It had stopped raining the day before Sue came back to work. After seven months away, she'd expected the blokes to make a big deal of it, or poke a bit of fun, but there was none of that. Most didn't seem to know where to look, like they were embarrassed to see her. She tried not to take it personally, but it did hurt.
She kept her hard-hat on during the safety meeting; her hair was still so short. She'd always had long hair before, tied up in a bun, until she walked out of the bath-house at the end of the shift, when she'd let it down, and it would flow long and red down her back. She hoped she'd live long enough to let it grow back that long again.
Sue was glad when the meeting was over, and she could get back into her truck. She was amazed how the pit had changed in the time she'd been away. New roads created, old pits filled in, and coal coming out of places that they'd only just started hauling overburden from when she'd got sick.
She hadn't needed to go back to work for the money. She'd been told she could just quit, and get her super. But she didn't want to crawl home to die.
Here at the mine she was important: as important as everyone else, working together like a machine to move dirt and coal.
By mid-morning, the circuit was second-nature to her again. She slipped straight back into the system: queuing, loading, hauling, dumping, returning and then queuing again. Sometimes the work was monotonous, but it was never boring. She was always learning, always looking around at what was going on.
Today, Sue sometimes found herself smiling with the simple satisfaction that she was back on the job. She took off her hard-hat at last, and ruffled her hands through her inch-long hair.
By crib time, she felt she'd re-proven herself - not to the others, but to herself – that she could still do it. When she'd first become an operator, she was the first woman at the pit, and there were plenty of men waiting and watching, ready for her to fail. In time, she'd proven herself. She earned the respect, and even the friendship of most of those that later admitted that they hadn't wanted to see a woman working at the mine.
Then the cancer had come. Physically, it had destroyed her, almost. And, in a way more sinister and less expected, it had threatened to destroy her as a person, and as a woman. She had once shown the men that she could do it; today she had showed herself again. She'd operated her truck text-book style: no mistakes, no delays. It gave her confidence again, as an operator, and as a person.
As she parked up at the crib-rooms she looked down to take off her seat-belt and the sight of her chest brought tears to her eyes, as it often did. It looked the same on the outside as it did before, but the prosthesis didn't go far to replace what she'd lost. She clenched her teeth together, wiped her eyes with her sleeve, and planted her hard-hat firmly on her head. Recovering her confidence and her identity as a woman would take the longest time, she knew.
After a minute, she'd calmed herself back down. She took her crib bag and left the cab of the truck.
She kept her hard-hat on, of course, as she slipped into the crib-room.
"Welcome back, Sue," said someone. She looked up. It was Ted, sitting down in a group of four, dealing out the first hand of five-hundred. He gave her a big smile.
Sue looked around the crib-room, suddenly shocked. Everyone in the room was wearing their hard-hat.
This story was first published in Issue 97 of Shift Miner Magazine. That issue - and this story - had a special focus on breast cancer awareness and research. It doesn't have to be a special campaign-time to give money. Spend a little on yourself and go to the National Breast Cancer Foundation website and donate.