Sunday, 30 May 2010

chapter 7

Odolghes had promised that once we had what he called some proper organization, the small grey stone we had gone to such pains to retrieve could be turned into unlimited quantities of gold. Meaning that it would make us rich again. It seemed a puzzling and far-fetched claim when I first heard it, and even now, when I understand what Odolghes meant by organization and have seem the claim fulfilled beyond his boldest dreams, some of the puzzle still remains as regards the actual way the transformation came about.

It happened swiftly, yet in such tiny steps we were hardly aware of taking them. The stone, you see, didn’t alter our work much, not as far as methods go, but it helped us to carry it out far more efficiently in far less time. If we had an order of, say, two cartloads of iron ore, which was the usual amount customers wanted, we could now deliver in a fortnight instead of the three or four months it had taken us before when we had no pointers to guide us but our eyes and noses. This meant, to begin with, merely that we could take on more work. Which we did, job after job, so that in terms of health and comfort we were worse off than ever before: tireder, hungrier, grimier and with such sore feet that when the evenings came round some of us – particularly the crushers like me and the other children – could scarcely hobble.

Another month, another fortnight even, of such punishing effort and Odolghes might have had a rebellion on his hands. Or hand. Our people were intrigued by him, were lured by the promises he made, but the old habit of mockery had left its trace and they weren’t quite prepared to follow him yet, not the way they had followed my grandfather before the toothache – right or wrong, thick or thin. A state of affairs which Tusky, sapping away like a mole - a dig here, a tunnel there – was quick to exploit. I caught him more than once spreading grumbles, calling Odolghes ‘the half-man’ and accusing him, on account of his disability, of doing only half the amount of work. ‘Yet he eats twice as much as you and me,’ he went on each time, giving his listener a double prod in the belly so that the reckoning would be clear. ‘And he is twice as big. Remember we used to call him Cuckoo-pate? Well, that’s what he is: a cuckoo, a great idle cuckoo in our nest, growing fat while we little birds slave to do his bidding. Where’s all the gold he promised us, eh? Where’s the food? Where’s the perks?’

Still inside the stone, would have been Odolghes’s answer. Work, have faith, have patience, and you will see. And luckily, before Tusky’s grumbles had any real effect, see we did. With all the work offers, the Miners who had left began to come back. First in drips, then in a trickle, then in a steady flow – at least two families a day. They came back thin as sticks, and in filthy tempers, but more workers meant shorter shifts, and we gradually found ourselves with time for other sorts of jobs which hadn’t been done in a long, long while, like rubbish carting and de-fleaing the dogs and mending clothes. The camp began to look smarter as a result, so did we. Perhaps this gave us confidence, bargaining power, because we began to up our prices and be a little bit choosier about the contracts we accepted. I can remember the first time Odolghes actually turned down a customer, hunching up his unlevel shoulders and striding away from the man – I think he was a Trusani – telling him we wouldn’t even dig for wurzels on those terms. And I remember too how the man, after a moment’s surprise, began hurrying after Odolghes, insisting and coaxing and offering higher and higher payment, almost with every step. It was strange, like seeing an almsgiver and a beggar suddenly change places, or a mouse suddenly begin to eat the cat that has caught it.

I have been rich and then poor, and happy and then sad, enough times to know that the two highs and the two lows don’t necessarily go together, but the period that now began for us brought a kind of upward thrust of its own which it was difficult to resist. I felt like a noodle in a pot: obliged to come to the surface by the force of the bubbles. Even the thought of my mother, which troubled me often, especially at nights, couldn’t keep me down for long. And the same went for Odolghes and indeed all of us, with the sole exception of Tusky, who continued to grumble even where there was next to nothing to grumble about.

Every day brought improvements of some kind to our lives. New tastes, new smells, new feelings – all of them nice. The taste of butter on our corn-cobs, for example, that since babyhood we had gnawed on dry, butter being too precious a remedy against metal poisoning to waste on children. The smell of soap, that we could now afford to buy again off the Wanderers (thus doing away with a lot of other smells I won’t list). The feel of warm beds and full stomachs and proper fitting breeches with no holes in them to let the weather through. The still more foreign feeling, on a rest day, of wanting to get up and do things instead of just lying still and dozing. And most thrilling of all – to the older people anyway, who seemed to prize it more highly than butter or soap or clothes or bounce – the sight of an empty tub we had used to keep nuts in, slowly filling up with more and more lumps of finest, purest gold, just like Odolghes had promised.

The making of this gold went on at night, amid such buzz and excitement that any outsider watching would have thought it was a game and not at all the hard, skinblistering work that in fact it was. What was called the ‘parting’ of the gold from the baser metals had not been performed in the camp since the beginning of the Great War, and there was consequently a whole new generation of Miners who had only heard talk about it, never seen it done, and to whom the idea of learning this secret skill and putting it at last into practise was like the coming true of a dream.

We children were not supposed to take any part in the proceedings at all (for safety reasons: what you don’t know you can’t tell), but on the night the first parting was due to take place the atmosphere in the camp was so tense, and the young Miners so eager to get started, and the old Miners so busy looking out old bits of equipment and preparing new ones and grinding bones and pounding ashes and whatever else it was they had to do, that nobody paid much attention to us, and under cover of darkness a small group of us was able to creep up behind the shed where the work was going on and crouch down outside and watch – the whole procedure, almost from beginning to end. We saw quite well, too, because the walls of the shed were full of holes to let the heat out and there were many more holes than we had eyes.

It made a fascinating sight. In the middle of the shed a smelting furnace had been set – one of the little round open-air ones that were used on digs for ore testing, but much fatter and squatter, with extra reinforcements at the base, and drain spouts coming out of the sides. Called tap holes to be correct. It must have been lit much earlier because its lid was already glowing; and in the light cast by the glow, the faces of those present in the shed could be seen to be glowing on their own account with a mixture of heat and sweat and keen expectancy. Some of them looked close to melting. That, incidentally, was another reason why we youngsters were kept away: our skins would not have withstood the blast.

To one side of the furnace, just out of scalding range, all the special long instruments for smelting were set out in a huge sand-filled tank, ready for the Master Smelter to grab at as needed: rods, rakes, rabbles, rammers, ladles, crowbars, tapping-bars, chipping-bars and many other bars – some so peculiar that they had no real names, only nicknames, like Nobby and Hookie and Little Scratcher. They were planted upright, in a special order, heads down and handles uppermost, and put me in mind of the prickles of a porcupine. The Smelter must have had a wonderful memory to pick the right prickle each time, because with their tops hidden they all looked exactly alike.

A little further off on the opposite side lay the fireproof vessels – dipping pots, crucibles, cupels and whatnots – again carefully arranged by shape and size so that the Smelter’s assistant could pass them over to him in a trice. And beyond these, in tidy piles of varying height – the lower closer, the higher farther – were heaped all the different materials used for the parting, each one marked with a little coloured flag planted at its base: white for salt, yellow for sulphur, green for beech ash, red for bonemeal, black for lead powder. A sieve, a pair of scales and a measuring mug completed the set-up, plus naturally the measurer in person: Jet’s mother, who had the only really trustworthy pair of eyes in the entire camp.

The arrangement looked finicky, and sounds more finicky still, but once the work started in earnest you could see there was a reason to be tidy. Any muddle, any delay, any tripping over a crucible, or passing the wrong amount of whatever it was, and the whole process might have been wrecked. It was that precise, that touch-and-go. Added to which, the furnace itself needed tending constantly. But this was done from the back, by the stokers, so as not to interfere with the rest.

‘She’s not breathing right!’ the Chief Smelter would shout at them, when his expert ear picked up some tiny variation in the furnace’s roar. Or else, ‘She’s caking up! She’s clogging! She’s running too hot! To cool! She’s dying on us! She’s choking!’ And the stokers, after bandaging up their heads and dunking them in water (which they had to do each time afresh or their brains would have broiled), would gather round the stoke-hole and open it up and begin fanning or feeding or raking or blowing or smothering or whatever it was needed doing to put things right.

It shows my ignorance, but what with the noise and the bustle, and the water-carriers coming and going, and the full round furnace sitting there at the centre of things, puffing and wheezing while everyone else hovered around it in a high state of excitement waiting to see what would come out, the scene reminded me of the Queen of the Cajutes’ lying-in. So much so that when at last the Smelter reached for his tapping-bar and began, one by one and with extreme caution, to ease open the tap holes coaxing, ‘There we are now, sweetheart. Gently does it, outcha come, outcha come,’ I expected the gold to issue forth like a baby does, ready made and shining.

Instead of which, all that trickled into the dipping pots placed beneath the taps was some dirty black dross, lumpy and scummy, which was quenched at once by the water carriers, and then glanced at briefly by the Smelter and tossed onto a cake pile in the corner and forgotten.

The Smelter didn’t seem too displeased with this result, though, and neither did the other Miners, since they went on working just as hard and cheerfully as before, but most of my companions felt the disappointment and, one by one, yawning and stretching and rubbing at their eyes, they left their spy holes and nipped off back to bed. ‘Parting!’ I heard one of them mutter. ‘Farting’s what I’d call it. Didn’t see no gold, just muck and bubbles.’

In the end only Jet and I remained at our posts, and after we had watched the same disappointing process several times over with no change in it at all, except that the cakes of dross got slightly smaller and paler with each tapping, we too were about to call it a night and take ourselves off to bed, when suddenly the Smelter fished out from the sand-tank a crowbar in place of his tapping bar and began thumping it endwise on the ground to gain attention. ‘Time’s ripe!’ he announced. ‘The dross is off and our beauty should be in there now, clean as saltlick. No crowding round, please…’ (In their excitement some of the onlookers had already surged forward towards the centre of the shed). ‘No scuffling, no sneezing neither, last thing we want is dust. Everyone keep nice and still – that’s it, that’s it – while I just life the cover here…’

And so saying he fitted the head of the crowbar into the ring on top of the furnace lid, placed a tall metal pole underneath the staff, and with a loud grunt, almost a groan, levered the lid into the air and swung it sideways, revealing the raw, red belly of the furnace with at its centre a small round dish containing a ball of something so fierce and bright it made the rest of the fire seem almost colourless in comparison.

‘There she is!’ he shouted. ‘There’s the button, bless her scorching heart! Whadderyersay, Miners?’

I had never heard gold referred to as a button before, but that in fact is the proper metal worker’s term for it. I suppose, by giving it such a homely name, they think they can control it better.

The light from the furnace fire lit my kinsfolk’s faces in a strange way, casting heavy shadows and making them look ugly, even those few that weren’t. ‘We say Oyoyoy!’ they screamed. ‘We say Oyoyoyoyoyoyoy!’

‘And whadderwewant, eh?’ the Smelter asked, slightly condescending, as if he was the teacher and everyone else his pupils.

‘More! We want more!’

‘That’s right. And when we got it, whadderwedo with it?’

There came a brief puzzled silence, during which I too wondered what the Smelter was angling for by way of reply. What do you do with a great deal of gold? You can’t eat it; you can’t wear it – not much of it anyway; it doesn’t keep the cold out; it doesn’t really, when you come to think of it, serve any useful purpose at all.

‘We put it in the tub,’ came an uncertain voice from the back.

‘Yeah! Grubagrub grub, we put it in the tub!’ the others joined in.

But this was still not what the Smelter was after. ‘And then?’ he urged. ‘And then? Where do we put the tub to keep it safe, eh? Where did out grandparents keep their gold, and their grandfathers before them? Think, you blockheads! They kept it in Au… in Au…’

‘In ore stacks?’ came the same voice as before.

‘In orchards?’ came another.

‘I know!’ squeaked Jet at my elbow before I could stop her. ‘In Aurona! They kept it in Aurona!’

Silly Jet, but it didn’t really matter because the last word was snatched out of her mouth almost before she had finished saying it and taken up by the entire assembly and shouted for so long that we had plenty of time to run back to our beds without being discovered. From where we could still hear it, booming out into the night like a stag’s love cry. Or, noisier, like the roar of an avalanche as it hits the tree line. ‘Au-rona! Au-rona! Au-rona! Au-rona!’

Next morning a crown was presented to Odolghes for him to wear on special occasions. The smiths had made it from the button overnight: a thick ring of beaten gold with an empty space in the front for the setting of the famous Raietta stone. He never wore it, however. First because he said he was not a King but a Chief and preferred the old feathered headdress, and second because when the casket containing the Raietta was opened there was found to be no stone inside, simply a note from my mother saying, Sorry, but for her journey she needed something valuable and easy to carry, and this bauble was just the job.

(Chapter 8 coming up next sunday, 6th june 2010)