Beneath my shawl, my hair’s tidy and clean. Dark too, but not as pitch as the coal dust embedded under my nails. My lips are pressed closed, but I can still taste ash.
When he came home after a shift, he’d circle me with his arms and kiss my forehead, leaving a sooty smudge like a priest’s mark. It made me smile as I washed; I always needed to soap that patch over again.
My face is dirtier now. Me and the girls use clear jelly on our lashes to ease the rinsing, but even after a bath it’s still in the corners of our eyes. Little globs of inkiness. I wonder, if they tipped us up and shook us, would ebony particles descend unceasingly, settling like a smoke stain.
I’d worried about him being down the pit. All the colliers’ wives knew how men had been taken before. The dark belly of the earth was an unknown world where we wouldn’t feel the sun on our faces. ‘Don’t thee fret, lass,’ he’d say, ‘I’m not going off to war.’
Annie’s making us laugh again. Chatting’s not permitted, but you can get away with joking a little. She’s even chancing her luck by softly singing; strumming along on her shovel like it’s a banjo. But we’re all back to it before the last note; sifting with our bare hands through the coal-laden belt, deftly extracting dirt like flotsam in a black sea.
As I remove my shawl at day’s end, my glance falls upon his cap on the peg, still just where it’s been since then. My soot-stained fingers caress the coarse cloth. It’s something I won’t come to clean, in case the scent of him is forever washed away.
Christine Collinson writes historical short fiction. She’s been longlisted in the Bath Flash Fiction Award and by Reflex Flash Fiction.
Her work has also appeared in FlashBack Fiction and Ellipsis Zine. She Tweets @collinson26.
Image via Pixabay