A Gift in the Dark

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A Gift in the Dark

If I close my eyes, I can still hear the sounds that haunt my dreams. Not the booming whoosh of the steam powered pumps, or the clattering of the picks and shovels, but the quiet sounds that whispered from the darkness when the men were resting.

With the Davy Lamps turned low to preserve fuel, the flickering shadows breathed life into the darkness that surrounded us. The gentle drips of water and steady hiss of the lamps; the distant rumble of the surf above our heads, and the knocks of stone and echo. These are the sounds that fill my nights.


I grew up on the wild north coast of Cornwall. An area guarded by sea and gorse: a steeply winding road to low grey slate houses that stared at the sea. It was just me and Nanny Jago for most of my life. My father had died in the Carn Galne collapse of 1910, and my mother had thrown herself from the cliffs at Zennor soon after. From then on Morvah became my home.

We Cornishmen had tunnelled deep. A honeycomb of adits and shafts produced the finest quality tin in the world, and it was a proud boast that at the bottom of any deep hole on Earth you would find a Cornishman. 'Tis a proud miner who stands with his pick on his shoulder, Davy Lamp in hand, and pasty cooling in pocket. I still have the photo on the mantel: I still bear the scars of the collapse which followed.

At 14, I joined the line of cap clad men as they wove their way across the gorse and heather, sheltering behind the stone walls and wind tortured hedges that marked the cliff edge. On my first day Nanny J had pressed a coin into my hand telling me to leave it as a gift to the knockers.

"They're fickle boy, but if you gift them they'll look after you. They're tricksy folk, so beware: be true to your heart."

Maybe I should have asked more, but she was always spinning tales of Knockers, the Small Folk, and the Pixies. So I did as I was bade rather than question the sense of her occasional ramblings.

Superstition was rife among the miners. The little sounds in the adits and the flickering darkness sometimes drove men mad, and they muttered and grumbled to themselves as they worked. Knocking sounds echoed endlessly around the adits and shafts, and if you listened they seemed to talk or reply in some sort of ancient signal, as if in mocking counterpoint to our own feeble efforts.

Every day we ate our crouse in the flickering darkness of the mine, listening to the pounding surf overhead, the steady drip of water, and the gentle hiss of the lamps that provided a barrier of light against the encroaching nothingness surrounding us. The crimp of the pasty was held to keep the filth off the rest of the oggy which contained the still warm potato, onion and beef: the remnant was gifted to the darkness. It was dark filthy work, but I was strong for my age, bred to dig, and soon earned the respect of my colleagues, some of whom remembered my father.

As the years passed, we had other boys who joined us in the mine. Some stayed, some went, occasionally one died.

One destroyed us.

A new lad called Wilf saw the small pile of offerings in the little pool inside the mine entrance on his first day, and temptation overcame superstition. This was seen by one of the other young lads who mentioned it to his older brother during crouse time. An argument flared, loud voices echoed through the mine. Then, for the first time, the Knockers joined in.

Tap, tap.

Tap, tap, tap.

Tap, tap, tap, tap.

The argument stopped instantly. Other than the odd solitary arrhythmic knock of a stone falling, none of us had ever heard the insistent noises during break. All thoughts of food vanished. An older man who had been muttering for many years curled into a ball and started rocking to and fro, whimpering as the noises grew more insistent.

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