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The Price of Coal
Syd looked at his watch.
''Where is he then? He's ten minutes late already.''
The other members of the Consultative Committee were sitting around the long table
in the committee room, waiting for Forbes the Colliery Manager and Chairman of the committee to arrive.
''He'll be having another working lunch down at the White Horse.''
The men laughed at Syd and the two Deputy Managers looked at each other and tried
to decide by telepathy which one of them should go and find him. Before they could decide, Forbes hurried
into the room. He was flushed and breathing fast and looked as if he could have spent some time at the White
Horse. He took hisplace at the head of the table and squared off the sheets of paper in front of him while
he composed himself. Then he looked round at the men.
''I'm sorry I'm late, but I was detained by a very important phone call from
the Area Director, concerning a matter which I'm sure will be of interest to
you all.'' He paused, enjoying his secret, and the curiosity he had caused. ''Well, as some of you
may already know, at the end of next month Prince Charles is making a two-day visit to this area.
He'll be visiting Sheffield, Doncaster and one or two other places in the districts.''
''Yes, I've read about it.''
Forbes was not pleased by this interruption from Carter, his Deputy Manager,
and he showed it.
''Let me finish will you, Geoff? Now then, that call I've just received was
to inform me that this colliery has been selected for an official visit by
He sat back to let the men assimilate the news. There was a silence, then a
hullabaloo as everybody started talking at once. One of the men asked if He was looking for a job.
Another replied that He could have his. Forbes looked round, gauging their reactions, then, when they
had all had a say, he brought the meeting back to order.
''Now then, in view of this development, it might be more useful this
afternoon to discuss the Visit and the preparations which we'll have to make for it. So if anybody
would like to propose a motion cancelling the agendas.''
Syd placed his arms on the table and leaned forward so that Forbes could see
''I'd like to propose a motion cancelling the Visit.''
There was a different kind of silence at this, followed by uncertain laughter. Forbes
didn't laugh. He knew that Syd meant it.
''I think you're out of order with that motion, Syd. But just as a matter of
interest, what are your objections?''
''Well, for a start I've no time for the Royal Family. I hate
stand for, and the sooner we get rid of them the better off we'll be in my opinion. But that's a personal
matter, and I've no doubt that it's a minority point of view in this room.''
He looked around the table, but none of the other committee members confirmed or denied
his assumption. They just returned his look and waited
for him to carry on.
''What I do object to though is what's going to be discussed now, and at
every other meeting till the Visit. And that is the whole business of tarting the pit up. I say that
if He is coming, He ought to see it as it is. If not, He shouldn't come at all.''
He leaned further forward so that he could see the reactions of the men down his own
side of the table as well as those at the other side.
''Well, am I right or aren't I?''
It was left to Forbes to answer that one.
''If you want to put it like that, Syd, yes.''
Syd threw his pencil on to the table and sat back.
''There! What did I tell you?''
''Now just wait a minute. This pit has already been allotted money for a facelift.
It's Coal Board policy, and you know that as well as anybody. If it was going to be done anyway we might as
well kill two birds with one stone.''
''You might as well kill three, because I'm having nowt to do with it.''
Nobody spoke. The noise of machinery from the pit yard was loud in the room.
A lorry went by close to the window, briefly making it darker inside, as if
a cloud had passed across the sun. Alf Meakin, the Union Branch Secretary, waited for the engine to
fade, then he said:
''I think some of us would go part of the way with Syd. But if it's already
been decided, we might as well make a decent job of it.''
The man next to him tapped his forefinger on the table.
''The point is though, what's going to get done, and what's not? If we're going to
make a right job of it, fair enough. But if we're only going to be painting lamp posts on the side that He'll
see, I agree with Syd.''
There were murmurs of agreement at this.
''What about that time the Chairman's wife went down Wentworth pit and they
stopped production so she wouldnąt get her hair mucky?''
Forbes, sensing the shifting mood of the meeting, smacked his hand down on
''That's ridiculous! There's always somebody spreading daft rumours like that!''
But the man refused to be intimidated.
''There's no smoke without fire, that's what I always say. It's always the same for
these visits. The Royal Family must be sick to the stomach with the smell of fresh paint.''
The two Under Managers had said nothing yet. Beatson decided it was time to
support his boss.
''Listen, it's all right talking, but we'll be a laughing-stock if we don't make some
kind of a show. We'll never live it down. The point is that He's coming. It's a fait accompli. So we might
as well knuckle down to it and make the pit a place that we can all be proud of.''
This was the clincher. Because, in spite of their objections, most of the men did
not want the Royal Visitor to see the pit as it was now. Syd had lost. He could see that it was no use calling
for a vote. So he sat back, folded his arms and took it in silence. Forbes took his fountain-pen out of his
breast pocket and slowly unscrewed the top.
''Perhaps we could get down to specific areas of improvement now. We don't
have any details of the itinerary yet, but we could make a general start.''
He stood the pen top on the table and started to nudge it with his forefinger.
''You know what I'd really like to get done, don't you?''
If they did they didnąt tell him. They seemed more interested in watching whether
he would knock his pen top over.
''The old muckstack. Re-contoured and grassed. It'd make all the difference in the
world if we could get that done.''
Carter nodded his head in agreement.
''Well, you've tried hard enough in the past.''
''Because it doesnąt matter how much we do the yard up, it'll not look as good with
that lot behind it. It'll be like having new furniture in a room with mucky walls.''
''Why not get in touch with the Ministry of the Environment? Plug the communal benefits
first. Then mention the Visit.''
Forbes turned his head and looked at Carter while he thought about it. He looked as
if he was reading the proposal off his face.
''That's a good idea, Geoff.''
''Well, you never know. It might help.''
* * *
It did. A few days later an official came up from the Ministry to investigate the
plan. It was quickly approved, and bulldozers were soon at work landscaping the muckstack ready for the grass
seed to be hosed on.
Tony, Syd's eldest son, stood in the stockyard with a group of mining apprentices
and watched the men hosing the compound of slurry and seed on to the new shallow slopes. In another part of
the pit yard, two men using block andtackle, were loading rusty pit tubs on to the back of a lorry. The tubs
had beenthere so long that an elder tree had grown through one of them; from a distance it looked as if the
tub was its container.
The men were asking Bob Richards, the pit-top foreman, whether they should
chop the tree down to remove the tub, or leave it standing and knock the tub to pieces. He said he
would have to ask the Manager, then walked across to the apprentices who were waiting for him in the
''Now then lads, we've got to get this stockyard cleared up.''
The boys looked round at the mess of wooden chocks and metal bars.
One of them said:
''Stockyard! It's more like a scrapyard.''
Bob Richards threatened him with his pointed finger.
''You don't be so cheeky, lad, or you'll finish up in the graveyard.''
The boys looked anywhere but at each other to stop themselves from laughing.
''For a start, I want all them chocks stacking into neat piles. That should keep you
going for a bit.''
They surveyed the small mountain of timber which had been formed by several
lorries tipping their loads on top of each other.
''Next thing. Any of you lads any good at art?''
One of them indicated Tony.
''Tony's good at drawing on lav walls.''
The apprentice standing next to Tony took his hand out of
his boilersuit pocket and raised it tentatively. He had decided that whatever he was letting himself in for
could be no worse than the job he had just been offered.
''I got CSE grade three.''
''Right, come with me. There's some new notice-boards down
in the stores want painting. The rest of you get cracking. I'll be back in a bit to see how you're going on.''
And he set off towards the stores with the artist, leaving Tony and the others to
start tidying up the stockyard.
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