This story is by Roy Turner and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
Too Dark For Daniel
The summer sun cast a golden glow over the wheat field. Daniel sat cross-legged. Stalks scratched his thighs but he didn’t mind, the girl by his side captured all his attention.
“There.” He placed a daisy-chain on Cassie’s dark brown curls. “A crown fit for a princess.” She jumped up, flinging her arms wide open, and danced among the ripening grain.
“Where did you get the daisies?” She spun around. “I don’t see any here.”
“Picked them along the lane when you wasn’t looking.” Daniel chuckled. “You had your head in the clouds as usual.”
She planted a kiss on his cheek, then moved to his ear. “Perhaps daisies will inspire you to write me another of your poems?”
“Adorned with daisies in her hair,
She is my queen beyond compare,
With ruby lips and fetching smile
This maiden doth my heart beguile,” began Daniel.
Cassandra blushed. She loved Daniel’s poetry, almost as much as she loved him.
Earlier in the year, Daniel had taken a fancy to this girl but didn’t dare approach her. He was too scared she would reject him. Cassandra was the daughter of mine-owner, Jack Bradley. She lived in a grand house up the hill, Daniel lived in a ‘two up, two down’ miner’s cottage. Their lives were worlds apart.
It was at the Valentine’s Day dance that things changed. Most of the town rolled up, the one time of the year all classes mingled. After a few beers, Daniel decided it was time he made a move. He approached Cassandra who stood surrounded by a group of young admirers. He was about to turn away when she pushed the boys aside and walked towards him. The admirers looked deflated.
“Aren’t you going to ask me to dance?” She held out her hand in expectation. “Come. Let’s show them how it’s done.”
Fortunately, the band launched into one of the few dances Daniel knew.
“You’re a good dancer,” Daniel said, watching his feet.
Cassandra gripped his hand tighter. “So are you.”
Summer came. In the wheat field, under blue summer skies, they kissed.
“Wish we could stay here always.”
“Me too,” said Daniel, fiddling with his sandal strap.
He looked up.
In the distance, the huge wheels of the pit-head winding-gear loomed over the town like two gigantic eyes watching everything. The familiar sight filled him with dread. Tomorrow those wheels would send him into the depths of the earth for his first day down the mine.
“I expect coal mines are a mystery to you,” said Daniel, helping Cassie over the stile into the lane.
“Not at all,” she replied. “Father took me down the mine once. I think miners are the bravest people I know. While we are here in the world of sunlight, they are underground in that awful world with hardly any light at all.”
Daniel understood only too well. He’d never been down a mine but he knew what the work involved. For generations the men of his family had slaved down the mine, going to their work in the dark and returning home in the dark. Coal dust damaged their lungs. Many had bent shoulders from working in cramped conditions.
He ran his hands through his hair.
“Today’s my last free day.”
The despair and resignation in his voice made Cassie sad.
‘A miner’s life isn’t for you,” she said. “You have the soul of a poet. One day you’ll be able to spread your wings and fly away from here. I’m sure you’ll find a way.”
They strolled up the lane together. Daniel gazed around at the sun-soaked fields. “I’ve enjoyed today. Tomorrow will be different.”
Cassandra turned to look at him. There must be some way to stop such a gift being wasted’.
The early morning half-light shocked Daniel into wakefulness. His legs threw off the bedcovers. Stretching and yawning, he splashed his face with cold water and pulled on the clothes he had set out the night before. Overalls, a shirt and hard-toed boots.
His father waited in the kitchen with breakfast on the table.
“Listen here, lad,” he said, “you won’t be needing those clothes for long. It’s damned hot down that pit. In my day most of us wore nothing but underpants. It’s hard to believe, I know, but some fellers stripped completely.”
Daniel sat down at the table. His dad, Richard – Rick to his old workmates – didn’t often speak of life at the colliery. He had been badly injured in a roof fall and now drew the dole, housebound. Daniel’s wage would help the family through the hard times. It was his duty.
All along the street, doors slammed and cries of “Good luck!” and “Be safe!” echoed from bedroom windows as wives, mothers, girl-friends saw their men off to work. The district rang with the sounds of camaraderie. Men from other streets joined the crowd making their way to the pit-head. Each carried their ‘snap-tins, holding food to last the ten hour shift.
“Managed to get out of bed then?” a friend called to Daniel over the heads of a group of youths.
Daniel didn’t answer. His mind was elsewhere. Thoughts of the day ahead distracted him. A fast descent in a cage, down into the bowels of the earth, down into another place, a world of darkness and dust.
“Surely there’s a job on the surface he can do?”
Cassandra addressed her father, a forbidding figure. His face showed his disapproval of his daughter’s friendship with Daniel Collins.
“I expect I could find something for the lad,” he said, “but on one condition.”
“Condition?” asked Cassandra. “What might that be?”
“On condition that you promise me you won’t see him again. You deserve better. Forget him!”
The girl steeled herself against her personal feelings. Here was an opportunity to set the ‘poet’ free from the darkness, to give his talent a chance to blossom. If the price was her happiness, so be it, She loved Daniel, but she would let him go.
The cage carrying Daniel and his fellow colliers descended at a frightening rate. When it hit the bottom of the shaft a sudden silence hung in the air, broken with more banter. The men emerged into the semi-darkness. The ‘regulars’ set off to walk several miles to the coalface leaving the newbies’ to get their instructions. The hours of back-breaking work that followed challenged Daniel’s worst nightmares. Starved of sunlight and fresh air, the men laboured and sweated.
When the shift ended, Daniel burst out of the cage, liberated from the horrors below. He couldn’t wait to be with Cassie, but Grainger, the pit’s Under-Manager, held out a hand for him to stop.
“Mr. Bradley wishes to see you,” Grainger said.
Daniel swallowed. ‘Why would he want to see me? Is it something to do with Cassie?’ Is he going to fire me after just one day?’ Questions raced around the lad’s mind.
Hands behind his back, Bradley, the mine-owner, cut an imposing figure. His presence struck fear into Daniel’s heart. Beads of sweat ran down Daniel’s forehead and neck. He shuffled from one foot to the other. The silence was unbearable.
Daniel wanted to turn and run.
“Someone who must be nameless tells me that you are not cut out for life below ground,” said Bradley. “Lily-livered, eh? Not like your father. He was what you call a man.”
He paused. “What’s to be done with you? Perhaps a job on the surface would be appropriate in the circumstances.
I’ll tell Grainger to let you work up-top. That’ll be all.”
Daniel couldn’t wait to share with Cassie what had happened. He sang as he hurried down the lane to the wheat field, their special meeting place. Cassie ran towards him.
“I had to find you.” he shouted. “I have something to tell you.”
Suddenly he stopped. The look on Cassie’s face scared him. Her eyes were red from crying.
“Sorry, I can’t stay,” she said. “I can never see you again. Ever!”
Daniel reached out to hold her, but she hurried away.
“Cassie! Wait! Let’s talk!”
His brain was in a whirl. ‘What could have happened? Why the sudden change?’ He thought about recent events trying to recall each detail. Nothing made sense. Then he remembered Jack Bradley”s words. “Someone who must be nameless…”
“Oh no!” Had Cassie pleaded with her father on his behalf. Had she struck a bargain to set him free?
He hurried up the hill to Cassie’s house. A maid came to the door. “ Miss Cassandra is not at home.”.
“Tell her I called,” Daniel said to the door closing in his face.
Looking back, he saw Cassie at a window watching him go.
He walked away, determined. He had no intention of giving her up.