Coal Dusters – Chapter XXXVI
Birk and Clancy
Since the start of the strike Birk had been going to the Sunday morning service with his mother and sisters. This morning he had spent a good part of the morning getting the pants Lillian had sent to fit him better. His mother said she would make alterations but he didn’t want to wait.
The striped shirt didn’t look too bad to him. The collar was okay as long as he didn’t button it all the way. He rolled the cuff one fold so his hands could be seen. But the cuffs needed studs to hold them closed
The pants refused to cooperate. The legs took three folds to get them to ankle height. The waist left five inches slack around his waist.
“That uncle of her’s must have a belly bigger than a cow.” Birk said as he cinched it with a rope.
“Guess he was fully grown. Not half-sized the way you grew.” Clancy said. “You’ll look an idiot going anywhere in those clothes. Ya look a kid trying on his Dad’s clothes.”
Birk took the pants off. “Here. Ya try ’em on then.” He threw them at Clancy. He was able to pull the shirt off over his head without unbuttoning it.
“She sent them to you not me.” Clancy threw the pants into Birk’s face. “Besides they already stink of you.”
“Says me you … you … runt. At least I finished growing up. The only part o’you that’s man sized is between yer legs. And you didn’t even know what to do with it till I showed ya!”
Birk shoved Clancy into the wall as hard as he could. “These fists are man sized too. In case ya forget.” He punched Clancy in the stomach with his right hand and in the ear with his left.
Clancy walloped Birk in the side with his right fist.
“Hope I broke something. I’ve been wanting to that for a long time.”
“Me too.” He swung and hit Clancy in the nose. Blood spurted.
They grappled with each other and fell on the floor at the foot of the bed.
“You boys stop fightin’ or I’ll get Ma.” Sal poked her head in the room.
Birk stood and hauled Clancy to his feet by the front of his shirt. Clancy stomped on Birk’s foot and pushed him back and out the bedroom door.
“When I came here that first time. Saw that it was you lived here. I almost changed my mind.” He hit Birk in the chest. “But it was cheaper than Mrs. Franklin’s.”
“Too bad you didn’t.” Birk connected again with Clancy’s jaw. “Ya soft arse know-it-all mainlander. You should’ve been paying me to put up with you.”
“I couldn’t sleep proper till I got you sort of washed up. I’d wake up and think I was stuck in some … Hell that stank of feet and … pig shit.”
Birk had Clancy in a headlock and lost his footing at the top of the stairs and they tumbled down over each other. They pulled away from each other when they landed.
His sisters were screaming for them to stop fighting.
“These feet ya mean.” Birk pushed his bare feet into Clancy’s face as they lay on the floor.
“Pigs’ i’d smell better.”
“I’m sure you’d know that.”
Clancy bit Birk on the instep.
“Ow.” Birk pulled his foot back then slammed it into Clancy’s shoulder as Clancy was pushing himself up.
“Birk! Clancy! What’s got into the two of you.” Birk’s mother was trying to come between them.
“He’s had this comin’ calling me stupid, a runt.”
“I thought you guys had become good pals.” she said.
“Me too.” Birk wiped blood from his mouth. “Me too.”
“The last puss I want to see most mornings is this one.” He swung at Birk and missed.
Birk pushed him through the kitchen and out into the back yard.
“Watch those tomaters.” His mother shouted.
Clancy stumbled and fell. Birk kicked him in the side. Clancy grabbed at the dirt and threw it into Birk’s face as he got up. They lunged at each other. Heads locked on each other’s shoulder and hitting at each other’s sides and stomach.
“Ya can always go back to Mrs. Franklin.” Birk gasped into Clancy’s ear.
“You can go to Hell you stinkin’ mine rat.”
Birk braced himself and gave Clancy a shove with both arms. Clancy reeled back against the shed and slumped to the ground.
“Soft arse.” Birk spit a gob of blood on to Clancy’s face and went back into the house.
“I’ll be ready for church in a bit Ma.” He splashed cold water on his face. Rinsed the blood out of his mouth.
Up in the bedroom he carefully folded the pants and shirt. He’d get his mother to alter them later in the day.
He passed Clancy coming up the stairs as he went down to join his mother and sisters for church.
On the way home after the service his mother asked. “What was that dust up?”
“I knows better. That weren’t no horseplay. Neither of you were holdin’ back.”
“He told me it made him sick to look at me. That ‘cause I wasn’t tall, I wasn’t a full man and would never be one.”
“Hurtful words.” She shook her head. “How he feel about the gal as sent you the pants and shirt.”
“He think’s she’s pretty and such.”
“Could be he’s sore she sent you something nice and he got nothing.”
“But I don’t give a care about her. Could have been anyone caught in the fire and I’d ’av done the same thing.”
“I know my duty to you and the girls. Besides she’s practically a nun.”
When they returned to the house from the morning service he found that Clancy was gone. All his clothes and other belongings had been removed from the bedroom. On the bureau was a note:
“Seeing as you can’t read writing I’ve printed this note to tell you I got word that my mother was poorly and I have gone to tend to her. Clancy.”
He tucked the note into his pants pocket. Picked up the shirt and pants that Lillian had sent him and took them downstairs.
“Ma you think you can fix these so they fits me better.”
She shook the shirt out. “That’s quality.” She held it to her face then studied the seams. “Don’t want to tamper with it. Look at that stitching. It’s a blessed art. I could never sew that that fine.”
“Look! We fit yer pants, Birk.” His sisters had pulled on the pants, each standing in one of the legs and holding them up by the waist. They hopped toward him.
“Get outta there.” He laughed.
“Priest’s a big man.” His mother said. “These wouldn’t even fit Blackie.”
The girls got out of the pants and Birk pulled them on over the pants he was wearing.
“Even if ya can fix the cuff some.” He folded the hem several times so that it rode at the hight his present pants did. “Even if they too big around the waist I won’t be stepping on them when I wear them.”
“Your waist will always grow.” His mother laughed. “Give ‘em here. I can do a a few stitches to keep them from dragging along.”
“Where’s that Clancy gotten too?”
“Gone.” Birk said. “Packed his things and gone.”
“Yer joking.” she went up to the room and came back down. “So he is.”
He gave her the note.
“I knowed his Ma was ailing.” She said.
“He say anything to you about goin’ to see her?” Birk looked at the note.
“Yes but didn’t say when.”
“I’m sure he’ll be back for that union march at the end of the week.”
“Depends on his Ma.” His mother said.
After supper Birk went out to check his rabbit traps. There was one caught but he left it there as he continued on his way to his favorite sitting spot. He climbed up high in a branch of the oak tree.
His Ma was right, the things Clancy had said were to him mean. It was same as his first months in the mines where he had to prove himself everyday. The men all riding him for being so small, then for being so hairy but he showed them. Showed Clancy too that he wasn’t going to take that from him either.
But how could Clancy have been hidin’ those thoughts the past months. Acting as if they were friends. Making him feel he was …. someone he wanted to be with. But foolin’ him all the time.
Getting him to talk about his hopes and making him think about the future. All that was a big show, a sham. Birk rubbed his head against the bark of the tree.
When he got the rabbit on his way home he remembered showing the trap line to Clancy, showing him to skin the rabbit easy and where the salt was to treat the pelt.
He sat on the garden bench. He didn’t want to go into the house. He didn’t want to go up his empty room. He didn’t know what he wanted to do. He couldn’t figure out why this had happened to him. That someone could become such a part of his life that when they were gone it was if he had no life ahead of him.
He heard men talking in the road in front of the house, the McKlusky’s arguing next door.
“I’m going out.” He heard Jim yell. “Where to is none of your business.”
“Don’t be late. I know it isn’t union this time o’ night.” His wife shouted back. “It’s to that Dan’s you’re going.”
“I’ll go where I want and I’ll stay out as late as I want.”
A gate slammed and Birk half hoped it was Clancy coming back but it wasn’t their gate. It was Jim on his way to the bootlegger’s.
What was his life before Clancy showed up? Him and Geo eating at the table in the morning. Shovelling coal into the carts. He missed that. Doing things with his hands kept his mind from thinking about anything. He wanted to stop thinking.
His mother came out of the house with a couple of mugs of tea.
“Sweet summer night,” she handed him a mug and sat beside him. “Before you kids came along me and Blackie ‘d sit out here. Then you could smell the hay.”
“You ever want to get out of here? The mines I mean.”
“Before I wed Blackie I thought about teaching or even nursing but once I had Geo those were a girl’s dream. Never can get ahead with the company. You buys from the company store, owes them money. You pays the company a fair price for a house, too, as long as you working there, but the house never gets to be yours.”
“It would nice to have something that was yours.” Birk sighed heavily. “Think I’ll take a walk.”
“Clancy ‘d do that to get away and think a bit. Yeh something to do.”
Birk headed along their lane and to Pitt St and along to Chestnut Avenue. The smell of the burned company store was still in the air. He nodded to a few folks as he passed them. We went out of his way to pass Mrs. Franklin’s. There were boarders laughing and smoking on the veranda but none of them was Clancy.
He went along the pier and sat on a piling staring out at the reflection of lights on the water. The last drop off by the Dingle Dandy had been half-an-hour ago.
He’d never had this much free time. Time with nothing to do except worry about when the strike would be settled; what had he done to rattle Clancy so; what was he going to do at lunch with Lillian and Father Patrick.
If this was what a man of leisure had to do, he wasn’t interested. He’d rather be worked to the bone and back sore from the pits than have time to think about things he didn’t understand and problems he didn’t know how to solve.
The Reverend Brown once said that God makes each man to his purpose. All along Birk figured his purpose was to work, to crush coal, bring his pay home to the family, sleep and do it again. Cut and dry so he didn’t have make any decisions himself.
“Taking the air?” someone said from behind him.
Birk started and almost fell off the piling and into the harbour.
“Oh, Jim, you about knocked me over.”
“Saw you and that mainlander having a go at each other earlier.”
“Got in one another’s way. Gave him a good what for though. Sort of thing I never could get away with Geo.”
“That Geo used to love to torment you some.”
“Ma says it was what brothers were supposed to do.”
“Never had a brother. All sisters. Thought getting married wud be an escape from that. Trouble is sisters is women and I married a woman. Them ‘s the breaks.”
“How long you think this strike is going to go on?” Birk asked.
“Not too much longer after us burning down the pluck me. Sort of thing the Corporation won’t stand for. There’ll action and not the kind of action we’re going to appreciate much.”
“You ever think o’ getting out of the mines?”
“And do what? I suppose I could try for the Steel Plant, or that iron foundry in North Sydney. But this is what I know. You want to try your hand at something else?”
“Clancy said future’s black underground. He got some schoolin’ though he could get on. Oh … I dunno … I was pretty happy doin’ what we all do …”
“But you feel there’s something more? I know that feelin’. When I was your age I wanted something more too. Sure wish I done something about it then. What did I do? I changed shifts in the mines. That’s what I did. Come on I’ll spot you a tip at Dan’s.”
“Ma ’d kill me if she finds out I went to the bootlegger.”
“You only die once.” Jim laughed.
“Sure why not. I’m wanting to do something different. Maybe this is it, eh?”
Dan’s house was at the edge of the end of Castleton Mines past St Agatha’s hall. Birk knew that after the recent union meetings some of the men would end up there drinking their strike pay.
“If it’s not Blackie’s boy.” Dan greeted him. “Thought you tea-total same as yer old man.”
Birk grinned. He recognized several of the men there. There was also a couple women there. Wearing not much of anything. The place smelled of beer, cigarette smoke and sweat. He peered around afraid he’d see Clancy there.
“Aren’t you the hairy beast.” one of the women brushed up against him and put her hand into his shirt. All she was wearing was an untied silk robe. He saw that she was naked underneath it. He moved back.
“Look ladies we got a virgin here?” she laughed hoarsely.
Birk continue to back away.
“Don’t be afraid, little man. I won’t hurt ya.” She touched his face and moved to kiss him.
“No … n … no … thanks Ma’am.” Her perfume made it hard for him to breathe.
He turned and rushed out of the house and ran all the way home. Was this were McKlusky spent his time? Was this what men did?
He took his boots off on the back porch of the house and went in quietly.
His mother was at the kitchen table.
“Where you been?” she asked.
“Down the dock. Thinking.”
She leaned over and smelled his shirt. “All this time?”
“I got took over to Dan’s. Ma it was … I never been in there … you gotta believe me. I was so afraid I’d find Clancy there. There was women. I didn’t know what to do so I bolt out of there fast as I could.”
“Who took ya?”
“I don’t want to say. Don’t ask me. I wanted to see what went on in those places. That’s all.”
“I believe you Birk. I do.” She shook her head. “You go to bed. You got to meet that nun tomorrow.”
“The priest’s niece.”
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