Jan van Wyk
Jan’s stainless steel lunch box creaked slightly and the black gravel beneath it crunched as he lowered his heavy frame. He was patiently waiting for the skip to take him and the winning team up to the morning daylight and their trophy.
He picked up a discarded six-inch nail and, using only three fingers of his right hand, effortlessly worked the mild steel until it was bent double.
Then, as if disappointed that it had succumbed so easily, he flung it against the damp rock face, from where it clattered down to the gravelly floor and came to rest at the base of a splintered roof support.
A little while earlier, the thick-set Jan had checked that his thermos flask and cup were safely in his lunch box, in preparation for the bumpy ride to the surface a little later. As he clicked it shut, the immaculately polished metal reflected back the black mine workers’ smiling white teeth in the light of the safety lamp. He felt very alone. Even the brief thought that “lunch box” is a strange name when you’re eating a meal at 1am, halfway through the night shift, did little to cheer him.
He licked the black dust off his old Timex watch and squinted to make out the time in the gloom of his fading lamp. He shook it to agitate the battery for more power.
It was 6.58am. The sun had been up for more than two hours already, and more than half a mile above, the rest of the world was just beginning a new day.
Soon, Jan would be sitting down to his dinner with his wife, Popsy, who would be having her breakfast.
He usually looked forward to this time at the end of the night shift, but lately he would arrive home to find Popsy reeking of liquor. If he was lucky enough to find her awake at all, and not passed out somewhere in their small, semi-detached house.
Sometimes, if he got home before the servant arrived, the kitchen table would still be littered with half-empty gin bottles and overflowing ashtrays.
“Oh Popsy,” he said sadly under his breath, picturing her once-smooth skin and lively red hair as it was before she’d fallen prey to boredom and escaped into liquor. “How could you?” He tried not to imagine her miserable appearance as he thought of how she’d failed to stay dry, despite being pregnant with their first child.
The shrill bell announcing the arrival of the skip cut short his thoughts. Setting his heavy frame on to the hard metal seat near the front of the skip, Jan looked around at the mine workers who were chattering excitedly. He was struck by the contrast of theirs and his situations. They looked forward to celebrating the win of the ox gut rotting in the mid-morning sun, and to returning to their sparse quarters. He, on the other hand, who lived in relative comfort, dwelt on the misery of a wife determined to self-destruct and take their unborn child with her.
The bell sounded its final warning, and the mine labourers boarded the skip. It slowly gathered speed as the bulky cable started to winch its precious cargo up the steep several hundred-metre incline.
Once again this afternoon, while she slept, Jan decided he would empty a third of each of her gin bottles down the sink and top them up with water. If she wouldn’t stop drinking, at least with his intervention, she would do less damage to herself and to their unborn child.
He wondered how many tots she had drunk that night, and found himself counting the click of the skip wheels as it sped its way up to the surface. He stopped at 35, and instead watched the reflections of the wall lights as they curved over the shiny mine helmets.
After two minutes of travel, the black workers had quietened down. The rushing breeze had quickly evaporated the perspiration of the men, and the cordite and chemical smell of underground slowly gave way to the fresh morning air.
In the distance, the sunlit mouth of the mine grew larger and larger, and the skip prepared to regurgitate its cargo into the harshness of the February day.
The pace of the click-click continued. The daylight from the opening became stronger than the miner’s lamps, and Jan reached down for his lunch box as he knew the skip should soon start slowing down, preparing for a stop.
But the click-click maintained its pace and Jan shifted uneasily as he sensed that the skip was continuing relentlessly upward.
The anxious looks on the black workers’ faces told him that their uncanny sense of timing and rhythm had also detected that the pace of the skip at this point of the incline felt wrong.
What is old Jack McGuire playing at? he wondered. There were many practical jokers on the mine, but a skip filled 24 men was not something with which to play around.
The speed of the click-clicks seemed to accelerate as the open end of the shaft loomed ahead.
Looks of fear consumed the helpless men’s faces as they realised they were in danger. Although Jan knew that the non-return brakes on the short horizontal stretch would prevent the skip from rebounding back down the shaft, the impact would be deadly if it didn’t slow down right that minute.
Panic swept the men, and some stood while others gripped the cold steel sides of the skip, not knowing whether to jump or stay inside.
Shrill screams of fear echoed off the walls and then filled the open air as the skip burst out into the sunlight, propelled helplessly by the powerful motor.
A continuous warning bell rang out from the winding engine room as the skip crested the rise and bore down on the buffers at the end of the rails.
As Jan’s steel grip clenched the sides of the skip, he looked straight up into the control room where Jock McGuire wrestled frantically with the controls to stop the impending destruction.
Their eyes met for a brief moment as 30 tons of steel and human flesh was thrust into the vertical steel barrier.
Jan felt a tremendous crushing force on his chest as he became the buffer between the men behind him and the front steel plate of the skip. A battery glanced the side of his head as it swung wildly through the air before crashing into the wall of the winding tower in a spray of acid and glass.
The cable mount ripped from the skip and catapulted up into the control tower, where Jan saw it smash through the window before crushing Jock McGuire against the rear wall of the engine room.
The last thing that Goodwill saw was Bafozi’s chest ripped open as one of the seats sheared from its mount and spun furiously through the men. However, his brain had not yet registered it as the flying metal swirled upwards, severing the main artery in his neck, before smashing his jaw back into his brain.
The skip seemed to hover in the air for a moment, and Jan tried to push the mass off his body as his head hung half over the edge of the skip.
Unbelievably, he saw the buffer now recoiling and once again felt the unbearable pressure of the cold steel on his neck and chest. In a screech of metal, the crumpled front of the skip ripped itself free of the buffer as the rear wheels careened back down on the track, and the skip was launched on its return towards the incline.
Through his semi-conscious haze, Jan heard the winding tower’s warning bell and the shouts as the injured men tried in vain to jump clear.
He tried to push himself free, but even though his muscles were filled with adrenalin, he could not move the mass of men piled up against him.
Jan thought that at any moment the safety brake on the short horizontal section should halt the skip, but he suddenly realised with horror that the skip had already passed the safety brake.
As he looked down on to the moving track, he saw that a piece of timber was clearly wedged into the mechanism, preventing the brake from arresting the skip.
With the little breath left in his lungs, Jan gasped a warning that only those closest to him heard.
One man tumbled from the side of the skip, and Jan watched as his overall caught on the jagged metal and he was dragged helplessly and crushed.
The skip slowed for a moment as the buckled wheels struggled to rotate, and men rushed forward to try and stop it. Their efforts had no effect on the momentum of the death machine.
“It’s going back down! Jump quickly! Oh, fuck...!” yelled Jan.
One of the men who was trying to stop the skip gripped Jan’s bloodied hand as the first set of wheels bumped over the yawning abyss of the incline. It was his friend, Russel Kruger, on the platform of the station above ground.
In a last effort, Russell slid along the sleepers as he pulled at Jan’s arm to free him. He tried to brace himself against the sleeper bolts, but only succeeded in losing his footing.
For a moment, Jan dragged him behind the skip. He took in the hopeless look in Russell’s eyes and failed to grasp his friend’s hand, as the other wheels of the skip went over the crest, and the horizon dipped away as it started to pick up speed down the incline.
One by one the disoriented men came to their senses and realised what was happening.
Two men untangled themselves and leapt over the side of the speeding skip. As it left them behind, they clamoured to their feet and ran out of the tunnel.
Jan felt the weight being released off him as the vibration of the accelerating skip and the incline angle shifted the bodies piled up against him.
He watched and listened helplessly as the lights and click-clicks that he had easily counted earlier went by too quickly. Another man leapt from the back of the skip. Bone erupted through his twisted overall as his leg shattered when it caught in the sleepers and he jerked to a sudden halt.
The desperate wails and screams of the men were drowned by the sound of the tortured metal as the skip lurched sideways and the twisted undercarriage fought to stay on the rails, dragging behind the remnants of the winding cable.
The distant spot of daylight was now disappearing fast as they plummeted ever faster down the incline.
Next to Jan, a strong voice carried over the screeching metal. It was Gungu.
“The Gods of the earth are angry with us, Baas.”
Suddenly Jan thought of Popsy and their child, and he realised that his child would never know its father. He began to cross himself and pray.
The front of the skip seemed to drop into a hole as the undercarriage ripped from the skip. For one brief moment it seemed to slow slightly, then caught and started to somersault. The skip smashed into the ceiling of the tunnel amid a blur of lights and sparks as metal and concrete disintegrated and tangled high power cables, ripping them from their moorings.
The last thing Jan saw was Gungu twisting into a concrete roof support as the skip cartwheeled down the tunnel, taking all in it to a black grave. Jan felt the lifting of a tremendous weight from his chest and blood frothing in his throat. Then there was nothing.