Ted stood in the muster area, as the sun began to dawn, as he had hundreds of times before. Today he was alone; there was no shift change. There was no oncoming crew bantering and rustling with crib bags and drink bottles; there was no off-going crew tired and dirty handing over achievements and concerns; there were no engineers or planners or superintendents, all in a mild panic, trying to find out why things hadn't gone to plan, chasing precious paperwork, and passing on newer, grander plans.
The crew vehicles were parked in a row, silent. No one was doing the shiftly pre-start checks or complaining about the mud and rubbish left inside by the last mongrel crew. The safety board showed two days since the last injury. It hadn't been touched since the day North Creek Mine had been shut down.
The mine had been the biggest part of Ted's life; his whole life, really. He had lost that, when the front gates were closed and locked, fifteen days ago. Head office had chosen to shut the place down, and he'd found out at on the same day as everyone else.
He'd taken it hard. He held it together, until he was alone, and then he cried like a baby. He felt ashamed, to bawl like that.
He hadn't been able to sleep last night. In the early hours of the morning, he came back to the mine, to have one last look around; to say goodbye, properly. In the dark, he cut his way through the boundary fence. He walked the corridors and buildings and paths. He breathed in the smell of mud, diesel, grease, rubber and smouldering, heating coal as he roamed his mine. He touched the wheels of the mammoth rear-dump trucks, parked in rows on the go-line. He gathered memories.
As he walked through the plant, the wind blew in gusts, howling through the structure and the conveyor gantries and in and around the yard machines. Ted had never before heard that sound in the plant. The plant had roared when it was running, and during shut-downs the sound of the machines was replaced by rattle-guns, hammers, grinders, cranes and men. Now, the plant was silent, and the wind took its turn to be heard.
Through the early hours, Ted walked, and thought, and comforted himself with familiar sights, and saw some things around the mine he'd never seen before.
He'd gone to the muster area just before the dawn. He stood and watched lightening sky and listened to the crows as they fought over what was left in the bins.
He heard footsteps then. He stepped around the corner to avoid getting caught.
"There you are Ted," called a familiar voice. The footsteps quickened.
Ted went back and saw David, his overburden superintendent, and the closest thing he had to a friend.
David smiled. "Saw you before, lurking around," he said. "I've been on a bit of a farewell tour myself."
They stood quietly together and looked around. Then Ted said suddenly, "I'd do things differently, you know, if I could do it all over again."
David nodded, and grunted.
"I pushed, and pushed, for tonnes. That was my job. But I pushed until something broke." He sighed.
David said nothing.
Ted went on, "I said safety was the number one priority; but I didn't want people to believe me, and they didn't. I pushed tonnes, tonnes and tonnes. But I couldn't squeeze the volume through this place that it needed to turn a decent profit."
"But you tried."
They stood together in the cool quiet and the minutes passed. Ted could hear the clock on the wall ticking. He read the signs posted on the walls, as if for the first time.
A few tears escaped from Ted's eyes. He wiped them quickly with his shirtsleeve before David could notice. He didn't like to blubber; he just felt so depressed, like his life was over. His career was in tatters. He'd had little effect on production, he'd lost control of costs, and now two me were dead and a third would never walk again.
Ted hated who he was. He hated that he was crying about his mine and his career, and not about the men whose lives he had risked, and lost, and wrecked. He hated that he was crying at all.
Ted spat into the dirt. "I'm going home, before the rent-a-cops catch me."
David nodded. "Me too."
They shook hands, promised to keep in touch – both knowing that they wouldn't – and walked away.
This story appeared today in the Five Minute Fiction column of Issue 91 of Shift Miner Magazine. I've often thought of what it would be like to walk around a mine that was a big part of your life, and was then shut down. Imagine all the things that were once important, that now don't even exist.