I can hear my brothers, my uncles, my great-uncles hammering away in the mines twenty floors beneath us. Candlelight toys with the dining room and for a second my world becomes dark.
Grandpa begins, spewing out the same rhetoric he does every time the three of us are together. His hands are stained from years tending to the oils; candlewax hangs like dew from the hairs on his arms. ‘Today is a great day, a momentous day.’ He looks straight at me. ‘Charlie, lad, it is a day you will never forget.’
I don’t have to close my eyes to imagine Sarah’s screams at the far end of the hallway.
Every family has their own traditions, their own little quirks that make sense only to them, and we’re no different, though perhaps we take ours a little more seriously than most. This is how it started.
For as long as anyone can remember, Richardsons have been mining folk. Back then our fingers were birthed with callouses, our shoulders swayed naturally to the rhythm of the pickaxe. We tunnelled like moles all across the North, gaining infamy as a family. There ain’t a field for miles that hasn’t got a Richardson under it, not right now, not ever again, that’s what they’d say. As the years went by my ancestors bought up much of the land they mined under, until without anyone realising exactly when, we owned the entire North, every field, every pub, every village, every mine. We were as close to royalty as anyone had ever known. Problem was, everyone wants to be royalty, don’t they? One day a boy came along – he was a well-spoken lad but he was frail, sickly even, the eldest son of a candle maker – and asked to marry the family’s eldest daughter. No, they said, laughing in his face; after all, what use did they have for a sickly candle maker’s son in the family? But the boy came back a week later, and a week after that too, more determined every time. So they set the boy a test.
‘I don’t plan to forget, Grandpa,’ I answer, sitting up straight. Hammering from below shakes the floor and dust crumbles from the walls. ‘Do you know when I can see her?’
‘The start of our family’s newest branch. A new Richardson lad, hewn from the finest stone.’ Grandpa laughs a gravelly laugh to himself. ‘Will his shoulders belong to the pickaxe, or will his hands light our future?’
The door to the dining room bursts open, light streaming in from the hallway, my mother’s unmistakable silhouette casting a shadow across the table. Her frantic breathing echoes around the room.
‘It’s done,’ she says. ‘It’s over.’
‘Well?’ Grandpa roars.
But my mother doesn’t answer him. Instead she moves the length of the dining room, heels striking the marble floor, her face there and gone, there and gone, there and gone in the passing candlelight. She kneels over me and whispers in my ear.
‘It’s a girl. She’s beautiful.’
The task they set the boy was, so they told him, a simple one. They had recently acquired a mine that was so deep the darkness inside it couldn’t be broken; even the new-age gas lamps did nothing to dissipate the blackness. The boy was to go into the mine and light up a new path, because legend had it that a dragon’s hoard was hidden deep in the earth. A simple task for a candle maker’s son, the family laughed to themselves once the boy had gone. But the boy was determined, so day after day he climbed down into the mine, his frail body battered by the stone, his shallow lungs choked by the coal. Rumour soon spread that the boy was pushing carts piled high with barrels across the North; barrels, so the crows whispered, that were filled with a strange liquid. He was seen climbing down into the earth with leagues of rope wrapped around his arms. Months passed this way, and the Richardsons saw nothing of the boy until, at the height of winter, on the darkest day of the year, the boy appeared at their door. It is done, he said, I have illuminated the earth for you.
‘Take us to the new lad, then,’ Grandpa says. A gust of wind echoes down the chimney and, all around us, the candles blaze a little brighter.
‘I would like to speak to my own son first,’ my mother says to him. ‘To take him to see the new child in privacy, where he may weep without the judging eyes of others. That is his right, is it not?’
The candles dim.
‘Go,’ Grandpa says.
Mother grabs me by the arm and guides me from the dining room. She makes it look so casual but damn, her grip is strong. She shoves the door closed then tugs at the handle, making sure it’s not about to blow open. Flickering light creeps under the door.
‘There’s a problem,’ she says to me, holding my face with her heavy hands and staring me dead in the eye. ‘I am sorry. I am so, so sorry, but there’s been a problem with the birth. This way.’ She’s pulling at my arm again, dragging me along the corridor.
There’s been a problem.
‘You won’t have a lot of time,’ she carries on, ‘your Grandpa won’t wait forever. Your father will keep him busy but… There’s no time to dwell on that. You’ll have time enough to get away, that’s what matters.’
‘Get away?’ I ask, stopping short. I don’t want to ask what needs to be asked now. ‘Get away from what?’
Of course, the family didn’t believe the boy. It’s impossible, they said, can’t be done. But the boy was calm, he didn’t argue or throw a tantrum; he just smiled this sly little fox smile and held out his hand, and there in his palm was gold brighter than the Sun. The family scrambled over each other to get to the mine while the boy trotted along behind them, chatting away to his would-be-bride. He caught up to them almost an hour later, stood on the precipice; each and every man and woman was leaning over, squinting to see some kind of light in the darkness of the mine. Stand back, the boy said, and he knelt down by the long fall into the earth, pulled two stones from his pocket and started beating them together, sharp side against sharp side. He didn’t bother looking up to see if he’d been successful, he didn’t have to. All at once came the light, the heat, the gasps, as miles and miles of candles, melted wax lining the walls of the mine, illuminated the earth.
I’m running as fast as I can but running with a baby is hard and uncomfortable and I don’t even know how I’m supposed to hold her. There wasn’t time for my mother to show me how; I’ve got my forearm under the nape of her neck, holding her head upright, as close to me as I can. I don’t imagine the landscape’s changed that much over the years; buildings will have, aye, but the lay of the land won’t be any different than it was five hundred years ago. It feels like I’m running through a memory, but I can feel Grandpa’s eyes on my back and know he’ll be closing on us quickly.
Every family’s got traditions, but none take them as seriously as us Richardsons.
Needless to say, the boy got his wish and married into the family. That part’s often forgotten because of what happened next. That’s the bit we’re never allowed to forget. See, we were, each and every last one of us, a family of miners, but along came this boy, this frail, feeble candle maker’s son, and set us on the path to riches we’d never before dreamed of. One lad, one scrawny little thing had the knowledge to change our whole world. And so it was passed down from generation to generation, father to son to son to son, that with every new crop of Richardsons there must be a candle maker; there must be someone capable of lighting the path to our future. Just one. Knowledge is knowledge and it only takes one to say it; the rest were to be miners like the Richardsons of old, hardy men who, like Atlas before them, could stand under the earth and hold it up. But history has a way of twisting even the best of intentions, and our souls, well, after so long underground they were blacker than coal.
‘I don’t know what to do,’ I whisper to her, slowing down. Hoisting her into my left arm, I pull a pack of matches from my pocket, sparking one up. My daughter’s eyes dazzle in the flames. ‘You won’t even have a name yet, will you? Well, you do now. I’m going to call you Sarah. Yeah, Sarah, that’s what she… that’s what your mother would’ve wanted.’
And I kiss my daughter on her head.
‘Sarah,’ I say to myself.
‘That’s far enough, boy,’ says a familiar voice from the darkness.
I don’t stop, though – I know who it is, and that’s all the more reason not to stop – I run as fast as my legs will carry me in the other direction. He doesn’t bother shouting after me. He knows what I know; he knows I won’t stop for nothing.
‘Don’t be afraid,’ I say to Sarah as I run, but really, I’m saying it to myself. ‘Don’t be afraid, he won’t catch us. I’ll never let him hurt you.’
Rain batters down hard. Sarah’s bundled up in my coat so I’m soaked through to the bone, but that doesn’t matter much. Then I see it, shimmering in the darkness, light carrying over the rise and fall of the fields like sunrise. The mine. That same bloody mine that started this nightmare. It’s hard to believe that the boy’s candles are still burning in the mine, some God-knows-how-many years later, but all I can hope is that they’re not burning all the way down, because there in the darkness is where I’m going to hide.
Lucky for me there’s more than one entrance to the mine. The first one we come across is just a free-fall into the earth, the precipice cordoned off with security tape that I could quite easily duck under, should I want to. Although why the hell I’d want to, I’ve no idea. No, we keep running past that until we get to one of the other entrances. This is a hole in the earth too, but there’s a path that slopes off into the darkness. No sign of candles at this bit. I duck inside as rainwater drips into stalactites over the mouth of the mine. And like that, the sound of the rain and of the world we’re running from, they fade away. I keep going, holding Sarah a little tighter.
History is written by the victors, that much is certainly true, and when you’ve been brought up a certain way, surrounded all your life by a certain mindset, I guess you don’t even think to ask the obvious questions. Like why our family only gave birth to boys. All my siblings, lads; cousins, lads; every woman in the family is a Richardson’s wife, not a Richardson’s daughter. Took my mother to be the one to tell me. Six sisters, she told me, you had six sisters, all older than you. You were the first boy we had. What happened to them? I asked her, and I’ll never forget her reply, no matter how much I try. Don’t need girls in the family, they’d taint the blood. Can’t hold an axe, can they? Can’t work the mines. So… So they got rid of them. God, I shouldn’t… Every time a girl was born, she was taken away and disposed of. Tossed in the garbage somewhere, I don’t know. That way, the Richardsons remained pure. They remained mining men.
I can’t see anything now. It tastes wet this far down, feels wet, smells bloody wet. Faces pop up out of the dark at me: Sarah, my no-longer-of-this-world Sarah, hers appears to me most of all. There’s too many ghosts haunting our family. I wish I’d known… If I knew the dark truth of the family I’d have gotten us out long before now, whisked her away, my star-crossed lover and me. I’d have had a plan, and no one would’ve been able to stop me, they wouldn’t even have been able to get close. But now I can hear footsteps echoing behind me, and I can see flickering candlelight somewhere up ahead.
‘Come on back,’ shouts that familiar voice, as pebbles crumble from the ceiling. Off in the distance I can hear my brothers, uncles, great-uncles hammering away at the earth. ‘Let’s talk about this. Like men. You kept saying to your ma that you were grown, a man like the rest of us. Well, now’s the time to show it, lad. Men don’t run. Men stand. Men face their problems.’ I don’t even consider it. The light ahead is closer now. I can smell candlewax all around me, I can taste the smoke.
‘Just a little more,’ I say to Sarah, and kiss her on her head again. She doesn’t react. ‘He won’t find us, I promise. I’ll keep you safe. I promise. I promise.’
As we get closer to the light, everything’s not just black any more: the walls are grey and brown, and in places they’re water-streaked dark; the ground is a heavily trodden silver-grey mess of boot prints, flat in a world of sharp edges; minerals and precious stones of the most brilliant, beautiful colours, colours undiluted by the greedy gaze of man, sprout like weeds from the stone. Then the mine opens like a cavern, and we’re surrounded by a million burning candle wicks coming at us from all angles; and trapped inside the hollow wax there’s light enough for a new dawn.
And now there’s nowhere to hide.
But I reckon there’s still time before he gets down here, so I place Sarah on the soft wax by my feet. ‘Trust me,’ I say to her, like I’ve got some sort of plan. She doesn’t need to know otherwise. All the wicks around are near enough burned black. Some of them are spitting, some aren’t; there’s a few dark patches around where candles have lived out their lives already. But I can still see the light reverberating around through the wax, like it’s all just trapped in there waiting to get out. The footsteps are getting louder. Out of curiosity I stamp down, breaking off a chunk of wax. Already the room looks lighter as illumination weeps from the wound.
‘Careful where you look, boy,’ shouts my pursuer, and when I look up there he is, stood in the mouth of the cave, flickering light casting shadows across his face, turning him into some kind of monster. The joke’s on the shadows though, they’ll never make him monstrous enough. ‘You might see something your eyes aren’t ready to see.’ Sarah’s silent behind me.
‘What did you do?’ I say, looking down. ‘What did you do?’
‘I did what I had to, didn’t I? What was best for the family.’ He’s walking towards me, walking and talking and smirking. ‘I did what your bloody father should be doing right now.’
‘You killed them,’ I whisper. Another candle dies, the room darkens. I look down again.
‘I saved us,’ he says. ‘Protected the life you know. I did what had to be done.’ I look down again at what’s trapped in the wax. ‘Don’t, lad. Don’t look. It’s easier if you don’t. Can’t see the blood on your hands that way.’
‘And what about Sarah? Why her? Why can’t – ‘
Another wick dies; more colours fade.
‘Don’t say it. Don’t say it, don’t think it, don’t even entertain the thought of thinking about it. You know what’s got to be done. You don’t need to understand.’ He stops walking; he’s maybe two arms lengths from me now. ‘Come on, lad. Help keep the family pure.’
I look around. I didn’t see it at first but there’s wood holding up the walls, there’s pickaxes, helmets, a birdcage discarded on the ground. Us Richardsons, we made this. We built this mine; we tore the gold from the earth and profited from it. Aye, but us Richardsons, we made this, I think, and I look down again. I can’t help it. Bone sticks out of the wax.
‘I won’t let you hurt Sarah,’ I say, and then again, louder, and louder and louder again, until I’m screaming it at him. And my voice carries all around the mine, echoes through the wax, gets trapped between the stone, until this whole world we’re in is screaming it too: I won’t let you hurt Sarah.
Every family has their own traditions and we’re no different, though perhaps us Richardsons take ours a little more seriously than most.
‘So be it,’ Grandpa says, not looking at me, and as the final wick dies I think I see him move.