The pickets were in high spirits, some stretched out in the field, some standing in clusters, chatting, laughing, playing kickabout with a ball. Lexa wandered around enjoying the sunshine and the tickle of the long grass against her legs. The dry ground released a muddy scent from the trample of so many feet. Only the unseen presence of Stuart tainted her mood. Just before nine the languor went out of the crowd. She was close enough to the front to have a partial view of the police who were keeping the coking plant gates clear, line after line of them, like an army of bikers in their black helmets, the vanguard protected by full-length shields. The miner beside her cocked his head. Lexa felt it before she heard it: a vibration in her bones. The strikers fell silent. Squinting into the distance, she counted thirty-five tipper trucks approaching through the heat shimmer on the metalled road. The pickets’ faces wore a sacramental gravity, ten thousand people standing tensed and still. The convoy was moving fast, hurtling towards them, the steel grilles around each cab making the drivers eerily invisible. Lexa started to shake at the clamour of metal, the grinding engines, the heat and the glare and the pressure in her chest. Then the push began and she surrendered to the press of sweating, straining bodies. For five minutes nothing mattered more than gaining the next few inches of ground. Until the last truck in the convoy disappeared inside the plant and, with that sudden dissipation of energy she could never quite get used to, nothing mattered less. The crowd relaxed, spilling into the field for the half-hour wait while the lorries were loaded. Lexa stayed on the road watching the faces, turning away if she spotted a head of grey hair, though she knew that subconsciously she was looking for him. Later she was to remember noticing the mounted police waiting in a field up the hill, not standing idly, but grouped in formation, in readiness.
The noise of engines gunning into life brought the crowd back together for another push. Lexa was squashed again, but the tension was gone; the convoy was no longer a symbol of ineffable evil. No one seriously thought it could be stopped, so there was a moment’s disorientation when the police line broke. The wall of shields opened and through the gap came the horses. She felt her features sag into a replica of the stunned expressions all around her. The pickets at the back turned and ran, but where she was standing the crowd was packed too tightly to permit retreat. A wave of fear passed through the men in front of her and then, abruptly, the charge stopped. The horses turned and trotted back behind police lines. She reached a decision. Her differences with Stuart could be resolved at another time, or they could not, but for now they did not matter. She searched as systematically as she could, working her way through the crowd, walking in straight lines, looking to left and right, but there was no sign of him. Gradually the pickets who had bolted drifted back. A couple of missiles flew towards the police – a half brick, a lemonade bottle – but it was astonishing how quickly equanimity returned. As if the previous fifteen minutes had never happened.
Lexa was on the road when she heard the drumming. She saw heads turning, seeking the source. A man’s voice said “What the fuck…?” It was the police using their truncheons to beat a tattoo on their shields. They were chanting too, not words but war cries. As she watched, the line of shields parted and the horses cantered through. The crowd made a low, resonant sound she remembered hearing on the big dipper when she was a child. The world turned more slowly. She had time to take in the gleaming chestnut flank, the plate-size perspex blinkers fixed to the bridle, the lift of its hooves, the power in its breast, before she ran. Everywhere men were scattering in panic, scrambling over walls and fences, criss-crossing the cornfield, fleeing alongside her. If she could just find a stretch of open ground she knew she could outrun them all, but there were too many people in her way, and those hooves too close behind. Fifty yards to her right the horses had overtaken her, the riders swinging long staves, striking at anyone within reach, men staggering and dropping as they were hit. Behind the horsemen came the infantry, in black boiler suits and cannonball helmets, with truncheons and round gladiatorial shields. An officer with a megaphone was shouting orders, pointing out which pickets to arrest, barking “bodies not heads” while his men hit out indiscriminately and their quarry ran blundering into the backs of those running before them.
And then Lexa could run no further. She threw herself to the ground face-down and waited for the trampling hooves, but the horse whose breath she had felt hot on her neck must have changed course in pursuit of someone else. Effortfully she got to her feet, hands on her thighs, lungs heaving, as the miners fled past her. She knew she was putting herself at risk, that by standing still she presented too easy a target, but her legs refused to move and an unsuspected corruption in her whispered that she would be safe: they would not hurt a woman. In the chaos around her she could see handcuffed miners being led to the waiting vans, miners fighting with policemen, miners with blood streaming down their faces. Ambulancemen were loading people into a Land Rover, mopping up the casualties even as the boiler-suited gladiators were making more. A picket cowered on the ground, naked from the waist up, the bruises flowering on his bony back as the truncheon descended again and again.
“Stop,” she shouted, but the word was swallowed by the din.
She came nearer. She could hear the laboured breathing of the policeman as he worked, and the animal sounds of the man he was beating.
“Press,” she yelled. It was all she could think of, and miraculously there was a picket at her side raising a pocket camera to his eye. She did not see the blow that caught her head. The pain surpassed anything she had ever felt before. The camera was smashed from the picket’s hands. His arms took the next blow, rising to protect his skull. Then the policeman was gone. Lexa bent over the miner on the ground and stood up again, afraid she was going to pass out. At the same time she felt immensely calm. There was something she had to do, if she could only remember what it was. She made herself breathe. In and out. Stuart: that was it. She had to find him. But first she was going to sit down.
“Oh no you don’t.” There were hands under her armpits hauling her to her feet. “Come on. Walk. That’s right: one foot in front o’t’other.”
He smelled of sweat and something sharper that could have been excrement, but he was helping her so she breathed in his scent, took it down deep inside her. The blood was bright on his striped tee shirt.
“Not far now. See that ambulance over there? Dun’t look much like ambulance, does it? That’s ’cos it’s army vehicle with respray. Hard cases in overalls are army too. Nato helmets. They come out of Newark every morning but it’s ‘only a billet.’ They must think we’re fucking soft.”
She realised he was talking to keep her conscious, but she was not sleepy, just very calm. Aware of everything, but at a distance. She felt the ground moving under her feet as they walked. She heard the shouts and groans and curses. She saw men stooping and straightening with stones in their hands, and others sitting on the ground in shock, or lying foetally as their fellow pickets charged over and around them. Further off, the police were still lashing out. It all seemed so unreal.
“I’m all right,” she said to the ambulancemen. Up the hill she could see hundreds of miners walking along the road towards Sheffield. “But there’s a man on the ground back there, no shirt, you’ll see the bruises.”
“She took crack on t’nut.” The hand was still clamped around her arm. “If you ask me she’s got concussion.”
For the first time she looked at him. He was an inch or so shorter than her, dark and wiry, with a moustache that made him seem older than he was.
“What about your camera?” she said.
“Eff all use now.” He patted his trouser pocket. “But I’ve got film.”
“I’m fine,” she repeated, disengaging her arm.
He stared into her eyes and seemed satisfied. “Come on then.”
“To find lads.”
There were five of them, faceworkers at Carbeck Colliery: two brothers, one broad and blond, the other wearing a semmit with Was Judas a Notts Miner? handwritten on the front; a couple of teenage apprentices; and her rescuer, whose name was Gaz. One of the apprentices had a can of beer. It was warm, but it wetted the inside of her mouth.
A narrow lane led down to a scrapyard. Pickets were threading between the rust-coloured canyons, clambering over the metal carcasses, scavenging for anything light enough to be hurled through the air but dense enough to do damage. Lexa’s party found an Austin minus its wheels and windscreen. “One, two…” The “three” came out in a straining grunt as the car was lifted clear of the ground. They staggered up the lane, stopping every few feet to set their burden down and curse. A couple of hundred yards from the coking plant two scrapped cars had been laid bumper-to-bumper across the road. They placed the Austin on the end and stepped back, panting. Lexa smiled, feeling her arms float upwards of their own accord. Fifty yards uphill a second barricade was being built out of rocks and scrap metal. The crowd engaged in this task displayed the same slabs of sun-reddened flesh, wore the same jeans and tee shirts dotted with badges and stickers, but they were no longer the men who had fled from the police horses. Their faces were hard, a new purpose in their movements. Others were collecting stones, bottles, lumps of metal, to use as ammunition. The police watched inscrutably from behind their perspex visors.
Lexa jumped at the sound of diesel engines.
“Convoy’s coming out,” Gaz said. She checked her watch. It was past one o’clock.
“I know: time flies when you’re enjoying yoursen.”
There were no direct hits at first. The stones fell short, cracking on the road or bouncing harmlessly off the raised shields. The next wave of missiles was better aimed. A Vimto bottle shattered beside a policeman’s foot. There were cheers as a rider was felled from his horse. The police started to advance up the hill. Lexa laughed, which had always been the way she showed fear. She thought how easy it would be to slip away and join the straggling line of pickets heading for the city. Or even to stay as a spectator, supportive but detached. A miner jogged along the line of scrap cars shaking a petrol can, his hairy belly wobbling as he ran. A balding picket caught up with him, pulling at his arm. Gaz dragged the older man away and they argued, shouting, neither listening to the other. Gaz’s voice was louder and in the end his opponent was silenced.
“We had agreement, nob’dy said it but we all knew: no stones, no horses. So we didn’t throw stones. We kept our side of bargain. And what do they do? Fucking cavalry charge. I saw that lass –” he pointed at Lexa, “– smacked over head for nowt. We could’ve been sat in that field making daisy chains, it would’ve been same difference. They were under orders from the off. So don’t talk to me about playing by rules. They’ve beaten us like dogs today, and now we’re going to bite back.”
Lexa did not see who threw the milk bottle but she watched the burning rag in its neck soar through the brilliant air, heard the musical smash on the Austin’s roof a split-second before the whoosh of flame, and her blood thrilled. She thought she had never seen anything so beautiful as that leaping wall of orange against the molten sky, the hanging canopy of smoke. Behind the second barricade the picket with the petrol can was filling a row of bottles. Another miner had torn up his shirt and was dunking the rags in petrol. He looked at her doubtfully.
“Light and throw. No fucking about.”
The first two matches went out but the third lit the petrol-soused fabric. Her chest quivered. Every day she bent her instincts to her will: walking into the office, being civil to her colleagues, not walking out until the end of the day. Self-censorship had become second nature. Only in bed did she live entirely in the moment. At all other times she calculated the consequences of her actions, fast-forwarding the future, playing safe. She was so sick of being careful. Gaz looked towards her, gesturing urgently. She smiled back. Windmilling her arms like a bowler, she let go. Sunlight caught the neck of the bottle against the breathless blue.