‘Is it a rat?’ Sara cried, ‘tell it to go away, Josh!’
I woke with a start from my nightmare about falling down a mineshaft, and in the dull red glow coming through our bedroom window, I saw my four-year-old sister. She’d tangled herself up in an old petticoat Mum puts on her at bedtime. We sleep on the floor and our beds are potato sacks stuffed with hay. Sara shares hers with my big sister Maria, on the other side of the room from me.
‘Go to sleep, Sara,’ I muttered crossly. ‘There isn’t any rat.’
‘It’s going to eat me,’ she wailed. She was sitting up, clutching her peg doll. Tears were dripping off her chin.
I sighed. I could hear what sounded like an animal pressing its nose into its fur and snuffling, searching for fleas. I felt for my boot, flung it, and the snuffling stopped.
‘There, it’s gone. No more crying – let me sleep.’ I punched the hay in my sack, trying to make the lumpy bits comfortable, but it was no good, I was wide-awake.
Oh, I’m Joshua Hale, but everyone calls me Josh, and the terrible thing I’m going to tell you about happened when I was nearly eleven. I’d worked down the Blists Hill coal pit since I was seven and I hated it down there. I hated working in the dark. I hated the rats, the stink of the tunnels, and I hated it when the mine flooded and my wet boots rubbed my feet raw.
I was scared in the pit most days, but Dad said we all had to work to pay rent for our cottage, find money to give to the tommy shop for his new pick, and to buy food. Mum said if we didn’t have enough money for rent, the mine manager would turn us out in the road. Then we’d end up in the workhouse.
But yesterday, when Bradley the horsekeeper gave me another beating so bad I ached all over, I decided I’d had enough. I would run away, find work on the river, and earn lots of money. Then Mum needn’t take things that Isaac Whitlock gave her when he came knocking at our door. Thinking of Isaac made me shudder, and I was wondering about the best time to run away when Sara started her mithering again.