Short Story: May Day Reverie

An old man sat watching the fire burn away. His scarred features and heaving chest marked him as one of many to be found in the coal-field—men who had sold their strength and virility whilst it lasted and now, having nothing to sell, were on their way out.

Another May Day was passing—quietly—almost unnoticed except for old timers’ like Evan Hughes. May Day was, after all, the traditional day of rejoicing, bringing once more the promise of warmth, plenty and a new life to the peasant folk of early times and Evan was a descendent of such people. Over a century ago they had come flocking into the valleys with the soil of the fields clinging to their trousers. Freed from the shackles of the Squire and Landlord, they took upon themselves, willingly, the fetters of their new masters the Coal Owners. Even had grown up in the valley. He had seen the coal barons, like the feudal lords of an earlier age, push out their frontiers; the lengthening grey ribbons of industrial barracks that served as houses; the black pyramids of slag that grew higher as the newly formed conscripts of Capital hewed their way into the virgin coal seams.

The valleys were a hard training ground, and it is not surprising that hard, tough men emerged. Yet, with it all, gentleness and kindness prevailed everywhere and the periods of distress and suffering were shared in common. It is little wonder that from these valleys poured men who were masters in the world’s boxing rings, whose oratory from platform and pulpit thrilled the nation; whose singing lifted the heart. Yes, there were giants in the old times. Men there were who had led their comrades in fight after fight for “a living wage,” “work or maintenance,” and a hundred and one things that Evan had now forgotten and his grandchildren had never heard of. It had all passed, and now, May Day was fading with the light. The clock ticked on relentlessly in a silence broken only by a cinder falling from the burnt-out fire. The old man in the chair seemed to portray the futility of it all.

Evan, and those like him, are passing away. What can we say for them? That they were sincere fighters for a better world there can be no doubt. We charge them with no crime. They were, after all, the victims in a tragedy—unaware of the nature of the society they sought to better. They were often caught in the moment of the grand oration, duped by the opportunist slogan. Responsive with a dog-like devotion to their leaders whom they sent to Parliament, where in time they achieved the cherished but empty dream of Nationalization. And now?

The story continues, though Evan is no longer interested. The ranks of the “old contemptibles” are rapidly thinning, leaving the present generation to carry on the struggle for the life that is as far away as ever. There are today no shortages of leaders, the slogans continue to pour out, the orations are to hand for the occasion. The workers in the valleys and everywhere else on May Day, 1956, still find themselves spinning around the fulcrum of Capitalism, dancing to the latest tune their masters care to play. Is it any wonder they are dizzy?

W. Brain