Lillian was heating the small cast-iron frying pan for her uncle’s breakfast in the kitchen when the colliery whistle sounded. Three short and one long whistle was a sequence she hadn’t heard before. She had learned to recognize the morning, lunch and evening shift blasts that saved her from having worry about the time. That and the school bell were how she organized her day.
She had put the skillet on the stove and hadn’t broken the egg yet. Her uncle called down to her. “Was that three short blasts or four?”
“Three short Father Pat. What does it mean?”
“Trouble in the mine. An accident of some sort. Not a cave-in though. That’s four short and one long.” he called down.
The alert was sounded again.
“Will you have time for your breakfast.”
“No. Perhaps a cup of tea if it’s steeped.”
She poured him a cup. He was wearing his purple surplice that he wore only when visiting sick and probably dying parishioners. She watched as he checked his last rights box that included some small glass bottles for holy water and oil, a linen napkin, a cup, with a crucifix pinned on the inside of the lid next to a small engraving of Pope Pius XI
“It must be serious, though.” she said as he quickly gulped his tea.
“Yes. Serious enough to mean death.”
“Sorry Lillian. I didn’t stop to think. I’ve become used to these sort of harsh facts. Sit.” He pulled his chair away from the table for her to sit down. “I see you’ve cut my bread. Good I’ll take it along to fortify me.”
He picked up the leather travel case that held the things he’d need if he had to offer final unctions.
“Pack some food stuffs in a basket and bring them along in an hour or so.”
“Yes, Father Pat.”
He checked his travel case again and then left.
She took the skillet off the stove. The news of death made her lose her appetite. She checked and banked the embers in the stove. If she was leaving soon she couldn’t leave it unattended.
She went into the pantry and there were two baskets there. Her uncle hadn’t said which one; or how much food stuffs she was to bring. The small one she often used when they went to the Company store to pick up staples.
The other was much larger. More of a hamper than a basket. It hadn’t been used or moved since she had arrived there.
She scanned the pantry shelves to decide what it was she could bring. Bread. Yes, that was good place to start. She knew how to do that. She cut two loaves into slices. Surely he didn’t mean any of the staples. Would sliced bread and butter be enough? One of the parishioners had brought them some tomatoes the day before, she sliced those as well to make simple sandwiches.
She poured the already steeped tea into a large jar, added more water and more sugar than usual. A jar of those picked onions, also one of those jars of green tomato preserves. The miners would want food they could eat now, not stuff that had to be prepared. Food to be eaten with the hands. Then the pickled eggs would be suitable too. She never cared much for them.
Should she bring some plates? Napkins to wipe their hands on? No, the hamper was getting heavy. Some apples too though. Biscuits would be good with the tea. Surely someone else would be bringing tea. Once she was satisfied with the basket she went up to her room to change into a clean apron and a suitable dress.
Since her outburst earlier in the week her uncle had relented slightly and the mirror was back in her room. He allowed her to keep a couple of plain dresses for public wearing. Plain, once he had her remove all ribbons and lace, had her replace the buttons with plain black or white ones. Suitable for matrons of forty but still a little more presentable than the shifts she wore to do housework. Maybe a more colorful kerchief for her hair? No. Men were dead. At least a clean one though. Dark blue.
In the kitchen it took both arms for her to lift and carry the hamper. She had to put it down outside to shut the door properly.
On the street she knew vaguely which direction to walk to get to the colliery. The priest’s house was on Upper Chestnut on the west side of Castleton Mines. This was where the managers and other Company officials lived. Some of the houses were quite large. Theirs was one of the less ostentatious ones, it was only a little larger than the company houses the miner’s lived it.
It sloped down to Lower Chestnut. She’d never seen a chestnut tree along the street either upper or lower. She crossed Fortune Road that went down to the harbour.
On Victoria Avenue she walked quickly past the shops on the main street. She wanted to stop to look at the hats and dresses in the window of the catalogue office at the Company Store. The bright silks of one of the dresses caught at her eye. When would she ever wear one of those again? Where? Certainly not to the church, even for one of their many social functions.
The main street ended abruptly when she passed Carter’s carriage shop. She found herself in a maze of unnamed dirt lanes. This was what she had heard referred to as Mudside, sometimes even Orangetown because it was mainly Protestant families living here.
She knew the colliery gates were at the the end of Pitt Street. But there were no street signs to point the way. Several lanes meet at the intersection. The sun was in her eyes and she squinted to get her bearings.
The road was uneven underfoot and she found herself losing her grip on the hamper. Carrying it by the handle with one arm tired her arms quickly. It took both hands to manage it comfortably. If she merely held in front of her at waist level her knees kept bumping it, rattling the jars. She didn’t want to risk breaking anything. She knew that her uncle would see anything broken as a part of her deficiencies.
Why weren’t there even street signs on these lanes. Where she had stopped was more a back alley than a street. No sidewalks. The houses along the lanes were all the same. Mostly unpainted. Some with small patches of grass out front. Many with uneven, sagging roofs.
As she struggled she could hear dogs barking, babies crying. Different smells assaulted her as well. Rotting food, washing, feces, someone was cooking cabbage at this time of the day? With the pervasive smell of body waste underneath it all. As if night jars had been recently slopped into the street.
She looked down to make sure she wasn’t walking in or near something disgusting. But she couldn’t see directly in front of her because of the hamper. If only she could balance it on her head as she had seen in those engravings in one of her father’s travel books.
The image of herself with the hamper carefully balanced on her head made her smile. She longed for someone to tell this to. How her brother would laugh at such a suggestion. Or would he be horrified to learn how she was living now as a common household drudge.
She stopped at another corner to get her bearings. Two young men were approaching.
One was taller than the other. He was fair, with almost red hair and a nice set to his jaw. The shorter one was dark, the grime on his skin looked ingrained. Clearly they were miners.
“Is this the way to the colliery?” she asked setting down her basket.
The men stepped closer to her. She could smell the mines on them. She had become accustomed to this oily smell being in the air at certain times of the day. On these men it was more pungent than she had noticed it on the parishioners when she was at mass. Of course these men hadn’t spent the morning getting cleaned up for church.
Was this how they always smelled? A mix of unwashed clothes, that coal oil smell and earth. Yes, that was it, the smell of freshly turned earth. They smelled of the grave.
As they came closer she saw that the grime on the shorter one was his beard, or rather, his unshaven face. Even though his shirt was fully buttoned and she could see that he had hair up to his throat, even the backs of his hands were covered with black hair. His unwashed smell was overpowering.
They pointed her in the direction of the mines. One even offered to help her carry the hamper but she declined. Because she didn’t recognize either of these men from services as St. Agatha’s she doubted if they were parishioner of her uncle’s. If he saw her arriving with a non-parishioner she was sure he would be enraged.
She hefted the hamper to one hip and went on her way. Why hadn’t she thought of carrying it this way sooner?
It took her less than twenty minutes to get to the colliery entrance. There were women and children milling about waiting to hear about their loved ones. She went to the gate keeper.
“Can you direct me to Father Patrick?” she asked him “I’m Lillian McTavish, his niece and have brought some provisions he requested.”
“Good morning miss. I think he’s in the infirmary. That’s were they’ve been bringing the bodies.”
Her knees weaken.
“I’ll get one of the men to take you to him. Manny,” he shouted over her head. “Manny come here and help this young lady.”
A short heavy set young man separated himself from a group of other men.
“Manny O’Dowell, ” he bowed quickly. “Miss McTavish.”
She recognized him from mass.
“I’ll help you with that.” He took the hamper. “Heavy! You been carrying this far?”
“Oh yes.” she followed him. “From the house.”
“Quite a weight for wee thing such as yourself.”
“I can manage.” His remark pleased her, bolstered her spirits. She wasn’t as useless about some things as her uncle made her out to be.
“Father Patrick.” Manny called out when they went into foyer of the infirmary.
“He’s at the rear.” one of the aide’s said. “But … not to be disturbed.”
“Let him know Miss McTavish is here.” he put the basket down.
“Thank you,” Lillian said.
The hospital smelled of disinfectant, vomit and human waste. Her nose curled.
“The gas makes them vomit.” Manny explained. “That’s a good thing. Gets out of their system faster.”
“Gas?” she asked. She looked for some place to sit.
“Yes, miss. The coal damp. It seeps in through the coal you see. The ventilation system clears it out so as not to harm the men but sometimes it can get trapped in a turn or a tunnel. Deadly. Kills fast.” He snapped his fingers. “You can’t even smell it.”
She was faint and reached out to the wall to keep from falling.
“You alright, miss?” Manny moved closer and she ended up leaning against him. He slipped an arm around her waist to keep her from falling to the floor.
“Yes I’m fine.” She tried to push him from her. She didn’t want her uncle to appear and find her in the arms of a stranger.
“I brought some food stuffs.” She pulled the basket towards her.
“Ah, Lillian.” her uncle came into the infirmary foyer. “What took you so long? Let’s see what you’ve brought.” He flipped the basket open. “Good. Good. What’s this?”
He pulled out one of the jars of blackberry jam. “I hope you brought something to spread this with? If not you might as well have left it at home. Good, I see you did have sense to cut some bread for the men. Tea too. No cups though? Well I’m sure the men will have their mugs for tea. No milk for the tea?”
Lillian held back her tears. “No Father Patrick. I … I …”
“This is good.” Manny said as he bit into one of the sandwiches. “Most of us had our lunch pails with us but, well, who has had time to find them in all that’s been going on.” He opened the blackberry jam and scooped some out with a jackknife he took from his jacket pocket. “None of the men goes far without something ter eat with Father. Our hands often aren’t all that clean, you see.”
He held his left hand out for Lillian to examine.
Short thick fingers with lines almost inked in with coal dust; under his fingernails was black as coal too. She shuddered at the thought of eating anything with those hands. Yet here he was with the white bread she had cut, eating a sandwich. A bit of tomato drooled down his chin.
“Yes, I see.”
“This is excellent Lillian, my child.” Her uncle said. “What more could one expect at such short notice.”
“Have many … ”
“There were several deaths. Not all from my flock though. You don’t have to stay any longer.”
“Oh.” Lillian had imagined herself sitting at the bed side of an injured miner, holding his hand or wiping his brow with a damp white cloth as he moaned in pain. Even helping change his bandages. Or give sympathy to a grieving widow.
“I have nothing more to do here. If you’d permit I can accompany Miss McTavish back to the rectory.” Manny offered.
“No, that won’t be necessary.” Father Patrick said. “Perhaps there is something for you to do, my girl.”
“Bring that along.” Father Pat nodded to Manny and then the basket. He lead them to the shed where the Draeger men were.
“Good afternoon, gentlemen. We’ve brought you some refreshments.”
Manny put the hamper on a low stool. Lillian stood behind and opened it up.
“My niece will be happy to serve you.”
“Thank you father.” Two of the men stood up.
“All the miners are up now?” he asked.
“Yes Father. All accounted for.”
“Good. That means no more rites for me to perform here today, Lillian. Once you have served these men I’ll walk home with you.” He give Manny nod to dismiss him.
Some of the men were still wearing their outer suits. Another was carefully removing his. To Lillian they were creatures shedding a skin to reveal another being underneath.
That other being was Steven O’Dowell.
“Miss McTavish, this is an unexpected pleasure.” He said as he hung the clumsy suit on the wall.
“I didn’t know you worked in the mines. Mr. O’Dowell.”
“On call as a Draeger man. I was special trained during the war. There was gas there to deal with as well.”
As he put his equipment away he explained how they stored their gear, checked the connections for the oxygen canisters, how they refilled the canisters and how the breathing apparatus worked.
“The suits are quite heavy Miss, it takes a strong man to wear ’em for long.”
“And fearless.” added one of the others.
“Only drawback is that you can’t communicate well with one another.”
“Drawback for you Gilles. Not having t’ listen t’ you is a blessing if you ask me.” Mr. O’Dowell said.
“Not having took at yer ugly puss is something I always look f’ward to.”
The men laughed at this.
Lillian wondered if the men were always this light hearted after a rescue, after so many had lost their lives.
“Sorry, miss. We gets a bit silly sometimes.” one of them said. “That pure oxygen can effect us in strange ways.”
“So can a pretty face, Steven?” one of them laughed.
“Ahem.” he uncle gave a little cough. “The hamper seems sufficiently emptied. I think it’s time to take it, and you home my dear.”
“Yes Father Pat.”
Most of the jars of jam and other preserves she had brought were empty. All the sandwiches and apples were gone. She packed what remained back in the hamper. Her uncle carried it home.
“You seem to have your usual effect on the eligible young men, Lillian,”
“Mr. O’Dowell isn’t that young Father Pat.”
“That man,” He replied testily, “Is a rogue. More than one innocent girl has been comprised by him. He acts as if his bravery gave him permission to act as he sees fit and that he deserves their gratitude rather having to seek their or God’s forgiveness.”
“I have met men of his ilk in Boston.”
She thought of when she first met David Henderson at a dinner party of her father’s. He was brash, fresh from the war with his own medals to prove his valour. Medals that swept her off her feet.
“So I understand.” Her Uncle replied.
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