Short Story - Winner: No 3 Western Deep by Ríona Judge-McCormack

From Dublin, Ríona Judge-McCormack currently lives in Johannesburg. Her short story caught the judges’ attention for its spare but lyrical evocation of an anomalous story, set in South Africa.

Ríona Judge-McCormack, winner of The Sunday Business Post/Penguin Ireland Short Story Prize 2017 PIc: Fergal Phillips

I will tell you this: no one understands what it’s like to have a man down. Any time of the day I’m thinking about the back of his skull, how soft it is there. I’m thinking: fault seams and monoxide. I’m thinking: rock.

In the early days, Sachin would tell me what happened down there, before I asked him to stop. It was the pictures that came when I didn’t hear from him – even early into a shift, when no word could be expected for hours. I’d find myself gripping the edge of my desk, minutes or hours dropped from the day. An ache in my jaw from clenching it.

“Everything okay, Neema?” my colleagues would ask. They knew Sachin was with the Company, but they imagined him above ground, white-coated and banked by instruments, gold being tumbled to a shine. I never mentioned the shafts. Never told them that, sooner or later, everyone was sent down. It was hard enough being a woman at Basson & Van Rooyen, harder still being a woman named Neema Govindasamy. So I smiled, and smoothed my plain skirt. “Fine,” I told them. “Just checking figures for the Hapsburg account.” I was careful. I was a blank, clean wall.

Still, it would come for me at times. Rock and wet silt. Earth in my mouth.

Did you know that in England, many years ago, coffins had a string fixed to the inside? It was connected to a small bell that hung above the grave. If you were not dead you could ring the bell and they would come and dig you out. I read that one night while I waited for Sachin to come home. It was strangely comforting, to know that others had thought about this. That there were plans that could be made: a string, a bell, a boy waiting at the graveside.

Sometimes Sachin would be down for three hours, sometimes ten. Once, it was twenty-six.

Do you know what happens to time when you stretch it that far? You learn, then, how very brittle a material it is. How breakable. That is a thing you cannot unlearn again, afterwards. When Sachin came home with the first light of day, I thought the mine had done all it could to us. But that was before the incident at No 3 Shaft.

It was all anyone talked about that summer. There had been the drought, and the Pretoria protests – stories we had heard, or versions of them, all year. The country was tired. No 3 Western Deep was like a leopard in your bathroom, something you couldn’t look away from.

I learned of it when the rest of the country did. I was at Minki Pienaar’s, out at the Company compound, drinking too much Pinotage and feigning an interest in the failings of her latest domestic. “The problem with these people,” Minki was saying, wineglass in hand. Minki was a 20-year wife, a fixture on the compound. She was not used to talking to people who looked like me, not used to having us standing around on her good carpets. I tried not to take it personally. Her type was an occupational hazard, if you were a mine wife. Particularly at Western Deep.

“The problem with these people is, they never listen,” Minki said, her glass threatening to bleed wine across the white of the silk couch. Her house was everywhere like that: silk and flounces and matching pelmets. So white you couldn’t believe in the mine, snaking away below you. “You tell them a hundred times – no bleach on the hardwood! But they never listen.”

The ten-year wives nodded, teeth stained dark with wine. “Lazy,” they said. “Ungrateful.” I picked at the lasagne someone had brought.

“Neema, liefie,” Minki said, missing nothing. “Don’t you want a plate for that?”

Minki didn’t like that I lived in Johannesburg instead of out on the compound with all the other wives. Didn’t like that I had a job, that I wasn’t upholstering in white-on-white and terrorising the gardeners. They were crazy about their gardens, out there on Western Deep. Pansies, geraniums – there was a regulation in the Company book, which ones you could and could not have. It was all a piece of the same whole, the same thinking that had put lost villages of men to work underground and had them breathe rock until their lungs were hatched with scars. I knew enough to keep a measured distance. It was never your house, on the compound. It was the Company who owned you.

We had married for them, Sachin and I. For the Minki Pienaars and the Mister Pienaars – that was the truth. Girlfriends had no status out there, could not come to the parties or sign in at the gate. The Company had a regulation about that, too.

It was all a piece of the same whole, the same thinking that had put lost villages of men to work underground and had them breathe rock until their lungs were hatched with scars

And there was this: I loved him. Enough to put myself each day in the way of loss.

So we married. I brought anaemic salads to their garden teas. I wore soft pastels and seed-pearls. I scraped my mother’s biryanis and yellow dhal into the bin at my apartment, the spices making my eyes water.

“Did they like?” my mother would ask, when I called her.

“They loved it,” I told her. “They couldn’t get enough.”

And still they sharpened their smiles on me. Better for them if I were a teacher, or a secretary. Actuarial accountant: it made them crazy. They had nothing on me, and it made them crazy.

“What a beautiful salad, Neema,” they would say, leaving it untouched, uneaten.

Even so, I had more in common with Minki than my own friends. Minki knew, you see. She had stayed up those nights waiting. No one could warn you, no one could explain how it was. You had to go there on your own.

We never spoke about it. But the knowledge was there. The dreams: black soil, caked and heavy. Instead, we talked it down. Laughed it away.

“Men and their holes. Always inside one or the other, ney?”

And so there we were that summer, discussing Emily or Mary or the latest of Minki’s disappointing domestics, when it flashed across the widescreen mounted over her fireplace: the entrance gate to the compound, the shaft heads rising sunward. We were sitting on Company property and we had to see it on SABC.

I’ll give them this: not a wife among us let us down. Not a dropped wineglass or a cry. There was only a slight stiffening, a straightening of hems and faces.

Someone found the remote. “. . . without undue delay. In the meantime, operations at the Western Deep compound have been suspended. Contact with the 34 men, who have been underground for 12 hours . . .”

“Well,” Minki said, finally. “Time for a proper drink, yes?”

There was no question of any of us going home. We sat holding whiskey tumblers to our chests, silent, while the television stations replayed old footage and talked numbers and loads and cubic feet of air.

“The deepest mine on earth,” they said, again and again, like a mantra.

Do you know what happens to time when you stretch it that far? You learn, then, how very brittle a material it is. How breakable. That is a thing you cannot unlearn again, afterwards

Back in the city, I knew my family would be waiting for me – my parents, uncles, aunts, cousins, crowded into our small sitting room. There would be paratha and bhajis and curried vegetables. They would hold me, and rub my back, and the younger children would press small hands against my dress and say, “don’t cry, auntie”. They would know nothing. They could not guess at the anger I sometimes felt, when Sachin returned. The quarrels left unspoken in the shadow of the next down shift.

We sat there all night. There were five husbands down, including Sachin. One of the lucky wives put a blanket around me, and we sat, watching the sky whiten into dawn.

Something else I could never tell my friends: the sex after those shifts was worth every minute waiting. In the dark, with the lights out, trying to claw beneath each other’s skin. Sachin came back to me smelling of hot metals, the heavy night. Reached for me before he spoke a word. Entered me like I was landfall and he was drowning.

Afterwards, there was the faint silvering of hair at his temples, the murmur he made when I settled into his arms. There was the length of his lashes in sleep.

I sometimes wondered what he had seen down there, in the shafts. I had never been. None of the wives had. It was not done, at Western Deep. And in some ways it was easier not to know: about the bearing weight of hydraulic pumps and pistons, about the stopes riddling the rock. How there was no air down there in the belly of the earth.

Minki brought over the lasagne, the olive canapés, the jellied desserts, and set them all out on the table in front of the television. “Unanticipated electrical failure,” the television said. “Structural concerns.” None of us could eat.

You can’t take food down, into the shafts, did you know? Another regulation. The time Sachin had been down 26 hours, he said the worst part was the hunger.

“You don’t realise how much you think about food, every day.” He had laughed, telling me after, spread out in bed, patting his belly with its dark run of hair. “Not even eating it – just knowing it is there. Knowing you could have it, any time you wanted.”

“What an Indian thing to say.”

“Ask the others, baby. We’re all Indian in the dark.”

But it wasn’t food that worried the experts, when it came to No 3. hunger may drive you mad, but it will not kill you. Not for some time. Water, air, the gathered heat four thousand metres below the earth: these were the equations of survival, the figures to be subtracted, and subtracted, all night.

Everyone had an opinion. As the second day bled by, journalists canvassed shopping centres and campuses. “I’d give them 50-50, yeah?” one blond boy said, wincing into the sun. “Naw,” said his friend. “You know those okes already gone.”

I must have slept, between broadcasts. I dreamed of Sachin, of his hands on me. I dreamed of us on the hallway carpet, rutting, driving into one another, until whatever he had brought back with him spilled out into me and he could rest. His mouth at my ear.


I woke. On screen, a presenter was frowning in front of the gates, mouth working silently. Western Deep looked shuttered in the flat of the sun. If I wanted, I could have opened the window and listened for her, the woman with the microphone standing out there, frowning because it was my husband and not hers beneath all that misused rock.

Minki refilled glasses. When the whiskey ran out we drank dusty giftwrapped bourbon, cane rum.

A little after the 40th hour, I walked out into the garden and put my face in a bed of petunias. I didn’t know what I was doing. I was down on my knees, pushing earth into my mouth. It was Jana Jordaan, her husband also a line engineer, who pulled me back. She hooked soil out of my mouth like I was a child. The other wives brushed me down, tucked my hair behind my ears, brought me back to the couch and the blanket. I sat quiet after that, through the 50th and 60th hours, right through until all the numbers agreed, no matter which way you added them: those men were not coming back up, not alive.

We slept then. Ate eggs that Hettie broke into a pan, one after another. If I said there was a relief in knowing, you might not understand.

Outside in the immaculate street, the silence was a sucking thing.

Still they could not say it. Not until the eighth day, when a Company man knocked on Minki’s door. He sat on a chair and drank his tea with sugar and told us they were proceeding with the extractive operation, that they hoped to bring the bodies up by Sunday. They arranged a car to take me back to my apartment. I sat on the floor of the shower for a long time, until the water ran cold. I did not answer the phone.

For the recovery ceremony, I wore black. I imagined my mother’s anguish, seeing me on the nightly news – “What is this throwing away your heritage, Neema? Where is your respect?” But it was a Company event. The wives of the engineers and managers were arranged to the front, those of the winch operators and blasters behind. Even in mourning the hierarchy still held. We stood, a line of widows in black, a small distance from the shaft-head while the ratcheting of the pump grew and the halogen lights burnt on.

When the workers first started shouting, I didn’t understand what was happening. Then men began running forward, like filings to a magnet, crowding around the shaft head.

Sachin was the third man out. I watched him walk towards me – half the country watching with me – and I could not move to meet him. “Neema,” he said, and I felt his cold cheek against mine.

The papers could hardly help themselves. The faces of those first workers when the cage came up, throwing their hats into the air. OUR MIRACLE BOYS, the headlines read.

There is no getting away from a miracle.

I lie in bed and listen to his breathing at night, this thing that is not my husband. Somewhere, a room is filling with wet earth and rock, filling up until there is no air left, the satin lining stained black. And I am still here, listening. Waiting for the bell to ring. ■