Pip looked down into the gaping rent that sullied the otherwise pleasant hill side. The cropped grass all around him was dotted about with heartsease and chunks of limestone thrust up by the earth’s unseen geological forces, a typical field for the Peak District. In his hand he clutched a parcel; a piece of bread and a small wedge of cheese wrapped inside rumpled brown paper. This was to be his lunch, eaten whilst suspended in a bucket fifty odd feet above the cavern below.
“Come on Pip! Get in the bloomin’ bucket!” said his father urgently.
Pip always hated climbing into the bucket. Especially that dreaded moment when he had to grab hold of the rope and step away from the reassuring stability of solid ground. It was always in the back of his mind that the sudden application of his weight may be too much for the frayed, twisted coir rope.
Almost as though he could read his mind his father planted a meaty hand on his shoulder and assured him that if the rope had withstood the stresses and strains of holding both himself and his own father then it could certainly take ‘a young whipper snapper like Pip.’ Pip examined the aging rope above him doubtfully but was reluctant to point out that this had in fact been between four and six decades ago, when both men had been small boys.
Small boys were the only ones that were light enough to sit in the bucket as it was lowered into the cave, whilst at the same time being robust enough to get the job done. For his age Pip was tiny. He looked closer to five than his actual age of seven. Years of malnourishment had stunted him and thinned his bones, but at least his diminutive size meant that he could work down the mines and help keep his family out of the poor house.
His father looked at him with wide eyed expectancy. Pip took a sharp intake of breath, reached out and grabbed hold of the rope. Hand over hand he lowered himself down until he reached the bucket.
“Good lad,” said his father nodding. “Now have you got your pick and your candle?”
“And your sack?”
“Yes,” said Pip a little impatiently. Now that he was actually in the bucket he wanted to get on with the job in hand. The sooner he was able to start chipping away at the Blue John deposits the sooner he’d be able to forget where he was. He lit his candle and held the pick in his tiny hand which was still blistered from the last time he’d sat in the dark chipping away at the rippled purple, gold and ivory seams of Blue John.
He thought about the money that it brought in for the family and the apple that his father always gave him when he came back up to the surface at the end of the day. A sudden jolt told him that his father had started to lower the bucket with thoughtless urgency. Probably he had grown tired of Pip’s prevaricating and wanted to get back to work post-haste.
As young Pip watched the warmth and light of the world above recede and the chill of the cavern began to seep into his bones, he cupped his hands around his solitary candle. Soon his spindly fingers were the only thing he could feel and the flickering flame was all he could see. As though his mind could not handle such a primitive reduction in his sensory perceptions it quickly took a hold of his last positive thought and made it come alive. Smiling to himself in the dark, Pip could almost reach out and taste that glossy red apple, the one that he would no doubt get to enjoy later. It would be sweet and crunchy he decided, just the way he always liked them.