Coal Dusters – Chapter XI – Birk Takes A Bath

Chapter XI

Birk Takes A Bath

Birk and Clancy went into the back yard. The shed door was stuck.

“Winter does that. Sometimes when we open it in the spring there’s been red squirrels living in here.”

He gave it a hard pull to drag it open. The bottom was mired in the ground. Clancy grabbed a shovel by the door and dug away enough of the mud for the door to open.

The inside of the shed smelled of mud, oily rags and cedar. There was a wooden tool box with some hammers and screw drivers.

This’ll do it.” Birk hefted the box. “Garb that jar of nails .”

“So, Birk, you aren’t sweet on some gal?” Clancy asked as they worked on the bench. It needed a new back and one of the legs was out of place.

“Me? There’s better things for a man to do than botherin’ some frail thing.”

“Frail thing?” Clancy laughed.

“That’s what Ma says. Most women are frail things who need protecting from the needs of men. They marry sure, but only to do their duty by us. Expecting more than that isn’t Godly.”

“And what is their duty?”

“Keep the house. Bring some children into the world.”

“I see.” Clancy chuckled. “So you never look at a gal and wonder?”

“Wonder what?”

“How she might look under those clothes?”

Birk dropped the board they were nailing.

“That talk isn’t welcome here. No gal wants a man to think that! It isn’t fitting, proper. It is, what Ma would call, an insult to those who count on us to protect them from those who would think of them in that common way. If you are one of those disrespecters you won’t last another minute in our house. Ma won’t have it.” He started toward the house.

“Wait. I’m joshing you.” Clancy grabbed his arm.

“You better be.”

“You ever talk this way before. I mean about the … frails?”

“Tisn’t fit conversation for Godly people.” Birk’s face reddened.

“So you have.”

“I hear the men go on at wash up. Not fittin’ for me to say anything. I’ve heard enough in the church about not polluting yourself. It isn’t right. I know that. But …”

“What?”

“I once kissed a gal.”

“Once?”

“Yeh. A couple of years ago at the church picnic, me and Grace had been setting together. Talking about stuff. She wanted to know what it was to be in the mine and me so young. Made me feel I was a proper man to be talking to her about such things. When I showed her how strong I was and how tough the skin on m’hands is. She was feeling the calluses and almost crying then she kissed me.”

“In front of everyone?”

“No! We was by ourselves in the shade on the church steps. But my Ma saw and wailed the tar out of me. Wasn’t as if I was offering Grace any disrespect.”

“Where did she kiss you?”

“I told ya! On the church steps.”

“No! I mean, was it on the cheek?”

“Oh no. On the mouth. Sweet taste she had too. Same as the apple’s we’d been eating.” Birk touched his lips. “But I learned.” He rubbed his backside. “You have to be on guard all the time. It’s best if you don’t look at ‘em for long.”

They uprighted the bench that they had flipped over to fix the loose leg.

“Good as new.” Clancy said.

The afternoon was hot. Birk wiped at the sweat on his forehead and around his neck. He was used the sweating in the mine. It was odd not to be wiping off the grit of coal. He rubbed at his chin, this would have been a shave day after his shift.

“Don’t sweat like this in the pit.” He said to Clancy. “Flows free without that dust to hold it down.”

“True. So this is what what day light looks like? I only remember it dimly.”

His mother came out in the yard carrying Sal in her arms. Maddy carrying Sal’s doll and the A B C book.

“You men have done a fine job.” She set Sal on the bench.

Birk bent to kiss her but she pushed him away. “Go way with you! You stink of the coal.”

“He sure do.” Maddy curled up her nose.

His mother laughed. “Those girls got a better nose than me. I get used to.”

Sal sniffed at Clancy. “But he don’t. Didn’t you wash up before you came home?”

“Men was dying in the mines. Getting out alive was more important than washing up.”

She began to tear up.

“So this is the thanks we get for fixing this bench for you, m’lady. Sorry if don’t smell as sweet as some.”

He went into the house. Clancy followed him.

“She’s only a child, Birk.” he said.

“I knows that but …”

“And she is right. You do smell a bit ripe.”

“I washes up after every shift. Gets into the tub room there at the end of the week too, whether I needs it not. Then I give myself a good wash.”

“Once a week!”

“S’all Blackie or Geo did, far as I know.”

“Mrs. Franklin was pretty strict about that. She didn’t want no unwashed hooligans spoiling her sheets so we had to tub wash hot Monday, Wednesday and Friday.”

“What! Even if we had a tub here big’ nuf for that, we can’t heat that much water on the stove.”

“You can go to her wash house, you know. Don’t cost that much to keep clean.”

“Yah, who cares? Not as if I go visitin’ the way Geo did. Sheila made him get clean. Too clean, if ya ask me. Going get dirty all over again the next day anyway. Foolish waste of time and water and money. Not to mention water. Feedin’ the family’s more important.”

“Come on! We got time.”

“Come on where? To that wash house?”

“Yeh, you can show up at the union meetin’ tonight smelling human not the way mine rat would.”

“Ah … you’re hoping that gal will be there, right? Look we’re not micks you know. She works for that priest, she won’t take no notice of you no matter how clean you be. You’ll never wash the orange off you.”

“Look, one thing my Dad taught me, was that a man who looks after himself will get looked after by life. You treat yourself like a mine rat and people will treat you like a mine rat.”

Birk grabbed Clancy by the shirt front. “Nobody treats me like a rat. You got that. You stop calling me one or you’ll be packing that bag of yours for the graveyard.”

“Yer as mad as a mine rat too.” Clancy said as he wriggled out of Birk’s grasp. “What you afraid of? Being clean won’t make you a soft arse. Is that what you think.”

“I’m not afraid.”

“I’ll spring for it. Come on.”

“Yeh, Birk.” It was his sister Maddy in the doorway.

“How long you been there?” Birk asked.

“Long enough to be tired of you stinking all the time.”

“Why you …” he stepped toward her. 

“Come on.” Clancy stopped him. “Do it for your sisters. Let them see what you hide under all that coal dust.”

“Very well then. But I’m not using any of that fancy smelling soap. You hear.”

“You got a clean shirt and under drawers?” Clancy asked.

“Course I do.” Birk started up the stairs. “Socks too, before you ask. Only wore once this week.”

“You mean that pair I smelled when I was putting my stuff away in the room.” Clancy winked at Maddy.

“Yeah. Them.” Birk stomped up the steps.

“Guess we can give them a soak too while we’re at it.” Clancy called up after him. “Bring your shavin’ gear as well.” 

Clancy followed him up to the room to get some clean clothes for himself.

The sign over the door said ‘Salon De Bain.’ Mrs. Franklin had converted the old hotel’s former stables into a wash house. It had three tubs in it separated by thin wooden panels. She had a separate boiler to make sure there was ample hot water for her boarders or for those who didn’t have a facility at home. Most of the miner’s company houses hadn’t much more than a rudimentary washroom. The wash tub used for clothes often doubled as the wash tub for family members.

“Salon de …?” Birk asked.

“Yeh, a bit for French to make a bathtub sound more fancy than it is.” Clancy explained. 

Clancy showed Birk where to hang up his clothes while the tubs filled with hot for them. Birk sniffed the various soaps that were there and picked one that had the least sweet smell to it.

The walls were decorated with pictures cut from newspapers and magazines of women in corsets, some on stage, some pulling up hose along with pictures of George V and his wife Mary. There was even one the prime minister Mckenzie King that someone had drawn a moustache over his moustache.

“You used a tub before I hope?” Clancy joked.

“Sure, the ones at the mine wash up. They aren’t much like these though.”

Mrs. Franklin’s tubs were large claw-foot tubs painted black on the outside and were gleaming white on the inside. Birk had never seen such clear water as filled the tub.

“That’s about full enough.” Clancy said stepping out the the cubical and pulling the curtain shut. 

Birk quickly shed his clothes and stepped into the hot water.

“Not too hot.” Clancy asked from the adjacent cubical.

“No. It’s fine. Perfectly fine.” Birk laid back in the tub. He could hear Clancy doing the same next door.

This was a new experience for him. He’d been swimming lots of times but the lake water was never this hot. At the mine wash up there was never enough hot water for all the miners so he’d gotten used to washing as best he could in warm or even cold water.

He ducked his head under the water then lathered with one of the wash clothes Mrs. Franklin provided. He scrubbed his feet and toes harder than he never had before. The skin was always tender between the toes.

He ducked again. When he came up he was stunned to see that the once clear water was now black. He got out of the tub, dropped his socks in it and then wrung them out and began to dry off.

“You decent?” Clancy asked.

Birk pulled on his under-drawers. “Yep.”

Clancy came in with a towel wrapped around his waist.

“You as white as a ghost.” Birk said. 

“You hairier than a sheep. A black sheep at that.” Clancy said. “Where’s yer razor?”
Birk handed it to him.

Clancy brushed the sharp end across his palm. “This the one you been usin ?”
“Yeh. Used ta be Geo’s.”

“You ever sharpen it?”

“Once in a while.”

“Couldn’t cut butter with this blade.” He sharpened it on the razor strop attached to the stall wall. “Now lather up.”

Birk used the soap there to lather his face. He reached for the razor.

“You sit.” Clancy had him sit on the chair where he had put his clothes.

He stood behind Birk and tilted his head back. “This’ll be a what shave is supposed to be.”

Birk resisted for a moment but let his head be pulled back. He closed his eyes as Clancy wielded the razor over his neck and under his jaw.

“By God there is a face under those whiskers.” Clancy joked.

It took him a few slow strokes to do the bulk of job followed by some faster ones to deal with what was left.

“Where you learn to do that?” Birk asked as he looked at himself in the mirror.

“My pa was often too drunk to shave himself. Job fell to me.” he handed Birk a small bottle. “Splash this on.”

“What’s it? Geo’s toilet water made me sick to smell it.”

“Rosewater.”

Birk patted a bit on his face. It stung then quickly soothed his bare skin.

“Not too bad.” Birk handed the bottle back to him.

“Before you get dressed you better give this a scrub too.” Clancy pointed to the tub.

Birk blushed as he saw the grey sludge that coated the once sparkling white tub.

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

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