Birk Teaches Clancy Sinclair A Lesson
When he was back in his spot Birk chopped faster, sent larger chunks of coal down to Clancy. He didn’t worry about making them smaller as he had for the first load. Let Clancy break ‘em. Call him a monkey would he. Time to show that soft arse how hard mine work was.
When he knew there was enough for another load he scrabbled back to Clancy.
“Gettin ‘re done b’y.” He peered at the scree. “Not bad.”
He pounded hard with the head of his pick to reduce the larger chunks. The smaller the pieces the more the cart hold. The more they shipped up the more they would get paid.
After the third load Birk got his lunch pail from the niche by one of the support staving. He hunched with his back against the wall and opened it up. Clancy leaned gingerly against the wall, his legs stretched out as far as he could in the space they had. He rubbed at his back.
“Being big’s not always good, eh?” Birk said. “Some never gets to stand up straight after a a few months down here. You’ll see’em hunched wherever they go in or out of the mine.” He took a swallow of his tea. Didn’t taste right without a bit of sugar. He rinsed his mouth with it and spat it out. Cleaning his mouth of coal dust as best as he could before biting into his lunch. Bread with some grease drippings spread on it. Today he had a thin piece of the wedding cake. His sisters had already picked the icing off it. The bit of sweetness left almost cut through the taste of the coal in his mouth. The cake was as tasteless as the bread. He wondered if he could dissolve it his tea to sweeten that some.
“Done?” he shut his pail.
“Back to it then b’y.”
“That all ya got ta say?”
“Not much of a talker.”
“Couldn’t shut Manny. Talk the head off a rat given the chance.”
“Yeh, well, its bad enough t’work with one let alone wanna to talk to one while I’m eatin’.”
Birk twisted around.
“I’m a rat, eh? Monkey ‘s bad enough, ya snotty main lander.” He swung at Clancy and slipped on the uneven ground at the same time.
Clancy was on top of him, batting at Birk’s ribs then ears.
“You half-size rat giving me orders all day. Think l’m going to put wid that.”
Birk got one knee into Clancy’s stomach and pushed him off. The tunnel wasn’t high or wide enough for either of them to stand and take punches. They wrestled each other to his knees. Head butting when possible.
Birk could taste blood in his mouth.
“Yer a tough guy for a rat you know.” Clancy had his forearm under Birk’s chin. “Smell worse than one, too.”
Gasping, Birk hit Clancy as hard as he could in the side.
“Christ, breakin m’ribs.” he rolled off.
“Ya stay there for now laddie.” Birk leaned against the wall. “I got work to do. This way yer not underfoot.”
Birk went back the face he was working on. Each blow of his pick axe was a blow into the grinning face of Clancy. No one pushed him around. At eighteen he’d been in the mine for five years now. He knew what he was doing and how not to take anything from anyone. If you took it yer were on the losing side.
He could hear Clancy raking away the scree. The need to prove he was the top man here was as important as making sure they got enough coal loaded.
They worked the rest of the shift without speaking. Eating their supper in separate nooks in the shaft.
It was night when they came to the surface with the rest of their level’s day shift. Birk headed straight to the wash up room after he hung his work clothes on their hook and pulled them up to the ceiling.
This was when he moved as fast as he could. The first in got the cleanest water. He wasn’t sure where the blood in the wash bowl was from, then he recalled the dust up with Clancy. Showed him this little guy can’t be dealt with that way.
He took a straight razor out of his lunch pail, lathered his face as best he could and began to shave under his chin. He glanced up at Clancy who was opposite him splashing water onto himself. He was trying to wash the grime out of his red hair.
“Yer hair will be black fer’ver m’son.” He stopped shaving a moment.
“Only those don’t know how to wash proper have that problem.” Clancy replied.
Birk finished his shave, rinsed his face off. The skin was always fresh to the touch when he’d done that. He ran his hand long to make sure he got most of his whiskers. Without a mirror he did as best he could. At least he missed a different spot each time.
“Get a move on,” one of the waiting miners shouted. “Some of us got dust to wash outta our arse hair too, you know.”
The miners laughed.
Birk dried himself quickly and got back into into his overalls and shirt. He could smell the clean of the shirt. His body ached for that big bed. Ah, yes, that almost made the day bearable now that he had that all to himself. Something to look forward too. No snoring Geo to deal with ever again.
“Same time tomorrow, soft arse.” Birk gave Clancy one last shove. “Keep pissin’ on them hands too or ya won’t last the week.”
Jake was at the exit gate waiting for him. Birk couldn’t wait to to tell him about the new guy he was breaking in.
“Main landers always think they know it all.” Jake said.
“Thanks to the union we have ‘ta let ‘em work then act as if we’re the ones doing them a favour.”
When he got home he tugged off his work boots and socks. The cool air was always good on his bare feet. He tossed the socks and his face rag into a bucket and poured water over them. He’d scrub them out in the backyard later.
Blackie was home sitting at the kitchen table.
“Gotta another new guy. Why do I always get’ em. A big mouth main lander. Manny got that sweet job in the train yard. When’s the union gonna do something for me beside taking dues. I shoudda had that spot, you know. That Red Mac never considered me much.”
“My fault b’y.” Blackie nodded his head. “Should a been a mick. Not yer fault he takes his direction from the priest. Manny ‘s the priest’s pet. You know that. Probably told Red Mac the devil would get him if he didn’t do right by Manny.”
“What about right by me. I’s been there longer ‘n him, too. But I showed that new guy his place fast enough.”
“Whose his father?” Blackie asked.
“He’s outta Stellarton.”
“His Da’s probably a train man then. Wonder why he ended here and not the trains. Good money in that.”
His mother came in from the backyard with some carrots from their garden.
“Jus look at these.” She held up a some stunted roots. “Soil here’s so bad nothing grows. I tries every year and it’s the same.”
Maddy followed her in with some daisies.
“Thank you little miss.” Birk reached for them.
“They’s for Geo.” she hid them behind her back.
“I should a guessed. How long for we eat?”
“When they get here. Sheila bringing a fish stew she made to thank me for the cake I baked.” His mother wiped at the table.
“I’ll be above.” Birk went to the stairs. “How’s Sal?”
“Same. Sat up for a spell to look out the window. Weather’ll be fine soon to take her outside for awhile. Sunshine’ll fix her up fast.”
Birk went up to his room. Before he went in he looked in on Sal. She was propped up with a couple of pillows stroking the hair of a rag doll his mother had made for her.
“How’s my sweet sister today.” He said gently as he sat on the end of the bed.
“Don’t” Sal flushed in alarm. “Don’t get that dirt on dolly.”
“I … ” Birk stood and walked out of the room. “T’ think I shaved special for you. That’s all the thanks I get, eh?”
He flopped on the bed and stared at the ceiling. At least his room didn’t want to be rid of him the way his sisters did, or his new workmate did. It was a change to not have to put up with Geo hounding about the smell of his feet, as if Geo’s feet smelled of roses. Good luck to Sheila getting Geo to clean up better.
He drifted off to sleep to be wakened by loud laugher from below. His brother had arrived with his new wife. Same old Sheila but new all the same. He went down to the kitchen.
Someone with his back to Birk was talking to Blackie. The someone turned around. It was Clancy.
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