“How black’s the water this time?” Clancy pushed the gold and red flowered chintz curtain to the wash-up cubical to one side.
Birk quickly pulled up his trousers. “Not that bad, b’y. As you can see I managed to shave myself too.”
It was a week since his first true bath. At that first time he was shocked at how dirty the water had become moments after he had immersed himself in it. He didn’t know he was covered with so much coal dust and grime from the mines. He was used to the water at the mine wash up always being silty, even at home when he had the chance to wash himself in the laundry tub the water wasn’t clear for long. But he’d always believed he was very clean. He always made it a point to rinse his socks and face rag after every shift.
“Jus hope I don’t be as itchy the way I got that first time.” he said buttoning his shirt.
“Could be you will.” Clancy replied. “Must a been a shock for your skin to feel air again.”
“Yeh.” What was a bigger shock for him was how his clothes smelled. They were sweaty and unwashed even though they were rinsed clean. He had been unwilling to put them back on that first time but had nothing cleaner with him to wear. Nothing cleaner either when he got home. Even the clean bed clothes that his mother had put on the bed had that body smell. This time he was ready having taken the time to wash out his own under drawers and shirt the night before with a pinch of soap on his mother’s washboard.
The way even his sisters reacted to him after that first time was unexpected. He didn’t think his smell was that bad. No worse than anyone else who work in the pits would smell. But it did make a difference. He sort of felt better about himself too. He let himself be talked into coming back a second time.
This time he was determined to shave himself. Being close to Clancy that way had made him feel unsettled. His mother had shaved him once and he didn’t enjoy having her that close to him in that way. Touching him and looking so intently at him.
“You think she be lookin’ like Lillian?” Clancy asked leaning on his elbow beside a picture tacked to the wall.
It was was a photo torn from a magazine of a woman in lingerie. Birk glanced it and blushed and turned his head as fast as he could.
“Not fittin’ to see a thing like that.” He muttered reaching out to pull the picture off the wall.
“Not for you to do that.” Clancy grabbed Birk by the wrist to stop him. “A film actress.”
“Still don’t make it fitting.”
“She’s as pretty as a dove.” Clancy said. “In fact, she’s Billie Dove. Here’s another.”
Clancy gestured toward one of a woman looking in a mirror with one should bared. “Pola Negri.”
“I’m not looking at that sort of … woman. Ma’ll never let come back here if she’s knows this sort of thing is here.”
“You never been to the movies?” Clancy asked.
“Not for people like us.” Birk tied his shoes and checked his hair in the mirror.
The days were getting longer and it was still daylight as they walked back.
“Too bad we got that time cut.” Clancy said, “Even if did give us a chance to get to Mrs. Franklin while there was lots of hot water.”
“Better an hour here or there than whole shifts gone.”
Back at the house they sat on the back stoop while Birk’s mother finished getting supper ready.
“You know, now that yer cleaned up, the gals will be looking closer at you.” Clancy said. “You actually have a face under those whiskers. Gals hate getting scratched up.”
“Let ’em look. Ma taught me well enough about their ways. Them that looks at you aren’t worth looking back at. Them that doesn’t look at you have to be spared anything untoward from the sorts of me.”
“That can’t be how your bother Geo got married if that was how you were brought up.”
“Geo’s doing his duty. That’s all. Didn’t want Sheila and her family to lose the company house. Duty. Simple as that.”
“You don’t suppose that’s all there is to it do you. Man and woman in a bed. Nature does it’s duty, too. Ouch.” Clancy grabbed at the top of his head and jumped up.
Birk’s mother stood at the door behind them wielding a wooden spoon. “Talk of that sort that isn’t allowed in my house Clancy Sinclair. You hear me?”
“Yes, Mrs. Nelson. But they’s the realties of life.”
“The reality is no woman needs to be sullied by the attentions of any man. None of us enjoys it or invites it either. As Birk says, it’s a duty we do our men folk. Not a pleasant one, but the Bible tell us to go forth and multiply and we do it. We do it only because the Good Book tells us to do. It don’t says we enjoy it.”
“It don’t say we have to do it whenever some man wants us to. If they want it more often they are beasts of Satan. No God fearing woman wants the attention of the beast of Satan. Yer father understood that. Geo knows it damned well too.”
“I didn’t mean any disrespect Mrs. Nelson.”
“Maybe, maybe not. We have young girls living in this house. Keep that in mind when you talks about things no decent man would talk about in the company of women. I hear that low talk again out of you out you go …” she cracked his head again with the wooden spoon before he could react.
“You’ll find yourself looking for an new place. Understand? And as for you Birk.” She clipped his head with the spoon. “Don’t get any of those notions in your fool head.”
“I won’t ma. I was trying to stop his talk.”
“Once that thinking starts there’s only way to stop it. Go into the front parlour, now, and get out the good book. We may not be micks in this house but we are God-fearing folks. You both need that fear in you now. Now that yer hands are clean enough for the pages of the Good book, let’s pray it keeps your souls as clean too.”
She raised the spoon and the two young men ducked past it and scurried into the parlour.
“Don’ think I ever hear Ma say that much ever.” Birk said under his breath.
“Think she’ll still let us go over to the fight t’ night at the arena.”
“Suppose so.” Birk took the large family Bible out from the trunk in the parlour where it was stored. It had been in his mother’s family for many generations. The outside was heavily embossed brown leather. Along the edge was a linked rose branches and thorns pattern. In the middle was the face of Christ with the words ‘Salutaris Nostro’ in gold letters underneath.
“Salutaris Nostro is Our Saviour in Latin. That’s what Ma told me.” Birk explained. “I never understood how a book with such thin pages can be so heavy and endless.”
It was usually brought out for special occasions such as Christmas and Easter. On the inside flap were written the names of children born, marriages and deaths. The most recent entry was Geo’s marriage.
“Anywhere we should start reading Ma?” Birk called out.
“Don’t matter,” Came her reply. “Every word is a good one. The Lord will direct your eye to where it should be.”
Clancy flipped the book open at random.
“Here?” he whispered to Birk.
“I guess. I can’t see much though. Printin’ is so small I can never make it out.” He squinted at the grey parchment page.
“You can read can’t you?” Clancy asked.
“Of course I can. Maybe, not all too fast. But I can’t see this print. I told you.”
“Okay.” Clancy began to read out loud, stumbling over many of the proper names. “This is from Cron … icles.
“1 Now Benjamin beget Bale his firstborn, Asbel the second, Ahara the third, 2 Nohaa the fourth, and Rapha the fifth. 3 And the sons of Bale were Addar, and Gera, and Abiud, 4 And Abi … sue, and Naamar, and Ahoe, 5 And Gera, and Seph … uphan, and Huram. 6 These are the sons of Ahod, heads of families that dwelt in Gabaa, who were removed into Mrtn …. ahsth. 7 And Naaman, and Achia, and Gera he removed them, and beget Oza, and Ahiud. 8 And Saharim begot in the land of Moab, after he sent away Husim and Bara his wives. 9 And he beget of Hodes his wife Jobab, and Sebia, and Mesa, and Molchom”
“You should be preaching Clancy Sinclair.”
They looked up and his mother was standing in the door way wiping tears from her eyes with the edge of her apron.
“Thank you Mrs. Nelson. I’m not sure what the lesson here is in all these begets though.”
“Yeah?” Birk asked. “What does begat mean anyway. Same as begging?”
“No!” Clancy laughed. “It means … having families. Your mother and father begat you.”
“So … Geo is firstborn?” Birk asked.
“That’s right but I never understood what all this means.” Clancy looked to Mrs. Nelson.
“I suppose it’s about family. How families are connected in a chain of God’s love.” she said.
When Blackie came home from his shift they had supper. Sal had improved enough to sit at the table with them. The tonic remedy Reverend Brown’s wife brought had worked on her.
“Clancy and me are goin’ over the boxing at North Sydney arena. Jamaica Jackson, that boxer from the mainland, is here to take on Jim Bodak.”
“Long way to come get pulverized.” Blackie laughed.
“Keep an eye on the time.” his mother said. “Not safe at night crossing over to North Sydney at night you know.”
“I know Ma. Not as if we haven’t done it enough times now.”
“An don’t forget yer goin’ fishing tomorrow. Can’t waste time ‘cause the mine’s cutting back. We have to make up for it someway.”
“Fair enough, Blackie. We’ll stay for the main bout then come right back.” Birk promised.
“Ya sure that’s what you lads are up to?” Blackie asked. “Getting washed up to see a fight? Sure it isn’t some gals you got your eyes on?”
“Nothing of that sort that, sir.” Clancy rubbed his head and nodded at Mrs. Nelson.
“I set them on the right path with a little reminder.” She grabbed the wooden spoon and shook it at them. “Keep it mind, ya hear.”
“Yes Ma.” Birk answered
The young men grabbed their cloth caps and after quick goodbyes ran down to the dock.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License