Chapter XXIII: Lillian Serves Tea to the Union

Coal Dusters

Chapter XXIII

Lillian Serves Tea to the Union

After their meal she cleared the table. Washing up in the kitchen she could heard the church bells ring to call the men to the union meeting. The tea urn took three kettles of water boiled on the stove to fill it fully. 

Between each kettle Lillian attended to her cosmetic mask. Yes, this will be ideal. She had applied more power and rouge than she had ever before. The effect was clearly artificial. 

“Father Pat,” she called out. “The urn is ready for the meeting.”

“I’ll have a couple of the men bring the trolly over to the hall. You can follow with the biscuits. I mean the bread.” He said from the other room.

When the men arrived she pretended to be working at the sink so they wouldn’t see her face. As they were leaving she said. “Could you ask Father Pat to step in a moment.”

“Yes Miss McTavish.”

A few minutes later he came into the kitchen. “You wanted to see me Lillian.”

She turned around for the lantern to catch her face in full light. Her uncle gave a small gasp.

“Lillian. What have you done. You look …”

She knew that she looked similar to those low class women who sold themselves to men. She fumed at the way he acted as if covering her bruise was an act of contrition on her part.

“I … I  did the best I could Father Patrick. It’s been sometime since I’ve used my cosmetics. I wanted to be sure the mark was fully covered.”
“It is but … Well, it’s too late now.” He took the plate of bread she had cut. “Perhaps no one will notice. There are more important things at hand to occupy their thoughts.”

“I’ll be right there. I forgot the sugar for the tea.”

“Very well.” He left the kitchen.

She grabbed a damp cloth she had set aside for this moment and with a few sure movements wiped all the rouge off her face. Too much rouge on her face would reflect on her character but the bare face with its bruise would reflect on the character of the person who had caused the bruise. Even if no one the room knew who was responsible they would know someone was.

She slipped quietly into the meeting hall. On the wall behind the dais were portraits of King George V and Queen Mary, with a portrait of Pope Pius XI on side of of them; and a portrait of prime minister Mackenzie King on the other. Between the various portraits hung the Red Ensign and the flag of Nova Scotia. Over them was a crucifix. The union banner had been hastily draped along one side of the room. 

The tea service area was in the a corner to the left of the low stage. She cautiously nudged the trolly into a better light. As the men came for a cup she turned her face casually to make sure her face was visible. She could see their eyes dart from the bruise to her eyes then away as if shamed by seeing it.

William Gregory went to the dais and rapped on it with a gavel.

“I’d like to thank Father McTavish for allowing the use of Saint Agatha’s Hall for our meeting.” He motioned for the priest to come on stage.

“We will start this meeting with The Lord’s Prayer.” Father Patrick motioned for the men to rise.

The men all stood and recited the prayer. Without prompting someone began to sing ‘O Canada’ and all the miners put their hand over their hearts and joined in the anthem. Gregory rapped the dais with the gravel and all the men sat.

Once the meeting started and she sat. This was her opportunity to look over the men who were there. The various representatives of union, management and government were seated in the first row.

On stage, William Gregory the union representative, puffed on a cigar as he set out the conditions of the contract they had presented to the management board of the mine. The demands were merely to keep the tonnage rate as it was with a five percent per year increase over the next two years. 

She half-listened to the the various representatives. Alf Landon, the local Member of the Legislative Assembly was there; Mr. O’Dowell applauded loudly when the MLA stood to address the men. She almost laughed out loud as his white shirt cuffs kept popping out from under his suit jacket. The man’s family may own clothing stores but he certainly didn’t know how to dress. 

Running his thumbs under his suspenders, Landon explained the provincial government’s position of having to be supportive of management decisions yet would not stand in the way of any fair and legal labour action the unions chose to take. Alf stressed with word fair, intimating that the unions were on shaky grounds.

Some of the men stood to describe the unfair and dangerous conditions in the mines. There were representatives of the workers from the many mines in on the Island. It became clear to her that conditions were much the same in all of the mines.

One of the men she’d spoken with the other morning stood to say something. 

“I’m Birk Nelson, many o’ you know me. M’ father is Blackie Nelson. One thing some of us men want to know is why the mic … I’m mean the Catholic’s get favoured treatment in the Colliery?”

There was an immediate grumbling from the sides of the room closest to her. She could tell that the room was pretty much divided down the middle with parishioners she recognized on one side and the ones she didn’t on the other. They must be the Protestants.

She kept her eyes on Birk. What was it about him that fascinated her? It was something in his face, the blackness of his hair contrasted with the white of his shirt. It dawned on her that he resembled those engravings of the Devil she had in one of her childhood books of Bible stories.

“Gentlemen, please.” her Uncle stepped to the front of the stage. “Let us not get distracted from why we are here. This strike, if it happens, will effect all families regardless of their faiths.”

“He’s right,” someone said loudly. “But we can’t hide from them what damage this will cause our families. We will show them our true faces for once.”

“Yes.” Father Pat said. “The Lord hath no greater joy than to hear that his children are walking in the truth.”

“We need a united front,” William Gregory the union rep said. “Let’s not forget that. But Father I have to remind you that there is no ‘if.’ The strike has been called for and it will go ahead at midnight tonight. Not only here in Castleton Mines but in Sydney Mines, Inverness, Dominion, Glace Bay. All the collieries will be closed down and will remain so till the management concedes to our demands.”

The men to shouted their support.

“What about the engineers?” a man stood and asked. “Someone has to keep the boilers going properly. You know what happened in Caledonia when they were left unattended. They blew sky high.”

“That hasn’t been decided yet.” William Gregory said.

“It sure has.” another man stood up.

“It’s Blackie Nelson.” Several people muttered.

“I won’t desert them even if I’m the only one there. I built those babies with these hands and I won’t be derelict in my duties. My duty is to them. Not to no company or no union.’

There was scattering of applause and some boos to this.

“So you’ve decided to strike.” another man stood. “You men all know me, Daniel Seldon. I run the company store. As much as I agree with you, you know if you men don’t work there’ll be no more credit for you.”

“T’ isn’t fair.” someone shouted.

“Them’s the company rules. You all know that.” he replied. “I don’t make them but I’m obliged to follow them.”

“So we see where you stand, Seldon.” The union representative said. “The rest of you be prepared to man the picket lines starting at midnight.”

The room was silent for a few moments.

“We’ve come to the end of the meeting.” Father Pat said. “Let’s close the meeting as we opened it, with The Lord’s Prayer. Our Father …”

The men joined him. Before the Amen he added. “Father please guide these men as they embark on challenges so that they never forget they are on the path to reunion with you. Amen.”

“Thank you Father Patric.” Mr. Landon shook the priest’s hand. “And we all wish to thank your niece as well.”

Lillian pulled back into the dark corner behind her serving area.

The men stamped and whistled their approval. Mr. O’Dowell stepped past the tea trolly to bring her on stage. She held her hands over her face as if shy of the attention. Then dropped them so those who hand’t seen her bruised face fully now got to see it in the light.

She caught her uncle’s eyes then went back to her station behind the tea trolly. His expression made it worth while.

She was putting the used spoons into a washbasin when a hand roughly grabber shoulder and turned her around.

“Don’t let me ever catch you taking to my missus.” A drunk miner glared at her. “Or I’ll give sommat worse than that.”

Lillian couldn’t get out of his grip.

“Missus?” she asked.

“Jen tol me what you been tellin’ her?’ the man shoved her away.

“You mean Mrs. Hollerhan?” Lillian braced herself while looking to see which of the men were still in the hall.

“That’s right.” He moved toward her.

She grabbed the basin with water she’d been using to give the cups a quick rinse and threw it his face.

“You bitch.” He slipped on the dish water and fell hard on his back.

“What do you think you are doing?” Alf Landon grabbed the man’s arm and pulled him up. “Oh it’s you Davy Hollerhan. Mike, Robbie” he called to two men at the far end of the hall taking down the flags. They came over.

“Take Davy home. He’s seem to have had a few too many.”

“No such thing as too many.” Davy lurched at one of the me.”

“Right you are Davy. Come on we’ll have a few outside.” Robbie put his arm over Davy’s shoulder and lead him out. Alf followed them.

As the men departed her Uncle came over to her.
“What is the meaning of this Lillian.” 

“One of your drunken parishioners wanted to finish what you had started.” she mopped up the spilled water. 

It is your own doing then. You lead me to believe you would hide this. How could you do this to me?”

She wrung the rag out and poured a cup of tea to empty the urn.

“The Lord hath no greater joy than to hear that his children are walking in the truth.” she smiled and handed him the cup of tea. “This is my truth.”

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License
Hey! Now you can give me $$$ to defray blog fees & buy ice-cream in Washington at 2019’s – sweet,eh?

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