Chapter XXV – Birk In The Mud

Coal Dusters 

Chapter XXV

Birk In The Mud

Birk and Clancy went into the back garden and Clancy sat on the bench, Birk sprawled on the ground leaning against it. He took off his work boots and socks.

“You see how she looked?” Clancy asked. “That weren’t no bump on anything.”

“Yep.” Birk knew Clancy meant Lillian. He had watched her on and off all night to see if there was some indication of who had struck her. “At the end there. When she come up into the light in front of all of us.”

“Oh yeah that look o’hers at the good man of the cloth, that uncle o’ her’s. I figure everyone there saw that and knew who she got beat by.”

Clancy began to push his boots off. Birk yanked them off for him and then his socks.

“Blue Lake smell still on’ em.” he laughed.

“It was good day fishin’?” Clancy said.

“Yeh. You pleased with what we caught?”

“I’m pretty happy with it, if you are?”

“Yeh. It’ll be a week or so ‘fore we can go up there again to there.” 

“Figured.” Clancy ruffling Birk’s hair. “It’s been a long day though. More tired now than when I raked behind you all day.”

“What’s that?” Birk stood. “Sounds like singin’.” He began to pull his boots and socks back on.

“Coming from the docks?” Clancy pulled his socks and boots back on. “Could it be those micks drunk and singing to the Holy Ghost?”

They walked to the lane that lead to the colliery and followed the singing to the dock. A group of the miners we’re sitting around a bonfire on the dirt road that lead to the pier.

“Join us lads?” Jim McKlusky came over to them with a bottle in his hand. “Someone has liberated some of the good father’s wine.”

Birk recognized some of the miners from the other collieries. They had just started a ragged verse of Rule Britannia with some of miners supplying their own words:

“Rule BritCan Co BritCan Co rules the coal

Miners ever ever ever shall be slaves

The miners not so blest with greed

Must take their turn in Hell

While you eat great meals for free

On the blood and sweat of all miners”

On the chorus all the miners joined in, adding their own bits to it. ‘Rule rule rule but never feed,’ ‘To Hell Hell Hell with their command.’ 

Different bottles made the rounds. Some with mild wine and others with potent home brews that sung Birk’s eyes and one that he spat out as fast as he could.

The miner with a squeeze box started in on Mademoiselle from Armenteires who you couldn’t kiss unless you’ve had forty beers. As they went through the verses and choruses locations changed, what the mademoiselle would do became more dirty and her body parts more detailed.

“You blushing?” Clancy grabbed Birk in a headlock and rubbed his hair. “Too much for your innocent ears?”

“Get off me!” Birk pushed him away and sent him reeling into a couple of miners swinging each other round in a step dance. This sent the dancers sprawling on the ground to great whoops and applause from the others. The shift signal whistle silenced them all.

“Well men,” the miner with his fiddle stopped. “Looks like its time to face the real music.”

 Birk helped Clancy up and dusted him off. 

Birk’s mother was sitting in her armchair by the stove when they went in. She took a deep breath as they splashed water on their faces at the sink.

“Someone’s been playing in the mud have they.” She said. “Mud and homemade by the stink.”

“I’m sorry Ma.” Birk couldn’t look her in the eyes.

“At’s okay son, your about a man now and it’s time you started to learn about some of those men things.”

“I’ll keep an eye on him Mrs. N.” Clancy said.

“So what’s the word on the strike boys?”

“Strike Mrs. N.” 

“Pa’s gone to check the boilers. He’ll be back soon.” Birk leaned over and kissed her on the forehead.

Is was raining heavily in the morning. Birk couldn’t see past the back fence. The lane in front of the house was muddy.

“Better wait till we get to the main lane before you put yer boots and socks on Clancy. Yer about to find out why this is called Mudtown.” Birk said as they were getting ready to set out. “After a heavy rain last year Billy McLean lost a kid. Wanted to cross over to play with cousins across the way there. Got caught in the mud and couldn’t get out and got pulled under somehow.”
“Yer joking.”

“Not a bit of it. No matter how much of the slag gets dumped on the road it sinks to somewhere when the rains fall.”

The rain slickers they wore kept them dry but all the laneways had all become rivers of mud. Thick, cold mud. They sank up to their knees at some points as they struggled to the colliery gates. Even the main lane was pitted with bogs of mud.

There were several other miners there when they arrived. A couple of them had trimmed some thick branches they intended to use as weapons if need be.

“Ya think the company will try anything?”

“Maybbe not.” one of them said “But best be prepared. If we show them we mean business right off we already have the upper hand.”

The rain didn’t let up. At different times during the day other miners would show up, some would go home. The union rep visited with them for an hour or so bringing hot tea with him. Then Reverend Brown came by with a roast chicken for them to share.

The men were too cold and wet to joke amongst themselves or talk for long. They stood on either side of the gate glaring into the rain, looking into the mine yard to see who they might see. 

Two of the managers showed up. The miners crowded around the gate to impede them from going in but didn’t do anything to directly hold them back either.

“It’s all fer show these first couple of days.” Jake told them. 

It pointless to Birk. He’d rather have been going underground to work than wallow around in this cold wet muck. Although he knew that the unions helped make sure that the men had some benefits from their jobs – the wash-up rooms, a doctor, that sort of thing; he didn’t feel they did much for him in the long run. They got his dues right off his pay every week but never saw them active in the lives of the miners.

At least Father Pat or Reverend Brown came into their homes when they were sick or hurt, but they only saw the union rep when there was need for more money for the union.

The rep hadn’t even told them what the strike fund was going to do for them. They’d been paying something into for the last three years since the last strike. Was there going to be enough between him and Clancy to keep food on the table? Blackie would still get his full pay to tend the boilers but the most of that would go for the house and that wouldn’t leave enough for their needs.

Maybe they’d have to go fishing sooner than they planned. That idea pleased him. He hadn’t dwelt on what he and Clancy did sliding on each other. Now the memory made him happy.

“You got something to smile about?” one of the men asked him.

“Yeh getting home and into dry clothes.” He said.

“Sure it isn’t that priest’s gal.” Clancy asked.

“Not a bit.” He hoped they wouldn’t see his cheeks burning as they questioned him.

“Sure wish she’d come by with that tea trolly now.”

“She’s need a dory to get through to us here ya know.” Birk said.

“Maybbe she can walk on mud as Jesus did on the water.” One of them said.

“Time you two went home.” Jim McKlusky appeared out of the rain. “Before yer house gets washed away.”

“Right, Thanks Jim. See ya in the morning.” Clancy said.

“If we find a place to dock the house, that is.” Birk said.

They set off to the house and stopped at the rise at the top of the laneway, leaned against the fence, pulled off their boots and socks and slogged down the lane.

“You think much about what we did t’other day up at the lake?” Clancy asked. 

“When we was fishin’ ya mean?”

“Yeh then.”

“Not as if I forgot it b’y but there’s a lot goin’ on too. Why?”

“Just wondering. I didn’t mind it.”

“Me neither.” Birk shook rain off his shoulders.

“Ya think that Lillian might …”

“Get those evil thoughts outta yer head Clancy.”

“Only thing keeps me warm in this rain.” Clancy wiped the rain off his face.

“I’d warm the arse of whoever done that hurt to her.”

“Me too, but if’n I found out who did harm her and I did him a harm, she might be very grateful.”

“How many time’s do we have tell ya she’s not going look twice at some orange arse.”

“I’d convert.” Clancy laughed.

“No doubt you would. What would yer ma think though?”

“She wouldn’t care. She was a mick herself, you see. When she married me paw her family turned their back on her. When m’pa died they wouldn’t forgive her till she went to confession and the priest said she was penitent. She only did that so we’d have a place to live.”

“So you think this one would be different, eh? Not as if she’s your regular mick either. The priest’s niece. She’s almost a nun.”

“Never thought of her that way.” Clancy laughed tipping water out of his boots.

Clancy lost his footing the the muck and staggered into Birk and they both fell into one of the deeper ruts. Birk’s work boots went flying.

“So much for trying to spare them.” 

Clancy crawled over the mud and got the boots then pushed himself to his feet. He turned to help Birk up.

“What a pair we make!” Birk laughed. “Can’t even walk home in the rain.”

“Yeh. All we are is a couple of dirty, filthy Mudtown mine rats.”

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

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