Chapter XXXV – Lillian Makes A Friend

Coal Dusters 

Chapter XXXV

Lillian Makes A Friend

Lillian made her way along the rutted lane back to Pitt St. She stopped to look back at the houses on either side of it. How could she ever live under such conditions?  How could families live under such circumstances. If Birk was enterprising enough, with her encouragement, he could make more of himself than this. She would see to that. She strode along Pitt St. purposefully.

She had never spent this much time in the homes of any of the miners, not even her uncle’s parishioners. The houses were so … unkempt. That must be the result of children she figured. How many did Mrs. Nelson have? Four that were alive now and was it another four lost. Eight! No wonder she looked so worn down. When she married she wouldn’t let herself go like that. Pride of self wasn’t something she’d sacrifice easily.

“Miss McTavish! Miss McTavish!”

She stopped to see who was calling her. It was Mrs. Seldon.

“I was hoping to speak to you before we left.” Mrs. Seldon said.

“Left. So soon!”

“Without a roof over our heads what else could we do? At least the company isn’t going to hold us responsible for the goods that were destroyed by the fire.” 

“I see. Where will you be moving to?”

“We’ll be in North Sydney until the company finds a new position for husband. He hopes to know where within the month. Of course that also depends on when this strike comes to an end. I hear they may be legislated back to work.”

“Hardly seems fair. To force then to accept no change in their work conditions.”

“How fair was it for them to do what they did. It’s not as if BritCan broke into the store and set it on fire. Castleton’s a nice place but I’ll be glad to be out of here. We never felt at home here. Though I will miss our times together.”

“As will I.”

“Will you be staying her much longer? Doesn’t your family back in Boston miss you?”

Lillian wanted to blurt out that to them she was already dead and buried. 

“Yes, but things have changed between us since I’ve been here. I don’t feel that my future lies with them or in Boston any more.”

“The future? It is impossible to know where it lies for anyone. Last week we were looking forward to fixing that spare room so as Charles would have his own room to grow up in.  And now … We’re at Mrs. Franklin’s boarding house for the moment but it’s not a place for a family, if you understand me. Not that there have been many salesmen or travellers since the strike. I’d much rather be doing my own cooking.” She said.

Lillian had met Mrs. Franklin a few times at the company store and had found her to be an eager gossip about things in Castleton and sometimes beyond. The frequent travellers who stayed at her boarding house brought her information that never found its way into the local news papers.

“Oh, speak off the saints here she is now!”

Mrs. Franklin was walking up from the dock with two shopping baskets laden with groceries. She stopped to put down her baskets.

“You’ve been to North Sydney?” Mrs. Seldon asked.

“Yes, well, with the company store gone I needed to get some essentials before those shops in North Sydney hiked their prices. Not that anyone around here could afford their regular prices.”

“Business must good for you?” Mrs. Seldon said glancing though what Mrs, Franklin had bought.

“I’ve had some of the union men saying here and that company representative as well. It’s enough to keep me going for now, but they are particular about the food they eat. I don’t mind as long as the pay extra for it. Though having to do nearly everything myself is a chore.”

“You have no girl working for you?” Mrs Seldon asked.

“No, I can’t afford help. If it weren’t for that Clancy and Birk I’d have no hot water either.”

“Birk Nelson?” Lillian asked.

“Yes. I heard about what he did for you, Miss McTavish, at the fire the other night. Right good young man he is. Quiet though.” she picked up one of her baskets with a heavy sigh. “You’ll be heading to Sydney today?”

“Yes. I was just on my way to the dock to join John. I better get going before  the ferry departs.”

“Let me help you with this,” Lillian picked up the other basket.

“It’s not too much for a wee thing like yourself?” Mrs. Franklin said. “I be obliged for your assistance. You take care now,” she kissed Mrs. Seldon quickly on the cheek.

“I will.” Mrs. Seldon walked down toward the dock.

“Have you lived here long?” Lillian asked picking up the other basket.

“Oh yes. My grandfather was who originally owned much of this when it was farmland. It was my father that built the monstrosity. That’s what I came my house.” she gave a little laugh. “Now most of the land belongs to BritCan. My house too, if things keep going as they have.”

“You must have seen many changes over the years. Families coming and going.”

They came to Mrs. Franklin’s house. Lillian had passed it many times and had admired the porch than ran along the three sides of the house that faced the street. She longed to sit on one of the comfortable chairs there. She followed Mrs. Franklin up the stairs.

“Oh my yes. Some as we’re glad to see the end of too, mind, you. Take the Murphy’s, they were a mess of trouble from the very start. They lived along Upper Victoria, not too far from you. The boys were hellions, pardon my language Miss, but no other word will do. The pa was a drunk and those boys of his took after him. Tried to set fire to St. Agatha’s one Christmas. This was before your Uncle came to the parish.” Mrs. Franklin opened the front door and nodded for Lillian to go in first.

“Not all the families have been so troublesome. The Nelsons seem like good folks.”

“Oh, my, you are right about them. Lost some of their young un’s in the flu a few years a go. Heartbreaking so many were lost then. War was bad enough but this was right in front of you.” 

Lillian followed Mrs. Franklin into the kitchen. The house was so unlike the Nelson’s or even the rectory. The hallway walls were a white wall paper with floral details painted in along the lower edge corners and with birds in the upper corners. The kitchen was large, spotlessly clean. She put her basket on the table.

“I was just visiting with them. To thank Birk for his bravery last night. Is it usual for a man his age to not have … ” Lillian wanted to find out for sure that Birk wasn’t encumbered with a local girl.

“Man!” Mrs. Franklin broke in. “He’s barely past eighteen or perhaps it is nineteen.”

“Oh!” Lillian had assumed Birk was closer to her own age. She took things out of the basket and handed them to Mrs. Franklin to put on one shelf or the other.

“Yes. That hairy face of his adds the years. First time I saw him fresh shaved here, I didn’t recognize him. Honestly. He looks like he was no more than fourteen. I had to laugh but I guess it’s the parents to blame.”

“Blame?”

“He never learned how to shave proper. Neither his father or brother George were so blessed by hair. I guess the Good Lord was saving it for Birk. Took Clancy a few soaks to get that face properly shaved.”

“I see.” Lillian was a little embarrassed to hear such personal details about Birk. 

“His mother is some protective too. Perhaps you got a sense of that. Catholic families have a boy they are dedicating to the priesthood.” Mrs. Franklin filled the tea kettle and put it on her stove.

“The Nelson’s aren’t Catholics.” Lillian sat at a table between a pair of corner windows with pale yellow curtains. 

“No, but to some families a child to look after them in their old age is the same thing. I know their Ma was some upset when Geo started kept company with Shelia McPherson. I’m sure you’ve heard all about that anyway?”

Lillian shook her head ‘no’.

“It came as no surprise to any of us at the time.” She took a tea pot out the cupboard, poured some boiling eater into it, swished it around & poured the water back into the kettle. “They’d been hand holding for a few months and when Old Jim McPherson had that accident that killed him the company wanted them out of the house. Didn’t even give them a week after the funeral before sending that notice. Imagine! So to keep their house Geo moves in as border. Before you know it Shelia is indisposed.” She poured water into the tea pot and got a couple of mugs our another cupboard.

“Indisposed?” Lillian asked.

“Sorry dear I keep forgetting you’re the priest’s girl. I hope this doesn’t shock you but Shiela was … with child. Any one could have told this was bound to happen. So George did the right thing and married the girl.” She pour Lillian a mug of tea. “I hope you don’t mind the cup, dear, but I found that the good china couldn’t stand up to the usage of my boarders.” 

“I see.” Lillian sipped her tea. 

“So as I was saying, Mrs. Nelson has been even more watchful over Birk. Not that she wasn’t always protective of him, him being so little and all. Better than some of those Mudtown families who let little’ns run around like a pack of dirty dogs.”

“So Birk hasn’t been keeping company with anyone.”

“Oh no! Not that I’ve heard of at any rate. He’s a bright lad mind you. His pa Blackie has taught him all about the boilers. That’s probably the next step for him, once this strike is over, to get his papers and move out of the mine.”

“Engineer?” Lillian wondered what the pay difference might be. An engineer’s wife sounded better than a miner’s wife.

“Yes. A trade that can travel you know. Boiler’s is boilers no matter where they are.”

A clock from somewhere in the house chimed four. 

“Oh it is getting late.” Lillian stood. “I really have to get back to the rectory to get supper for Uncle Pat.”

“It’s been good to get to know you better, Miss McTavish.”

“Lillian, please Mrs. Franklin.”

“Only if you call me Rose.” Mrs. Franklin said.

“Of course, Rose. It has been a pleasure to become better acquainted with you as well.”

They walked to the front door. 

“Did you do this?” Lillian pointed to the birds above the corners of the door frames.

“Oh yes. My winter pastime.” 

“Thank you again.”

It started to rain as she shut the Franklin’s gate behind her. She pulled her shawl over her head and ran to the rectory. She darted along the side to the back door to void tracking mud into the front hall. She dreaded going back into the dark kitchen. Even on this mild day it was cool. It was so unlike the bright, cheerful kitchen she had just left. Even the Nelson’s house felt more like a home than the rectory ever did.

Inside she leaned against the frame of the back door to knock the mud off her shoes. Had Mrs. Franklin noticed them? Shame flooded her at the state her appearance had come to over the past few months. 

Through the open door she could smell the earth of the back garden. To her it was the smell of the grave. No! She wasn’t going to die here even if her family had already buried her there.

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