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Coal Dusters – Chapter LXV
Gets An Offer
Over the winter Birk settled into the routine of a new above ground life. Most days he was able to catch a ride to the Patterson Woodworks with T’Jean who lived a few streets over from them in Sydney. The mill offered snow shovelling to those who could afford it, so Birk was kept busy while the millworks was idle. He’d rather shovel snow that coal any day. He also enjoyed improving his carpentry skills in their workshop.
Spring was slow to come but burst suddenly upon the island. One mild day he spent unloading and sorting the first truck load of timber for the spring. At the end of the day he unconsciously went down the ferry back to Castleton Mines. He was half way down the lane from the colliery before he saw what he had done.
He stood in front of their old house, the sun reflecting off the windows. He walked to the back. There was nothing drying on the porch rail, nothing flapping on the clothes line, only the remains of the wood pile for the stove. The garden had green shoots sprouting.
He went into the house through the back door. The kitchen was empty without his mother at the sink. The floor where the stove had been was charred, the wall behind it discoloured. The living room was larger and wooden floors cleaner than he knew.
The stairs creaked as he went up to his room. The steps were uneven in ways he had never noticed before. The wallpaper yellowed and peeled away from the wall along the ceiling from where water always leaked through.
His sisters room smelled of them. They had never gotten around to fixing that spot on the wall where the girls fell one Christmas and cracked through the plaster to the lathing. The area around it was white after being covered by some drawing his sisters had made to hide it from them.
He went to his room half-expecting to find Clancy there. The room was as empty as all the others. There was pillow tossed in the corner, a single sock in the corner of the cupboard. The floor was gouged where the feet of the bed had rubbed a rut over the years.
He went out the front door. The only solid door in the house. He had helped his Dad and Geo rebuild the door frame under his mother’s watchful eye.
“A front door that was solid will keep a house from falling down around your ears.” She had said. She was right about that. Too bad it hadn’t been solid enough to keep the family inside.
“Come back for one last look?” Jake Malone from across the lane said from the front of his house.
“Turns out that way. So used to coming back here after work I came back here after work.” Birk laughed.
“Them old ways is sure hard to shake off.”
“You here for much longer?”
“Probably. BritCan may be gone but life here has to go one. I’m fixed with Jim Gillum on the boats. You?”
“Looks good for me at the Patterson’s Millworks.”
“Good on you. Yer mate?”
“Clancy? Not sure. He went back the mainland before Christmas. Nothing to hold him here.”
“Shame. You and he got along pretty good. Hard to find a mate that loyal.”
“I knows that.”
“Yeah after all that shite that got talked about you and that McTavish bitch he stuck by you. That’s a true mate.”
Birk was shocked to hear Lillian called a bitch. “She don’t mean no harm Jake. No need to cuss her out.”
“Don’t be so forgiving Birk m’boy. Them micks think cause they know a bit of Latin they can lord it over the rest of us. Let’em get away with that and there’ll be no end of it.”
“Best get going. Ma’ll wonder what became of me if I don’t get back to Sydney soon. Hours late as it is.”
“Tell’em we miss you even thought it’s been a day.”
The steel plant whistle was blowing 11 p.m. when Birk finally arrived home.
“Where you been boy?” His mother said. “Sent your sister over to T’Jeans to see what became of you. You could’a fallen into one of them saws for all we knew.”
“Sorry Ma. You’ll get a laugh when I tell you what I did. When I left the mill works I headed back to Mudside.”
“Yes’m, my feet took me back the old way and rest of me followed. The old house sure looks empty without us. I heard that Mrs. Franklin sold off her boarding house. Setting up the same here in Sydney.”
“You want a bite of supper?”
“Na sat a spell with Jake Malone. He’s working on the boats for now. I’m going to turn in. This house is so quiet without all the boards shifting but the noise of the plant can get some fierce too.”
“Go up quiet now. Yer Pa’s sleeping like I never see before.”
Birk took off his boots and tip-toed up to his room. He reached for the lamp then remembered they had lights, electric lights. But his Ma had been sitting in the back kitchen with only a lantern on. One of her old routines that was hard to break. He left the light off and went to the window.
He looked out to the houses around him and some of them had a lanterns flickering in a window. He turned the light on and had to close his eyes as it was too bright. Then turned it off quickly. Who needed so much brightness at night.
In the dark he went to the bathroom and ran some water to wash his face and hands. He was getting used to a bathroom with its own tub and running water. The old company house had a pump in the kitchen and buckets to bring water upstairs for washing up.
He folded his overalls on top of the dresser. This room about the same size as the old one. Longer but not as wide leaving no room between the bed and the wall for more than his legs. He was too restless to fall asleep. The house smelled so different.
Sydney smelled so different from Castleton Mines. So close to the plant the the air was sour and sooty. Not that the pits smelled much better but once you got far enough away some of the smell was gone. Here it seemed to be everywhere. The midnight whistle sounded as he drifted off.
During his lunch break at the mill Birk heard a familiar singing near by.
“This is the hands that makes the boards, this is the hands that picks up sticks.”
Birk jumped up on top of a squared pile of lumber to peer around.
“Clancy! Where the hell are you by?”
“Hiding in the woodpile.” Came the reply.
“I’ll give you a hidin’ if you don’t show yer face.” He jumped to the ground and darted along the piled squares.
“This is the dog that can’t find a stick.” Came from behind him.
He spun around and there was Clancy. He grabbed Clancy and wrestled him to the ground.
“Enough. Enough.” Clancy laughed and pushed him away. They stood up and brushed saw dust off their clothes.
“It’s months since we last saw ya b’y.”
“I know. I been working with my cousins down Hawksbury way. Tough work keeping that train moving across at Canso.”
“I thought might be doing more schoolin’?”
“Takes money to do that ‘less I ‘prentice with someone. Even that getting harder to find though.”
“So you back again. For good?”
“Can’t say but I’m for a bit.” He took a roll of money out of his pocket. “Made hundred-fifty bucks though so …”
“You rob a bank Clancy Sinclair?”
“Me! You know me to do a dishonest day’s work?”
“Tell me!” Birk stared at the money. He had never seen that much cash in anyone’s hand.
“I’ll be back when you get finish here.”
“T’Jean’ll take us back to Sydney.”
It started to rain at the end of the work day so they sat in the front cab of the truck instead of stretching out in the back box. Birk between T’Jean and Clancy.
“Snug b’ys.” T’Jean said.
“Better close than wet.” Birk said enjoying the nearness of Clancy.
“You smell like a pine box.” Clancy said.
“At’s what Ma says. She isn’t missing me coming back with coal dust in my hair. Least way I can actually wash this out.”
“You know the Sinclair’s over Boularderie?” T’Jean asked.
“Can’t say as I do. My Dad was Kenny Sinclair. Worked for the railway. Can’t say as he ever got over to the island much though. My Ma is related to the Roberts in Louisbourg.”
“Runs the bakery over there?”
“Yes. I should look them up too. Never thought of them. Cousins nearly as good as folks, right?”
“Depends on what you expect from them.’ T’Jean said. “The less you want the happier they’ll be to see you.”
Birk listened to Clancy and T’Jean talk families for the entire ride to Whitney Pier. He found out that Clancy had more kin here than he’d known before.
They got out at T’James. Three girls rushed out to greet him.
“You’ve met my daughters. Clarice, Catherine, Christine.” Each did a little wave as her name was said. “All getting to marriage age. This here be Clancy. Time to add another C to the household?”
“Poppa.” Catherine squealed. “Mama’s down at Aunt Mary’s”
“Thanks again for the ride T’Jean.” Birk said as he and Clancy headed down the street.
“Clarice, Catherine and Christine?”
“Runs in his family. He’s got brothers and sisters Jerome, Jenny and …”
“Jumpin’ Jesus?” Clancy laughed.
“James. So tell me!” Birk demanded.
“Tell you what?”
“Where did you get all that money?”
“From the railroad pension of my Pa’s. I can draw on once’t a year. This is as good a time as any to do that.”
“Not while we was scrounging in the woods for mushrooms during the strike.” Birk said.
“I was tempted but with so many in need around that I wouldn’t have helped anyone. Now it might do some good. And I found out some better news.”
“My rail pass is good for two. Me for free and you for half-price.”
“Me! Where we going to go?”
“Any where the railway takes us. Montreal. Toronto. We can leave here.”
“What put that idea in your head?” They stopped in front of the house.
“You did. There isn’t anything to hold us here. Work?”
“There’s no future for us here. The BritCan company has pretty much seen to that. Sons moving away. Fathers crushed in mine collapses. Sisters dying overnight. Isn’t that message getting through you. This island is worse than the water at the bottom of shaft. Wake up and get out of here with me.”
Birk’s mother came to the door.
“Get in here. Where you been Clancy Sinclair?”