Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Into the Mines, Part 3

Weyman Clark took the lead as the group started its descent into the mine, with Zeke then Gayle behind him and Vernon bringing up the rear, limping badly.


Vernon strode into the Sign O' the Times, a student bar convenient to his apartment and even more convenient to the lecture hall, flanked by John and Morris, two of his cronies. The Sign was crowded, as it always seemed to be - doesn't anyone study at this university? Vernon thought as he elbowed his way to the bar.

He waved some coins until he caught the bartender's attention. "Two pints and a Cognac Alexander." He tossed the coins on the counter and watched as the bartender mix heavy cream and creme de cacao with a generous measure of cognac, pour the concoction in a glass, and top it with a sprinkle of nutmeg before turning his attention to the ale. Vernon was a regular at the Sign, and the bartender knew where the mixed drink was headed; Vernon tipped well but he did not like waiting for a drink. He knew he was showing off for his friends, the rich boy who could not only afford to buy a round but could also afford the comparative luxury of hard liquor rather than the endless pints of ale that most of his fellow students consumed. However, it was also true that the cream helped soothe his stomach, and Vernon's stomach needed frequent soothing.

Earlier in the day he had received a generous cheque from his father to cover the new school term's tuition and expenses - and God and Father both knew Vernon had considerable expenses - along with a predictably insufferable letter from the old man once again complaining about his dissolute son. The routine was almost comical in both its regularity and its lack of effect, but Vernon, despite his outward joviality that evening, wasn't laughing. His father wanted Vernon to take over the business, which in the elder Eastcott's opinion required starting, as he did, on the factory floor and working toward more responsible positions. This plan did not, again according to Eastcott pere, require a university degree, much less one in French poetry, much less one that involved as much alcohol consumption as this degree appeared to require. This debate was an ongoing one, trench warfare of a sort, wherein neither side was able to take much ground despite ongoing casualties in the form of the deteriorating relationship between father and son. As a consequence, Vernon's stomach acid burned even more intently than usual. He’s show his father, though. One day he’d be wealthy, but not by working for his old man, nor by toiling on a factory floor. He just needed the right opportunity.

In the meanwhile, living well was better than living in poverty. And perhaps he could convince his father to provide some seed money for a promising venture, should one come his way. For the moment, the was drinking to be done.

"Drink up, lads! No point in letting the beer sit in barrels on the floor when it could be sitting in your stomachs instead!" he shouted to John and Morris as he balanced the three glasses over his head, making his way to the corner of the bar where his friends stood, already eying a group of local girls on the prowl for husband material of the rich variety. Vernon handed over the two pint glasses. He took a gulp of his Cognac Alexander, feeling the cream coat his stomach and the alcohol hit his bloodstream.


Weyman Clark peered down at the blueprints and back up at the steel structure under construction. He frowned. He wasn’t looking forward to delivering the bad news to the construction foreman but he could see no way to avoid the conversation. The steel used in the structure was riddled with impurities and would not bear the weight of the completed building. To play for time, he took off his glasses and polished them vigorously. He noted ruefully that while no one wanted his building to fall down, no one was kind to the structural engineer who bore bad news.

The foreman was arriving, but, to Weyman’s dismay, he wasn’t alone. The engineer recognized the two beefy men with the foreman, and their presence meant Weyman’s day was not going to get any better. “Gentlemen!” he said to the two newcomers, “What brings you here? I didn’t expect to see you at my place of work.” He emphasized the last four words in the vain hope that the moneylender and his muscle would take the hint.

“May I have a word?” asked Ffinch, the lender, and the muscle man steered Weyman away from the baffled-looking foreman. “You owe me a great deal of money. You’re not just a gambler, but a very bad gambler. I don’t mind lending to gamblers. The ones who never pay me back… well, I don’t often make a mistake, and when I do it makes me very angry.”

Weyman said nervously, “I promised I’d get you the money, Mr. Ffinch. I just need more time.”

“Which is exactly what you don’t have,” said Ffinch. “But don’t worry. I’m not here to break anything. No, as much as I’d like to hurt you, I’d prefer to have my money back. I’m here with an opportunity for you that could help out both of us. Have you ever heard of a man named Vernon Eastcott?” Weyman shook his head. “No? I’m not really surprised. Eastcott has never done anything for himself, so no reason to pay him any mind. His father is rich, though, and the young Eastcott has a crazy idea. The combination of the two creates… opportunities, and that’s where you come in. Are you interested?”

“If I can clear my debt with you, Mr. Ffinch, I’m certainly interested.”

“Good. Just what I wanted to hear. Now go to this address when you’re finished at this site…”


The group continued to make their way into the mine, through one twisty passage after another, spiraling downward from the higher, played-out seams to the lowest reaches of the mine. Zeke Johnston allowed his mind to wander.


Zeke Johnston knew the first punch was coming. Not the specifics, mind you, but a brawl was inevitable. When a punch landed on his jaw, he was not in the least surprised.

The bar - really a long plank of wood under which the barman kept semi-clean glasses and jugs of either whisky or beer - was mobbed, filled with miners with wages freshly paid lining their pockets. The last shift at the cavorite mine had ended, the mine was now closed, and every miner had just lost a job. True, the severance pay was generous - possibly too generous, to judge by the melee now under way - but the men knew that they were unlikely to find other jobs that paid nearly as well. Despite the various hardships and dangers that accompanied the life of a miner, the pay was enough to make it worthwhile, especially come payday and an evening at the Miner's Lamp, as the bar was styled.

Zeke had knocked back a few whiskies with his crew, more to be sociable than anything else. He dreaded this day. The mines were all he knew. He was too old to learn a new trade, far too young to stop working, and his wife and children were depending on him. Nearly everyone was in the same boat, of course, but most seemed to think of finding employment as a problem to tackle at a point in the future, one so distant that it wasn't worth contemplating at present, not when there was more whisky to drink.

Although Zeke responded to the first punch with one of his own, his heart wasn't into the brawl.


No comments: