Coal Dusters – Chapter VIII

Chapter VIII

Birk and Clancy Get Acquainted

Knowing that Clancy wouldn’t be sharing his room till the end of the week didn’t make working with him any easier for Birk. Clancy had already paid for a week in advance at Mrs. Franklin’s boarding house and she wasn’t going to refund any part of that if he left before the week was over.

When their shift started Birk would grunt hello and that was it. He didn’t care to know anything more about Clancy. As long he wasn’t underfoot, didn’t gripe about things and worked hard in the pit that was enough, barely enough to make him tolerable. 

Clancy had an irritating habit of humming as they worked. Sometimes muttering something under his breath or scraps of songs that Birk had never heard before. 

“Shovel and pick … pick and shovel … ” 

Things that didn’t make much sense to Birk even when he could make out what the words were. But as long as Clancy kept to himself, did his share of the work, he didn’t care. 

Clancy approached him during their lunch break on the third day of their working together. “We can’t go on this way Birk.”

“Says who?” Birk picked up his lunch pail moved to another part of the stretch they were working on. 

“If I’d known it was your house … ” Clancy followed him a few steps.

“Once you did, you coulda changed yer damn mind.”

“I can’t afford to stay at Mrs. Franklin’s on what we earn down here. I need to send something back to my Ma in Stellarton.”

“Why didn’t you stay there and work the mines?”

“Same story there as here.”

“Not my worry to deal with. I gotta deal with you.”

“Can’t be as hard as me having to deal with you.” Clancy went back to where he had been crouched for his lunch.

At the end of shift the cage was jammed already only one of the could fit on and Clancy shrugged as the cage went up leaving Birk below. When Birk got to the surface he took off his work coveralls and dashed to the wash up room to his usual spot. Clancy had taken it.

“Gotta be faster than that Birk. Yer gettin’ slow b’y.” Clancy chuckled as he continue to wash his underarms.

Birk pushed him aside. “Make way ya tuilli. You knows this is my spot now.”

“Careful.” the miner washing up next to Clancy said as Clancy stumbled into him.

Birk reached for the basin to toss out the dirty water and get fresh. Clancy upended the bowl so it splashed Birk.

“You …” Birk swung at Clancy. His fist caught Clancy on the jaw.  Clancy staggered back but quickly regained his footing. His longer reach let him swing back before Birk could react. His punch knocked Birk into a group of miners coming into the washroom.

“That’s it.” Birk took his fighting stance with fists raised, feet firmly planted on the wet stone floor. Clancy did the same.

“Bad enough I get stuck with you here.” He jabbed Clancy in the stomach. “But I’m not puttin’ up with ya any damn longer. I’ll send you back to the mainland to lick yer wounds. That’ll give you plenty worth singin’ about.”

Clancy jabbed Birk in the ribs. Both protected their faces as best they could. The other miners made a circle around them and if one fighter got too close to them they pushed him back into the centre of their ring.

“Isn’t m’ fault Red Mac didn’t think you were good lookin’ enough work above ground.”

“I didn’t want that soft arse job.”

They clinched and fell to the ground, wrestling and jabbing as best as they could. Blood dripped from the noses of both of them when someone hauled them away from each other and back to their feet.

“Enough of this.” It was Red Mac. “If yer want to beat the piss out of each other don’t do in here. We got men who deserve to be clean enough to go home to families that want them home.”

The miners held Birk and Clancy back from each other.

“Oh, it’s you Birk.” Red Mac said.  “Can’t say as I’m surprised. You two want to keep workin’ here?”

They both nodded yes.

“Then don’t let me catch you brawling during my shift on company time or on company grounds agin. You understand.”

Clancy nodded yes. Birk glared at Red Mac.

“Birk Nelson yer a good worker but yer always a disagreeable orange cuss too.”

There was some grumbling from the other miners.

“Okay! I knows there are more’n one orange men here.”

“So does we,” one of them shouted back. “That’s why we’re still buried underground and you fat arse micks get all the breaks.”

“You call this getting the break.” Red Mac said. “A good Catholic such as me having to deal with a bunch of … heathens … I mean you lot of ground hogs. Can I help it if I had the …. brains to get where I am?”
 

“You sayin we do don’t have as much brains as you?” another of the miners called out.

“All I’m saying is get cleaned up and out of here if you expect another shift tomorrow.” He went back to his office.

“Look! The Red Pope says its okay for us to wash up.” One of the miners joked. “The sacred waters better do their job.”

Birk filled his basin and washed off the blood, the mud from the floor and the coal dust from below as best as he could. His left hand throbbed. He had hit Clancy harder than he intended. He hoped he hadn’t done himself an actual injury. If he had Clancy would regret being the cause of that, too. How was he going to share his home with that tuilli.

As usual Jake was waiting for him at the gate.

“I dunno how I’m goin’ ta do it. Have that blowhard living with me. I’d rather move m’self before I share more than work space with him.”

“Ah lad, you gotta let go of it. Hard enough for us to get by as ‘tis. He can’t be that bad.”

“He is.”

“Things ‘re getting worse. We may not even be here long enough anyhow.”

“What?”

“They may cut some of the nights shifts. That’s why there’s strike talk agin.” Jake coughed harshly and sent a thick black gob of spit onto the road.

“Careful there, some ‘un will trip over that.”

“Yah.” Jake laughed hoarsely. “Least they aren’t charging me for the dust I sneak out in m’lungs.”

“What’s that ‘bout a strike?”

“Gregory was talking with some of us while you was … washin’ up. Says to us that they want not only to do away with night shifts but aim to cut back on the tonnage rate.”

“They can’t.” Birk punched at the air with his sore hand.

“They can if we let ’em. We gotta send them a message that we won’t put up with all this hurting of us workers who put food on the table for them but don’t get enough pay to put food on the tables for themselves.”

“Damn rights.”

“There’ll me a meetin’ tomorrow night at St. Agatha’s Hall.”

“They ain’t gonna let us orange in there, you know.”

“Sure they will. We got our union cards.”

“Yeh, but some of us don’t have our foreskins.”

Jake began to laugh again and had to stop to catch his breath. “Lad you are gonna be the death of me before the mine’ll do me in.”

Birk went around to the back of his house. His mother and Maddy were on their knees in the garden. The same as many of the miners they had a garden patch that spilled into the field behind their house. Each year his mother would grow vegetables – carrots, potatoes, tomatoes – with seeds or eyes saved from previous crops.

“Goin’ get much out of the patch this year?”

“There’ll be some.” His mother glanced up.

He went over and kissed her on the forehead. He pulled Maddy up and held her in the air at eye level to himself.

She giggled and wriggled. “Puts me down.”

“You been to school today?”

“Of course.”

One of the things Birk wished he had been able to do was continue in school. But when he got to twelve all he wanted to do what his dad did, what his brother did, what grandfather did – be a man who worked in the mines. In the mine he didn’t have to use his thinking much, only pay attention to what was happening right then. No need spell or add numbers up. Not that he couldn’t read or do enough arithmetic to make sure his pay packet was right. He knew enough keep track of what went on in the mines.

He’d seen some of the men reading from books, or from newspapers. He tried, but all those letters and words confounded him. He could follow word by word given time. He only trusted what a man said. You can tell if he was lying by his voice. Words on the page had no voice to judge them by.

He went to the well and got water to clean his socks and face rag. 

“I’m goin’ to check m’ traps, Ma. Might have a little something to add to supper tonight.”

He took several deep breathes as he walked along the grassy field. The smell of the mine stayed with him. Somedays he couldn’t shake it. He plucked a long blade of grass and chewed on it then spat it out. 

The rabbit traps had been pretty much in the same bushy area, beyond the three apple threes, where his great granddad had first set them. The apple trees were in bloom. He pulled a branch down to smell the flowers but all he could smell was the mine.

He stretched his arms up as high as they could go. It was only out in these fields that he could stand up fully. Even in the house he was pressed down by the ceiling. He’d find himself ducking under the door frames even though they were well over the top of his head.

During the run of a week the traps would be good for two or three rabbits. There was two this day. One pretty pump too, he hoped it wasn’t about to have little ones. It wasn’t.

He skinned and cleaned them there and was happy to hand them to his mother when he came into the kitchen. 

“Good. Good.” she said. “What you do with the skins?” She took the rabbits and quickly chopped and deboned them.

“Usual place on the back fence.” 

She would salt the skins and store them. Once a year around Christmas she’d trade them in at one of the furriers in Sydney. The money wasn’t much but would add something special to the Christmas dinner.

He poured some hot water from the kettle into a basin, rolled up his sleeves and washed the rabbit blood off his hands. 

“You’d think Blackie’d built us a little boiler for hot water around here.” He said.

She dropped the meat into a pot of water already simmering on the stove.

“Why we always have rabbit.” Maddy leaned against him as he sat the the kitchen table. 

“That’s what fits the traps. That and skunks. You want a stink for supper some time.” he tickled her.

“You stink enough for me.” she laughed and pulled away.

“You bring that bedding down tomorrow so as I can get it washed up before Clancy comes to share the room wid yer.” his mother said. 

“Don’t go countin’ on that. Might be lays-offs or worse, a strike.”

“I’ve heard. We‘ll know better when you Da gets home.”
“He’s usually back before me.” The smell of the cooking food made Birk hungry.

“He went to see Jim Spot who lost a hand a few weeks past. Union’s going see if they can get him something somewhere. He can always push a broom, ya know.”

“Not as if we don’t have enough one-handed broom pushers now.”

“What the union can’t do the lodge often does. Lest the company don’t own the lodge, yet. There’s Blackie.” 

Maddy ran out to meet him at the back gate. He handed her his lunch pail and they came into the kitchen. He hung his cloth cap on a peg by the door.

“Hear ya had a donny brook at wash up.” 

“He had it comin.” Birk knew this tone of Blackie’s meant he wasn’t pleased or amused. “Why? Clancy come cryin’ to you?”

“No. Red Mac’s gettin fed up with your carrying on. You worse than school kids. You know how he feels about us orange. After all, it was him, when he got that job, who started to replace all the good orange men with his own mick pals. Getting so bad you’d think it was Father McTavish that was running things and not the union or even the company.”

“Sorry Blackie. I wasn’t think about any of that. You know how I act I get riled up.”

“That’s no excuse.” His mother said.

“I’m goin’ rest in the parlour for a spell Ma.” Blackie unhitched his suspenders and shambled away. “Stuff to consider.”

When supper was served Birk went in and woke him. 

“I’ll take something up for Sal.” Blackie said. He came down a little while later. “She’s gettin worse?”

“Yes.” his mother answered. “The reverend’s wife was by this afternoon to look in on her. She’ll be back tomorrow with a remedy she think will help.”

“We don’t need charity from anyone, you know.”

“It’s not charity to let Sal get worse.”

They ate in silence.

After supper Birk went to check his traps to make sure he had left them set properly. There was a dell where he could sit on a low branch of an oak tree. He’d been going to it since he was so small he needed help to get to the branch. Now he could pull himself up on it and let his feet dangle in the air. He let his heavy work boots fall off.

He rested his back on the tree trunk and stared up at the sky. He couldn’t smell the mine or the coal.  

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

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