Letter From An English Prison, by Carol Tarlen

Dean and me and the other miners built barricades of steel drums and burning tyres. Petrol was in scarce supply because so much was used on the picket lines building fires to keep the cold and the scabs off, but still they kept coming, taxis driving scabs into the pits, and police swarming at us like fleas with billy clubs.

“Get the bloody hell away,” I yelled when I saw Andy Davis pull his taxi into the pit. We had been chums in school and he lived on the same street as my sister. I slammed my sign on his cab. The two men sitting in the back pushed caps down over their ears and buried their faces in newspapers so we wouldn’t recognize them, but Andy had to see me because I climbed on the bonnet and squashed my face against the windscreen. A copper yanked me off and clubbed me, but when I looked through the blood in my eyes, I saw him turn his face away as the pigs cleared a path for his taxi. Scabs tell the newspapers they’re afraid the strikers will go after their families, but it’s shame they wear. Rhymney Valley shouldn’t be the home of scabs. That’s what I thought at the time. Those wankers should just get the hell out of our Valley.

The last few months on the picket line were the hardest. So many cars ramming their way through just to scab and why, we shouted, but I guess they didn’t hear, because they kept coming. The coal lorries were the worst, speeding through the lines. We’d scamper to get away, then reform, throw stones, bottles, whatever was around. After picket duty, we’d gather in the pub and argue. The courts had confiscated our strike funds, but we ran soup kitchens. We argued there too, but like we were family. We were everywhere, asking for donations from our neighbors, going to meetings to plan tactics, getting bashed at the pit by the pigs. After awhile, so many of us were in gaol or had injunctions against us, the women and children took our places on the lines.

When Joe Green was killed because a lorry ran into him while he was picketing, we knew we had to do something. After his memorial, some of us went to a pub and got pissed. I said something, I don’t remember now, about wondering if it was all worth a miner’s life.

“Bullocks,” Dean said. “We can’t let them break our line. It’s the heart of us. We stand or we fall on that picket line.”

I guess Dean and me were chosen because we were the youngest and weren’t married. We were the strongest, too. We spent days looking for a boulder big enough to do it. When we finally found one for the job, we pushed it near the overpass and left it there. Then we went to the pub and drank about four pints. Fast. When I got home, I watched the telly, then tried to sleep. It was still dark when we met again.

“Are you nervous?” Dean asked.

“No,” I said, but my stomach was jumping.

We lifted the boulder into Dean’s brother’s car and drove onto the overpass. After rolling it out of the back seat, Dean parked the car below. There wasn’t any traffic yet, and I was surprised, because I thought scabs would be coming all night long to break our strike.

Dean walked up the overpass and we shared a smoke. “What time is it?” I asked.

“Early,” he replied.

The air was cold, and although it wasn’t raining, there was a constant drizzle. Dean’s hair hung damp on his shoulders. I couldn’t stop shivering. It was too wet to see the sun rise, but light began to filter through the drizzle. We peered onto the highway under us and saw a moving line of lorries and taxis. Dean looked at me. It was still too dark to see the color of his eyes. I wanted to see their color. I remember that.

“Now,” he said as the first cab moved toward the underpass, and we pushed. Then we heard it. Brakes screeching. People yelling. We didn’t look. We turned and ran.

I was home watching television when the police came. They told me to get a coat, and when I put it on two coppers yanked it over my head and dragged me to the car. My mum was crying and screaming, “You bloody bastards,” but Dad didn’t say anything. He stood with his hands on the back of a chair, picking it up and slamming it down over and over.

When we got to the police station, I was put into a room with three men. Scotland Yard investigators is what they called themselves. Wankers, is what I called them. That got me bashed in the face. They took turns smashing my face against the wall and twisting my ears. They said Dean had confessed, and how could I have done that to Andy Davis, kill him when we had been mates. I didn’t know we had killed anyone. We just had wanted to stop him, that’s all, stop them all from speeding through our lines. I didn’t say anything until one broke my nose. Later, when I got to talk to Dean, he said he had been asked over and over who had planned it, who told us to do it. No one, it was just us, he told them. Me, too, I said. His face was puffy and purple. And his eyes red from crying.

I was in gaol awaiting trial when the miners voted to go back. Yorkshire and South Wales were the first. I got cramps in my belly when I realised we had lost, and Dean and me expecting the worst since Thatcher was calling us murdering swine and all that swill that comes out of the English press. I knew it would be a long time before I got to see Rhymney Valley or walk her narrow streets, or have some lager with my mates. I guess that’s what I miss most here in prison. And the black hills of my home.

My sister and her husband visited yesterday. “It was beautiful,” she said. My sister had been arrested for blocking a coal lorry, had been punched in the belly and dragged by her hair at a rally, and had stood on the picket line until the last day.

“We gathered in the union hall and sang workers’ hymns,” she said. “Then we took up our banners and marched down the streets to the pits. Rhymney Valley was bathed in red and gold banners. Everyone marched, the miners, the women, the children. And we sang all the way to the mine. The men handed us their banners, and the women and children stood and stood and sang until the last man disappeared down the pit. Then it started to rain, so we folded up the banners and went home.”

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