Union Belle, page 1
This book is dedicated to Tiny Brown, who died in October 2004.
The darkness is a-closing
I can hear it, I can see it
Leo Fowler, ‘Entombed’, Pit Poems, 1939
Table of Contents
About the Author
Praise for the bestselling Union Belle:
She stops the car at the top of Joseph Street, gets out and leans against the warm bonnet. It’s late June and noticeably crisp now that the sun has dropped behind the hills, and her breath is making small foggy clouds in the air. She can hear birds in the nearby bush, a trio of small boys arguing in the school playground, their school bags abandoned on the asphalt, and from somewhere down the street the faint but unmistakable beat of ZZ Top’s ‘Velcro Fly’—the house she passed with the Norton motorcycles parked reverently on the front verandah, perhaps.
She narrows her eyes, trying to imagine what the little township might have looked like fifty-three years ago when there were a handful of shops, and a post office, and the miners’ hall was still standing. There were around 400 people living here then, mostly coalminers and their families, many of them Geordies and Lancashiremen, or Fifers and Irishmen and Welshmen, originally from the coalfields of the UK. Although enough of the old homes still seem to be occupied, down abbreviated side streets she has seen empty and derelict houses, bleached paint flaking off warped weatherboards and front porches lurching at precarious angles. The streets are named Joseph, Edward, James, Robert, John and Bernard, suggesting that the town planner may have come from a family with lots of boys.
There are no shops at all in Pukemiro now, but it’s quiet, and has a certain shabby charm, and the houses are probably a cheap buy for young families. As for the older residents, if you’d lived all your life in a tiny community like this, why would you want to move away from the beautiful, rich coal seams that gave you a livelihood for all those years? And the mud and the septic tanks and the isolation, and the bitter winter cold forever looking for a home in old bones. Maybe there are good reasons for moving out, she thinks after a moment.
She can smell the coal. It’s in the air in the smoke from sitting-room fires and kitchen ranges, and raw in the ground beneath her feet, damp now with recent rain. The underground mines out here closed decades ago—Pukemiro in 1967, Glen Afton and McDonald two years later—but there will be pockets of coal left behind.
What a bright little community Pukemiro must have been before then, though—close knit, insulated but still aware, and clean because the hill between the mine and the township kept the fine black grit from the railway and the coal screens at bay. At the height of its production Pukemiro Collieries employed 800 men, who brought 700 tons of coal to the surface every day, but those days are long gone. Now most of the older miners are dead, or retired somewhere else, their families grown up and moved on, leaving the town to doze like a scruffy old dog.
She checks her watch—time to get back into Huntly for her appointment. Near the bottom of Joseph Street she drives past a man on a ride-on mower, cutting the strip of grass between his house and the road. She waves at him and he gives her a blank look.
Huntly West now, and still that smell of coal.
The low winter sun almost blinds her and she squints to read the numbers on the letter boxes. She stops the car outside a compact, semi-detached state house, and checks the address in her notes. This is it.
It’ll be another frosty Waikato evening as soon as the sun goes down properly, and already the garden path feels slippery with half-formed ice, so she places her feet carefully. She doesn’t want to arse over, especially not if anyone happens to be watching through the window.
Three concrete steps lead up to a tiny porch, the tongue-and-groove panelling of its interior painted an insipid mint green. A mat made out of wavy black rubber strips underlines the door sill, and a mesh screen fits over the opaque glass door behind it.
Clearing her throat nervously, she smooths her hair and presses the round white buzzer. This is the bit she likes least, the introduction; it always makes her feel uncomfortable, and a bit invasive.
After a moment the glass door opens, and she is momentarily confused—the face peering out at her through the mesh definitely doesn’t belong to an eighty-four-year-old woman.
‘Hello,’ she says, hoping she isn’t about to make a fool of herself. ‘I’m Cathy Martin, from the university. I’ve got an appointment to interview Mrs Ellen McCabe. Is this the right address?’
The young man in the doorway has very dark brown, unsmiling eyes and curly black hair. He nods. ‘My grandmother’
He’s a nice-looking bloke, but she senses he isn’t particularly pleased to see her. Still, his deliberate move to one side invites her into the house.
She opens the screen door and steps into a narrow, galley-style kitchen smelling faintly of roast meat. A television is on somewhere. Against the window wall is an oven, and a sink set into a red Formica bench; the opposite wall is lined with a bank of cupboards painted lime green, and a big, late-model refrigerator.
On top of it sits a large birdcage housing a scrofulous-looking grey parrot with crimson tail feathers. Down one white-enamelled side of the fridge is a small lahar of fresh bird shit. As if to make sure she knows how it gets there, the parrot hangs its bum out of the cage and lets go with another lot.
‘Cold out there?’ it squawks.
Cathy doesn’t know whether to answer it or not.
The young man shakes his head and calls out, ‘Gran, this bloody bird of yours has shat down the fridge again!’
A disembodied voice replies tetchily, ‘Well, clean it off then.’
The man mutters ‘Christ,’ and opens the cupboard under the sink, letting out a waft of disinfectant and damp.
‘Is that Mrs McCabe?’ Cathy asks, wanting to laugh at the crapping parrot but deciding she’d better not.
‘Yep, hang on.’ He takes out a faded, neatly folded tea towel and walks past her. ‘Come through,’ he says over his shoulder.
She follows him out of the kitchen, past a compact dining table—more Formica—and through to a small, overheated sitting room that smells of furniture polish and old lady.
The long curtains are drawn and a portable gas heater glows orange in front of them, although the tiled fireplace is empty. The carpet is old, burnt ochre and swirly, the wallpaper a faded, patterned, celery green. Positioned directly in front of a television is a La-Z-Boy chair. As Cathy regards the back of it, a blue-veined hand holding a remote control emerges from its depths and points towards the TV; the sound goes off, leaving Judy Bailey yapping energetically away in silence. The chair swivels slowly around.
‘It’s the girl from the university, Gran,’ the young man says. He’s still holding the tea towel.
Cathy bends forward so the old lady doesn’t have to get up, and extends her hand. She feels absurdly as though she’s being presented to the Queen.
‘Hello, Mrs McCabe. I’m Cathy Martin, I rang you the other day about the 1951 strike? Thank you for agreeing to see me.’
‘You’re welcome, dear.’ She doesn’t sound at all tetchy now.
Ellen McCabe is quite small. Her hand feels dry and smooth,
‘Sit down, dear, make yourself comfortable,’ she adds, shifting in her chair and adjusting the crocheted rug draped over her knees. Nothing is visible beneath it except a glimpse of thick support hose and a pair of fluffy purple Warehouse slippers.
Cathy settles herself in a black vinyl armchair with a tan-coloured squab and begins her usual, slightly nervous, spiel. ‘If possible, I’d like to tape this interview. Then I don’t have to worry about taking notes. Will that be all right with you?’
She’s found it’s better to set up her tape recorder as soon as possible. Sometimes, if she mentions too early the sorts of questions she wants to ask, the interviewee will start answering them before she’s even got it out of her bag.
‘Whatever suits you, dear.’
The young man demands, ‘Does she have final say over what you end up using?’
‘Yes, she does,’ Cathy says. ‘I’ll send you a copy of the tape, Mrs McCabe, and you can veto anything you might not be happy about after you’ve had a listen to it.’
‘Thank you, Matt,’ the old lady says. ‘Why don’t you put the kettle on? You could clean up Fintan’s mess while you’re waiting for it to boil. I’m sure Miss Martin could do with a cup of tea.’
‘Fintan?’ Cathy asks.
‘The parrot. He can be very mouthy and two-faced, for a bird.’
Matt reluctantly goes back into the kitchen, and turns the tap on.
‘My grandson,’ Mrs McCabe says in a loud whisper. ‘He’s a good boy but very protective of me. Thinks talking about it might upset me.’
Cathy gets her tape recorder out and sets it up on the coffee table in front of her, plugging in the microphone and inserting a blank tape. An enormous, coal-black cat is stretched out under the table; it barely moves even when Cathy inadvertently pokes it with her boot.
‘Will it, do you think?’ she asks. ‘Because if you do have any upsetting memories, you don’t have to talk about them if you don’t want to.’
The old lady waves her hand dismissively. ‘Oh, not after all these years, it won’t. What did you want to know?’
‘Well, what it was like, really. What life was like in Pukemiro in 1951, how the miners felt about going on strike, what it was like for the wives and the children, what you did to manage—all those sorts of things.’
Mrs McCabe contemplates the worn gold wedding band on her left hand. ‘I can certainly tell you about what it was like for the women,’ she says eventually. ‘I can give you a good idea of what the men thought about it, too, and what they did, but some of that’s only from hearsay and my own observations. My husband died quite a while ago, but he would have had some good stories for you. He was on the union committee at the time.’
Matt comes back with the tea things, and sets them out on the coffee table. He moves a small end table over to his grandmother’s chair, pours her a cup of tea and adds milk and two sugars, then passes Cathy the teapot.
‘Will you be all right, Gran?’ he asks.
‘Of course I will, love.’
‘I’ll pop back later, if you like.’
Mrs McCabe sighs. ‘Only if you really want to.’
‘I do want to.’
While this interchange is going on, Cathy studies a collection of framed photographs on the wall, including a portrait of a couple she assumes are Ellen McCabe and her husband on their wedding day, a less formal photograph of them with two young boys, and various other pictures of adults, babies and children, some quite recent, some clearly taken decades ago. Ordinary family photos, but precious all the same.
A little apart from these pictures is another photograph, of Ellen McCabe as a young woman sitting on the steps of a porch, smiling widely at the camera, her heavy, shoulder-length hair blowing across her face and her eyes almost closed. To her left, up on the porch itself, a well-built, dark-haired man is leaning on the rail, ignoring the camera and gazing down at Ellen. He’s also smiling, but it’s abundantly clear that she’s the only thing he’s interested in looking at. Cathy’s eyes flick from the wedding photo and back to this one. No, it’s definitely not the same man, although he does look vaguely familiar.
As Matt is leaving, the old lady follows the line of Cathy’s gaze. ‘That one with my boys Neil and Davey was taken at the end of 1950. We had a very happy Christmas that year, despite everything that was going on. That was just before the strike started, that photo.’
Cathy takes a sip of her tea, then switches the tape recorder on. ‘How did it start, Mrs McCabe, from your point of view?’
‘May I ask you a question first, dear?’
Cathy nods. ‘Shall I stop the tape?’
Mrs McCabe looks at her, her gaze suddenly sharp and shrewd. ‘No, it’s all right. Now, do you want to know the story of the strike, or do you want to know my story? Because it makes a difference, you see. A big difference.’
Cathy feels the hairs on her arms start to rise. ‘Your story, please, if you want to tell it.’
Ellen McCabe nods and, with contemplative slowness, straightens the rug over her knees. ‘Yes,’ she says, ‘I think I do.’
The heavy tread of Tom’s boots on the back porch was Ellen’s usual signal to put the frying pan on the coal range, and give the fire smouldering inside it a good jab with the poker.
‘You’re home early,’ she said over her shoulder as her husband stepped into the kitchen, still carrying his rucksack and his crib tin. When he didn’t answer, she looked around and noticed the expression of barely concealed triumph on his face. ‘What’s happened?’
‘We’ve gone out,’ he said, dropping his bag on the floor. ‘Where are the boys?’
‘Down at the creek looking for crawlies.’ She opened the refrigerator, took out a bowl of sausages and laid four in the pan. Poking them with a fork to rupture the skins, she added a scrape of dripping and broke in three eggs as well. ‘Because of the watersiders?’
Tom sat down at the kitchen table. ‘More or less. We worked most of the shift, then came up and voted to go out in support of them, and in protest against the emergency regulations. It was unanimous.’
‘Are all the Waikato miners out?’
‘All the underground jokers. Thompson’s is staying open to supply the hospitals, but the other opencasters have all walked off. It’s not on, bringing in emergency regulations, not in this country. Typical Holland, what a bastard. Worst bloody prime minister we’ve ever had.’
Ellen tucked thick strands of russet hair behind her ears, leaned against the bench and crossed her arms. Her husband was a good-looking man—fit and rugged, as miners tended to be, and tall too, not always a bonus underground—although his eyes could be hard and his face darkly belligerent when he was angry.
‘Was it a secret ballot?’ she asked.
‘No, just a show of hands—we didn’t have time to fuck about with secret ballots. Sorry, love.’ Tom normally refrained from swearing too coarsely, as he didn’t hold with bad language in front of women, except in dire circumstances. It was tricky after a day at work, though; the swearing down the mine was shocking. ‘West Coast and Taranaki are out too, and so are the freezing workers, the hydro-electric jokers, Portland and Golden Bay cement, and most of the drivers and railway workers. Nearly all the TUC affiliates and a fair few of the FOL unions too, as of yesterday and today.’
‘The Southland and Kamo miners as well?’
Tom’s mouth set in a hard line of disapproval. ‘Not yet, but they won’t be far behind, they’ll come into line.’
‘It’ll still slow the country down though, won’t it, even with just half the pits
And they had, this time, unlike the miners’ strike of 1942 and the countless stoppages that had come after that. In ‘42 no one had been prepared, and the strike on top of the war rationing had meant hard times for nearly everyone. She and Tom had only been married a year, and she’d been pregnant with Neil.
Back then, the Pukemiro men had gone out because ten of them had been paid less than the minimum wage by Pukemiro Collieries, the private owner of the mine, and within a week all Waikato miners were out in sympathy, although no miners elsewhere in New Zealand downed tools. The government, panicking because of the effect the coal shortage would have on the war effort, had come down hard on the strikers. Every Pukemiro man was served a summons for illegal striking and 182 of them sentenced to a month in prison. But after a round of intense meetings, and at the very last minute, the government announced it would take over control of the mines for the duration of the war and that the prison sentences of the Pukemiro men would be suspended, providing they went back to work. They did.
Ellen had been sick with worry at the thought of Tom in jail. She spent the day before they were all due to leave mending his suit so he wouldn’t have to go to prison looking tatty, and had burst into tears of relief when news of the reprieve came. Tom thought it all a great joke, but Ellen had been rather less amused, despite her support of the men’s demand for the minimum wage. But they’d survived then, and she expected that they would survive this time too.
When the trouble with the Auckland watersiders had started a few weeks ago, she’d gone into Huntly to the Co-op and stocked up on tinned food and other bits and pieces they might need. But it was worrying—money was fairly scarce at the best of times. They were still paying off the mortgage on their house, and now there was her new refrigerator as well, her pride and joy even though it was only one of the smaller models, on hire purchase from Farmers. It was an extravagance, but her mother had given her the money for the deposit and she’d pestered Tom until he’d finally given in and said she could have it, even though they couldn’t strictly afford it. Since its delivery just before Christmas she’d marvelled every day at how she’d ever managed without it, but she might just have to again if they couldn’t keep the payments up and it had to go back. Which could be very embarrassing as well as disappointing, as just about every housewife in Pukemiro had been around to admire it.
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