I came away richer in experience, and with two pieces of gold-bearing quartz in which the gold could be seen by the aid of a magnifying glass.
When I got back to the sawmill I was sacked for leaving without permission. I humped my swag again, and set off back through the bush. I kept going until I reached the Paparoa Coal Mine where I asked for and got a job.
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This coal mine was quite different from what I thought a coal mine would be like. Instead of going down in a cage, we climbed 2,000 feet before entering the mountain by way of a long drive or tunnel. The coal came from near the surface at the top. It was a thick twenty-four foot seam of soft coal, which could be used only for steaming purposes. There were a few soft lumps, but most of it came out like powdered lead pencil that blackened face and hands.
At first I thought it was like working in Hell with the fires and lights out. I had to get used to bending to avoid the beams. I was continually banging them with the top of my forehead as I walked along.
The miners were a humane lot, much more so than the bush workers. It was like being back in a public school, except that the surroundings were of coal and rock, the food was better, and rats ran over one’s legs while eating lunch sitting on the floor of the mine. My comrades liked me, which was a big help; they thought I was a steward who had run away from a ship, which would explain my odd behaviour and speech. I didn’t fancy having my Christian name Francis bellowed down the mine, so I called myself George, and as they could not pronounce Chichester, I shortened that to Chester. They liked my brand of humour, and I kept them amused. We had a strike meeting one day – I was now a due-paying member of my third trade union, the Miners – and I got up to speak in favour of the strike. I was hotly on their side; there is nothing like sitting seven hours on a box marooned in a pool of water flooding a drive into the coal seam, working a hand pump in pitch darkness to make you feel communistic. And if there is no hope of getting out of the rut, why not pull the rest of the world down to your level? However, when I got on my feet to speak, I could not help seeing the funny side of the situation. I started to make the meeting laugh, and finally it broke up in a good-humoured scramble. Rather to my disappointment, there was no strike. Perhaps I can interpolate here that I think that most strikes are due to a longing for a break from the deadly monotony of a repetitive job.