COVEN OF COLD SPRING FOUR

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Harden Pit lay beyond the viaduct with its twin lines of tracks glinting in the sunlight, shimmering in a heat haze.

From here, on the knoll where Uncle Zachary's house stood - especially from my attic window - I could actually look down on the viaduct a little, see the shining tracks receding toward the colliery. The massive brick structure that supported them had been built when the collieries first opened up, to provide transport for the black gold, one viaduct out of many spanning the becks and streams of the north-east where they ran to the sea.

This side of the viaduct and towards the sea cliffs, there stood Slater's Copse, a close-grown stand of oaks, rowans, hawthorns and hazelnuts. Old Slater was a farmer who had sold up to the coal industry, but he'd kept back small pockets of land for his and his family's enjoyment, and for the enjoyment of everyone else in the colliery communities. Long after this whole area was laid to waste, Slater's patches of green would still be here, shady oases in the grey and black desert. And in the trees of Slater's Copse.

Uncle Zachary hadn't been telling stories after all! I could glimpse the varnished wood, the young shire horse between his shafts, the curve of a spoked wheel behind a fence. And so I left the house, ran down the shrub-grown slope of the knoll and along the front of the cemetery wall, then straight through the graveyard itself and the gate on the far side, and so into the fields with their paths leading to the new coast road on the one side and the viaduct on the other.

Forsaking the paths, I forged through long grasses laden with pollen, leaving a smoky trail in my wake as I made for Slater's Copse and the gypsies. Now, you might wonder why I was so taken with gypsies and gypsy urchins. But the truth is that even old Zachary in his rambling house wasn't nearly so lonely as me. He had his work, calls to make every day, and his surgery in Essingham five nights a week. But I had no one.

With my 'posh' Edinburgh accent, I didn't hit it off with the colliery boys. Them with their hard, swaggering ways, and their harsh north-eastern twang. They called themselves 'Geordies', though they weren't from Newcastle at all; and me, I was an outsider. Oh, I could look after myself. But why fight them when I could avoid them? And so the gypsies and I had something in common: we didn't belong here. I'd played with the gypsies before.

But not with this lot. Approaching the copse, I saw a boy my own age and a woman, probably his mother, taking water from a spring. They heard me coming, even though the slight summer breeze off the sea favoured me, and looked up. I waved. They didn't seem like my kind of gypsies at all.

Or maybe they'd had trouble recently, or were perhaps expecting trouble. There was only one caravan and so they were one family on its own. Then, out of the trees at the edge of the copse, the head of the family appeared. He was tall and thin, wore the same wide-brimmed cloth hat, looked out at me from its shade with eyes like golden triangular lamps. It could only have been a sunbeam, catching him where he stood with the top half of his body shaded; paradoxically, at the same time the sun had seemed to fade a little in the sky. But it was strange and I stopped moving forward, and he stood motionless, just looking.

Behind him stood a girl, a shadow in the trees; and in the dappled gloom her eyes, too, were like candle-lit turnip eyes in October.

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But they made no answer, turned their backs on me and melted back into the copse. So much for 'playing' with the gypsies! With this bunch, anyway. I could always try again later. When they'd settled in down here. I went to the viaduct instead. The viaduct both fascinated and frightened me at one and the same time.

Originally constructed solely to accommodate the railway, with, the addition of a wooden walkway it also provided miners who lived in one village but worked in the other with a shortcut to their respective collieries. On this side, a mile to the north, stood Essingham; on the other, lying beyond the colliery itself and inland a half-mile or so toward the metalled so-called 'coast road', Harden.

The viaduct fascinated me because of the trains, shuddering and rumbling over its three towering arches, and scared me because of its vertiginous walkway.

The walkway had been built on the ocean-facing side of the viaduct, level with the railway tracks but separated from them by the viaduct's wall. It was of wooden planks protected on the otherwise open side, by a fence of staves five feet high. Upward-curving iron arms fixed in brackets underneath held the walkway aloft, alone sustaining it against gravity's unending exertions. But they always looked dreadfully thin and rusty to me, those metal supports, and the vertical distance between them and the valley's floor seemed a terribly great one. In fact it was about one hundred and fifty feet.


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Not a terrific height, really, but it only takes a fifth of that to kill or maim a man if he falls. I had an ambition: to walk across it from one end to the other.

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So far my best attempt had taken me a quarterway across before being forced back. The trouble was the trains. The whistle of a distant train was always sufficient to send me flying, heart hammering, racing to get off the walkway before the train got onto the viaduct! But this time I didn't even make it that far. A miner, hurrying towards me from the other side, recognised me and called: 'Here, lad! Are you the young 'un stayin' with Zach Gardner? He was in his 'pit black', streaked with sweat, his boots clattering on the wooden boards.

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Tell your uncle he's to come at once to Joe Andersen's. The ambulance men won't move him. Joe won't let them! He's delirious but he's hangin' on. We diven't think for long, though. Joe's at home. He says he can feel his legs but not the rest of his body.

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It'd be reet funny, that, if it wasn't so tragic. Bloody cages!

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He'll not be the last they trap! Now scramble, lad, d'you hear? And in those days, too, we had the phone; some of us. But Zachary Gardner hated them. Likewise cars, though he did keep a motorcycle and sidecar for making his rounds. Across the fields and by the copse I sped, aware of faces in the trees but not wasting time looking at them, and through the graveyard and up the cobbled track to the flat crest of the knoll, to where my uncle stood in the doorway in his shirtsleeves, all scrubbed clean again.

And I gasped out my message.

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Without a word, nodding, he went to the lean-to and started up the bike, and I climbed slowly and dizzily to my attic room, panting my lungs out. I took up my binoculars and watched the shining ribbon of road to the west, until Uncle Zachary's bike and sidecar came spurting into view, the banging of its pistons unheard at this distance; and I continued to watch him until he disappeared out of sight toward Harden, where a lone spire stood up, half-hidden by a low hill.

He came home again at dusk, very quiet, and we heard the next day how Joe Anderson had died that night. The funeral was five days later at two in the afternoon; I watched for a while, but the bowed heads and the slim, sagging frame of the miner's widow distressed me and made me feel like a voyeur. So I watched the gypsies picnicking instead.

They were in the field next to the graveyard, but separated from it by a high stone wall. The field had lain fallow for several years and was deep in grasses, thick with clovers and wild flowers.

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