"Right," said Price. "The other is Tommy Griffiths. He's yours."
Tommy looked pleased. He had got his wish. Even though he would only be mucking out stalls, he was working in the stables.
Price said: "Come on, Billy Twice," and he walked into one of the headings.
Billy shouldered his shovel and followed. He felt more anxious now that Tommy was no longer with him. He wished he had been set to mucking out stalls alongside his friend. "What will I be doing, Mr. Price?" he said.
"You can guess, can't you?" said Price. "Why do you think I gave you a fucking shovel?"
Billy was shocked by the casual use of the forbidden word. He could not guess what he would be doing, but he asked no more questions.
The tunnel was round, its roof reinforced by curved steel supports. A two-inch pipe ran along its crown, presumably carrying water. Every night the headings were sprinkled in an attempt to reduce the dust. It was not merely a danger to men's lungsif that were all, Celtic Minerals probably would not have caredbut it constituted a fire hazard. However, the sprinkler system was inadequate. Da had argued that a pipe of six inches' diameter was needed, but Perceval Jones had refused to spend the money.
After about a quarter of a mile they turned into a cross tunnel that sloped upward. This was an older, smaller passage, with timber props rather than steel rings. Price had to duck his head where the roof sagged. At intervals of about thirty yards they passed the entrances to workplaces where the miners were already hewing the coal.
Billy heard a rumbling sound, and Price said: "Into the manhole."
"What?" Billy looked at the ground. A manhole was a feature of town pavements, and he could see nothing on the floor but the railway tracks that carried the drams. He looked up to see a pony trotting toward him, coming fast down the slope, drawing a train of drams.
"In the manhole!" Price shouted.
Still Billy did not understand what was required of him, but he could see that the tunnel was hardly wider than the drams, and he would be crushed. Then Price seemed to step into the wall and disappear.
Billy dropped his shovel, turned, and ran back the way he had come. He tried to get ahead of the pony, but it was moving surprisingly fast. Then he saw a niche cut into the wall, the full height of the tunnel, and he realized that he had seen such niches, without remarking them, every twenty-five yards or so. This must be what Price meant by a manhole. He threw himself in, and the train rumbled past.
When it had gone he stepped out, breathing hard.
Price pretended to be angry, but he was smiling. "You'll have to be more alert than that," he said. "Otherwise you'll get killed down herelike your brother."
Most men enjoyed exposing and mocking the ignorance of boys, Billy found. He was determined to be different when he grew up.
He picked up his shovel. It was undamaged. "Lucky for you," Price commented. "If the dram had broken it, you would have had to pay for a new one."
They went on and soon entered an exhausted district where the workplaces were deserted. There was less water underfoot, and the ground was covered with a thick layer of coal dust. They took several turnings and Billy lost his sense of direction.
They came to a place where the tunnel was blocked by a dirty old dram. "This area has to be cleaned up," Price said. It was the first time he had bothered to explain anything, and Billy had a feeling he was lying. "Your job is to shovel the muck into the dram."
Billy looked around. The dust was a foot thick to the limit of the light cast by his lamp, and he guessed it went a lot farther. He could shovel for a week without making much impression. And what was the point? The district was worked out. But he asked no questions. This was probably some kind of test.
A Man Called Intrepid author dies aged 89(Dec 03 2013) William Stevenson, a journalist and author who drew on his close ties with intelligence sources to write two best-selling books in the 1970s, A Man Called...