"Who do you think you'll be working with?" said Tommy.
Billy shrugged. New boys were assigned to one of the colliery manager's deputies. "No way to know."
"I hope they put me in the stables." Tommy liked horses. About fifty ponies lived in the mine. They pulled the drams that the colliers filled, drawing them along railway tracks. "What sort of work do you want to do?"
Billy hoped he would not be given a task too heavy for his childish physique, but he was not willing to admit that. "Greasing drams," he said.
"It seems easy."
They passed the school where yesterday they had been pupils. It was a Victorian building with pointed windows like a church. It had been built by the Fitzherbert family, as the headmaster never tired of reminding the pupils. The earl still appointed the teachers and decided the curriculum. On the walls were paintings of heroic military victories, and the greatness of Britain was a constant theme. In the Scripture lesson with which every day began, strict Anglican doctrines were taught, even though nearly all the children were from Nonconformist families. There was a school management committee, of which Da was a member, but it had no power except to advise. Da said the earl treated the school as his personal property.
In their final year Billy and Tommy had been taught the principles of mining, while the girls learned to sew and cook. Billy had been surprised to discover that the ground beneath him consisted of layers of different kinds of earth, like a stack of sandwiches. A coal seama phrase he had heard all his life without really understanding itwas one such layer. He had also been told that coal was made of dead leaves and other vegetable matter, accumulated over thousands of years and compressed by the weight of earth above it. Tommy, whose father was an atheist, said this proved the Bible was not true; but Billy's da said that was only one interpretation.
The school was empty at this hour, its playground deserted. Billy felt proud that he had left school behind, although part of him wished he could go back there instead of down the pit.
As they approached the pithead, the streets began to fill with miners, each with his tin snap and bottle of tea. They all dressed the same, in old suits that they would take off once they reached their workplace. Some mines were cold but Aberowen was a hot pit, and the men worked in underwear and boots, or in the coarse linen shorts they called bannickers. Everyone wore a padded cap, all the time, because tunnel roofs were low and it was easy to bang your head.
Over the houses Billy could see the winding gear, a tower topped by two great wheels rotating in opposite directions, drawing the cables that raised and lowered the cage. Similar pithead structures loomed over most towns in the South Wales valleys, the way church spires dominated farming villages.
Other buildings were scattered around the pithead as if dropped by accident: the lamp room, the colliery office, the smithy, the stores. Railway lines snaked between the buildings. On the waste ground were broken drams, old cracked timbers, feed sacks, and piles of rusty disused machinery, all covered with a layer of coal dust. Da always said there would be fewer accidents if miners kept things tidy.
Billy and Tommy went to the colliery office. In the front room was Arthur "Spotty" Llewellyn, a clerk not much older than they were. His white shirt had a dirty collar and cuffs. They were expectedtheir fathers had previously arranged for them to start work today. Spotty wrote their names in a ledger, then took them into the colliery manager's office. "Young Tommy Griffiths and young Billy Williams, Mr. Morgan," he said.
Maldwyn Morgan was a tall man in a black suit. There was no coal dust on his cuffs. His pink cheeks were free of stubble, which meant he must shave every day. His engineering diploma hung in a frame on the wall, and his bowler hatthe other badge of his statuswas displayed on the coat stand by the door.
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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