Fiction: A Bench at the Side of the Road

By Jay Emery

Just off to the side of the mini roundabout, where Pit Lane meets the end of the High Street, there’s a commemorative bench, obstinately anchored beside the pavement. Some locals objected when it was first proposed, protesting that the seat shouldn’t be in the Nottinghamshire coalfield at all, but in Yorkshire, where the deceased was from, not where he died. The objectors need not have worried about its place here, on the edge of the village. Bodies, on foot or in cars or buses, vans and lorries, incessantly pass by, some continuing up the High Street, others diverting up Pit Lane to the supermarket. It’s a wonder if anyone notices the bench, less so its memorialisation. Jamie though, at least, has come to know it well.

For the last few days, he has stopped to writhe on the stubborn perforated steel sheet, averting his eyes, his whitened fist clenching the excess of a rolled-up carrier bag. And in the bag, a pair of nylon trousers, two faded polo shirts and a logo emblazoned fleece, originally all the same noxious purple, instructed at the end of last week by Jamie’s supervisor, to be returned, washed, ‘A-sapp.’ So far three attempts have been made to fulfil his obligations to the company, each time making it to the end of Pit Lane and each time halting at the bench. Jamie must have pressed and ground his fingertips into almost every punctured hole. He even managed to flake off some paint the previous afternoon, gripping it between thumb and middle finger and carelessly dragging his index over the pointed edge until it snapped and fell between the gashed tarmac among the weeds and the fag ends. On his first vigil, Jamie searched in vain to find a declaration of love earnestly marker penned a decade ago, but fabric and soles have rubbed it away, replaced by more recent village gossip: who loves who; who thinks who is gay; who considers who a ‘slag.’ If anyone should ask, Jamie could, but wouldn’t, recite the inscription on the plaque bolted to the centre:

IN MEMORY OF

DAVID GARETH JONES

WHO LOST HIS LIFE AT OLLERTON

ON 15TH MARCH 1984

IN THE FIGHT TO SAVE JOBS

AND COMMUNITIES

Jamie had never heard of him. No doubt his dad would say he had, even if he hadn’t.

‘Alright lad?!’ forced its way into Jamie’s left ear. The voice known, but uninvited. The conversation proceeded at ridiculous volume, lowering incrementally as the gap ominously narrowed between them, the rubber stopper on Brian’s stick always at least a few inches ahead of his trusty slippers, until, finally, father shadowed son.

‘What you doin’ this far down’t road?’ Jamie asked, not really bothered why.

‘Someone’s just put on Facebook there’s a peado lurking at bottom’t Pit Lane. I thought “that looks a bit like our Jamie,” so I’ve come to check it out.’

Jamie simultaneously pushes his bottom lip over his top gums and raises his eyebrows and decides it was a joke. As he lowers into place, with both gnarled hands pressing down on the stick, Brian prepared the ground for reminiscence: ‘Brings back sum memories being down’t this end o’ village.’

In the quarter century since the coalmine was razed and filled in, Brian’s perambulatory experience has had vast chunks severed, falling away into redundancy, with death of life and space bringing death of space and life – the coalmine site where the supermarket now is, the Miners’ Welfare that lost its purpose and became home to arsonist children and unimaginative graffiti artists, the childhood street where his parents moved down from up north to start life anew. Beyond his front room, the few remaining shops further along the High Street are the extent of where Brian can now be found and of those, the pawn shop, kebab place and two of the bookies have never featured on his daily itinerary. Not too long ago, perhaps five years, Brian could routinely be found wandering the Pit Woods, a coniferous forest carpeting a mound of slag that generations of men piled up for close to a century. Ascending the hill, Brian, along with other arched, limping, wheezing ghosts of the village, would plot out the undulating landscape as if it were a graveyard, pointing to other slagheap burial mounds in the near-distance, arguing over which coalmine they belonged. The circle of comradeship was ever depleting though. Dragging the dirt up to create the hill weighed heavy on the lungs, as well as the heart, and took men before their time. The miners left to summit their labours were also locked in a futile war with the cider drinkers, bottle smashers, needle users and motorbike scramblers, and few now venture as far as the Pit Woods to sit on the benches and spend time with the past.     

Brian’s arthritic finger, with its sliver of trapped coal dust wormed beneath the crimpled skin, directed to where Jamie was expected to look. ‘Wid come straight owt pit, straight frew’t showers, and down this street ‘ere in t’ Talbot, half nekid. We’d still be drippin’ and gerrin’ dressed as thee’ wa pourin’t pints.’

‘Bet Mum loved that.’

‘It wa’ ‘ard work but good work. We ‘ad some laughs. No doubt about that.’

Placing his palms together, Jamie slouches forward running his forearms along his legs, stopping short of diving into the ground.

‘Ayup Mrs McCarthy!’ The woman appearing between vehicles like an old hand cranked film raised her stick to knee height holding it there a little longer than normal and then eased back into her flow. ‘How is she still alive?’ Brian pondered aloud.

‘I don’t know. I don’t know ‘er.’

‘You do know ‘er. She wa’ mates wi’ ya nanna. Used to look after your Mum when she was little. I worked with her old fella. Right nasty piece o’ work he wa’. Used t’ knock her about, everyone said. Bet she wa’ glad when he copped it.’

‘And here’s me thinkin’ everything was glitterin’.’

‘What ‘appened to you, ya mardy bastard? Man wi’ a fork in a world o’ soup. It wa’ a damn sight better than it is nah, wi’ that bleedin’ supermarket bringin’ all this traffic through’t village.’ 

‘Well, I’m not wockin’ there nah,’ Jamie confessed, having sat on the information for close to a week.

Sniffing up sharply, ‘well, it wasn’t a proper job anyway. ‘Av told ya, ya ought t’ gu back plasterin’.’

‘No one wants proper plasterin’ doing, it’s all plaster boards and tapin’ and jointin’ nah.’

‘Can you not d’ that?’

‘Yeah, of course I can.’ He exhaled heavily between sentences. ‘Any fucker can… That’s the problem… What’s point in gerrin’ me to do it proper when you can get three Polish lads for the same price?’

‘Well, then what you do is get your heads together and say we ain’t workin’ ‘til we all get a fair whack.’

‘Ooo, is that what ya did at pit?’ replied Jamie, more than a bit resentful of taking employment instructions from a man he’s never seen work, but Lord knows he’s heard plenty about when Brian did.

‘It is, as matter a fact.’

‘Yeah, look where that got ya.’

‘That pit provided a lotta families I’ll ‘av ya know,’ really wanting Jamie to know.

‘And thee’ took it off ya’ wi’out a fight.’

Brian’s slippers made an irritating sound as they were shuffled back and forth under his watchful eye and he tapped his stick between them as if to gauge whether the hollowed-out earth that ran beneath would be enough to hold the two men and the bench.

‘Well, am not sure about that… I can’t really remember what wa’ said… I remember a lot o’ angry folk.’

‘Can’t remember? Abaht only thing ya can’t remember.’ Jamie was nodding sideways at the plaque. ‘Did you not fight fa jobs an’ communities like David ‘ere?’

‘That wa’ durin’t Strike, tha’ wa’. No point draggin’ all tha’rup,’ the words stewing in the din of engines and fumes, freezing stiff in the breeze. ‘I wa’ only in my twenties back then. Just married an’ ya brother on the way.’ Brian tested the ground again. ‘Are you not cold?’

‘Not really,’ Jamie pretended, stifling his shivers.

Brian filled his stomach with air before pushing down on his stick and slowly raising while using the freezing cold to make his excuses to leave.

‘Yeah alright. Great chat Brian.’

Jamie waited until Brian had turned the corner and scrambled in the bag for the fleece and, once zipped, reached into the back pocket of his jeans for his smoking gear. Priced out of his favourite pre-rolled cigarettes, smoking was now a multistage process he was still getting to grips with. The remnants of tobacco are shuffled to one side and Jamie pinches at the crumbs, the last few seeking refuge in the corners out of fingertips that swell over his nails. The sparse tobacco is evenly distributed in the paper gutter that bends in the winds shedding even more precious leaf as pockets are rummaged in search of a filter. The search takes him to every pocket before the deepest recess of his fleece gives up a fraying beige little cylinder. Needs must, and the cigarette is completed with a clumsy twist and overzealous lick of the edge and the stick is kinked in the middle and disfigured. The lighter takes four flicks and two pointless shakes before catching. The first three drags taste of fleece pocket. If his supervisor could see him now, smoking in company property. Jamie could do without the bill for the uniform eating into his last guaranteed wage but, on the other hand, he thought, you must take the few minor victories when they are offered, even if those slighted will likely never know.

Stretching out a leg in satisfaction, Jamie prised his phone out of his pocket. The online portal for a dole application quickly drains his already parched mood, so it’s abandoned for social media, choreographically thumbing up through posted screenshots of betting apps, reposted prejudice, inspirational quotes and happy families. The appearance of a semi-friend from school who always seems to have work reminds Jamie that he is a qualified plasterer after all and, clamping the cigarette in the corner of his mouth, taps out a message: ‘Alright mate. Any plastering or boarding work going at your place? Available whenever.’

Jamie removed the cigarette, hastily returned it to the other gummy corner and dragged the fleece off his shoulders and shook himself free of the arms. His mouth secedes the cigarette again, oxygen is drawn in, cigarette replaced, and the fleece is stuffed back into the flapping bag with both hands. His gaze peered through his fringe to catch a face behind a windscreen, and all his adolescent mistakes and expectations and hopes and promises and embarrassments flood into him. The face is hardly weathered by time, its recognition only momentarily doubted by a change of hair colour and the addition of glasses, the blonde hair exasperatedly shoved behind the bespectacled ear with perfect precision as the car is edged out onto the mini-roundabout to make room for its escape.

Although the glance ventured on a stare, Jamie was fairly confident that Claire hadn’t recognised him – it had, after all, been six years. Five and half if you count that August Bank Holiday in town but it was doubtful Claire would remember that particular encounter, Jamie hoped.

It was only when Jamie felt safe enough to return his attention to his phone, searching for Claire’s profile that he heard her heels tapping and scratching and nearing. He shifted his thumb onto delete and glanced left, keeping his head down.

‘I thought it was you, Jammy,’ Claire said, using Jamie’s nickname, earned through a school life of always landing on his feet.

He would look stupid to feign not recognising her, so Jamie made a standard gesture while dragging the bag underneath the bench, feeling it rip on the glass and cement. Jamie tried to move on from the embarrassing introduction as he slid his phone back in its place: ‘What you doin’ round ‘ere anyway? Thought you’d gone for good.’

Brushing this typical barbed question to one side, Claire aimed for civility and brusquely guided Jamie through the brief details of her Mum’s illness, that it wasn’t too serious, that she will get better in time and how she just needs a hand from Claire in the meantime. ‘So, I’m back-and-forth between this shithole and home. Well, my new home.’

‘Ooo, shithole is it? And where’s your new home?’

‘Not far, just nearer Nottingham, this side of the city. It’s nearer work.’ Claire was proud of where she lived, proud that she nipped into the city every Wednesday on her lunch break to meet a friend, proud that her new build home, although small, was full of things she felt pride buying, and proud when her friends noticed these new decorations and things when they came around early on Saturday evenings to get ready to go out. It was the pride that carried her through the desperate fourth week in the week before payday. And when her mum asks on the phone almost weekly when was she coming back to live in the village or how could she leave her dear mum alone the joke would be veiled so thinly that the guilt would force Claire to bed early. But, aware of what Jamie was up to, and aware that he could easily succeed, Claire would filter all these many little things that bring her pride and joy, guilt and struggle through a childhood of growing up here, stifling them all into dense, quivering utterances. So, when Jamie asked Claire what she’s been up to, Claire replied, ‘just, ya know, working an’ going out an’ that,’ which belies her whole life and whose suppression causes her to edge impatiently out of roundabouts with sweaty palms clasped to steering wheel whenever she is back in this place that never changes.

For Jamie, Claire will never change, no one that leaves do really. You can’t exfoliate this place out as if it were dirt in your pores with a bit of university, a newbuild house and mojitos with your new mates. No matter how much scrubbing you do, and some have tried, this place is layered in you. All those lauding leavers, that appear once a year in The Talbot on a Christmas Eve to let everyone know how shit it is to be back and that they are only here to spend Christmas with their Mums and Dads, have only plastered over the surface.

‘Sounds lovely,’ Jamie said, before putting on an accent of how he thinks posh people sound, ‘Must be a terrible, terrible chore to be back in this shithole.’

‘Here we go – says the lad who’s always slagging it off. Rach told me you hated it that much you were gonna go travellin’. What happened to you?’

‘This place!’ shouting over the noise of the lorry and Claire narrows her eyes from the dust and folds her arms tighter around herself. ‘You’re doing alright though, aren’t ya?’

‘Alright? You’ve no fucking idea, Jammy. Only ‘cause I went to uni and don’t live ‘round ‘ere, don’t mean I’m livin’ it up. I’d be better off working back behind that till in there,’ flicking a finger up toward the supermarket.

‘Well you’ve got a degree in something, eh? What was it you did again?’ knowing full well what Claire studied.

Jamie, you coulda gone to uni if you wanted.’

‘You’ve just said ya no better off.’

‘True… but at least I did something.’

‘Oh, I’ve done plenty, mate, don’t worry about that,’ Jamie snapped, sniffing victory.

‘Plenty of fuck all,’ they both called back in unison.

Rapprochement was celebrated with wry smiles and brief eye-contact. 

‘What’s in the bag?’

‘Nothing. Well I’d better be gettin’ on.’

‘Yep.’

‘Yep,’ Jamie got his phone back out without having to put his cold cramped hand in his pocket by pushing at the bottom of it and prising it free like a splinter, then began looking at nothing at all on the screen while Claire just stands there over him.

‘Look, why don’t you come ‘round later?’ she asked, ‘I’m stopping at my mum’s tonight.’

‘Maybe. I’ll see what ‘av got on.’

‘Well, I’m not fussed about going to The Talbot and seeing anyone before you suggest that. We could jus’ ‘ave some beers round mine. Bet me mum would like to see you for a bit.’

Pumping up his torso to give his posture some faux grandiosity, ‘As I said, I shall have to see what I’ve got on.’

‘You haven’t got anything on.’

Deflating, ‘ʻOw d’ you know whar av go’ron?’

‘Cause I’ve just seen that prick, Chris, getting some fags and he said you had a job there but got laid off last week.’

Jamie, repeatedly flicking his tongue over the back of his lower gums, cursed Chris’s typical snitching. Claire, as she always has, provided the only escape route, inviting him to come now if he wants just as his phone alerts him to a reply to his earlier enquiry: ‘I’ve got a bit of weekend work if u can do both days. Can give u 140 quid cash in hand.’ Jamie will borrow that amount off Brian and have it back to him by Sunday night.

‘…Yeah, alright. I’ll just nip home first and I’ll bring a takeaway around, my treat.’ Resurrected, Jamie grabbed the bag and the polystyrene wrappers in the bin creak as its forced in.

Exegesis

This is a story of class, place, temporality and belonging under post-industrialism. It aims to convey various facets coalescing to contour everyday lives in former coalmining communities in Nottinghamshire UK: the motion of the everyday as it is lived through a place highly contingent of its past and lived histories; how discrete affective articulations of these pasts enfold to constitute ordinary conditions; and the ways that these processes flow in and out of each other in mundane human and more-than-human interactions. I found parallels in Stewart’s (1996) ethnography of Appalachian coal camps, A Space at the Side of the Road (referenced in the title). A key inspiration here, Stewart uses ethnographic storytelling to document how the past is lived in the interstices of allusions, utterances, embodied gestures in these communities – ‘at once occupied, encompassed, exploited, betrayed, and deserted’ (p. 4).

The three protagonists – Brian, Jamie and Claire – are largely composite characters representing traits, testimony and actions of people interviewed, observed and interacted with during my doctoral research and growing up in a village like the one depicted. My thesis used a multimodal methodology, including psychosocial life-history interviews, embodied observant participation, discourse analysis, archival research and autoethnography, to investigate the affective-temporal processes bound up in intergenerational transferences of belonging among long-term mining families (Emery, 2019).

My analysis conceived the emotional and material experience of the present as being highly contingent on the past, emerging through textualities – materialities, absences in the landscape, atmospheres, embodiments and declarative memories. A post-industrial community are continually exposed to these textualities and struggle to come to terms with them in an altered, deindustrialised, present. Exposures can be direct and explicit, concealed or mundane, and also resonate with varying degrees of amplification and silencing. How pasts surface is often dependent on how they are imbued with affective intensities of nostalgia, apathy or trauma. For instance, Brian was eager to share the emplaced memory of miners finishing their shift and going to the pub. Conversely, Brian was reticent when Jamie posed a question regards the Miners’ Strike 1984–85, which remains a contentious event in the Nottinghamshire coalfield and is rarely explicitly discussed.      

At the same time, the generation that grew up during a period of industrial ruination are forced to navigate insecure, neoliberalised post-industrial conditions distinct from the older members of their communities. Navigations are highly gendered and render conflicting emotions. Claire attempted to navigate by going to university, giving rise to feelings of guilt and attracting valuations of betrayal of her ‘place’ and community. Alluding to a plentiful body of research on post-industrial masculinities, Jamie stays ‘in place’ as opportunities for meaningful and respectful work erode, evoking feelings of (regularly misplaced) frustration, alienation and aggression (Emery, 2019). At the same time, the generation navigating these changed conditions are tethered to their place pasts and intergenerational expectations. The ending attempts to offer a sense of hope and resistance that can be, and often is, located in human relationships joined in shared histories and experiences of struggle and similitude.

Having recently completed his PhD in Human Geography at the University of Leicester, Jay Emery will be undertaking a Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, University of Sheffield. Jay’s research focuses on working class senses of alienation in postindustrial towns.

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