Birk Tends the Boilers
When Geo announced that he and Brenda were leaving Castleton Mines Birk didn’t fully understand what he meant. He thought it meant they’d be moving from the village to Sydney not moving off island. Alberta was another world.
“Alberta’s jus’ another part of Canada.” Geo explained. “The miners there are getting double what BritCan is paying us, when they let us work at all.”
The house was full of neighbours for Geo’s going away party. Someone had brought some moonshine from Dan O’Brian’s.
Robbie McFaddin from across the way was playing his fiddle and there was dancing on the back porch, singing in the street in front of the house.
Birk watched with amusement as various older miners came up to Geo to give him advice.
“Wish’t I had done that years ago, me son.”
“Don’t get too good to drop us a line even if we canna read it.”
“Don’t forget yer mother tongue. Ge milis am fìon, tha e searbh ri dhìol. [The wine is sweet, the paying bitter.]”
“Don’t forget yer mother.”
Birk went from group to group. Joining in for a song or a bit of a dance.
“You thinking of joining him?” Clancy asked.
“Me! Nah. The family’ll needs me more than ever now. Ma’s going to miss him sorely.”
“Must be hard to see a brother go.”
“Won’t know that till he’s gone.” Birk shrugged.
“I never had a brother. Can’t say how you’ll feel.”
They wandered through to the back porch.
“He was always looking out for himself. Never did much to make things easier or me I can tell you that. Always ribbing me in the pits for being smaller than him.”
“It’s a fact.”
“You are the same as him.” Birk made a fist.
“We’re not getting into that again.” Clancy backed off a few steps. “This is supposed to be a going away for your brother. Not another set to between us.”
“That’s right you little hot head.” Geo laughed behind him
Before Birk could turn around Geo grabbed him and wrapped his arms Birk pinning his arms to his side. He lifted Birk off the ground, holding him to his chest and began to spin around with him.
“Put me down you big pile of slag.” Birk struggled.
“It’s like spinning a toy top.” Geo laughed.
Birk kicked back with his feet and caught Geo on the knee. As Geo began to buckle Birk slammed back into Geo’s face with his head. Blood spurted from Geo’s nose. Geo let go and Birk darted off.
“Why you little Christer.” Geo shouted. “I’ll give you one last lickin’ before I leave.”
“You have to catch me first.” Birk laughed. He did a running leap and summersault over the back fence, rolled to his feet and vanished into the night.
“Hold on there.” Clancy was running after him.
Birk stopped for him to catch up.
“He never could catch me.” Birk said. “One thing I had on him. He’s bigger but I was always faster.”
“Ma says you better watch yourself.” Sal came out of the dark. “She’s some mad with you busting Geo’s nose and him on his way to a better job.”
“It’ll be fine by the time he gets to ‘Berta.” Birk said. “And we’ll fine once he’s gone.”
In the morning Birk went down to the dock to see Geo one last time. There were several families there with their trunks and suitcases ready to make the trek to Alberta. Once they made their way to Sydney they would catch the train to Halifax.
“Hey Birk.” his brother waved him over. His nose was swollen.
“Sorry about that Geo.” He walked over. “I didn’t want you to leave with any hard feelings.”
“Yeh I know.” He playful punched Birk’s shoulder. “I’m … it was good of you to come by.”
They walked a little away from the others.
“I want you know that I’m mighty proud of the way you turned out.”
“Proud.” Birk teared up.
“I know we have never been the best of buds or even brothers, I suppose. But … well I guess its safe to tell ya now …”
“Tell me what? That I an’t your brother.”
“No! Never doubted that for a minute. I used to say that to get you going. It’s that …. most of the rough stuff I did to ya was Ma’s idea.”
“When she saw how wee you were and were going to be she figured we’d have to grow you up in other ways. Get you used to things people’d say about you when you were in the world.”
“Half time it was you started them in on me. I wanted to left alone.”
“We all want to be left alone at times, Birk. Ma was right, though, as you’ve turned out pretty good.”
“You didn’t have to enjoy to torment me so much.”
“I didn’t care for being like that.” George put his hand on Birk’s shoulder.
“Geo you are bad liar. I could tell you got pleasure to torment me. It was in your face every time.” He shrugged off Geo’s hand.
“It’s in yer face now.” Birk saw Geo’s face redden. “I hope that’s shame you is feeling now.”
The departure whistle sounded for the ferry.
“I don’t know what to tell you Birk. But whatever it is doesn’t mean I’m not proud now to call you my brother.” He stuck his hand out.
Birk shook Geo’s hand and walked back to the wharf with him. His parents were there as well. They waved till the boat docked on the opposite side of the cove.
“Think we’ll ever see him again?” His mother asked.
“Don’t think so, Ma,” his father answered.
“They never do come back,” she wiped her tears away and blew her nose. “Never.”
Birk wanted to ask her if what Geo had told him was true. All those years of being tormented because she thought it would be the best thing. It made sense to him that was she something would do, the same way she said to let his sisters win when they were playing some guessing game.
The result of that was they they treated him the same way at Geo did, as if he weren’t as smart or as good as them because there were going to school.
“What you thinking?” His sister Maddy slipped her hand into his.
“Geo’s got a long way to go before he gets to’ Berta.”
“It’s Al – berta.”
“I know that!”
“It’s over 2000 miles away.”
“That’s pretty far. Geo will have to take trains all the way.” Birk said. “You going to miss him?”
“Some I guess. What does it cost to go all that way?”
“Can’t say as I know.” Birk wondered where the money came from.
They came to the corner intersection that spit off to their lane one way and to the colliery the other.
“I have to go help Da with boilers. Tell ma’ll be home before suppertime.”
“Okay. Remember Al – berta.”
If Birk didn’t have a shift on Friday he’d go down to the boiler sheds to keep his father company and learn about running them. He knew most of the routine, what gauges to watch, how to keep the temperatures right. He’d sat for the written test once last year but couldn’t make sense of it on paper. If they had asked he could have told them but to write it he was lost. He’d given up after five minutes.
After checking the coal hoppers that were used to feed the boilers he leaned against the wall to chat with his father.
“How Geo afford to go away?”
“Brenda’s two brothers, Fergus and Will, are already there. They chipped in enough for her to go the whole way. Geo has enough to get to Montreal. He’s going let her go ahead while he tries to get work there.”
“Never said anything about that last night.”
“None needs to know all our business Birk.”
Just then Bill McLean came to the door of the shed. “BritCan is closing the number 6 over in Lingan!”
“What!” His dad pulled out a cloth and wiped the sweat off his forehead.
“Yep. That’s the second to shut down in the past month. Same reasons too. Not producing enough to keep it going.”
“But six was one of the best.”
“Sure sure but they say the leakings are getting too much work to keep pumping it out. That’s another hundred or more out of work.”
“Maybe there spots for them in Alberta.” Birk muttered.
“Sure if they’s willing to walk.” Dave said. “They’ve been given till Monday to clear out of the houses too.”
“What difference it make to BritCan if anyone is in them houses. If they close the mine the houses aren’t of any use to them.” his father said.
“Wolvin don’t care about any of that. Better get a move on. Other’s are going to need to know this.”
“Union talk about this soon I hope.” Birk asked.
“Hell with that union. They gets their dues automatic that seems to be all they worry about. As long as we’re working somewhere they get their slice.”
“Not going to be getting much of a slice from number six anymore.” Birk said. “What happens to the dues they already paid into the union?”
“Good question Birk. Be careful of who you ask it to, some might think you’re another of those Bolshie reds trying to stir things up.”
“Me!” Birk laughed. “Got enough to stir up right here.” He went to check the boilers.
When he got back to the house there was no one about. The silence soothing. His ears where still active with the constant crackle and hiss of the boilers. He went up to his room and was grateful it was empty too.
He slipped out of his boots and coveralls and laid on the bed to enjoy the breeze coming through the window. He’d have to caulk the frames before winter. They never fit properly and each spring they seemed to get worse.
Would the houses in Alberta be any better than this? Couldn’t be much worse, he figured. None of the houses in Mudder were much better than theirs. They spent as much time repairing them as they did working in the pits.
Even houses he’d seen in Sydney Mines weren’t all that different. Glace Bay’s company houses were as bad. At least this one had a bit more room than many of them. His da had said they were lucky to have the end lot so he could make the place a bit wider. Many of the houses had were crowded together, nearly sharing a wall between them. Some had began to lean onto each other. At Jake Malone’s you could hear the family next door as if they were in the same room with you.
He woke with a start to the bed moving.
“Didn’t mean to wake you.” Clancy was sitting on the inside window sill pushing the bed with his foot. “You need your rest.”
“Helping pa with boilers tires me out more than the pits. Must be all that heat. After awhile I dream about going to sleep.”
“I was talking with Dan. He tells me they closed number six.”
“Heard about it.”
“You think they’ll close us down too?”
“What! You heard something?”
“No, but I thought six was one of the big’uns. If they can manage to keep those going why would they bother with little ones like this one here?”
“Nothing keepin’ you here if losing the job is what your worrying about.”
“That’d make you happy wouldn’t it?” Clancy shoved the bed a bit harder.
“Can’t say as I care one way or t’other. If they cut back on our shifts more then we’ll have something to worry about. By we’re still producing.”
“Birk pull your head out of the scree. Six was producing too, but what it was producing wasn’t making them enough money.”
“If they can’t sell the coal why do they bother with it?” Birk swung to sit up on the bed beside Clancy.
“I’m just a miner not a … not sure who it is that understands the whys of BritCan thinking. If I could figure that perhaps I’d have a better job where I wouldn’t have to share a bed with a stinkin’ mine rat.” Clancy pushed back and jumped up off the bed.
Birk grabbed him by his pant waist, spun him around and shoved him hard against the wall.
“What have I told you about calling me a stinkin’ mine rat.” Birk snarled. “You know what this means.” He pressed his forearm across Clancy’s throat.
“What?” Clancy gasped.
“Time for another bath.”
He let go. Clancy slumped the floor rubbing his throat.
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