Billy sang another hymn. He shoveled and paced to the time of the music. Most of the hymns went with a swing. Every now and then he suffered again the fear that he might have been forgotten, the shift might have ended and he might be alone down there; then he would just remember the robed figure standing with him in the dark.
He knew plenty of hymns. He had been going to the Bethesda Chapel three times every Sunday since he was old enough to sit quietly. Hymnbooks were expensive, and not all the congregation could read, so everyone learned the words.
When he had sung twelve hymns, he reckoned an hour had passed. Surely it must be the end of the shift? But he sang another twelve. After that it was hard to keep track. He sang his favorites twice. He worked slower and slower.
He was singing "Up from the Grave He Arose" at the top of his voice when he saw a light. The work had become so automatic that he did not stop, but picked up another shovelful and carried it to the dram, still singing, while the light grew stronger. When the hymn came to an end he leaned on his shovel. Rhys Price stood watching him, lamp at his belt, with a strange look on his shadowed face.
Billy would not let himself feel relief. He was not going to show Price how he felt. He put on his shirt and trousers, then took the unlit lamp from the nail and hung it on his belt.
Price said: "What happened to your lamp?"
"You know what happened," Billy said, and his voice sounded strangely grown-up.
Price turned away and walked back along the tunnel.
Billy hesitated. He looked the opposite way. Just the other side of the dram he glimpsed a bearded face and a pale robe, but the figure disappeared like a thought. "Thank you," Billy said to the empty tunnel.
As he followed Price, his legs ached so badly that he felt he might fall down, but he hardly cared if he did. He could see again, and the shift was over. Soon he would be home and he could lie down.
They reached the pit bottom and got into the cage with a crowd of black-faced miners. Tommy Griffiths was not among them, but Suet Hewitt was. As they waited for the signal from above, Billy noticed they were looking at him with sly grins.
Hewitt said: "How did you get on, then, on your first day, Billy Twice?"
"Fine, thank you," Billy said.
Hewitt's expression was malicious: no doubt he was remembering that Billy had called him shitbrain. He said: "No problems?"
Billy hesitated. Obviously they knew something. He wanted them to know that he had not succumbed to fear. "My lamp went out," he said, and he just about managed to keep his voice steady. He looked at Price, but decided it would be more manly not to accuse him. "It was a bit difficult shoveling in the dark all day," he finished. That was too understatedthey might think his ordeal had been nothing muchbut it was better than admitting to fear.
An older man spoke. It was John Jones the Shop, so called because his wife ran a little general store in their parlor. "All day?" he said.
Billy said: "Aye."
John Jones looked at Price and said: "You bastard, it's only supposed to be for an hour."
Billy's suspicion was confirmed. They all knew what had happened, and it sounded as if they did something similar to all new boys. But Price had made it worse than usual.
Suet Hewitt was grinning. "Weren't you scared, Billy boy, on your own in the dark?"
He thought about his answer. They were all looking at him, waiting to hear what he would say. Their sly smiles had gone, and they seemed a bit ashamed. He decided to tell the truth. "I was scared, yes, but I wasn't on my own."
Hewitt was baffled. "Not on your own?"
"No, of course not," Billy said. "Jesus was with me."
Hewitt laughed loudly, but no one else did. His guffaw resounded in the silence and stopped suddenly.
Excerpted from Fall of Giants by Ken Follett. Copyright © 2010 by Ken Follett. Excerpted by permission of Penguin Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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