In the afternoon's dimming light, a small train passes through town, slowly enough for a horse to outrun it at a canter. A woman waits for it to pass, trapped between the moving train and the hedge. Just beyond the train is the Brinsley Colliery, where miners are leaving after a day of work, like "shadows diverging home." Nearby, there's a small cottage with a disheveled garden of apple trees, cabbages, and a path of chrysanthemums. A woman appears from the fowl-house, standing tall.
The story opens with the dying of the day. As the light dims, the people within the world of the story are presented as solitary beings, unconnected to one another. They either stand alone or move as "shadows diverging," constantly drifting apart. The coal miners also look like shadows because of the coal dust covering them—and in a story that, at least in part, connects darkness with death, that darkness attached to their skin suggests the danger inherent in their work.
The woman is attractive, with exactly parted black hair and dark eyebrows. She calls for John, but there's no answer; finally, a child's sulky voice sounds from among the bushes. The five-year-old boy appears, standing stubbornly still. The mother gently urges him to come indoors as it's getting dark, and his grandfather's engine is coming down the line.
The woman's affection for her child is immediately apparent in the gentle tone she uses with the boy even when he's being stubborn and sullen. Her exactly parted hair indicates her desire for control and precision.
The boy is surly, advancing slowly in clothes that are evidently cut down from a grown man's clothing. He pulls at the chrysanthemums on the path, scattering the petals, and his mother tells him to stop because it looks nasty. Suddenly, feeling sorry, she breaks off a sprig of the fading flowers, holds them against her face, and tucks them into her apron-band. As they stand at the foot of the steps, the mother and son watch the miners pass on their way home, and the small train moves past the house and stops opposite the gate.
The boy's adult clothes cut to fit a boy size suggests the family's lack of money. The woman's reprimands of the boy for making a mess again shows her desire to keep things neat and in control. That she feels guilty immediately afterwards shows that she cares about his actions—teaching him what's proper—but also about her affect on him. Breaking off the sprig of chrysanthemum suggests that her guilt may also have something to do with the flowers themselves, or what they mean to her, though that meaning isn't so clear yet.
The engine driver, the woman's father, leans out of the cab over the woman and asks cheerily if she has a cup of tea. She goes inside to prepare the tea and returns, and a brief exchange between her and her father ensues. He begins to explain why he didn't visit last Sunday, but she interrupts to suggest that she already knows that he remarried and didn't expect him. She expresses some disapproval at how quickly he remarried, but her father defends himself by saying that it's no life for a man of his age to sit alone by the hearth.
The father's pragmatic approach to marriage hints at one of Lawrence's big themes—that marriage is not necessarily a romantic joining of souls. Her father remarries quickly after the death of his first wife not for love but for the practical desire for basic companionship. The woman's disapproval suggests she still holds a more idealistic view of what marriage should be: that it should be about love.
The woman brings out the tea and some bread and butter. Her father sips the tea appreciatively and mentions that he heard news of Walter spending his money at the ‘Lord Nelson,' to which the woman responds bitterly, saying that the news is very likely true.
The woman's bitter response reveals the resentment she feels towards her husband, Walter. The implication is that despite the family's poverty her husband regularly drinks money away.
The woman's father leaves, and she continues to watch the miners returning home. After a while, the woman—Elizabeth Bates—turns to go inside. Her husband doesn't come. Inside, the table is set for tea, but it can't begin until her husband returns. She watches John, seeing herself in his silence and determination and seeing her husband in the boy's self-absorption. Elizabeth imagines that her husband has probably slunk past the house to drink at a pub while his dinner spoils on the table. As she strains the potatoes in the garden, she once again watches the miners passing by, their numbers growing fewer.
The other miners returning home only highlights that Walter has not, and feeds Elizabeth's belief (and anger) that Walter is out drinking. Her tender thoughts about her son reveal her love for him, but her anger at her husband is also evident in the fact that she sees the boy's good traits as coming from her and his bad traits as coming from Walter. Yet it's interesting that she doesn't say anything to John about his self-absorption: traits she hates in her husband she tolerates in her son.
As the fire dies down, Elizabeth places a batter pudding by the hearth and waits. A young girl with blonde curls enters the door, taking off her winter coat. Elizabeth chides her for coming home late, but the girl responds that the lantern is not yet lit and her father isn't home yet. Elizabeth asks the girl whether she's seen her father, and the girl responds that she hasn't. She adds that he can't have passed the house because she didn't see him. Elizabeth responds bitterly that he would have taken care not to let the girl see him and that he must be at the "Prince o' Wales" or else he wouldn't be so late. The girl suggests that they have their teas.
The dying fire corresponds with the failed tea—a family social event thwarted by Walter's failure to appear. The warmth of the fire dies along with the warmth of the family. Similarly the lighting of the lantern is connected with Walter's return; when he doesn't return the lantern lighting the outside of the house remains cold. Meanwhile, Elizabeth continues to speak bitterly about her husband. While she also exhibits an outward sternness with her children, her actions are more lenient, as she easily lets the girl off for coming home a bit late.
Elizabeth glances outside once more. Everything is deserted. The girl sits before the fire, commenting on how beautiful it is. Her mother replies that the fire needs mending and that her husband will complain the house isn't warm enough when he comes. She bitterly adds that a pub is always warm enough. The boy complains to the girl, Annie, that she isn't making the fire quickly enough, and their mother scolds him.
Elizabeth's bitter comments about Walter saying the house isn't warm enough (and the fact that the pub is) can be taken in two ways. First, it shows how she resents how Walter is always asking more of her when he gives so little. But Walter's desire for warmth can also be seen as a desire for a little warmth from her (a warmth he gets from the camaraderie at a bar), as opposed to her cold bitterness. It's worth noting also that the young boy John is following in her father's footsteps in his demand for the women of the house to provide warmth.
As the children eat, Elizabeth drinks her tea with determination, growing angrier. In an outburst, she says that she doesn't know why she should wait for him with his dinner when he walks past their home to go to a pub. She drops coals on the fire until the room is almost entirely dark, and John complains that he can't see. Elizabeth laughs at him, but lights the lamp that hangs in the middle of the room.
As Elizabeth lights the lamp, revealing her pregnant stomach, Annie catches sight of the chrysanthemums in her mother's waistband, exclaiming on their beauty. She goes to smell the flowers, commenting on how beautiful they smell. Her mother gives a short laugh and disagrees, saying that chrysanthemums were present when she married their father, when Annie was born, and when others first brought home their drunk father. Elizabeth bitterly rails against their father before going to clear the table. The children play silently, fearing their mother's wrath at their father's homecoming.
The significance of the flowers is here revealed, as they have been present from the happy initial moments of their marriage but also as that happiness died away. That Elizabeth collected the flowers at all, though, suggests she still has some nostalgia for those early happy times. And yet all of that again ends in a rant against her husband; the bitterness of the marriage now is overwhelming. Note how the light illuminates Elizabeth's pregnancy, and usually a coming baby would be associated with love. But Elizabeth's bitterness suggests no such thing is happening here.
Elizabeth sews as the children play, and her anger eventually wears out. The children tire of playing as well, and their mother announces that it's time for bed. Annie complains that her father isn't home yet, but her mother says that they'll bring him when they bring him, and there won't be a scene.
Elizabeth does not so much get control of her anger as she gets exhausted by it. She reassures her children that there won't be a scene so that she can put them to bed. Even though she's angry, she doesn't let her emotions get the best of her parenting.
The children quietly prepare for bed, and Elizabeth feels anger towards her husband for causing her and the children such distress. After the children are in bed, Elizabeth continues to sew, and her anger becomes tinged with fear.
Again, there's a huge contrast between Elizabeth's feelings as a mother and her feelings as a wife. She automatically places blame on her husband. Yet the tinge of fear now suggests that Walter's absence this time is longer than usual, and that Elizabeth worries it may not be the result of Walter's normal drinking.