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Coal Dusters – Chapter LXVI
Lillian unlocked the front doors to O’Dowell’s Sydney store. She bent over to pick up a few scraps of newspaper rear had blown into the corner. There was almost something caught in that corner. She left the door unlocked for the rest of the staff. She saw that Mr. Oakley, the store manager, was already there.
“Good morning Mr. Oakley.” She called out. “I’ll leaving the door open for the rest of the staff.”
She took of her gloves, then her hat as she walked up the stairs to her own private office on the second floor. It was a space in a back corner, reclaimed from the storage area on the second floor.
She had started working at the O’Dowell’s in New Waterford to pass the time. She explained to Clara that she wanted to learn the family business as she was now part of the family. Spending the winter days at their home hosting meetings of the various Women’s guilds that Clara was involved in didn’t appeal to her.
In the new year she moved to Sydney and started working at the Sydney store. Supposedly to learn even more about the business but it was part of her plan to escape Cape Breton. Mrs. Franklin had managed to sell her property in New Castleton and had opened a new boarding house on Cottage Road in Sydney.
“Mrs. O’Dowell would you come down when you have a chance.”
“Yes, Mr. Oakley.”
She quickly checked her hair and make-up in the mirror by the door of her office. She admitted the way the simple one-piece shift look both pretty and practical. She had convinced the other female clerks in the store that wearing what the store sold would sell even more.
As she walked down to the first floor she could smell coffee perking. That had been another of her suggestions. Some of the Boston department stores had lunch counters. Even though the trade at O’Dowell’s wasn’t as brisk as Boston’s she decided it would a worthwhile ‘experiment.’ So far it had been breaking even.
“Good morning Miss Lillian.” Theresa, the counter girl curtsied as Lillian walked past her. “Here is your coffee.”
“Something is smelling good.” Lillian took a sip. “What is it today?”
“Thank you ma’am. That would be the ginger crisp.”
Lillian went to the door of Mr. Oakley’s office.
“You wanted to speak with me?”
Before he could say anything a voice from behind said.
“Lillian I must speak with you.”
She recognized the voice immediately. “Not during working hours Uncle Patrick.” She replied without turning around.
“That’s quite alright Mrs. O’Dowell. We can discuss the Ladies Wear order later to day.”
She turned to face her uncle.
“Is there someplace more private we can talk.” He asked. “It is important or I wouldn’t have come here.”
Lillian knew that since the closure of the Castleton Mines the diocese had decided to close the church there so they wouldn’t have to replace her uncle when he left for Africa.
“We can go up to my office.”
Lillian’s office was so small there was only room for her desk and a chair for her behind it. Test rest of the room was shelving for goods and a file cabinet. There no place for anyone else to sit down.
She sat at her desk. “What is it?”
He took a document out of an inner pocket of his overcoat.
“I’ve done you a service.” He said. “You’ve been granted an annulment.”
“Yes. When I explain the circumstance of your marriage. That it was done without proper church requirements, that your husband died without the marriage being consummated the request for an annulment was granted.”
“I never requested this.” Lillian crushed the document in her hands. “My marriage stands. It will stand in a court of law. You know that very well. Steven’s lawyers ascertained that in probate.”
“Lillian, don’t you understand me. It frees you from any obligation you may feel to the O’Dowells. You are free to go back to Boston.”
“Boston.” She stood. “I have no intention of ever going back to Boston.”
“What keeps you here? It was clear when you arrived that you loathed this place, these people. I don’t see that has changed much. Is this your future?” He gestured at the office. “A struggling clothing store where you can be … what … queen? At least you arrived you had prideful ambitions for a bigger life.”
“Get out of here.” Lillian restrained from screaming at him. She realized that he was partially right. No matter what she accomplished at O’Dowell’s it would never be her home.
“Think about what I said Lillian.” He straightened out the decree of annulment. “All you have to do is sign it.”
“I said get out.” She came out from behind her desk.
He backed out of the office. “I’ll be leaving for the mainland this afternoon. The first step on my African adventure. I do have you to thank for that. If Miss O’Dowell hadn’t interceded with the Monsignor I may have remained trapped here as well.”
Lillian stood at the bottom of the stairs and watched as he left the store. Trapped! Was she trapped?
“He did what?” Mrs. Franklin handed Lillian the serving platter of scalloped potato.
“You heard me, he had my marriage annulled.” Lillian held the kitchen door open with her foot so Mrs. Franklin could pass through the to dining room with similar platter of pork chops.
They each placed their platters on the inning room table and took their places beside each other at the table. While the other boarders passed the platters around the table to help themselves Lillian continued.
“It’s as if I might have forget his action in the past.”
“What did he expect you to do?” Mrs. Franklin asked.
“He did realize that the marriage meant I was now a Canadian citizen. Steven’s death didn’t change that.”
“So you declined the offer.”
“Certainly. I also destroyed the document. Threw it in the furnace at the store. But he did say something that was worth while.”
“Yes that he felt trapped here and was grateful his actions towards me resulted in him being set free.”
“Of his obligations to the parish.”
“No one felt he was ever happy here, if you know what mean. Not that he was as unkind to others as he was to you but …”
“He didn’t make a home for himself here?”
“I am like him in that I way, Rose. I feel trapped here.”
In her room Lillian took out the leather binder that held her important papers. The Bank of Montreal’s white with blue cloth along the spine was the first thing she looked at. She checked it every night whether she had made a deposit or not. This was her money. It had grown over the months since Steven’s death.
There was finally enough for her to make plans. It was time to leave. All she needed was to decide where. No, she would decide that when she was her way. The train to Halifax would start her journey. Once she was there she make further plans.
The next morning at O’Dowell’s she informed Mr. Oakley of her decision to leave the store.
“This is rather sudden Mrs. O’Dowell.”
“I have been thinking on this for awhile and spring seems a good time to make such a move.”
“You’ve told Clara, I mean, Miss McDowell?”
“I will this afternoon. We will be finalizing the plans for unveiling Steven’s memorial this Sunday. I hope to be leaving the following day.”
“Where do you plan to go?” Mr. Oakley asked.
“I’ll be discussing that with Clara as well. Until then I’ll keep that to myself.”
The meeting Clara, Mrs. Donaldson and Mrs Donaldson took place over tea at Mrs. Franklin’s. Once the unveiling plans had been discussed with them she took the opportunity to make her announcement.
“Ladies.” She loudly to get their attention. “Mrs. Murphy, Mrs. Donaldson. I am deeply grateful for your concern and support over these past months. I feel I have a family here to replace the one I left in Boston.”
“Lillian …” Mrs. Murphy teared up.
“I know you will be happy to know that I have decided to bid you farewell.”
“You can’t mean you are going to leave us?” Mrs. Donaldson said.
“It hasn’t been an easy decision. I don’t think it’ll for long but I will be leaving. I’ve made some inquires and there are few places left in the next term at the Normal College in Truro. I shall go there to become a qualified to be a teacher for all your children.”
“Lillian!” Clara said. “What an excellent idea. I felt you were wasting your self in the store.”
“I won’t be leaving till after the unveiling of Steven’s monument.” she said.
“That’s an excellent plan.” said Mrs. Murphy. “I always knew you were a practical girl.”
Lillian took a tray of the used cups and saucers to the kitchen relieved that they had believed the half-truths she had told them. She had no intention of going the Normal College. Even if she did she would never come back to this place. Never.