In the Dark11 min read


Ian Nichols
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Oh. Listen to the music. Men winding their way home, tired as a birth, tired as a death. The slow death in the mines. Half-broken from cramped agony chopping coal with blunt tools. In the dusk, a choir to sing their way home to sad streets and towns. From the pithead to the house, the voices rise, sing of no mines, but of valleys, of streams, of the world of light. No songs of the mines. No songs of the dark. It’s not done, to sing of the dark.

“Goodnight, Dai.”

“Goodnight, Evan.”

And the singing doesn’t stop because you’re alone. You sing with all the echoes of all the other men singing their way home to warmth and light. Alone is no good, alone is dangerous, alone tells that you’re alone, all on your own, and you don’t want that now, do you? There might be something following, something that’s followed all the way from the mine, crawled up the pithead from the dark down the mine, trailed, sniffing the air for a tune, a lone tune, a lone singer, because it’s shy and hungry. Oh, not for meat, it doesn’t live on meat, you know. It lives on dreams. All the dreams in a man’s mind. But it doesn’t like the bright dreams, the valleys and sunshine. It likes the sad dreams, the hopeless songs. It likes the songs of lonely people.

A shy beast, slithery as oil, dark as a mine. Glints like coal first on the fire, red flickers that flash and glimmer and vanish when you look. Is it there? The miners think it is, and they sing together so it won’t take them alone and make them sing in a dark world, in the earth. Not dead. No, not dead. They sing together. Even when they’re alone.

There’s a gypsy. They don’t come down often, into these dark valleys, and he’s a boy, oh, he’s a boy-and-a-half. Got a yellow jacket and a little pony with tinker things on it. Fix your pots, charm your wife, get your daughter up the duff, all in the same day, make you laugh as he’s doing it and steal your boots for a tickler. Wild black mop of hair, brown skin and a gold ring in his ear. He’s trouble for all the men and glory for the girls. Oh, they flash their smiles and flirt their skirts and look over their shoulders, and the men suck their pipes harder and pull at their caps. Fathers look grim, mothers sigh and bachelors just don’t know what to do. It’s their Sally and Gwen that are smiling, and them all but promised. Myfanwy Cook, bright as a bird, and she walking out with Morgan Jenkins these last six months or more, she’s watching the gypsy boy out of the side of her eye and Morgan doesn’t like that.

It’s a Sunday, and the coal’s washed off for the week, chapel’s been and hymns sung. Morgan’s mam cooked a couple of birds that accidentally walked into a snare that wasn’t anywhere near the squire’s land. They’ve been eaten and Morgan takes a stroll for his digestion, to the square where Myfanwy will be and they’ll walk down by the towpath. It’s an early spring day, and they’ll hold hands and maybe there’ll be a kiss. Myfanwy will go home when it gets dark and Morgan will have a pint or two in the Black Bull, where the married men will tease him. He’s a good lad and a fine tenor, but there’s someone else singing in the square. There’s that gypsy boy, stayed in a field last night and come back to mend pots and work some mischief, and there’s Myfanwy listening to him sing. He’s playing a guitar and singing songs about eyes and lips and swirling skirts. There’s a click of heels and a chatter of castanets but nobody’s dancing. Just Myfanwy and the other girls dancing in their eyes.

The boy looks up from under his curls and flashes a smile as he gives a final flourish and ends the song. Then he says, “This is from Portugal. The Fada. It is very sad, but very brave. I sing it for you.” And he looks straight at Myfanwy.

Morgan, in his Sunday walking-out suit, pretends that he was going to the pub all the time. He doesn’t look at Myfanwy, on the other side of the square, and she has eyes for only the gypsy. Hugh the publican pulls a pint of dark ale for him, says, “You’re early, Morgan.” He doesn’t add, Thought you’d be walking out with Myfanwy. That’s said in his tone and the crinkles around his eyes. Morgan takes his pint to a corner and pulls his cap a little further down his face.

These are all men he knows. Hard not to in the small valley towns. They know he’s been walking out with Myfanwy Cook and that her father and mother are beginning to talk to his father and mother. The expectations are that things will follow their normal course: she’ll get pregnant in the late spring and they’ll marry in the summer. They say he’s been taking his time about it, something of a slowcoach, but a steady hand and a hard worker, what Myfanwy needs to settle her down; she’s got a wild streak in her, that girl, and there was talk a few years back when she was just learning what that smile and those eyes could do. Still, she’s a pretty thing, and she and Morgan will make a good couple. She’ll make him smile, and he’ll make her less flighty. But that’s not what they’re saying now, Morgan thinks, as he drinks another ale. They’re bending forward and talking in whispers, casting sidewise looks at him in his corner. No-one’s come over to chaff him or drink with him and talk about the mines or the choir or the union. It’s dark in his corner, and the darkness is seeping inside his best suit and curling around his bones. It’s never far away for a miner, that dark.

The songs still ring from the square as the autumn evening edges in and Morgan drinks more ale. And one by one, as the stars start to show, there’s the tap of heels as girls make their way across the cobbles to home. Then, as the dim lamps come on in the street, the music stops. The men in the bar fall silent, waiting for the last pair of heels to tap their way home, but what they hear is a giggle, and a laugh, and a silence. The silence stretches, and then there’s another giggle and the last girl goes home. Morgan knows it’s Myfanwy, so do they all, and their glances show a pity that puts an iron ball in Morgan’s stomach. The sound of the heels fades, and there’s another laugh, a contented chuckle from outside, like someone has had a nice snack and is looking forward to a good meal from the same kitchen.

Morgan calls to Hugh for another pint as the sounds from the square change to the creaking of leather and wicker as the gypsy packs up. Hugh says, “That’s your last pint, Morgan; you’ve had enough for tonight and there’s work tomorrow.”

Morgan nods. Hugh’s right. This is his last pint. There’s work tomorrow, and he’s a steady hand, a good solid man and a hard worker. As he finishes his beer, the little pony’s hooves clop over the stones, bearing the gypsy boy away to the field where he stayed last night, the field with the old stone hut in it that’s near the worked-out shaft, said to be the deepest they ever dug, down into the dark.

I’m not walking there, Morgan tells himself under the stars, under the new Moon. It’s the beer that’s walking there, the feet in their heavy boots, the shoulders in the jacket and the hands that dig coal out of rock all day, that make their way down the hill path. It’s dangerous, that path, if you don’t know where the old mine shafts and sink holes are. A man could fall in and never be seen again. That would be a terrible thing to happen to a gypsy boy who strayed off the path. Terrible thing, it would be.

Be a good fellow, the beer in Morgan’s brain says, and warn the gypsy. Take him over and show him the old pit. Explain how strangers can miss the path and fall down, down to the old bones of the earth. Never be seen again. Not by any girl with bright eyes and a smile that’s a promise. Not by any girl. Best to warn the gypsy before he makes a mistake.

The pony’s there, and there’s a little fire in the old grate of the hut. Morgan can see the glow of it against the dark, dark field. See the way it makes the old pit-head a puzzle against the dark without lightening it one bit. Morgan knows that puzzle, played in it as a lad and heard the stories his da told about how men were lost there, down in the dark where nothing should be but coal. Stories about how it was shut down when no man would go down there. Oh, it’s deep as death, that shaft. He’ll have to tell that gypsy boy about it, show him how dangerous it might be. He goes to push open the door.

The music starts, and it’s a black, black song the gypsy sings. It’s in no language Morgan knows in his head, but in his blood, in the marrow of him, he knows that song. It’s cold wind and sad death, lovers parted and hard pain. It’s a song that shouldn’t be sung in this dark field, with that deep shaft nearby, a shaft where there’s a sighing of something hungry for sad dreams. A rustling comes from the shaft that could be coal dust falling down, down into the earth. It could be flakes of rust from old machines or punk from perished pit props, but Morgan thinks it isn’t. Morgan thinks a beast is rising to feed on the dark dreams in this song the gypsy boy sings.

The rotting door near shatters under Morgan’s hand as he bursts into the little hut.

“God, man; what do you think you’re doing?” he says. The beer’s all gone from his brain now. There’s no room for it past the fear. “You can’t sing like that here. It’s dark. Dark, I tell you.”

The gypsy stares at Morgan over a little pan of sausages, nearly cooked. There’s a bottle of wine near him with the cork out. “What you mean?” he says. “I sing what I want!” and he starts that black song again. “Fui bailar no meu batel,” he sings, “alem no mar cruel,” and the little fire flickers as if there’s a wind inside it. Flickers and goes cold and the red and yellow flames have broken hands inside them, dead leaves, and they give no heat at all. The shadows in the hut have red ghosts in them, gone when you turn your full eye to them. And Morgan starts to feel as if he’s never seen stars, never felt the sun, never known the comfort of company. All he’s ever felt was good and bright seems, in memory, pale and shallow. He feels as if he could only sing sad songs.

The gypsy feels it, too, and stops. Then he sings again, “E o mar bramindo, diz que eu fui roubar…” as if the words are drawn from him with a hook. His olive face thins its colour without going pale, and his hair loses its lustre but stays black. It’s as if what makes the gypsy boy himself were being stretched out and made translucent, like thick stained-glass. His voice, that was true and clear, sounds as if it were being drawn away, away. It echoes. Down the shaft of a mine. Down into the earth. Down into the dark.

Morgan knows he should run. He isn’t the singer. It’s not him that’s wanted, it’s the gypsy boy who sang of the dark, in the dark, near the darkest place of all. He wanted to show the boy the mine, after all, just to warn him, don’t you know? But he didn’t warn him. No-one warned him about singing the sad songs in this place, at this time. Morgan should run, back to his Myfanwy, back to warmth and company and away from the deepest sadness. He should run away from this gypsy boy and his sad songs, leave him to go under the earth and into the dark, sing his sad dreams forever to this creature that loves the despair of men. Instead he sings.

Wele goelcerth wen yn fflamio…” He sings the first song that seems somehow bright: Men of Harlech. A song about fighting seems right, a song about victory, about not yielding. He’s a good tenor, pure sweet voice up there in the high A’s, no struggle for that note, not even as sign of stretching until C. The gypsy boy’s a light baritone, full and rich on the middle notes as he sings, “vem saber se o mar tera razao.” Morgan doesn’t know what it means, but it sounds sad and distant and he longs to let it go but he’s stubborn as the coal he digs, stubborn as the rock he digs it from. The gypsy’s voice begins to sound like a low scream over water. Directionless and fading, but clear as a knife.

Morgan sings, “Oes gafr eto, oes heb ei godro?” A song about goats seems to lessen the chill in his heart. Maid of Llanwellyn takes his song soaring and ringing about the sagging beams of the hut. The nonsense of The Cutty Wren shivers the dark, and the gypsy’s song falters and warms. “My beese Mary Ann wed-dee bree’oo-oh,” Morgan sings, and the gypsy boy stops his song. He stops his song as a drowning man stops his screams when rescue approaches, when line is thrown within reach. When the line is thrown and one stroke will carry him to safety. Then something gets into Morgan’s throat.

In the time later, Morgan never said whether it was a speck of dust from the tired thatch, or soot from the fire or a red flicker from the clutching shadows. It may have been that he stretched a little too hard for a note a little too high. He married Myfanwy and they had four girls and three boys. They never worked in the pits, though Morgan had to smack the boys blue and eat bread and dripping to see them through school. He didn’t want them to hear the songs that echoed in the dark where the coal is. “Vem ca ver bailar meu coracao,” as clear and distant as the tick of a hospital clock in the silences between the picks striking.

No gypsies come to that valley any more. The miners have to mend their own pots, and sing their own songs.


  • Ian Nichols

    Ian Nichols is a tutor at Murdoch University, which is the latest in a career, has seen him as an actor, a teacher, a nurse, a sports reporter and all of those jobs that look typical on a writer’s rap sheet. He’s also been a book reviewer at The West Australian newspaper for about twenty years, which gives him some sort of feel for what’s happening in the publishing industry. The story “In the Dark” was inspired by a trip back to his birthplace, Wales, right down there in the pit country, and by a statement by Sherlock Homes that things in the country are so isolated that any sort of evil can take place without being noticed. Wales is a lovely setting for horror.

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