ‘Good day to you.’
I clenched my fists, stormed out into the garden, knelt on the grass, and yanked a big bunch of buttercups, hidden under the crimson azaleas, from their roots. And then buried my face in my hands to weep.
Within a month, Father had taken over. Dealt with the death certificate, bribing the doctor and creditors. I begged him not to compromise the doctor but I didn’t stand a chance.
‘Elizabeth, the Granville reputation can’t afford to let the Press get hold of your husband’s drunken lifestyle. Myocardial infarction sits much better on the death certificate. I can’t understand why you didn’t come to me earlier.’
It was becoming clear why Grace left all those years ago. Father understood very little about me. His only interest was his reputation. I certainly wouldn’t be wearing this dress again. I threw it on the bed in a heap along with the wedding dress.
Mother walked into the room. She didn’t look any older than when I’d left the house nine years ago except her dark hair was now shorter and set in a wave just below her ears.
‘How are you getting on? she asked. Are you sure you wouldn’t like Martha or one of the girls to assist you?’
‘I’m almost finished, Mother.’
‘Elizabeth, what are these dresses doing here?’ She picked up the wedding dress, cradling it in her arms. ‘These beautiful gowns deserve to be treated with dignity.’
‘I won’t wear them again, Mother. We should give them away to a charitable cause.’
‘Nonsense, dear child. This is all you have left. You need to hold on to your memories.’ She draped the dresses over coat-hangers and hung them back in the wardrobe. ‘Now let’s not have any more talk about parting with them. Dinner is in fifteen minutes. If you can’t sort this out’ – she waved her hands around – ‘I’ll send one of the maids in to finish for you.’
‘I’ll do it, Mother. I’ll be down in time.’
She left the room huffing and puffing. I pushed the bedroom door closed.
I slumped down onto the bed, in the same bedroom I’d slept in for my first sixteen years. Nothing had changed. And I was supposed to be grateful. Arching my back, I got up and smoothed down my straight skirt. Well I was no longer that naive young girl, but I needed to find strength to stand up to the great Lord Granville.
After crawling out of bed I put on my Sunday best. I didn’t want to wear these posh clothes and I didn’t want to bury Da.
I took down the National Dried Milk from the shelf and scooped powder out of the blue and white drum, added boiling water and stood the bottle in cold water to cool. When it was ready I tipped it onto the back of my hand to test the temperature like Mam showed me. Warm milk trickled from the teat. Mam went to the baby clinic to get the powdered milk after she had to stop feeding Beth with her bosoms, and they gave her some bottles of thick orange juice and tasty rosehip syrup too. I picked Beth out of the cot and sat down on the couch to feed her. She guzzled, sucking on the teat. It was a good job the lads at school didn’t see me, they’d have called me a cissy but I just wanted to help Mam cos she was sad. I didn’t want to play footie now anyway and cuddling our Beth made me forget Da was dead. Mrs Deane would be here to take her soon.
‘When’s Mammy going to make breakfast?’ asked Alice.
‘Mam’s getting ready. Stick a slice of bread under the grill and do one for me too.’
I lifted Beth towards my face. ‘Pooh.’ I laid her on the floor to change her nappy and managed to pin the new one together without stabbing her. Mam said I was a quick learner. I slipped a yellow frock that smelled of flowers over Beth’s almost bald head. Mam said Beth was going to be blonde like me and Alice. Beth wriggled making her silky skin slippery, so I put her down in the huge pram in case I dropped her.
Mam was still upstairs, crying. She was always crying since the accident, but I wasn’t supposed to know. Alice was sitting on the floor staring at the telly as no one was there to say she shouldn’t, and I couldn’t be bothered. There was nothing on anyway, she was just staring at the test card that looked like a Ludo board.
Mrs Deane tapped on the back door before striding in. ‘Morning lad, where’s ya Mam?’
‘Upstairs gettin ready. I’ll tell her you’re ere.’ I tiptoed upstairs and found Mam just sitting, glaring into the mirror, holding her lippie.
‘Mam, Mrs Deane’s here.’
‘Thank you, Sweetheart.’ Mam smiled and brushed her wet face against my cheek before dropping a net veil from the black hat, hiding her eyes. I wished I had a veil to hide behind.
Mam clenched my hand tight. Her wedding ring dug into my fingers. Aunty Nancy, our neighbour, stepped out of her door as we were leaving. She stuck close to Mam and took Alice’s hand. We walked sadly in the direction of the church. Ben went to Sunday school there every week, but Da said Sundays were for footie or picnics in the park. Red and yellow roses stood like soldiers as we passed by window boxes on the cobbled street. Crows flew on and off house roofs squawking. When we reached the church, Mam stopped and backed away. Nancy took her arm and led us into the dark building. We sat down in line on the hard, brown benches. The vicar opened his book and started to speak, his mouth moved but my ears had gone deaf. Mam stared into space, gripping my hand so tight it made my bones crunch. Alice’s eyes were like pennies. She still thought Da was coming home. I tried to tell her he wasn’t, but every time I did she threw a tantrum, punching me in the chest and belly, her long spiral curls buried into my chest.
Da’s miner friends were dressed up in white shirts and dark suits. Six of them went up to the coffin and whispered. They moved around the coffin and then swapped over, still whispering between themselves. With three men on each side, they nodded, took a deep breath and heaved Da up onto their shoulders. One of the men sneezed, the coffin slipped. They were going to drop him.
Aunty Nancy leant over and patted my knee. ‘It’s all right, luvvie.’
The miners nodded again and started moving slowly out of church carrying Da. We followed behind while the other people carried on singing.
Aunty Nancy said the coloured flowers in the round shapes were called wreaths. She reached into her bag and passed a white rose to me and one to Alice. It made me sneeze like those in the boxes outside the houses. Why did Da get killed? Uncle John, Aunty Nancy’s husband, got killed too, so there was no grown-up person left to play footie with Ben and me.
They put the wooden coffin down the huge hole. I didn’t want them to put Da in the ground. The vicar waved his hand to tell us to throw in our flowers. Mam screamed, dropped to her knees on the grass and tried to climb in the hole with Da. I wanted to scream too but I didn’t because big boys don’t. Da said so. I wanted to run away and hide so I could blubber without anyone hearing. Mam was frightening me. She was frightening our Alice too.
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