Coal Dusters – Chapter IV

Chapter IV

Lillian McTavish Makes Breakfast

Even though the chill of spring was over Lillian shivered under the heavy woollen cover. It wasn’t even a blanket as far as she was concerned. It kept the heat in but she was cold. The sheet between her and the wool wasn’t thick enough to keep the coarse fibre from chafing her feet.  The cover was the same as everything in her uncle’s house. Coarse. Homemade. She tried to picture the parishioner who had made this and brought it as gift to her uncle. It was meant to be a rug. Under it she tugged her mother’s shawl tighter around her shoulders. The shawl smelled of comfort, of the life she had left behind to come here to this clumsy backwater coal mining town.

Lillian pushed the stiff cover off her and swung her feet to the floor. They recoiled from the cold. She should have left the rug where it was but pulling it over her in the night was the only way she could think of to keep warm. Her uncle had offered one of the quilts but she had refused. The tattered rag-patterned comforters looked even more homemade than the rug.

Lillian put on her slippers and wrapped her dressing gown around her. The dark blue silk was embroidered with small pink flowers along the hem with larger ones on the pockets and lapels. It was one of the few things her uncle had let her keep when she arrived. He believed her Boston clothes were too good, too impractical for someone living his house. He didn’t want anything to be a distraction for his parishioners.

“Such gaudy goods are a sign of a lack of faith. The Lord wants us plain when we stand before him not gussied up as peacocks.” He had said this as he went through her trunk shoving all her pretty clothes aside and picking the ones he deemed suitable. “The trunk be in the attic till you are fit to leave us. Your father thinks he’s made a man of himself but he never knew the meaning of decorum. I’m not surprised you arrived so ill-prepared.”

Her tears made him impatient with her. Now here she was dressing in rough, colourless, shapeless pinafores, coarse linen shifts that gave her no shape. She wondered if he was more concerned with her being a temptation to him than a lure of Satan to his parishioners.

Her room didn’t have a mirror. She hadn’t seen her face clearly since she arrived three months ago. There were no mirrors in the priest’s house and certainly none in the small church.

She splashed cold water on her face. Her hands were red and chafed from the housework she was now responsible for. Learning things here that her uncle said her father and mother had failed to teach her. How to be a woman who could serve others, not a wonton who only served her own pleasures.

She sat at her dressing table to brush her hair. More than her clothes, she missed the lotions and creams she could use to keep her hands, soft, to keep her hair radiant. All she had been allowed some Castile rose soap. She stared at the space on the wall where a mirror had once been. She knew that by the discoloured, and water-mottled rose wallpaper around a clean rectangle of red roses.

She tugged the brush through her hair trying to be gentle with the knots that always crept into it overnight. She resisted the temptation to pull harder, not wanting to break it off in clumps. She longed for a long, hot bath but that wasn’t possible in this house. Too much work to heat enough water for a bath. 

One snag pulled painfully at her scalp. She began to cry. This was unbearable. All she had wanted to do was get married. At twenty-two it was time for her to get married yet her father was always on the guard for young men who wanted his money, wanted her for his money. At the same time her mother was wary of men who might not respect her as a woman. Men who would corrupt her with their unwholesome demands.

When she had met David Henderson two summers ago, she hoped she had found someone to please them both. Older than her by five years, David came from an equally prosperous family. He was modest. The two of them had signed temperance cards. They had never been together unchaperoned expect when they walked to church together.

Yet when he asked her father for her hand in marriage her father had said no. He forbade her to ever see that ‘Henderson man’ again. When she pressed him for an explanation her father told her she was only to obey. At church the next week she was told that David had been sent to England by his family. His family also claimed this would be an unwise match. She later learned the the problem was that David’s mother was Jewish. 

That was when James Dunham came into her life. A dashing and very rich man in his thirties who charmed both her mother and father. James had no family in Boston and was there to establish himself in banking. A man her parents trusted and whom she was allowed to be alone with to go to the theatre.

Only he didn’t take her to the theatre every time. He would make a great show of it to her parents and then whisk her back to his rooms at the Lennox Hotel. There they would dine in private. He was eager to show her what ‘unwholesome demands’ meant on two occasions. On the second her father arrived at the door unannounced. The hotel manager thought it wise to alert her father as to what was happening.

Cape Breton was where she had come to from the bright promise of Boston. Her father was about to become a senator and here she was exiled in shame is this dirty coal-mining slag heap of a village. At least she didn’t end up in a home for wayward girls. Even though she had miscarried she was deemed unfit to be seen as member of the family in Boston society.

Her father’s brother, Uncle Pat, whom she was now to refer to as Father Patrick, had agreed to take her in. He needed a housekeep, as his letter proposed. Housekeep! All she had here was an occasional kitchen helper. She was sorry she hadn’t died when she lost the baby.

“Lillian. Lillian are you about.”

“Yes Uncle Pat. I will be down momentarily.” She gave up with her hair. Without a mirror or the proper pomades there was no point in trying maintain it. 

She shrugged her smock on over her head and tied a dark blue rag around her hair to keep it off her face.

In the kitchen she was relieved to see that her uncle had cut wood for her. Most mornings he left that work to her. He had even started a fire in the stove. He sat at the small pine table in the one chair in the room.

“Thank you Father Pat for getting the fire going.” She had learned quickly that her uncle expected gratitude for every thing he did around the house.

“It is my pleasure to be of service.”

She pumped water into the kettle and set it on the stove. 

“Tea will be ready shortly.” she told him. “Would you prefer the Ceylon or the English?”

“The Ceylon I think. Yes, it’s definitely a morning for the Ceylon.”

Lillian put the iron skillet on the stove and greased it lightly. It was quickly hot enough for the one egg and one piece of bacon that her uncle ate every morning with one thick piece of bread. She was to prepare his before she could eat anything. She wasn’t allow the bacon. 

Her uncle had come to Cape Breton several years ago after two years in a monastery. There he enjoyed an austere life of silence free of concern about, what he now called, objects. Yet he found the solitude taxing and decided that he was more suited to being of service with humanity in a more direct way.

The kettle whistled and she poured the water into the tea pot. She was allowed to have a cup of tea with him but was to remain stranding. He claimed eating in the morning together would be unseemly. Too similar to what properly married Catholics would do.

Lillian crossed herself at the time as he did before he said grace.

“Lord for the food we are about receive I humbly thank you. We also thank you for keeping Pope Pius in good health. Amen.”

Lillian said the amen with him. She served him his breakfast.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License

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