The Touching of Esther Roberts

by Douglas Bruton




She was the best in her class. The best in the school, Esther’s teachers said. No one could touch her for the neatness of her letters. That was why when the man from the pit came looking for a secretary Esther knew he’d pick her. She’d made an effort, too. Her da kept saying about first impressions and her mam had ironed her best blouse specially. 

He was old, the man from the pit, his wind-blown hair already thin and already grey, and his face crumpled and worn. He had not shaved that morning and his tie was crooked. His name was Mr Weir and he kept looking at his watch, like he had places to be.

There were five girls brought out to the front. Mr Weir barely looked up. On the desk in front of him were examples of the girls’ work. He ran his finger under the lines on the paper and his lips moved as he was reading. The girls stood in silence and the teacher rattled on about all she had taught them.

Esther started work the following day. ‘Be there prompt,’ Mr Weir had said, though when he’d said it she was not sure he had been talking to her. ‘We’ll try you out for a week. See how things are.’

In the morning she got up with her da. It was still dark and the fire was slow to take the chill from the air in the front room. They did not talk. All the talking had been done the night before. They drank strong sweet tea and listened to the news on the wireless. Then they walked to work together, him in his soot-grey shirt, Esther in new shoes and a new black coat bought with the money she would earn that week. She drew some attention at the gates where men standing in the shadow of the pit wheel were smoking hand-rolled cigarettes, and laughing too loudly. Her da patted her back and nodded towards the pithead office. And that was how it was and how it would be for all the days forward.

Her desk was always neat, the pens set just so next to her blotter and the papers filed in trays and the typewriter wrapped in a cloth cover unless she was using it. Esther dusted everything twice a day, the top of the desk and her chair, and the shelves where rows on rows of box-files stood arranged in alphabetical order. She dusted once when she arrived in the morning and again before she left at the end of her shift. It made little difference. Everything she touched was smeared with a fine black powder that also clung to her hair and her skin until she got home.

Esther hated the job. She hated the men at the pit gates, touching her with their grubby hands, in their imaginations at least. And her da patting her back and nodding towards the office even when she knew. And Mr Weir with his watch to check she was not late, and Esther never knowing what he said or if he was even talking to her. But most of all she hated the stoor that crept across her desk whenever her back was turned and the sooty fingerprints on all the neat letters she wrote and the dry taste in her mouth at the end of every day.

The men washed their own dry taste away with beer in pints at The Dirty Dog. Esther went once, with the pay clerk from the office. His name was Callum and he talked quiet and with a lisp and touched her elbow with his hand as though she belonged to him. She could not hear all of what Callum said, not above the noise of the pub, but she kept shrugging her shoulders and nodding her head as if she had heard. The pitworkers were loud. One of them bought her a drink and winked at her and grinned. He was little more than a boy, she thought. A boy in a man’s dirty clothes. Afterwards this boy walked her home. Said his name was Jamie and that he liked how clean she was. He felt as if he could never be that clean again, not in a month of Sunday baths. He said he would like to hold her hand and to kiss her under the streetlight outside her house. But he did not touch her, did not dare is what he said.

She saw him sometimes, at the gates with the rest. Some weeks not at all and then three days together, Jamie at the gates, clean at the start of his shift, as clean as he ever was, and then his hair and his fingers black by the end. And when he saw her he dropped his cigarette and waved to her and winked, as if they shared a secret. On rare days when he found himself brave he asked her if she wanted to go for a drink, but she always had an excuse not to, and she did not ever notice the pain that this caused the boy in the man.

Instead he some days walked her home, keeping a small clean distance between them. He talked for both of them. He talked to her of books he’d read. Promised to lend them to her if she liked. And he talked of programmes he’d heard on the wireless and thoughts that just came to him. It was a surprise to her the things he said and if she closed her eyes she could make believe he was clean and his hand was holding hers. But he was not clean, and at her gate he said, ‘See you later,’ and he went off whistling, and Esther did not watch him go.

Then came a day that was marked down as different. A black day, blacker than all the rest and remembered each year afterwards with flowers laid at the gates and a silence that everyone kept. For Esther it started out the same as any other day. She walked to work with her da and he patted her back and nodded towards the office. Jamie was there at the gates, the men on either side of him nudging his shoulder and nodding towards Esther. Jamie straightened when he saw her and he smiled at her. Maybe she smiled back, just maybe.

Before she hung up her coat she dusted the desk, as she always did, and the chair and the shelves. She straightened the pens in line with the blotter and leafed through the papers in her tray. Mr Weir was already in. She heard him clear his throat and then she heard the mumble of his reading. She could picture him behind his desk, one finger tracing a line under the words on a page and his lips moving with the words.

The day outside was grey, but then most days were so there was nothing different in that. Esther typed several letters and took them in for Mr Weir to sign. He did not ever seem to notice the smudged fingerprint in the same corner of every page where Esther had pulled the paper out of the typewriter. He added his own sworls and arcs and then signed at the bottom. He blotted the pages and handed the letters back to Esther for sending.

In the middle of the morning she took him in his tea. He drank out of a rose-patterned china cup that rattled in the saucer when she laid it down on his desk, just at his elbow. ‘Your tea, Mr Weir,’ she said. And that was all she ever said to him. Every day the same. Even this different-day, her delivering the tea was no different.

It was later in the morning that it happened. There was a noise, like a muffled groan. The floor shook and the windows shook, too. Esther thought maybe there was a wind getting up, but when the groaning stopped it was followed by a silence that was just as unsettling. Esther looked up at the still grey sky. She saw that the pit wheel had stopped turning. She did not know what that meant.

Then Mr Weir was at her window and blind Craigie who operated the telephones and Callum the pay clerk. They were swearing and from what she heard Esther could tell there’d been an accident somewhere. Blind Craigie brought the ambulances from the hospital and Callum went to the pithead to see what was what and Mr Weir stood at Esther’s window swearing under his breath and running one hand through his hair and checking his watch like there were places he should be if he wasn’t there.

There were no more letters to type the rest of that day. Esther covered the typewriter with the cloth and dusted the top of her desk more than she usually did. She set her pens straight with the edge of the blotter and shifted papers from one tray to another making it look like she was busy. Mr Weir did not move from her window, not even when the light fell from the sky and the siren sounded for the end of the day.

Esther put on her coat and waited outside for her da. She understood something of what had happened. She’d pieced it together from the reports that had fed into the office through the afternoon. A ceiling collapse, deep underground, and some of the men would not make it out. That’s what she’d heard. Already there’d been one body brought up, a man as black as his own shadow, and he was as still as though he was sleeping. They took him away in an ambulance but from the shaken heads of the men that watched it go, Esther knew the man was dead.

There were women standing at the gate, their faces white and drawn, hoping for news and hoping that the news was good. And everywhere men stood with their hands deep in their pockets, their pinched faces black and their spit black, too.

Day crept into night and still they waited. Esther, too, though her da was up and said they should go home and let Esther’s mam know everything was fine. Only everything was not fine. A second body was carried out. He lay on his back on a canvas stretcher, his legs twisted in a way that legs should not twist and his hands folded across his stomach. There was a book in his grip. Esther knew, with just the same certainty as she had known Mr Weir would pick her out of all the girls in her school: it was Jamie. She said his name, her lips giving shape but no sound to what she said. She stepped forward and touched his shoulder, as though touching might wake him.

‘Mind yourself, lass,’ said one of the men.

Esther lifted the book out of Jamie’s hands. The cover was black and the pages all ruffled. She looked at one of the stretcher-bearers.

‘He promised to lend it to me,’ she said.

Then her da was at her side and patting her back and leading her towards the gates.

Three days the pit was shut. Esther sat at the table in the kitchen, reading Jamie’s book, not always understanding the words but reading anyway. Some of the pages were creased, their corners folded over to mark the place and the folded corners bearing a smudged black fingerprint that was Jamie’s. It was a book of poetry by a man called Thomas and though his words were something beautiful it was those smudged black fingerprints that Esther kept reading for. And each one she discovered she put her own finger to it – like touching him, she thought.

The pit wheel began turning again and Esther got up with her da each morning and drank strong sweet tea and listened to the news on the wireless and walked in silence with her da to work. Nothing changed, not so much that you noticed. At the gate she missed Jamie some days, his grin and his wink. Most days she didn’t give him a thought. Her da patted her back and nodded towards the office and she missed that, too, when he was too old for working.

Esther kept the coal-black book in a tin box under her bed. Nothing else in that box except a copy of the hymn that was sung at the funeral. And there was one poem she came to read again and again. It was called ‘Gone’. It seemed to grow in meaning the more she read it, the more the years slipped through her. And once a year there were flowers at the gates, each year not as many as the last, till there were only Esther’s and nobody knew why they were there gathering dew or dust – even after the pit closed and the gates buckled on their hinges and the pit wheel was dismantled. Boys that saw Esther, grey in her wind-blown hair now, laying down her flowers in the long grass, thought her a little touched and she was.

©2010 Douglas Bruton

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