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The subject was "A Secret" and my mind went completely blank. However I'd been toying with a story that seemed to be going nowhere because I couldn't think of an ending and it seemed to me that the idea of a secret could be used to end that story, albeit in a rather odd way. So I combined the two ideas and came up with this. But unbeknown to me, I'd now given myself a whole new problem... However, so as to avoid spoilers, I'll tell you about it at the end.

Coal in the Hole

It had been so simple a few years ago reflected Peter as he used industrial strength bolt cutters and a crowbar to attack the cap that was sealing the mineshaft. Once upon a time all you had to do was pop down to your coal cellar or go into your coal shed, depending on your social status, and pick up the first decent sized lump of lignite that your hands fell on. But it was all different now. Nobody had coal cellars or sheds any more. Everyone had started heating their homes with electricity or natural gas instead. And that, of course, was why he found himself here, in the middle of nowhere, breaking in to an abandoned coal mine on a shiveringly dark night with only the frosty stars to keep him company.

A few years ago, he’d thought that he’d found the ideal solution to his lack of coal. He had been walking down a snow covered street when he saw a very attractive lady carefully placing small lumps of coal onto a snowdrift and photographing the result. He stopped and stared at her in wonderment and then, unable to help himself, he walked over to her and said, "Excuse me, but I can’t help noticing that you’ve got some coal. Can I ask where you got it from?"

She turned to him, and rewarded him with a dazzling smile. "Doesn’t it just look so pretty?" she asked. She had a very strong Australian accent and Peter barely understood what she was saying. "I’m from Western Australia," she continued. "I’ve never seen snow before. It’s just beautiful; so white and clean and crisp, and the contrast it makes with the blackness of the coal is just fantastic. I’ve never seen coal before either. England is such a wonderful country. So full of surprises."

"Yes," agreed Peter, as he started to fall in love with her, "but where did you find the coal?"

"I’m renting a house over there." She gestured vaguely towards the side of the street. "There’s an old coal shed in the back garden and it still has some coal in it. I thought I’d put some of it in the snow and then take a photograph to send home to my mum. She’ll be thrilled to see something so exotic."

Peter couldn’t get over the fact that she had a coal shed. He immediately embarked on a torrid affair with her. It lasted for two exhausting days at the end of which he discovered that her coal shed contained nothing but a thin scattering of nutty slack, and what use was that to anybody? He fell out of love with her straight away and went back out into the snow, bitterly disappointed.

He’d sheared through two of the bolts now. Only six more to go and then he’d be able to get into the mineshaft. His breath was steaming in the cold night air and he pulled the hood of his puffer jacket up to stop his ears getting frostbitten.

After his affair with the Australian lady ended he’d applied for a job at a coal fired power station. "Why do you want this job?" asked the man who interviewed him.

Peter wondered whether to tell the truth or not. Really he was hoping that the managers would turn a blind eye when he took some coal home with him.  But he decided that this confession would not go down well with the interviewer, so he settled for a lie instead. "I need the money," he said, and the interviewer winced.

Nevertheless Peter was offered the job, and he settled into it very happily. Unfortunately however, the writing was on the wall for coal fired power stations. They were rapidly being replaced with more environmentally friendly generators of electricity that made a very effective use of renewable resources. His old-fashioned power station was decommissioned and, just like that, Peter was out of a job. He got a handsome redundancy payment, but it scarcely compensated for his lack of coal.

The bolts had all been cut free now. Peter used his crowbar to lever the metal cap away from the mineshaft exposing a deep, dark cavern that descended into the bowels of the earth. The lift cage had been sent down to the bottom of the shaft before it was sealed, and Peter could see rusty looking cables hanging down in the darkness. The winding mechanism and the motors had been removed long ago, but Peter had expected this and he had come prepared. He attached an abseiling pulley to the lift cable and he anchored a battery powered winch to the top of the shaft so that he could haul himself back up when he’d finished his business in the mine. He pushed back the hood of his jacket and put on a hard hat with a powerful lamp attached to it. He shrugged into an empty backpack that he was hoping to fill with coal. Now he was ready. He took a deep breath and abseiled down the cable.

When he reached the top of the lift cage he unstrapped the abseiling rope and used his crowbar to lever open the emergency exit trapdoor on the cage roof. Then he climbed down into the cage and from there he made his way into the mine.

After the power station closed down Peter had been left in a bit of a quandary. He considered joining a steam train preservation society but the closest one he could find was based a couple of hundred miles away in the heart of the West Riding of Yorkshire. He wasn’t sure that it was practical to commute that far, but he sent them a letter just in case. Rather to his surprise, they accepted his application to join. They were always keen to recruit unpaid volunteers. So, the next weekend, he travelled up to Yorkshire to meet his new friends. A round-faced man with twinkling blue eyes introduced himself as Harry Marsden. "We’ll be travelling up the branch line to Haworth," he said, his flat Yorkshire vowels sounding strangely foreign to Peter’s ears. "You can help with the stoking."

Peter spent a happy and exhausting afternoon shovelling coal into the boiler of a highly polished locomotive as it hauled commuter coaches full of literary enthusiasts up the line to Haworth, where the Brontë sisters had spent their formative years writing strangely hypnotic novels. "Great little locomotive is this," said Harry, patting the gleaming brass fittings. "She was built in Crewe in 1888. We use her as a snow plough to keep the line clear in winter. She’s very good at that. And her boiler is certified until 2021!"

"Sounds like she’s had a long and happy life," said Peter, contemplating his blisters. He decided there were some sacrifices that he was simply not prepared to make and so the following weekend he stayed at home and slept late.

His lamp cast ghostly shadows in the darkness. Somewhere in the far distance he could hear the metronomic tick of water dripping down from the ceiling. An abandoned, rusty pickaxe lay where a long ago miner had thrown it away at the end of his last ever shift. Condensation trickled slowly down the walls of the tunnel. Peter felt as if the walls were closing in on him; as if the ceiling was about to collapse and bury him. Fighting to keep his claustrophobia under control he headed off down the tunnel.

Presently he came to a cart full of coal. He’d been hoping to find one of these – he really didn’t fancy walking all the way to the coal face along miles of dark, neglected and potentially dangerous tunnels. But here was a cargo of coal, probably the very last that had been dug out before the mine closed for good. Nobody had bothered to haul it out into the light of day. What would be the point of that?

He loaded some coal into his backpack. He returned to the lift cage, climbed through the trapdoor and winched himself up to the top of the shaft. He used his crowbar to lever the cap back over the shaft, sealing it shut again. He glued the heads of the bolts back into place. They wouldn’t pass a detailed inspection, but a casual glance would make it look as though the cap was undamaged. Peter was certain that his incursion into the mine would remain undiscovered – hardly anyone came to this lonely, desolate place any more. He was quietly confident that everything would remain just as he had left it until he returned for fresh supplies.

He got into his car to drive home. He checked his watch. Almost 11.00pm. Just enough time to have a shower and change his clothes before he had to go out.

Peter waited until the last chime of midnight died away, and then he rang the doorbell. The party was so noisy that he wondered if anyone would realise he was there. But Dorothy had been waiting for him and she opened the door straight away. "Happy New Year, Peter," she said, giving him a peck on the cheek. "Come in! Come in!"

"Happy New Year, mum" said Peter, stepping over the threshold and handing Dorothy a darkly glittering lump of anthracite. She accepted it gratefully.

"It’s so good of you to keep the old traditions alive like this," she said. "Hardly anyone comes first footing any more nowadays. You simply can’t get the coal, you know!"

"I know," said Peter, feelingly.

"But you never seem to have any trouble," said Dorothy. "I think we did a really good job bringing you up to respect the proper way to do things. Every year without fail, there you are on my doorstep at midnight. But come on, tell me, where on earth do you manage to find coal in this day and age?"

Peter winked and tapped the side of his nose with his forefinger. "Can you keep a secret?" he asked.

Dorothy’s eyes widened with anticipation. "Yes," she said eagerly. "Yes, of course I can."

"So can I," said Peter. He joined the party, looking for beer.

Originally Dorothy was just someone I used to provide Peter with a motive for his obsession with coal. Perhaps she was a friend of his. I had no idea. She was just someone who had a party every New Year. I hadn't thought any more about her than that. But everybody who read the story wanted to know who she was. So I re-wrote the ending to explain that she was Peter's mum. Rather to my surprise, that actually strengthened the story because now Peter's obsession could be seen to be a result of his rather eccentric upbringing. I'm not sure I like Dorothy, but she certainly likes Peter.

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