Coal Dusters Chapter I

Chapter I

Birk Nelson Enjoys His Bed

Birk could hear his mother downstairs in the kitchen. Singing “Bringing in the sheaves” as she clanged the stove top covers. This was how she would wake them in the mornings. “The sheaves” was her favorite hymn and she would sing the same four words over and over. Her voice reaching as high as her rusty soprano could go. On Sundays she would change it to “We shall come rejoicing.”

He rolled onto his back into the sag in the middle of the bed and stretched his arms and legs as far as he could on either side. There was no one there with him. He had the entire bed all to himself. This had only happen once before when he sick with the measles and his brother George had been forced onto the small couch in the living room.

A bed all to himself. He didn’t want to get up. For the first time in his eighteen years he had slept alone. He didn’t have to pull the covers back on himself, didn’t have to push an elbow or a knee from his back. He’d dropped off to sleep quickly without Geo struggling to get comfortable in the bed because of his sore back or some other excuse.

The bedding still smelled of George though. He’d have to wash them himself to get rid of that. His Ma had enough to do without washing sheets on his whim. Would she let him air the mattress on the back fence?

When George had told them he was marrying Sheila his folks weren’t happy. It was hard enough for them to keep the family fed on what they earned in the mine. One less pay meant everyone would have to work harder, do with less. But Birk didn’t mind a little extra work as it also meant he’d have more in the long run. A bed of his own, a room to himself. His folks wouldn’t put either of his sisters in with him. That he knew for sure. A room where he could shut the door and be by himself. He could get accustomed to that.

“Birk! Birk!” His mother shouted up to him, the sound of his sister’s bare feet pounding up the stairs underlining the call for him to get out of bed.

The bedroom door was thrown open and Maddy leapt onto the bed.

“Where’s Geo?” she pulled the blanket off him. “Where he hiding?” She looked in the shallow closet.

He pulled her nearer to kiss and she shoved him away. “You too scratchy.”

“Geo’s not here anymore, Maddy. Remember.” Birk grabbed his clean shirt and overalls and put them on. “He’s married now. He’s living at Sheila’s house now.” Living there because the rules said to keep procession of their company house a man working in the mines had to live there. Geo was now the man of that house as Sheila’s dad had been killed in an accident last month.

“Oh,” Maddy frowned. “I didn’t think that’s what that meant. Why couldn’t he live here.”

“Yeah and where would I sleep? You’d share your bed with Sheila’s sisters? And brothers?”

“Don’t care.” Maddy ran down the stairs and Birk followed. His two sisters were always fonder of George than him. Even after a hard shift in the mines Geo always had time to play with them. Birk was glad to leave them to his brother.

“About time you got yer lazy legs outta bed.” His mother slopped the thin oat porridge onto a plate for him. “No sugar today. None for the rest of the week.”

“Yeh. I know.” The remaining supply of sugar had gone into the wedding cake. “Not bad without.”

“Get use ter that. Without the bit from George we’ll be pretty skint for special, you know.”

“Yeh, I know. I know. Blackie gone?” He rubbed at his chin. He’d have to give it a shave after his shift. He’d learned that doing it before a shift would cause bumps to start where the coal dust settled on his freshly scraped skin.
“Yer father was up and out here ages ago. No snoring away and getting up when he pleases. He cares more ‘bout those boilers than he does ‘bout us. Here’s yer lunch.” she dropped his lunch pail on the table.

Maddy opened it up. “Doesn’t eat as much as Geo does he. Guess he doesn’t work as hard either.”

“You little … ” Birk wanted to smack her.

“Watch yerself,” his mother glared at him. “There’ll be more come pay day.”

Birk shrugged. He knew that at eight Maddy didn’t know what she was saying. 

“How Sal?”

“She sleepin’ ” Maddy stuck her tongue at him “I’m the big girl now who gets to help Ma in the mornings. I packed yer lunch.”

“Fair.” his mother sat opposite him. “Company doctor says all she needs rest and fresh air and better food. Thinks we can afford better food on what the company pay. Besides them pit doctors don’t know what to do when there isn’t an arm or a leg to cut off.”

Sal was a year older than Maddy. The two girls were often mistaken for twins and loved to wear their thick red hair in similar braids. Both the same size they swapped clothes often, sometimes during the day at school so the teacher never was sure which of the Nelson girls they were talking to. Sal had developed a fever during the recent cold, wet spring.

“You better get goin’ Birk.”

“I know Ma.”

“Can’t afford t’have you docked for bein’ late or worse not get yer shift.”

“They won’t dare dock me Ma. Even Blackie knows I’m the best they got on the face.”

Being small for his age allowed him to fit in spaces bigger miners couldn’t work in. One of the few benefits of his size. When he started in the colliery five years ago they didn’t think he’d last but he did. 

Birk grabbed his lunch pail and stuck it under his arm, pulled on his cap. He folded the rag he used to cover most of his face from where it drying in the window. He put it in his back pocket. 

“I’ll say Hi to Blackie for yer.” He kissed his mother on the cheek and leaned to the same with Maddy. 

“I told ya too scratchy.” She gave him a playful slap. “Get that ugly away from me.” She pulled away.

“Yer loss.”

The back door shut quietly behind him. The dew was still on the grass and he headed to the lane to the mine. He waved to a couple of the other men on their way to their shifts.

Jake Malone who lived in the house opposite walked with him.

“How’s yer Da?” he asked.

“Blackie’s doing fine. Sal’s still poorly though.”

“Pity,” Jake coughed and spit a thick gob into the ditch. “One of our little ‘uns much the same. Nothing much we can do bout it though.”

“Yeh.”
“You’d think what they dock the pay for medical would help some. But not a bit. Jim Spot lost a hand last week, yer hear bout that?”
“Yeh. Ma says those docs only know to cut off. Anything other that that they always nod and say feed’ em better.”

“True. They coudda saved the hand if they had the right medicals. That’s what I heard. Damn union can’t do much for him. Almost bled to death.”

“Gotta be careful. All the time.”

“Sometimes can’t be careful enough when the time it takes to make things safe cuts into the time you get to work and they only pays by what we digs out. Not what we makes safe.” Jake coughed and spat.

They walked in silence the rest of the way. The lane branched into Pitt St.

“I always thought this was called Pit, wid one ‘t’.”Jake said.

“Tisn’t?” Birk looked at the tilted street sign. “So tis.”
“Yeh ‘cause we take it to get to the pit ya see. But Pitt is some prime mucky-muck in Britain.”

“At least it got a name. Mudside don’t have many street signs.”
Over the years Castleton Mines had become divided into two areas. The side closest to the colliery, where many of the miners and their families lived had become known as Mudside. It was separated from the rest of the town by several business that were on Chestnut Street. 

Chestnut backed along the waterfront. The docks there were used for loading the coal, some fishing boats and the Dingle Dandy, a ferry that stopped at several of the small towns along the coast.

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