Chapter XXVIII – Birk Does Nothing

Coal Dusters

Chapter XXVIII

Birk Does Nothing

Even though they didn’t have their routine of work shifts to get to, Birk’s mother made sure he and Clancy were up at the usual time in the morning. The strike was entering its fourth week with no progress in negotiations.

“We goin’ ta have the best garden ever.” Birk wiped the sweated off his biceps.

He and Clancy were turning earth in the back garden. After the rain stopped in the first days of the strike Birk’s mother saw the soft wet earth as ripe for being worked proper. Potato eyes had been planted in a row along one side of the yard. Tomatoes were seeded in another row. 

Blackie had gotten cow dung from one of the farms and they were now working it into the soil between the potato rows. The potatoes had sprouted within days of being planted and Birk’s mother expected a good crop.

“Hope it grows fast. We’ll be eating soup made of boiled flour sacks soon.” Clancy said.

Over the past weeks they had, as had most of the miners, been looking after household repairs that had been let go of for some time. Even though the company owned the houses all maintenance was the responsibility of the miners. Miners who often had no time or energy after their shifts to do much more the eat and sleep.

Roofs were repaired, draughty windows stuffed with rags, broken glass replaced with thin wooden shingles, leaks plugged, eaves straighten, wells drug deeper or cleaned out, outhouses cleaned out. Things that could be done without spending money. The row of company houses Birk lived in were in the best condition than they had been in years. All they needed a coat of paint. Now idleness was setting in.

Birk and Clancy had been gone hunting with Jake twice and brought home some venison which was a welcome change from the rabbits that Birk trapped. But food necessities were dwindling in all the homes. Salt, sugar, molasses, flour and tea were slowly becoming scarce.

Birk’s mother made sure the Sal and Maddy were fed but even the portions for them were getting smaller. The girls went foraging with Birk for berries and dandelion greens. The greens were bitter to Birk but better than nothing.

One of the neighbour women showed them how to make a tea from the dandelion roots, how to dry certain wild flowers for tea, what mushrooms were safe to eat. The pickleweed from the saltwater marsh proved to a reasonable substitute for salt.

Birk and Clancy went to North Sydney to see if they could get part-time work on the fishing boats for a couple of days but there was no work for them there either. There were enough miners with actual sea experience who had taken what positions might be available. The fishermen were sympathetic but had be known to take matters into their own hands when any idle miners set out on their own to fish.

Clancy was able to get Mrs. Franklin to allow them to use the bath house once a week in return for keeping it clean and stocking the boiler room with wood and coal for the hot water. With the men not bringing in money she didn’t have many paying boarders left and was suffering financially because of that.

The young men showed up at the colliery for their daily strike shifts. To make sure management knew they were there, the miners would bring their fiddles to sing and dance to pass the time. Often with their children there as well to give their wives a break.

“Getting by on your dollar a week?” Jake Malone asked Birk.

The strike fund pay was a dollar a week for single men, a dollar and fifty cents for a married worker without children, those with children would get two dollars, regardless of how many children they had.

“Pays for milk but that’s about all.” Birk said. “How’s by you.”

“We’re stretchin’ it as best we can.” Jake replied. “Beth gets some from her folks. They have that farm out by Lake Ansley. Eggs this week. Yer welcome to a couple if you want.”

“We bagged some deer,” Clancy said. “Could swap you for what you may got to spare.”

“I’ll get Beth come over later. Good thing she’s not with … you know. This not a time to bring a child into this world.” He coughed and spat, toed the sputum. “Even m’spit is turning to water. Don’t look right without a heap o’ black in it.”

The church bells rang. 

“Time for us to knock off.” Birk said.

“See you at that meetin’ t’ night?” Jake asked. “About time the union had some news for us.”

Once again the union meeting was at St Agatha’s hall. There had been some informal ones at the Protestant church but the Catholics refused to come over to Mudside for union business.

“We’ll be there.” Clancy said. “Not much else to do these days.”

They headed back to Birk’s house.

“Doin’ nothing all day is making me want to … I don’t know … it’s like I’m hungry for something and don’t know what it is? Race you the back pasture.”

Birk knocked Clancy off his feet and started running over the uneven dirt lane that lead to the house. 

“You bastard. When I catch you …”

Clouds of dust rose from the dried out mud as Birk ran. The heavy thump of his boots on the roadway echoed off the houses. When he reached the side fence he stopped to see where Clancy was. He was no where to be seen.

“Ya give up that easily.” Birk grasped for air. 

Clancy darted out from the side of house, He dove head first into Birk and they tumbled though the gate into the garden.

“Get yer fat behinds outta my garden.” Birk’s mother burst out of the house with her wooden spoon held over her head.

“Sorry Ma.” Birk said pushing Clancy’s face into the dirt. He jumped up, leapt over the back fence and kept running through the field. He stopped at the oak tree and slumped against the base of it. He was tugging his boots off when he was showered by a handful of dirt.

“I guess you right Birk. We needs to get doing something besides nothing. But rolling in the dirt isn’t it.”

“I know. I know.”

“I could get used to this though.” Clancy tugged off his shirt and shook dirt out of it. “No coal dust and the life of leisure.” He rolled the shirt up and put it under his head as he laid on the ground beside Birk.

“Not me. I get this itch to do something. Used to feel so worn out from workin’ in the pit all day that I can’t wait to rest. Now I feel too rested.”

“We haven’t been fishin’ for awhiles now.” Clancy reminded him.

“True. Rocks don’t squeak loud as that bed o’ mine.” He caught Clancy’s eye briefly.

They had tried to rub on each other once but the bed rocked and squealed so loud they stopped before it woke anyone. 

“Don’t know how Geo managed that bed. Never made that much noise when he was on t’ other side o’ me.”

“One body movin’ isn’t the same as two.” Clancy said rolling over to his side to face Birk.

“Could be. So may be it’ll be fishin’ tomorrow. Depends on what Ma wants us to do.” His eyes met Clancy’s.

“I think we repaired every stick of future in your house already.” Clancy turned away.

“Except the bed.” Birk laughed.

“Hopes we catch another glimpse of that gal though. Nice of her to come by with bread for us at the gate there that once.”

“Could be she’ll be there t’night at the meetin’ ” Birk elbowed him.

“Could be.” Clancy grinned.

“That how you keeping your mind busy? Thinkin’ on her?” Birk shoved Clancy’s shoulder playfully with his foot.

“What of it.” Clancy grabbed Birk’s foot and pull him over on top of him. “She’d still smell a whole lot better than that foot of yours.”

They began to wrestle as they rolled over each other down the slope behind the tree. Each attempting to pin the other to the ground. Clancy stop resisting to let Birk sink on top of him.

“You giving up.” Birk asked.

“Nope. Just giving over. This ground don’t squeak. I feel you little fell’s ready ready.”

“So it yours.” Birk giggled.

“Stop horsing around you two. Ma’s be calling for you.”

Birk rolled off Clancy. It was Maddy.

“There’s some supper ready for you. Or would you rather play like kids in the muck?” She shook her finger at them. “You best wash up some before you come in the house.”

“Yes Ma.” Birk said. “I mean yes Maddy.”

He stood and helped Clancy stand. 

“You’ll need the broom to clean up properly though.” Maddy said as they followed her back to the house. “It’s either that or the spoon.”

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