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Pulling his helmet on sideways, Anton ventured into the changing room with a long row of cubicles, like wardrobes, with chargers for the mining lamps. Beneath the cubicles were deep recesses for breathing apparatuses, which were cylindrical objects weighing one and a half kilograms. In the event of a conflagration in the mine, fire and smoke would spread quickly through the narrow shafts and ventilation system, and a miner would have to engage his life preserver, fit its breathing tube and put on goggles; if not, they faced an agonising death from suffocation. Sometimes a miner would not fit the apparatus properly and it did not work. The contorted bodies of miners, who were not near breathing apparatus, had been found after many fires. The apparatus was very heavy, so miners often stowed them in the mine workings or by the surface entrance.
On receiving his miner’s lamp, respirator and breathing apparatus, Anton headed to a crowded area before the lift. It consisted of a crate on a rope attached to a winding machine. The miners referred to the first descent into the mine as ‘the wedding night’. At that moment everything they had known before was changed. The surface and the mine were two opposing concepts for them, like the sea and dry land for a sailor, or the air and earth for a miner. This conception is forever implanted in the soul of a miner, whether they are working or not.
“Let’s speed it up lads.” The new recruits were urged on by a lift operator long past her youth. She checked that they all entered the cage, and would give the signal for going up or down. The men all whinged like street cats miaowing at their mother.
“The main thing is that the rope isn’t torn, if that happens they’ll be scraping us off the walls,” a youth covered with acne uttered vigorously.
“Don’t worry, they’ll send others,” chuckled their instructor.
They all prepared themselves. The operator gave the signal. Anton’s virginal conception of life broke at the moment the cage hurtled sharply downwards for almost one kilometre into the depths. His ears lay flat, his legs trembled from the shift in his weight, and his body braced itself for the impact. The cage seemingly fell downwards into the innards of some giant creature; an ancient dragon born when life had just appeared on the earth. They fell, bypassing its nasopharynx and oesophagus, and would be shattered when they reached its stomach. But the cage now descended softly and the miners eased out of it as sweetly as sprats from a jar. Ahead of them there was a menacing outline, a black hole. It seemed that as the figures went deeper they disappeared and the light from their lamps illuminated hazy lumps. This atavistic, primal fear of the darkness would always haunt the miners; even when they had grown accustomed to the obscurity, the fear of the unknown would always linger. Perhaps that is why so many of the mine workers visit the bar for a few drinks after a shift and drink to excess so that unconscious fear could be consigned to oblivion.
However, for Anton, the first day at the mine was devoted to studying. He passed through mine workings with a group of new-starters heading back to the lift. As they returned, they saw, in the depths of the workings, a smallish, one and a half ton wagon that had come off the rails. As the miners say, it had ‘stalled’. One of the workers was labouring with the aid of a prop (typically this was a piece of pine) as a lever. He stuck one end of the wood under the wheels and planted his whole body on the other. By doing this he managed to raise the wagon by a few centimetres. Meanwhile, his partner placed the wheels on the rail and that was it, the wagon was almost sorted. But at that moment the thirty-five year old miner, who was holding the lever, slipped. The lever whacked him on the knee with all the force of the weight it bore. The rumbling of the descending wagon accompanied the deafening screams of the injured man. His kneecap had shattered with the impact, as if it were just a piece of French bread. Everyone rushed to help him. Anton and a wrinkled grey-haired old miner pulled the traumatised man, who was now on a stretcher, to the lift.
“This is your first day then?” the old man asked, and without waiting for a reply continued, “down the mine it’s the same as being on the front line in the war. If you’re not killed, you’re crippled.”
From The War Artist by Maxim Butchenko. Translated from the Russian by Stephen Komarnyckyj
The War Artist: A Ballistic Missile of a Book Launched on 7 July 2017