This is another old story, rescued from a notebook.
If you lie in the lee of the wall you can pretend the spring sunshine is the warmth of an approaching summer. The breeze, which is fairly constant in the Bathgate Hills, made ripples in the grass, carried the sounds of growing lambs, but lifted over the wall without cooling me. I slept for a while, aware of dreaming, but forgetting the dream’s content when I woke up. Why is it some dreams are memorable, but others not? Memories are the same. And when you get memories and dreams all mixed up together you’ve got real trouble.
I’ve been here before, I know that, but so long ago that no detail remains. The dry-stane dyke circles the crown of trees on the hillock, for no apparent reason. Fields slope up from the road towards it, mostly hay on the slope, with ploughed flatter ground closer to the farmhouse. Set into the hillside there’s a locked iron gate, its bars too close-set to squeeze through. Looking through it, you sense only a dripping darkness, in the depths of the mine. You can remember being terrified, but not the terror itself, the crashing and splashing as you ran for the rectangle of light which never seemed to get any bigger. Coffin levels, that’s what they call this type of mining – where the profile of the mine level is shaped for minimum access, one person at a time. Head and feet are narrow, take less space, less rock to remove. An old mining term comes back to me – ingonese – because it drives in from hill or streamside – an ‘in-goin’ ee’, see?
Was there a fox? High summer, long grass blowing, cloud-shadows passing quickly, and I’m sure there was a fox, running up the hill, sniffing, seeking anything edible, looking back at two boys watching; tail fluffed up, straight out behind it.
I would have waited, you see, only it was one at a time.
The Hillhouse Mine is easy, a choice of four or five ways in, but the slope is very steep, probably goes as low, as far, as the Caribber mine – it’s the same limestone after all. A hard slope to pull stone out, but they could have rigged up endless belts, hooked on the wooden sleds, and used horses to walk round a pulley wheel, hauling up the full loads, letting the empties slide down into the candlelight. No gases here, quarrying into the hillside first had opened the whole mine to the air. Down a fair way there’s even a kiln, so some of the lime was burnt below ground. The roof is a massive sandstone, supported on big pillars of limestone. Safe, mostly, but when it does fall, the bits that come down are massive. Killers.
The Silver Mine is my secret; I won’t talk about Aitken’s adit. Besides, that was later, that was professional, my job.
We ran everywhere as kids, it was easy, and easier than being patient. Bored with the picnic, the two of us went off adventuring. We were Cowboys and Indians on the hillside, then British and Germans, grenading with pine-cones from the shelter of the wall. It was Billy who saw the dark mine entrance first, so he went in first, one at a time, remember? It was open in those days. Light from the entrance glinted in a little way. Our breath steamed in the cold air. The floor was wet, running in a little stream toward the entrance. It was Billy who found the timber, I’m almost sure of that. He pulled a bit off, and I squeezed the water out of it, like a sponge. There were more of these soft props all along the level. One of us, I can’t remember which, kicked one of them, the squidgy wood disintegrating at the first touch of toe. The timber splashed into the water at our feet. We laughed, and then fell silent, hearing another splash from deep in the mine. Then another. And another, and then the groaning sound I now know to be rock grinding against rock. After that, I can’t remember much until I was outside blinking in the sunshine.
Billy didn’t come out.
I was probably too scared of the mine to be scared of telling my folks, and Billy’s folks, what had happened. I’m fairly sure I got a hammering from my Dad later on. Billy’s family didn’t have much to do with us after that. Billy went to a different class from me after he got out of hospital – a Special Class – for boys with plates in their heads, and things like that. I don’t think about him much at all these days, but I never trust old mine timbers, and I never go underground without ropes and helmet lamps.
I walk back down to my car, the wind now blowing through my hair. As I pass a blackthorn thicket I smell the distinctive odour of a dog fox. I turn and look back up the hill, but the only thing moving there is the rippling grass.