By P. James Callaghan
He’d taken to walking at night.
Unlike his colleagues, Gary Witton had chosen to stay up north after each shift and had paid for accommodation out of his own pocket. The Hark to Mopsey smelled of dusty upholstery and stale beer. He had a couple of pints with his dinner of gammon and eggs and then he climbed the stairs to his room and kept company with a bottle of whisky he’d brought from home. He dozed and read the paper and looked out of the window. As it grew dark, boredom and the stuffiness of the room made him go back downstairs. He walked through the bar just as the landlord was calling last orders and stepped out into the lonely night.
Over the last few days, he’d stood with his shirt sleeves rolled up and his helmet tilted back from his forehead, chatting to the men as they stood around in their cut-off jeans, showing off their white, wiry legs. The banter had made him smile: “That reminds me, Heppy. I’m having chicken for tea tonight.”
The Hark to Mopsey was on the edge of the town. A long row of terraced houses lined the street before it turned into a country lane. He followed the lights, hands in hip pockets. He’d not bothered bringing his jacket and he felt a chill through his polo shirt.
Gary leaned against the National Speed Limit sign. The steam from his piss warmed his face. He looked up at the fields rising dark grey under a bright moon towards a black copse that lay like a sleeping bear. Above the trees, bright, shimmering stars fought against the rusty glow of the town’s lights. He zipped his fly and carried on. The dark surrounded him like fog. He followed the lane up the hillside towards the wood. It curved round the shoulder of the hill. Here e met a dry woody smell, almost like fresh pencil shavings. He paused; the air was still, silent. As he rounded the bend he saw a faint white light bobbing around. His slip-ons click-clacked on the tarmac.
John heard him before he saw him. He was walking noisily up Hags Hill Lane towards him. John sat down in his deck chair and tried to look relaxed. He turned his cap lamp off and unscrewed the cup from his flask, listening to the footfall getting louder. The moonlight showed the shimmering shape of a man in light trousers and a blue polo shirt. He looked out of place. The man got closer and called out.
“Ayup,” John answered. He eyed the man as he sipped his tea.
“Got yourself a telescope there.”
John thought about saying something sarcastic.
“Nice night for it,” the man said.
“Aye. Come out most nights if weather’s right.” The man seemed to stall, as if thinking. John could smell his aftershave.
“Have you found anything interesting?”
“Moon.” He crossed his legs, took another sip of tea.
“Can I have a look?”
“I’ll have to tweak it. It’ll a moved by now.” John was a bit annoyed
at this mithering southerner but found himself glad of the company
anyway. He finished his tea and pushed himself up. The man’s face
followed him in the silvered dark. About the same age as him but a
bit fatter. He switched his cap lamp back on and clipped the battery
onto his belt. He shone the light towards his telescope. He could feel
the man’s eyes on him.
“You must be a miner.”
Again, the urge to say something sarcastic. “Aye.” He hunched
over the eyepiece, saw empty sky. He looked up at the moon and
eased the tube to the left. The edge of the moon appeared in the
sighting scope. He took the lens out of the eyepiece and replaced
it with his Barlow lens. “Have a look through there.”
“This is the business end, is it?” the southerner said. John started
looking in his bag for a bottle of beer. “Wow! There’s so much detail.
Look at how spherical it is. You can see craters on the edge of the shadow.”
“That’s why I come out when it’s not quite full. You can see all sorts of
detail on shadow.”
“That’s amazing.” The man straightened. “I don’t suppose you’ve got
another one of those, have you? I’m gagging.”
“Tha’s not backwards in coming forward, is tha?”
The southerner laughed. “Sorry, mate. I’ve had a couple already. And you always want more, don’t you?”
“It’s only homebrew.” John pressed his bottle against his chest as he unscrewed the top off another. “Can’t afford nowt else these days.”
“You’re having a hard time?”
Bit nosy, John thought. “Ticking over.”
“Well I’m behind you.” Gary cringed as soon as heard himself say it.
“That’s nice to know.” The little man took a drink and wiped his moustache, which hung like a pelmet over his lips.
Gary wasn’t sure if he was smiling or not. He remembered what Thatcher had said recently about her ministers wearing beards. “Well, I know what it’s like not being able to provide for your family.”
“Oh aye? You off work?”
“Well no, not at the moment. I’ve got family who are on strike, though. Down in Kent.” There was a thick silence. Gary took a swig and looked up.
John gulped his beer and watched the man as he gawped at the sky. He probably didn’t have a clue what he was looking at. “Tha knows that constellation?”
The southerner swung around. “That’s the Plough, ain’t it?”
“Aye. Ursa Major. See them stars there?”
“Ah, those on the right.”
“If you follow them up they point to Polaris. North Star. See? Think on that if you’re ever lost.” He finished his bottle. “Only works if it’s not pissing it down like.”
There was another pause and then the southerner laughed, long and hard. It wasn’t that funny but John felt himself smiling.
“Where’s tha from?”
“What’s tha doing in this shit-hole?”
The southerner laughed again. “Working. I’m a police officer, I’m afraid.”
“You ought to be an’ all.” The man twisted round. John let him feel uncomfortable for a moment. “I’m only pulling you’re leg. Like tha says – you’ve got to put food on table.”
Gary didn’t feel like drinking with the little man anymore. “What do you mean by that?”
“Nowt, nowt.” The little man bent down to look at the moon. “I don’t suppose you’re having to rely on hand-outs though. And stocking up on coal off slag heaps, like people round here.”
“Well, no but –”
“And you’ll be getting plenty overtime in and all.”
“No, I’m not actually. Look, I’ve got a job to do. I see it as an important job. A necessary job. You might see us as Thatcher’s Puppets but most of the miners I’ve met understand that we’re there to keep some order.”
“You’re there to protect scabs when they’re crossing picket line.”
“We’re there to keep the peace.” Gary heard an engine approaching from round the bend.
The little man turned to his telescope. “Aye, and there’ll be killing before it’s all over with your lot keeping peace.” Gary’s eyes ached from the beam of headlights as they swung across the two men. An off-red van squealed to a gravelly, white-noise stop on the other side of the road. The radio was blaring out “Two Tribes”. The reception wasn’t very good; the song crackled and fizzed.
“Ayup, Father!” The driver said Father as if he was almost saying fathom. He tapped his cigarette out of the window. He had a moustache almost as big as the little man’s. His hair was long in the neck and seemed to be coloured blond. “Ow! I’m talking to you, Father!”
John took his eye away from the eye-piece. “Brigg.” He felt his heart pounding and he didn’t know why.
“Tha should be in bed getting some beauty sleep.” Brigg slammed the van door behind him. The other door clanged shut and a huge lump of a man walked round the front of the van. John had never seen him before. “You are coming tomorrow.”
“Cause I’ve heard you might bottle it.” He sucked his cigarette and blew out a yellow cloud.
John threw glances at the lump; the lump stared back at him. John wondered how he’d got in the van. “I am.”
“And I heard you were thinking about going back.”
“Where – who’ve you heard that from?”
“Don’t matter, does it? Matters you being a scab cunt, though.” Brigg sniffed. “It’d make life hard for you and tha’s wife. And tha’s nippers.”
“A don’t know where you’ve heard –”
“How’s about I give you a lift home?”
“Pile all that shite in back of van. I’ll take you home so tha can get plenty of sleep. I’ll be picking you up at seven.”
The lump was still staring at him. John said: “I’ll be right.” The lump stepped forward.
Gary was wishing he had his truncheon. The radio was still blaring. The man with the highlights, Brigg, said: “It’s no trouble, Father.”
“It’s all right, lads. I brought him here.” The other men stared at Gary. “We came in my car. It’s parked down the road. I’ll be taking him home soon anyway.”
Brigg looked at the little man, took a last drag and threw the tab. It sparked as it hit the road but no one noticed. Brigg looked up at the moon. “Well, that’s right, then.” He sounded almost jovial. He stepped back towards the van and the lump followed. “I’ll be round at yours at seven. Tha’d better be ready.”
The van made a protracted turn in the lane, almost knocking over the telescope. It roared back round the bend. Gary turned to the little man, who again was hunched over the eyepiece. “They weren’t very friendly.” The man loosened some nuts on the side of the telescope. Gary could see his hands shaking. The little man swung the telescope round, away from the moon. “You work with them?”
“They’re taking you to the picket tomorrow.”
“You didn’t seem too happy to see them.”
The little man seemed to be fine-tuning the telescope, bending down with his head twisted up towards the small sight on top of the main tube. He looked through the sight and then the eyepiece a few times before tightening the nuts. “Have a look at this.” The man crouched and felt in his bag. “This is last of my beer.”
When he looked back on that night many years later, Gary would remember that he and John Christmas met again the following day – once and briefly – at what would become known as the Battle of Orgreave. There they would both be hospitalized. He would also remember that night as the first time he’d looked through a telescope at the Andromeda Galaxy.
“What – is that?”
“Galaxy. Closest spiral galaxy to us. Two and half million light years away.” Gary couldn’t pull himself away from the eyepiece. “Tha knows what a light year is?”
“I think so.”
“You’re not seeing it as it looks now but how it looked two and half million years ago. Before there were anyone around to look at it.”
“Jesus – and they’re all – stars?” He took his beer, had a sip.
“They’ve worked out there’s about a trillion just in that one galaxy. You know how long it’d take to count to a trillion? Just counting in seconds? I worked it out. Nigh on thirty-two thousand years.”
“Fucking hell.” Gary straightened. “Just in that one – and are there more galaxies out there?”
“Oh aye. Billions.”
Gary looked up but couldn’t find the thing he’d just seen in the eyepiece. Like a smudged fingerprint. Years later it would still be one of his favourite things to observe on cool, dark, summer nights.