Gannet: Sula bassana. Very large seabird, cigar shaped with a six-foot wingspan. Narrow, black-tipped wings and a white body with ochre head. A superb, graceful flyer, prefers open sea except when breeding. Dives from a great height to catch fish.
‘When tha’ going to get ‘itched then Tommy?’ one of his lippy mates asked him as they entered the cage for the day-shift. It was a question on many of the men’s minds but their taciturn natures let the question remain unasked, their subversive wives would find out in good time. Tommy’s mates liked to tease the quiet man about the woman in the village he’d been seen about with. Tongues wag in small communities and the fact that Tommy Barcroft had a lady friend was hot gossip. The gate came down with a clang, a bell rang to signal the all-clear and then the crammed cage plunged into the black depths, half way down a rush of cool air briefly filled the men’s hot space as the upward cage passed them taking the previous shift to the surface.
‘Never you mind,’ said Tommy quietly, keeping his counsel. The cage doors opened upwards with a metallic bang and a bantle of men spilled out, some peeled off in the direction of a stores area, the majority headed for a small, waiting locomotive whose open wagons would transport them two miles underground. From where the line ended they would walk, stoop-backed, along a low-roofed tunnel for another quarter of a mile until they would arrive at the coal face.
‘By ‘eck, did you see that?’ exclaimed Tommy to the woman in the knitted bobble hat. He was not given to addressing strangers but his excitement was such that he had to share the sight of a bird of prey that had flashed in front of the bus shelter in pursuit of a fleeing hedge sparrow.
The solitary woman looked up, not sure what to say at this unexpected outburst from the tall man in a donkey jacket. She hoped he wasn’t some weirdo. She said nothing for a moment, contemplating whether to reply. ‘’Appen, I must have missed it,’ she replied finally, thinking it better to say something, however banal.
‘It were a sparro ‘awk,’ said Tommy in a deep, earnest voice.
The woman showed more interest in this remark for she knew a little bit about birds.
‘You sure?’ she asked.
‘Aye, thar knows a sparro ‘awk when I sees ‘un.’
The woman remained quiet again, slightly alarmed at the stranger’s conviction. There was silence for a couple of minutes as they waited for the bus. The woman looked at her watch hoping it would arrive soon, feeling uncomfortable in the man’s overpowering presence.
‘It’s typical ‘awk behaviour,’ Tommy said in a gentler tone, sensing he’d alarmed this small, pleasant-looking woman. Studying her more closely, he noticed her worn anorak and stout walking shoes. ‘Are you a walker?’ he asked. ‘You look as if you’re off on a trek.’
‘Aye, I like to walk but not today,’ said the woman, relieved that the man’s tone sounded more normal. She was embarrassed that she might have misjudged him. ‘I’m off to town to buy a new anorak, this one has started letting in,’ she said, her hand involuntarily touching the worn sleeves where the fabric was frayed to demonstrate that she wasn’t given to extravagances.
‘I’m sure I’ve seen you in the village, are you local?’
‘What’s it to you?’ she replied spikily, her defences aroused again.
‘Oh sorry, I didn’t mean to pry. I live on Victoria Walk,’ the man said to demonstrate his openness.
‘I presume you work down pit then?’ she asked.
‘Aye, who’s being nosey now,’ he replied, a brief smile crossing his lined face.
‘Sorry, yes, I live in Mafeking Terrace.’
‘You’re practically around the corner from me.’
‘Why do you want to know anyways?’ she asked.
‘I like walking too; I go whenever I can find the time – the Pennine Way, three peaks – I am a bit of a fan.’
‘Pennine Way sounds a bit ambitious for me like,’ the woman said.
‘You look a strong enough lass,’ he replied, looking her in the eye and regretting his words as soon as he’d uttered them. He tried to correct his blunder, ‘It’s better to walk it in sections than trying to do it in one go.’ At that moment, the bus pulled up. Although the vehicle only had a few passengers, they sat apart from one another. At the central terminal, she got off before him and was about to walk away when she turned and touched Tommy’s arm.
‘I might see you in the village or on one of your countryside rambles. I am at number sixteen,’ she said looking up into Tommy’s large glum face, noticing his bright blue attentive eyes. She put out her hand, ‘I’m Irene Stanforth,’ she said.
‘Tommy, Tommy Barcroft,’ he replied gripping her small bony hand.
It was not easy taking reconnaissance strolls passed Irene’s door as Mafeking Terrace was a cul-de-sac; he made a poor feint at being lost and, after two approaches, his nerves failed him on the doorstep and he didn’t knock. Eventually, after two months passed, he plucked up enough courage to tap on the door. There was no reply, so he gave up. A few weeks later he ran into her while walking back over the fields from the colliery. He spotted a small hunched figure on her hands and knees looking closely at some small plant. She was sketching the leaf shape and the flower petal with a pencil in a small notebook.
Sensing his presence rather than hearing it, she looked up with a surprised smile.
‘Hello Irene,’ he said.
‘Oh, look at this orchid, isn’t it beautiful.’ Her white hands gently cupped the purple spiky shaped flower. ‘They’re quite common about here.’ He knelt down to admire its exquisite beauty and noticed she was wearing a new dark blue anorak.
‘I see you were successful in getting your new out-of-doors coat,’ he said, getting to his feet.
‘Oh aye, do you like it?’
Tommy had never been asked to comment on women’s clothing before. Since his mother died he rarely spoke to members of the opposite sex, save to say hello to the women at the Morrison’s checkout or pay his bus fare. You could hardly call that conversation. ‘It’s …er…very nice Irene,’ he stuttered. ‘It suits you, I bet it keeps you dry when you are out walking.’
‘Oh yes,’ she said, getting up. ‘Talking of walking, I plan to climb Penn y Ghent on Saturday, do you fancy coming along?’
Tommy was a bit taken aback by this direct approach. ‘I’ve tried knocking on your door but you weren’t there,’ he said lamely.
‘Probably on nights at the glassworks. So, what about Saturday? The bus goes at seven thirty then we catch the train from Leeds to Settle.’
‘Sounds grand but I’ve got a motorbike, I could take you and it would be cheaper than trains and buses and the like.’
Irene thought for a moment, she was a bit afraid of motorcycles. ‘I came off a bike once when I was a teenager. You won’t drive fast, will you?’
‘Nah, we’ll just chug along, it’s only an old BSA. And I have got some saddle bags to carry walking gear and sarnies.’
It was the start of many happy weekends. They didn’t talk much, just pleased to be in one another’s company. It was a novelty for Tommy to have someone on the back of the bike clinging on to his worn leather biking coat, Irene’s warm hands wrapped around his middle as they roared into the Yorkshire Dales; it made him feel protective towards his new companion. Over the next few months they climbed Ingleborough and Whernside, took gentle walks on the banks of the river Wharfe and went scrambling about in How Stean Gorge. They visited Flamborough Head and watched puffins and guillemots; Tommy pointed out the Fulmars and Kittiwakes patrolling the cliffs, using their aerobatic skills to land on the tiniest ledges, and best of all they watched the gannets rearing their young.
Their conversations were sparse, their shared love of the great outdoors was sufficient and anyhow, Irene’s partial deafness meant conversation was often lost on the wind. It was only when she found some interesting flora or Tommy spotted a fascinating bird did they become animated. They shared their knowledge and learned from one another; at Christmas Tommy bought Irene a pair of field glasses and she got him a pocket book on wildflowers.
One day, after about a year of their knowing one another, Tommy invited Irene to his house for a cup of coffee and a chat about a planned trip to the Lake District. They were standing in his kitchen, Tommy with his back to the sink and she in front of the warm fire, when she asked, ‘Have you ever been married then Tommy?’
‘Nah, never found a rite ‘un.’
She looked at him intently. ‘You’re not…you know, one of them?’ Irene stared into her mug of coffee hoping he wouldn’t be offended.
‘Bloody ‘ell woman!’
‘Sorry Tommy, I had to ask, but… you never touch me like. I didn’t want to be disappointed. I like you Tommy and we have such good times together. I’ve not had many men in my life and I am given to shutting out new ones. You’re different from t’others, the ones I have known before all turned out to be bastards.’
As Tommy moved towards her, he felt an overpowering surge of affection, as if he was soaring like his favourite seabird. ‘Irene, I’m not good at this, I am sorry luv,’ he said bending down and as tenderly as his large hands could muster, he drew her face to his and pressed his lips to hers.
When Tommy was down the pit he would sometimes disappear into his own imaginary world, the harsh floodlights of his subterranean cavern would quickly fade from his vision. He would imagine himself as a gannet, soaring free on six-foot wings, sweeping across the oceans, riding the rising currents of air deflected by the waves, gliding past precarious cliff faces, the thermal currents barely riffling his flight feathers. Then, climbing high into the sky and using his razor-sharp eyesight, he’d spot shoals of fish below and with effortless ease, fold his beautiful white wings to his side, and he was an avian dart, diving, diving, faster, faster, seeing the shoal of fish clearly as they turned and swirled in the green sea water.
‘Barcroft, stop bloody day-dreaming and keep an eye on that conveyor,’ his overman bellowed in his ear. While Tommy had a good reputation for hard work and reliability, his mates were familiar with him ‘going off on one’ as they referred to his lost moments. Tommy’s escape from his subterranean world of noise, dust and hard labour enabled him to survive this hell-hole. His mind would transport him to heather clad moorlands, meandering water meadows, and air-salted coastal paths.
Tommy knew only too well that his reveries were clichéd idylls of an imprisoned man. The reality of many of his rambles was far from the bucolic wanderings of his imagination, stumbling treks on slippery, stony paths in driving rain, muddy, dank days in featureless landscapes, and seascapes enveloped in sea frets. In contrast, his mates erased their workdays with gallons of beer at the club after work and dreams of two weeks in Torremolinos.
Irene’s work at the glassworks was noisy and furnace-hot on the forming shop floor. She would remove her ear defenders and return from a night shift feeling dizzy and exhausted. Sleep never came easily after a night shift and her mind would be filled with images of the relentless process of bottle manufacturing. On leaving the factory Irene would experience the same sense of release and wonder of the world as Tommy described when he walked out of the colliery gates.
Walking with Tommy changed Irene’s life. She experienced a childish thrill when sighting a special bird or discovering an unusual flower. It was a revelation for them both to share their feelings, a harmony of visual and visceral senses, being part of the world about them.
Irene slowly gleaned information about Tommy from other women in the village as he was reticent to discuss his family and the past. ‘They’ve gone, what else is there to say,’ he would remark when she ever quizzed him. She didn’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to discover that Tommy Barcroft wasn’t a ladies’ man, in fact he wasn’t anybody’s anything. Many years ago, as a lad, he had a girlfriend who went to the local grammar school but after university she moved away. He’d lived on his own since his parents died and there were no siblings. The family were miners – his grandfather and then his father who was killed in a pit accident, they all worked at the same colliery. Tradition was ingrained into him, like the lines etched on his face, never quite free of coal dust.
Irene had asked him why he walked home every evening and didn’t take the colliery bus along with his mates. ‘I like to take t’air lass,’ he replied. ‘After hours underground I need to balance-up my ‘rhythms, it’s only natural.’ Tommy could only be persuaded to go to the working men’s club for special occasions, a workmate’s wedding or birthday. He enjoyed a pint or three but had never got into the ritual of the Saturday night dozen pints and listen to the ‘turn’. He didn’t approve of the bad language and misogynist comedians that frequented the club these days and anyhow, he didn’t have a wife to play bingo while he lost money playing snooker or darts.
Tommy was happiest studying his bird books and planning his next walk. He’d spread ordnance survey maps out on the kitchen table and stand over them with his back to the fire burning in the range fireplace. His coal allowance from the pit kept him warm and provided enough hot water for his daily bath; he avoided the pit showers. Tommy washed his work clothes in the Belfast sink in the kitchen and wrung them through the wringer in the yard outhouse, just like his mam had done before the lung cancer had carried her off. There was a local laundrette run by a strange Chinese couple. Nobody knew how they had ended up in the village but he took his good stuff there for a wash and iron.
One Friday evening there was a knock on his door and Irene stood on his step, white and trembling. ‘Come in lass, you look like death warmed up.’
‘I am sorry Tommy, I don’t think I can come on our walk tomorrow. I have the most terrible headache.’
‘Don’t worry luv. Can I make you a cuppa?’
‘No thanks, I need to lie down.’
‘I’ll walk you home, let me get my coat.’
‘What if the neighbours see us at my house?’
‘Damn the neighbours, they known we’ve been walking out for months.’
‘Do they?’ said Irene surprised, managing a little smile across her care-worn face.
Tommy saw her into the house. He’d never been in before and was impressed with its cleanliness. He noticed a pair of boy’s jeans hanging up on the wooden clothes rack above the fireplace where there was a small fire smouldering. She caught his eye looking at them. ‘I’ll tell you when I am better,’ she said exhausted. ‘He spends the weekends with his dad in Rotherham.’ Tommy, I am going to bed. Just let yourself out, the catch will drop when you slam the door. Irene faltered at the foot of the stairs, Tommy thought she was going to collapse and he grabbed her arm. ‘Have you had any aspirin?’ he asked.
‘I have some migraine tablets in the bathroom cabinet.’ Tommy got her by the arm and helped her up the stairs. She steered him into a front bedroom overlooking the street. She flopped down with a sigh on the double bed edge and as he lifted her feet on to the divan, Irene leaned back with her hands covering her eyes, willing the pain to cease. Tommy drew the curtains and disappeared to the bathroom. By the time he’d returned with a tooth mug of water and the packet of migraine tablets, she had undressed and was under the covers.
‘How many do you take?’ he asked. She raised two fingers, unable to speak. With surprising dexterity, his large hands squeezed out two tablets from the vacuum-pack wrapping and he put one in her hand and handed her the mug of water; she swallowed one and then the other. Tommy put the water and tablets on her bedside table and then plumped up her pillows. She lay back and closed her eyes. He sat down on a small bedroom chair waiting for her to go to sleep.
Tommy was worried. Her normal healthy colouring had drained from her face, she looked proper poorly. Summat’s not rite, he thought. Eventually, her breathing became regular as the pills started to work. He waited a little longer to be sure. He felt tired too, his days down the pit didn’t get any easier. He slowly got to his feet and very gingerly lay down on the bed next to her. The room smelt of a woman, violets perhaps, he wasn’t sure, it was mingled with other soap-like odours and was not unpleasant, a bit like being in the chemists, he thought. There was a dressing table in front of the window with assorted bottles and jars, and a hair brush. It reminded him of his mother’s bedroom before he’d cleared all the stuff out after she’d died. That had been another difficult day.
Tommy thought about the boy’s trousers on the rack. By gum, she’d kept that quiet. His eyes closed and soon he was flying over white foamy wave tops and then climbing on uplifting air currents, rising above a steep cliff. He spied Irene standing on the edge of an escarpment, precariously balanced and wearing a pair of boy’s jeans. He swooped down to warn her to move back from the cliff edge and, as he approached, she looked up at him with a smile but then lost her balance. He awoke with a start and touched Irene to check she was still there. It was two in the morning. Irene shifted slightly, muttered something inaudible, and went back to sleep. He crept down the stairs and shut the back door of the house as quietly as possible.
If anyone sees me now there will be tongues wagging, he thought.
Then along came the miners’ strike. Arthur Scargill, the union leader, had been agitating for a scrap with the Government for years. Ostensibly it was about planned pit closures but it was also a political battle of wills: union versus the Establishment. Tommy had once been to a union mass meeting to hear Scargill and he was struck by his powerful oratory but he didn’t see eye to eye with the underlying themes of his rousing arguments: a hatred of Thatcher and the Tories. Tommy kept his feelings to himself but he could see that the timing of the strike in the spring of 1984 was daft. He’d seen the coal wagons taking coal stocks to the power stations for months in anticipation of trouble. But most of all Tommy recognised the strength of determination of the coal board boss and the prime minister; we’ve picked the wrong ‘uns to have a scrap with, he thought to himself. It was not like 1972 when Scargill’s predecessor, old Joe Gormley, had brought down Ted Heath’s government; Tommy could remember his father throwing his cap in the air in celebration.
There had been no union ballot and therefore, in theory, each miner could make up his own mind about whether to work or not. Tommy knew it would bring hardship to the community but running the gauntlet of pickets and the inevitable angry divisions his actions would cause with his work mates in the village, left him with few options but to join the strike. He didn’t want to be known as a ‘scab’; for Tommy it was rather like an enforced holiday without pay.
Tommy was more fortunate than many of his colleagues in that he’d been able to buy his house with money from the Coal Board’s compensation for his father’s death. He also benefited from an insurance policy pay-out that his father had taken out when Tommy was born – no doubt a precaution against his demise and to ensure his wife wouldn’t be left penniless. His father hadn’t anticipated out-living her. Tommy wasn’t a spendthrift but he didn’t have a car or many of the other financial encumbrances that suck money out like an insatiable octopus from normal family budgets.
He declined picketing at the power stations for four pounds a day but used the unexpected free time to go on longer walks into Derbyshire and Cumbria. He ventured on to the Northumberland coastal path from Cresswell to Bamburgh and beyond to Berwick. He stayed in modest bed and breakfast establishments and pubs with rooms; Tommy never took to the idea of camping as he liked his creature comforts.
Irene recovered from her migraine but one warm summer afternoon, when they were broaching Little Whernside in Nidderdale, without warning, she collapsed into the heather. At first, Tommy thought she was larking about; then he thought she’d fainted because of the heat. He pulled off her sweater and unbuttoned her blouse to get some air to her body. Her breathing was okay and he made sure her tongue wasn’t blocking her throat. He then turned her on her side and drew her legs up into the recovery position. For the first time, his pit first aid training proved useful. He looked around him. There was no-one to be seen except for a few sheep that were looking on with curiously bored expressions. Bees hummed past settling on to the heather and he wondered if she had been stung, he’d read about anaphylactic shock. He examined her neck, hands, arms and legs for any signs of a sting. Skylarks sang heartlessly and intermittently, he heard the single ‘peeeep’ from a Golden Plover. Tommy gently slapped Irene’s face and he poured some water from his flask onto her face. Panic was rising in his stomach and he was contemplating fetching help when suddenly Irene stirred, opened her eyes and looked around. ‘Have I been asleep?’ she asked with a yawn.
‘Yes, summat like it,’ said Tommy with a big smile of relief on his face. He handed her a flask of water. ‘Drink this flower. This hill was too much on a hot day like today. I’m sorry, it’s my fault; you’ve been out like a light for quarter of an hour. You really had me worried.’
‘That’s a bit weird,’ she said.
‘Do you remember ‘owt about it?’
‘Not a thing. But I feel quite refreshed, though it does seem very hot.’
‘Aye, I think we’ll make our way back t’ bike and leave this hill for another day.’
‘Oh Tommy, what a shame.’
‘I think we could both do with a pint of ale before we head back home.’
‘Yes, that sounds grand, and maybe a bag of crisps.’
‘You know a good time when you see ‘un,’ he said, relieved that Irene seemed no worse for her fainting turn.
The strike continued and became more bitter. Tommy started to get restless; there were only so many walks he could do and whilst he had substantial savings, it didn’t feel right to be spending and having no money coming into his pocket every week. It was beginning to unnerve him and he was witness to many of his mates having to sell their cars and other possessions to make ends meet. As autumn turned to winter and Christmas approached, more and more workers returned to work. Families were split, mates didn’t speak to one another. It had become very divisive and whilst the miners’ hardship fund tried to help families that were suffering the most, there was no denying that the stakes were getting higher and higher. The breakaway unions in Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire were defying the NUM, the men further south were working three shifts a day. Then, before Christmas, in a cynical ploy, the coal board offered striking miners large cash incentives to return to work including twelve and half days holiday pay tax-free, plus Christmas pay, service bonuses, and other inducements. The workforce started to crack and Tommy broke ranks too. He no longer walked to work but went on the colliery bus that had police protection.
On a Saturday early in the new year, when Tommy wasn’t working and he knew that Irene had no weekend shifts, he’d telephoned her to discuss a planned week’s holiday that coming spring to the Farne Islands to see the arctic terns, puffins and of course gannets. Since returning to work he had installed a telephone at Irene’s request so that they could communicate more easily. He’d just about got used to the device and called her mid-morning as agreed. There was no reply. He thought she must have gone shopping and phoned in the afternoon. Still no reply and he called again that evening. He walked around to Mafeking Terrace but there were no lights on so he peered through the downstairs street window. He went around to the back passage and opened the latch on the wooden door into the back yard. He looked through the window into the kitchen parlour but there was no fire burning in the range. It didn’t look as if she’d been in all day. He went back to the front of the house and knocked on the neighbour’s door.
It was answered by a woman whose unhealthy, pinched pallor indicated she watched TV all day long when not keeping an eye on movements in the street. She stood on the doorstep her arms crossed like a sentinel guarding her castle looking Tommy up and down. Her husband worked at the pit and he was still on strike.
‘Have you seen Irene about today, Missus?’ he asked politely.
‘What’s it to you scab?’ Nothing goes unnoticed in this village, thought Tommy. ‘I’ve seen nowt.’ Then she hesitated a moment, ‘She left Friday morning, not seen hide ‘n hair of her since. Now bugger off before I call the husband,’ she said, before slamming the door in his face.
Nice neighbour, thought Tommy, another strike casualty. He decided to try and phone the glassworks and see if they knew anything. Although the plant was on twenty-four-hour working he wondered if anyone would be available on a Saturday to help him discover Irene’s whereabouts. He found the number from his telephone directory. After about two minutes of ringing the phone was picked up and a breathless voice said: ‘Security.’
‘I’m looking for Irene Stanforth, she works in the forming shop. It’s urgent.’
A coughing and shuffling of papers could be heard down the line. ‘I’ll try and put you through to the forming shop supervisor.’ There was a long wait and then a faint voice, nearly obliterated by the background roar of machinery. ‘Hello, Forming Shop Supervisor, what do you want?’
‘I’m looking for Irene Stanforth, I am her fiancée, Tommy Barcroft.’ There was a silence. The supervisor didn’t know that Irene was engaged; perhaps that’s not surprising, Irene kept herself to herself, he thought.
‘Irene…oh yes. She was taken ill on Friday and was sent to the medical centre. I think she passed out. Sorry, I can’t tell you any more.’
‘Where’s the medical centre?’
‘In the office block.’
‘Do you have a number for them?’
‘No only an extension number. You’ll have to phone the main desk and they’ll connect you.’ Suddenly, Tommy felt terribly cold as the news sunk in. Poor Irene, he instinctively felt that this was more than a fainting fit and it tied in with that incident some months ago when they were out walking. His hands trembled when he phoned the factory’s switchboard again. The phone was picked up faster this time and the voice was no longer an out-of-breath rasp; fortunately the security guard was at his post and not directing lorries onto the weighbridge. It took another few minutes before Tommy was connected with the medical centre.
‘Nurse Orton speaking, how can I help?’ said a cheery young voice.
‘I’m enquiring about Irene, Irene Stanforth, she works on the forming floor, she got ill Friday.’
‘Who are you?’
‘I am a close friend of Irene’s, my name’s Tommy Barcroft,’ he said, his voice faltering, ‘she’s my fiancée and she’s not at home and…’ his voice trailed off. Irene didn’t even know that she was engaged to be married to Tommy as he hadn’t plucked up enough courage to ask her yet.
‘Oh yes Mr. Barcroft. Miss Stanforth was taken to Leeds General Infirmary on Friday afternoon.’
‘By ‘eck, what’s up with her?’ Tommy rarely raised his voice but his nerves were on edge.
‘Evidently, she passed out but took some time to come around. She was sent to hospital for tests. I am sorry, I don’t know any more at present. You’d better contact the Leeds General Infirmary.’
‘Thanks,’ said Tommy putting the phone down, his hands shaking. Outside the wind blew, flakes of snow drifted into his backyard and began to form a white blanket. Once again he referred to the phone book but it didn’t have any Leeds telephone numbers. In desperation he scanned the thick volume for clues to finding the hospital number. This was the sort of thing that Irene would have sorted out in seconds and he suddenly realised how he’d come to rely on her. He came across an entry at the beginning of the book called Directory Enquiries so he gave that a try and after some stumbling he was given the number he was looking for. Eventually, he was put through to a severe-sounding ward sister. Once again he was interrogated to find out his name and credentials, and said he was Irene’s fiancée.
‘She’s doing well but still undergoing tests, we don’t know yet what caused the episode,’ said the ward sister matter-of-factly.
Episode? It sounded like a soap opera on the telly, thought Tommy, it’s my Irene she’s talking about. ‘When is she coming out?’
‘I imagine it will be a few more days, we have to wait and see what the doctors say. She might have had a mild stroke, or it might be something else …do you know if she has ever had a bump on her head?’
‘No idea, I’m afraid. Can I visit her?’
‘Of course, she would appreciate some visitors. Visiting times are strictly two until three and six until eight in the evening. Oh, by the way, does she have any family?’
‘No, her mother and father were killed in a plane crash ten years ago but she has a son.’
‘Can you get in touch with him?’
‘I’ll try, he’s away weekends.’ Tommy looked at his watch and reckoned he wouldn’t get to Leeds in time for the afternoon visiting hours but could easily make the six o’clock time. He set off early as he had to find the place first and he wanted to do some shopping. He remembered the hospital was somewhere near the town hall. He was two hours early and immediately went to buy chocolates and flowers, and spotting a serious looking volume on Yorkshire flora in Austicks’s bookshop he made another purchase. Afterwards, he browsed for a while at Berry’s jewellers on Albion Street.
It took him ten minutes to find the ward and he was nearly running by the time he got there. Irene was sitting in a chair beside her bed wearing a drab hospital dressing gown reading a newspaper. She looked up with a radiant smile appearing quite normal except for a slightly flushed pallor. ‘Tommy pet, how lovely to see you. Thank you for finding me.’ Tommy bent down to kiss her cheek and then he enfolded his arms about her and gave her a big hug that hurt her arms. Irene gave a little sob. ‘I feel so stupid,’ she said tearfully. ‘There’s nothing wrong with me. I think I might just need a rest.’
‘There, there luv. Don’t take on so.’ Tommy handed her the chocolates and the book, laying the flowers down on her bed. A nurse passed and picked up the flowers, ‘I’ll just put these in some water for you Miss Stanforth.’
‘Oh thank you,’ said Irene.
‘Is this your fiancée?’ the nurse asked. Irene looked up blankly, wondering who she was talking to.
Tommy looked at the nurse and then looked back at Irene.
Irene eyes widened, ‘Fiancée, what have you been saying Tommy Barcroft?’
Tommy stuttered, ‘Er…Irene,’ he was lost for words and he stood looking down at her with a guilty smile on his face as if he was a kid caught stealing apples. He started fumbling in his jacket pocket until he finally extracted a small black box with swirly gold lettering on the top which he handed to a stunned Irene.
‘What’s this Tommy?’ she said looking him in the eye, her voice quavering.
‘It’s for you flower, no-one else. I thought it were about time, we…you know, got things sorted out.’
Irene tried to get up but fell back in her chair and Tommy knelt down on one knee and took her hand. ‘What do you say Irene?’ There was a kafuffle in the adjoining bed as an elderly lady visiting her husband turned around to gape. ‘Congratulations,’ she piped up, before even Irene had time to respond. The nurse backed away and stood smiling from a distance.
‘You daft old thing Tommy, of course I will,’ she said, gently stroking his hand and lifting it up to her lips to kiss it. Then resting Tommy’s large hand in her lap she gently pulled the diamond engagement ring from its box and tried it on her finger. It fitted perfectly and she raised her hand to show it to the elderly lady.
‘Ooh, it’s a beauty dux, I bet that cost a bob or two.’
Irene had given Tommy her ex-husband’s telephone number and he agreed to call and explain she was in hospital and ask if the boy could stay with him until she came home. The doctors found nothing wrong and Irene returned home; after two weeks of convalescence she went back to the glassworks. By March the miners’ devastating strike was over and everyone was back at work. As neither of them held any deep religious convictions Tommy and Irene planned to get married in a simple ceremony in a registry office in September; the last thing they wanted was fuss. July was when Irene’s works closed down for maintenance so they decided to take a two-week holiday on the Isle of Mull in Scotland as an early honeymoon. Neither of them had been before but they’d read of its beauty and abundant wildlife. Irene had a couple of bad migraines over the next few months but she tackled them stoically with migraine tablets, and shut herself in a darkened room until the pain and flashing lights in her eyes went away.
Most of Tommy’s mates in the mine were pleased for him except for those few men that still harboured resentments over the strike. It was difficult to be angry with Tommy, his equable nature and reliability as a mate underground were respected, despite his reputation for day-dreaming. Now that Tommy had publicly declared his love for Irene the pair of them were seen about in the village together and they occasionally went to the Working Men’s Club on Saturday nights. Tommy was no longer embarrassed to be in a woman’s company but was demonstrably proud of his wife-to-be. ‘Wonders never bloody cease. If Tommy Barcroft can find hissen a wife there’s ‘ope for us all,’ commented one of the confirmed bachelors in the club.
Irene was not such an unlikely bride as she had been married before, although her husband was widely acknowledged as a ‘wrong ‘un,’ a drunken and abusive individual. Her fourteen-year-old son was following in his father’s footsteps and often in trouble at school, playing truant, sniffing glue and knocking about with a gang of troublesome older boys. It worried Irene that she could no longer exercise any control over him. When they rowed he would go and stay with his father but he was not always welcome, particularly if his father had one of his many lady friends in tow.
Tommy and Irene held hands on the platform at York station. They had two small suitcases and a backpack each. Tommy’s brown shoes shone and he was wearing his best corduroy trousers and a new tweed jacket. Irene stood at his side, diminutive against Tommy’s large frame. She had never been more excited or happy. Two whole weeks lay before them, no work, and goodness knows what wonders they were going to discover on the Isle of Mull. Together they had avidly read the guide books, plotted walks and places to visit. The journey itself was going to be an adventure as neither had travelled long distance by train before.
Tommy was nervous as that night they would be staying in a hotel in Oban before catching the morning ferry to Mull. Irene suggested they have a double room as it would save money and ‘after all we are getting married Tommy, so we had better get used to sleeping together.’ Tommy couldn’t fault this logic and the idea was as exciting as it was frightening; whilst women were not unknown to him it must have been twenty years since he’d last been near one.
After studying the route of the train, they’d booked seats on the right-hand side of the carriage so they could get a good view of Holy Island which they had visited once before. The day was blissfully sunny and as the guard announced the stations ahead – Durham, Newcastle, Edinburgh Waverley and Glasgow Central – they turned to look at one another with excited smiles. They both felt like school kids who’d sneaked a day off school.
The train sped north and before long they were entering Durham. From the high viaduct they could see the cathedral bathed in sunlight. Soon after they were crossing the river Tyne and then the long train pulled into Newcastle’s curved station; suddenly there was lots of coming and going as passengers got off and new ones boarded, anxiously searching for their seats, dragging heavy bags behind them in that agitated way train passengers do until they finally find their allotted nests. Tommy and Irene watched in relaxed amusement at the anthropologic shenanigans. They opened their ham and cheese sandwiches earlier than planned; it was funny how doing nothing could make you hungry. They were so engaged chomping their sarnies they nearly missed Holy Island. It was only when a man behind them remarked to his companion, ‘Look, Lindisfarne!’ that they turned just in time to see the sun glinting on the sea, highlighting the distant mound and its castle, before it disappeared from view.
Their journey by coach from Glasgow to Oban was a long but exciting five-hour journey. Irene fell asleep on Tommy’s shoulder as the driver negotiated the narrow roads around Loch Lomond and Tommy nudged her awake as the grandeur of Glencoe unfolded and they both stared in wonder at the glowering mountains. ‘There’s some serious walking up there, I think I might need a rope to tackle those mountains,’ commented Tommy, staring at the high peaks.
‘You aren’t going anywhere near them, so just forget it Tommy Barcroft,’ replied Irene, sternly.
They arrived just in time to grab some fish and chips from a fish shop on the quayside in Oban and they sat down on a bench in the evening sun to admire the view and enjoy their ‘one of each.’
‘This batter ain’t up to much,’ complained Tommy.
‘The fish is tasty though, nice and fresh,’ replied Irene. ‘They don’t use beef dripping for the batter, I think they’re cooked in oil,’ she continued. Although it was after eight o’clock it was still light and the smell of diesel oil from the fishing boats mingled with the odour of gutted fish which gave the harbour a proper working atmosphere that Tommy liked.
‘There’s no lack of shortbread or whisky shops around here,’ Tommy remarked as they strolled back to the hotel.
‘I’ll let you get to bed luv and I‘ll have a pint in the bar before coming up,’ he said nonchalantly as they pushed themselves through the hotel’s old heavy swing doors.
‘No you won’t, you are coming with me,’ said Irene grabbing Tommy’s hand before he could bolt off. ‘Stop shirking, you’ll have to get used to your husbandly responsibilities,’ she said with a laugh.
‘Oh, ‘eck,’ he said under his breath.
The fifty-minute ferry trip from Oban to Mull was over too quickly and they boarded a bus to take them to their bed and breakfast accommodation in Tobermory. They were both enchanted by the picturesque painted houses that surrounded Tobermory harbour and they soon settled in to explore the town. The next day they relaxed in their new surroundings and ate in a pub on the harbour front. Tommy drank some whisky but declared he still preferred beer. Irene insisted they visit Iona and so they booked a special trip by coach to the south western most tip of Mull and then took a tiny passenger ferry across to Iona. Irene was fascinated with the abundance of thrift on the shoreline, and the harebells and orchids on the verges; Tommy was equally excited spotting his first red-throated diver but there were no gannets. They walked alone, arm-in-arm, on blindingly white beaches, the light so bright they had to shade their eyes; they glimpsed an otter bobbing about in the turquoise blue sea. It was like paradise.
Inside the ancient Abbey of St. Columba, Tommy sat down on a chair, overcome by the tranquillity and peace that seemed to envelop him. He looked around for Irene to see if she’d captured the same atmosphere but she’d wandered off out into the cloisters. After a while he got up and lit a candle with a taper and placed it on a stand among other flickering unspoken wax prayers. Tommy dipped his head reverentially as he tried to recall his late mother’s and father’s faces, wondering what they would have thought of him with his fiancée in this holy place. He smiled to himself as he imagined their reactions.
Suddenly an agitated young man in a white robe with a brass cross hanging around his neck padded up to him with an anxious and intent face. ‘Are you with the lady in the blue anorak?’
A local doctor declared Irene dead before the Mull and Iona Community hospital ambulance had arrived. At the hospital, they said it was either a suspected catastrophic brain haemorrhage or perhaps she had been suffering from undetected brain cancer. Nameless people reassured Tommy that she wouldn’t have known anything and did not suffer. They would learn more once an autopsy had been undertaken at the larger hospital in Oban.
Tommy didn’t give a damn how his beloved Irene had died, she was dead and that was all that counted. Snuffed out like one of those candles in the Abbey. He couldn’t comprehend what had happened as he sat rigid in the hospital waiting room, unable to weep or move a muscle. He was frozen in a terrible catatonic stupor, his mind blank, hoping and hoping that Irene would walk out of the accident and emergency department, and tell him it was time to get the bus back to Tobermory and asking him what was he doing hanging about here.
After the cremation, Irene’s son and her ex-husband had no interest in keeping her ashes and so Tommy had placed the metal urn on his fireplace mantelpiece. It accompanied him on his walks, secure in his rucksack along with Irene’s blue anorak. They chatted breezily as he walked. Tommy’s empty autumn turned to winter and his grieving never let up. His work mates got used to him talking to Irene when ‘he went off on one.’
Tommy waited eagerly for the following spring when the gannets would be nesting again. Irene asked him when he was going to free her as she was fed up of being crammed inside an urn with no fresh air. Tommy never argued with her, ‘All in good time, flower, be patient, spring is coming,’ he would remind her, gently picking up the urn and kissing the dull metal.
Flamborough had been their favourite place and in early May Tommy took the bus to Bridlington. He ate some fish and chips, sitting on the sea wall with Irene at his side. A woman nearby moved away, disturbed by the tall man talking to himself. ‘It’s nearly time my darling, not long now,’ she heard him say. Later in the afternoon Tommy ordered a taxi to take him to the lighthouse at Flamborough Head.
‘Do you want picking up later?’ asked the driver.
‘No need today,’ said Tommy affably.
Tommy soon found the cliff path and after climbing over a barbed wire fence he stood overlooking the cliff edge. The birds wheeled overhead oblivious of the unexpected visitor. He could see the gannets’ nests below him, the birds preening one another, some delicately turning over their eggs. ‘They are here with us now Irene,’ he whispered removing the top of the urn and throwing the contents over the edge. It fluttered in the wind before landing on the rocks below. Then his hands outstretched wide like a bird and with an effortless leap, Tommy launched himself off the cliff edge, the granulated white powder spilling from the urn in his upturned right hand, creating a white smoke-like cloud, blowing across the cliff face and outwards towards the sea.
Irene was beside him now and they flew together, a pair of beautiful white gannets, their black wing-tips nearly touching as they effortlessly rode the thermals, before turning to skim the wavetops into the far, far ocean.
Enjoyed The Miner who would be a Gannet by D A Adamson? You might like Cathryn Haynes short story A Tiding of Magpies.