Seacoal 1953

Fifteen and I’m growing strong and Durham County is dotted with coal mines. The collieries on the coast dump rock spoil and slaggy coal mixtures by conveyor belts straight onto the inter-tidal zone. Tides wash back and forth, they suck the waste into deep water only for storms to fling it back onto the beach. All the while sorting and grading by size, shape and mass, sifting the shining coal from the rubble of Carboniferous rock.
A strong current runs offshore. The Longshore Drift pushes the sea-coal further south, slicks it onto the North Sands, or traps it feet thick amid the rock pools off the Hartlepool headland. This February night I’m on the shore close to the Palliser Works as the tide ebbs. I scan the run of the sea for telltale signs in the falling water. It’s a good tide tonight. There’s moonlight laying the shore pale and flat, and a biting north-east wind, likely from Siberia, straight off the North Sea. It gets through my knitted balaclava. I shine the bicycle lamp at the curling waves, and nod. The breakers are black and hiss with coal. Peter, my black and tan mongrel, is messing about in the soft sand at the foot of the dunes. He’s found a dead gull. He’s rolling on it now. His long coat will stink. My shout stops him and he slinks down the beach looking guilty. I lean against my bike and wait; rake, jute sacks, and shovel ready. Coughs and spits and points of light reveal three other gatherers who know the signs. They wheel their bikes into position. I have to hold my place. Only if the rough men come with their lorry will I move.
My fingers are numb, I put them in my mouth, four at a time, and suck on them. I recall the night I found big coal in the dark but had to scrape off an inch of snow to get at it. Tonight the coal will come in rounded by the action of sand and water. It might be as small as match heads and spread so thin on the sand that it’s useless to gather. But not tonight. After yesterday’s storm it could be the size of walnuts and lay six inches deep. I listen to the gravelly rattle of coal as the waves crash and slide up the beach. Tonight it will be the best. A wave recedes and I run forward with the rake, plunge it into the coal, and pull. Roundies! Beautiful round black coals the size of a good plum. I’ll sell it for half-a-crown a bag! This cast will be fifty yards long, and there’ll be others. More bike lamps and torches are coming down the beach. Get a move on.
I rake and heap the roundies into three piles, watch them drain, then shovel them into jute sacks. Three bulging sacks, tied at the neck is all I can manage. I’ve fifty yards of sand to negotiate before the hard surface of the Palliser Works track. I drag the bags over the sand, one by one, to the track and load up. Three hundredweight is enough for my old, but tough and heavy, CWS bike. Two bags beneath the crossbar and one on top. I’m sweating now — so much so that the nithering wind is welcome. I lay across the loaded bike, inhale the reek of wet jute, and push. She moves and gathers momentum. I’ve a mile to go. The trick is not to get into a wobble and spill the bags — they are strained and dripping — they could burst. This lot is worth seven shillings and sixpence. Peter trots ahead as we enter the tunnel under the railway embankment. He gives his usual deep bark, and barks again at the echoes.
I’ll get the coal home straight away and go back for more. Tomorrow, once Mam and Dad have their share, I’ll call at my regular customers. They love roundies, they burn so bright. But they are rare. In calm weather the sea-coal is small stuff the size of barley grain. I struggle to get a shilling a bag for that, if it sells at all. Mam will use it, though. She rams the fine stuff into an old cornflake box and lays it on the fire so that it bakes and the tars bind the fines into a solid brick that burns nice and slow. I’m making money. Soon I’ll have enough for a road racing bike.

About Harry Nicholson

I once bred Beveren rabbits in all colours. Today, I'm an enameller who works with a kiln, fusing pictures in glass onto copper. On Amazon is my novel, 'Tom Fleck', set in the North of England of 1513 - the year of Flodden. A sequel to 'Tom Fleck' is 'The Black Caravel' published in 2016. My anthology of poems came out in 2015: 'Wandering About.' Recently I published memoirs of my time in the Merchant Navy: 'The Best of Days' and 'You'll See Wonders" I've a blog of poems, stories and art at:
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4 Responses to Seacoal 1953

  1. Thank you for the affirmation, Kate. Lately, general life has been a distraction, hence my late response. Perhaps I may be more focussed at some future time.

  2. jorgekafkazar says:

    As always, Harry’s writing plunges the reader deep into the place and time of the tale. Verbs drive the prose: growing…dump… wash… suck… fling… sorting… grading… sifting… runs… pushes… Lyrical.

    • Thank you, Jorge. That is reassuring. You give me confidence – a precious gift to make. The piece is lifted from a memoir that I’m tinkering with, in the calm after finishing the sequel to ‘Tom Fleck’.

  3. Well told tale Harry ๐Ÿ‘๐Ÿ˜ƒ

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