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Firedamp by Frederic Colier

Characters:        GUY, mid-forties, coal miner

                            RITCHIE, mid-thirties, coal miner

    A Mining town. A barrack with a dormitory to accommodate miners who live far away from home. A door on the left. Two metal tube beds. A coat hanger. A metal closet with two padlocks. There is a window on the right, and it is closed

 

RITCHIE comes in first. He limps. He heads towards to bed near the window. He hangs his helmet.

He sits down on his bed. He fishes out an envelope from his pocket.  He stares at the envelope. He lifts the blanket of the bed next to his and places the letter on the pillow.  He covers the envelope with the blanket again.

He goes to the window and opens it. He takes deep breaths and stares at the starry night. In the distance, he recognizes someone. He moves back from the window. Too late, he waves back with restrained gestures at the person waving at him. He moves away from the window and gets into bed. He hides under the blankets and turns the lights off. Blackout.

 

GUY is heard opening the barrackís door, walking down the corridor.

  

GUY: (Off) Ė RITCH! . . . RITCH, Wait! (GUY walks in the room, carrying a six pack of beer.) Wait! Donít go to sleep yet.  Come on, get up! Donít be mad at me. (He turns the lights back on. RITCHIE remains hidden under the blanket. GUY puts the beers on his bed.) Itís too early to go to sleep . . . Got us some beers . . .  Here have one . . . (He grabs one, pops the top off, and hands it to RITCHIE. No response.  Guy gulps half of it down.) Nice and cool. You should try one. Theyíre from Australia. Not bad at all.  I thought weíd try something different for a change.  Taste like Paradise, if you want to know, next to this dump. So what do you say? You know, I donít understand what youíre up to. You donít even seem to be listening . . . Lately, youíve been rather absent-minded.  I donít recognize you. You wouldnít want to have another accident, right?  So what were you thinking about?  . . .  You donít point your drill towards someone . . . Rule number one. Youíre going to get lots of people pissed off with that. Me, I donít care one way or another what you do. Got other things on my mind. I just want to make sure youíre safe . . .  Here have one. I need to talk to you. (He hands him a bottle again. No response.) The whole day Iíve tried to talk to you. Youíve been avoided me. I donít get it . . . We donít talk enough you and I. We should talk more often.  Sure, we talk. Thatís true. But we say nothing to each other. Nothing important, anyway. Weíve known each other for a longtime, and yet, weíve never become real buddies. And thatís got to change. Get over with the avoiding thing . . . Thereís a distance like that between us . . . and I donít like it. Here. Iíve got something that might make you feel better. (He puts a bottle near the bed and finishes his.) Hey, are you listening? Donít pretend youíre sleeping. I know youíre not. I know you can hear me. (He waits.) Gosh, I canít stand it when you behave this way.

            Okay. Suit yourself. Still, youíre pushing a little.  As always, itís me who must give in. But, donít worry, I donít mind.  Itís not because I always say yes, that I always give in, that Iím a sucker. On the contrary. It doesnít cost me anything to always say yes. Iím not demanding. Iíve got a good temper. And if it makes the others happy then why not . . . All right, Iím pushing a little. Iím gabbed too much.  Doesnít bother you, right? Well, while Iím at it, I may as well empty my bag. Finish draining the seam, so to speak. Iíve been trying to have a conversation with you for a while now. You know, a conversation like real people do in films.  Iím carrying all these things in my head, and they wear me out. Thereíre been times when I felt ready to share them. Other times I just forgot. Either I felt too exhausted or else for the lack of courage . . . Feels like having nasty drafts in your head, coming and going, and theyíve got nowhere to go. Youíre breathing while choking at the same time. Funny sensation. Thereíre days, I can see you so clearly that I could talk for hours on end. Others, Iíve got so much dust in my mouth and eyes I canít put one foot in front of the other without fearing Iím going to bang my head on a beam . . . Hey, are you listening? You arenít dozing off, are you?  Couldnít you make a gesture? You know, just because Iíve never told you anything doesnít mean that I donít understand you.  Deep down, weíre not that different. Weíre in fact very much alike. Not on everything, but on most things. You think I donít know how unhappy you are? Itís written all over your face. You donít want to be here.  Itís so obvious. You hate this job . . . That makes two of us. You canít stand this damned fucking place.  Well it makes me sick to wake up every morning, thinking Iíve got to go back down this Ö graveyard. I bet you couldnít tell how sick I am. But you, your eyes, they betray you. Thereís no life in them. I can see it each time weíre together, when we got out for a drink. You always answer with short sentences.  You never look at me straight in the eyes when you talk to me . . . Maybe you believe youíre alone in this situation.  Nobody understands you. Do you think itís normal to spend all your weekends sleeping or flicking the pages of magazines? You get off work you rush to bed. As soon as youíve got five minutes to yourself you doze off.  Here, in the dorm, itís not a problem. But in the galleries, it can cost you your life . . . You know what your problem is: youíre a dreamer. (He grabs another bottle, opens it.  He stares at it.) This Australian shit doesnít taste bad at all.  Youíve got good taste, man. You were right about that.

                        You need to wake up. Shake yourself up. Like your accident. I get mad thinking about your accident.  Do you think itís normal you did nothing to get better.  Are you happy now youíve got a fucked-up leg? You could have saved your leg. All the pathetic reasons you used to give me: ďHow am I going to make it now, four months without working? Without pay? Whoís going to take care of my family during this time?Ē  You had insurance like everyone else. Just say you didnít feel like it. And then you even try to make me believe all this medical non-sense: ďThe surgery may fail, the risks of failure are very high.  The bones may heal temporarily, and several months later I may start again limping.Ē Yeah, you were probably right.  But the surgery may have also succeeded.  Now itís too late. Youíre no longer going to heal . . . I get so mad thinking youíve done that to yourself. Carelessness and stupidity if you want to know . . .  Thereís no use in continuing to bang your head on the wall like youíre doing.  Youíd better accept it or else talk to me about it. Youíve got no one to talk to.  Letís talk about your family. Your wife. And the way she treats you, and the way you let yourself be treated . . . No wonder you started drinking after the accident.  I understand . . . although I donít agree with it. Sheís never happy the wife of yours.  Always whining. Always complaining. Not enough of this, not enough of that. Raising hell over nothing. Making a fool of you in public. She humiliates you, tells you off in public, and you say nothing.  Sheís smart.  Always picking the right. Always preferably with an audience around. She knows you wonít dare to fight back. That leaves scars. You always come across as jerk in public. A wife-beater, or a good-for-nothing. Then try to change peopleís opinions . . . Fat chance. You really push yourself to the limits. Jesus!  Youíve got to shake yourself up. You say nothing.  You let her torture you, trample you, and wait until the storm dwindles. It breaks my heart to see my buddy treated this way. (He gets near the bed, wants to tap RITCHIE on the shoulder but changes his mind.) I know I can be blunt and ruthless. And Iím sorry if I am. But Iím doing you a favor.  Youíve got to get a grip on yourself.  Hey, you wouldnít take sick pleasure in making yourself sad, in running around like a crazy bird . . . Remember the days when our folks took canaries down with them. You remind me of those damned birds, flapping your wings as you gasp for air deep deep down the pit . . . Tell me Iím wrong . . . Is it because of her?  Your leg. Are you punishing yourself because youíre not happy with her? . . .

                        Iíve got to tell itís not easy for me to talk to you this way.  It gives me the shakes. I feel nervous.  Iím not used to it. Iím doing it for friendshipís sake. Weíve got everything we need to be best friends. You can trust me. You can tell me anything you want. You have nothing to fear . . . You can admit it to me now. Your two kids. Now theyíre thereóand they are beautifulótheyíre sort of in the way, right?  I bet you didnít really want them. I bet you you werenít ready for them.  She forced you into it, didnít she? And you, like a moron, you followed her instructions. You know she doesnít think much of you. She thinks youíre lazy . . . How do I know it? She told my wife.  Try to get it out of her mind now that sheís drilled it in her head. And Iíd bet in your face she still tells you how much she loves you. I know youíre neither weak nor lazy. Iím not gobbling any if it. I think weíre all the same. Some have more luck, others less. Some thrive in open air. Others must work in the bowel of the earth, breathing dust all day long to make a living. As simple as that . . . Itís too late to cry. If you go down the pit wearing a wedding dress, you canít expect coming back out looking all nice and clean . . . no, you donít. Anyway, all Iím trying to say is that your kids didnít make things easier  . . . They force you to work a little more each month for a little less . . . (He wants to say something but hesitates. He opens a new bottle.) If you donít hurry there arenít going to be any left for you.

Still, thatís tough . . . Iím almost certain when you met her, never in a million years had you planned to marry her and get her pregnant. It happened just like that, right? On its own, like a firedamp.  Canít smell it coming and before you know it. Bang! The whole shebang. Itís even too late before youíve got time to blink. I wouldnít be surprised if you had other plans in mind. That you didnít see it that way: pitch dark like the bottom of a pit, with only your helmetís tiny light to light up your path?  The silly shadows you make on the walls, donít make you laugh for long. Oh brother, how I understand you.  Especially when the lack of air makes you woozy and the heat suffocates you the entire day. How much I understand you.  I didnít see my life this way either. You see, I can admit it without shame.  Between friends youíve got nothing to hide.

                        Okay, itís true. Youíve got the right to ask me what the hell Iím doing here then. And youíd be right asking me. The way I see it is thereíre things I can control. I can control what I say, what I do, my actions. But when it comes to work, money, and life, Iím just like you.  I donít get to make the decisions. Things just happen. You and me are both suckers. In the same pit looking for the golden seam . . . The carrot on the stick. There arenít any gold seam. Not here anyway. Once you get that, you get all the rest. The wheel of fortune never spins in the right direction. (He grabs another beer, reads the label.) Our job is to make it go the right way.

If I had my say, I would have liked to travel. Big trips. All over the world. Iíd visit places no one thinks about. Imagine all those beers out there that we donít even think of. All those places. Surely canít be worse than this shit hole . . . You should try your beer itís getting warm . . . Talking about traveling, Iíve been carrying this little project in my head.  Iíve mentioned it to you a couple of times.  You probably forgot. Or you thought I was kidding. Trying to impress you. I wasnít. I was very serious. Itís like a suitcase Iíve been carrying in my head. There isnít a corner in the galleries where it hasnít been. Just to tell you how long itís been . . .  The good thing about waiting is that it gives you the time to perfect your project. Today I feels completely ready to share with you . . . The time to open the suitcase has come. Itís way too heavy for me to keep on carrying aroundóalone. You know where Iím getting at. Why I spent the whole day running after you. It wasnít to lecture you. But to share my project with you. If something happened to you it would ruin the whole thing . . . (Pause) because my project includes you.  You bet if I kept an eye on you.  See how deceiving things can be . . . So Iíve been wondering . . . (Pause) Why you and I donít go to Australia together? Huh? For real? Itíd be such a great idea. Thereís nothing left for us to do here, apart from continuing to fill our lungs with coal.  I canít spit anymore without spitting black dust. The damn thing even comes out through my eyes. In my tears, every morning when I wake up. In Australia, the sky is blue. I know Iíve done my homework. It wouldnít take much to get there. Six months of hard work, doing shit loads of overtime, and we should even have enough to buy a small parcel of land. In the desert. Over there, thereíre tons of gold and diamond mines. The land is riddled with them. And the land is worth nothing. No one wants it because itís in the middle of nowhere. Isnít it whacko? We wonít need to buy thousands and thousands of acres. We start with small lot. I reckon a hundred acres be enough. For one thing, weíll have a better chance to become rich. If we stay here, ten more years and weíre through. Theyíll retire us, with a handshake and a nice smile . . . For real. Just thinking about starting a new life, I feel like Iím twenty again.

                        Do you remember the young Burney?  I read the letters he sent his father. Old Burney canít . . . 

 

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