The Colliery

The Colliery

while white sun simmers 

ocean’s edge 

we enter the colliery 

follow the guide 

metal basket jostles us down 

down 

smell coal seeping ocean 

light becomes dark then black 

 

thin beams from helmet lamps
graze without illuminating 

faces arms
fire fly flash of teeth tongue
the guide’s words roll out over echoless drips
a silence that stifles our breathing
the chilled walls absorb everything
wooden struts hold the earth from us
coal buffering the echo of our shuffle
as we crouch lower to fit

tiny lamp light glances off rock surfaces
jagged caroms of cold flashes
was that a face an arm
embedded between strata of earth
a zig-zag white trace
slipping in the endless squeeze 

from above below 

the passage narrowing even more
as we scrabble along hunched crabs
feel the ground 

hope for traction 

ache to stand but can’t
air thicker presses on all sides
can these wooden splints 

keep us safe 

 

a pressure in the lungs
the scatter of the fear 

is this the way I want to go
squished in a tremble of tectonic plates
hugged by the earth’s crust

 

we turn a corner catch our breath
the guide filling in gaps
stunned that so many men
spent their lives down here
ate slept shivered exited eventually
to return day after day
did they dare seek comfort 

in one another’s arms 

 

we shiver from black to dark to light
brought to the surface 

to life 

to summer 

where heavy clouds have formed
lightning races the horizon
rumble of thick thunder
blanket of rain falls
to wash us clean of the abyss
we never have to return to

 

This piece goes back to my visit to Cape Breton in 2012. One day we went to the Miner’s Museum in Glace Bay. I took that opportunity to visit a coal mine that was part of the facility. They gave us rubberized ponchos to wear and we waited in the change room for a while. from he high ceiling there were actual miner’s work clothes hanging as they would have when the mine was operational.

 

We wore modern helmets with small lamps on them & that was the main illumination for our tour. The beam was quite forced so, as the piece, says they only illuminated what you looked at. I half expected mine to fall on a face in a dark corner, or on a hand that was reaching out for me.

It was stressful to see the wooden stavings, that held up the ceiling & the walls knowing that that was all that held up the tons of earth over our heads. One clearly got the feeling what it was like down there & it made the sense of camaraderie the miners felt for each other very real.

The tour didn’t include us actually digging for coal though. We did get to sit the lunch area. We did get to steel the air, feel the floor, touch the walls, get dripped on by the sea. It was here that the idea for Coal Dusters was fully formed. Looking at the pictures of the men, some in early teens, who worked down here I wondered about their lives. We know all about their families but there was never a hint that their camaraderie might have been more than just that. 

 

When I have performed this piece people have told me it gave them chills, made them feel that suffocating claustrophobia. For me it was profound & haunting experience I was happy to share.

 

previous Brown Betty posts:

Man With A Past 1 https://wp.me/p1RtxU-3B3

When I Was A Young Boy  https://wp.me/p1RtxU-3By

Home (not of the brave) https://wp.me/p1RtxU-3Cg

Nailed https://wp.me/p1RtxU-3D9

Unmasked https://wp.me/p1RtxU-3EE


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Chapter LVI – Birk Dreams of Beans 

Coal Dusters: Book 1 is now available as as PDF – this covers the first 35 chapters – 65540 words – send $1.99 to  paypal.me/TOpoet

Coal Dusters – Chapter LVI

Birk Dreams

of

Beans 

The coughing miners pulled back from the sudden fall of grit and scree. Birk covered his eyes as best he could to protect them from the dust to stagger to where Clancy was stretched out. 

“Sounds bad.” Clancy said.

“Tis.” Birk found Clancy’s hand and squeezed, “We’ll get out of here.”

“I’m praying for real.” Clancy gave a dry laugh. “Yer ma’d be so happy.”

“We all are.” Birk said. “I don’t want to die like this.”

“No one does.” Clancy said pulling Birk closer to him. “We have more fish to catch.” He whispered into Birk’s ear.

Red and Ken Langley stumbled out of the shaft and onto the floor.

“Cage is jammed solid between levels five and four.” Red said. “Can’t squeeze past it.”

“What about the trap in the cage floor?” one of the miners asked.

“I couldn’t get a good enough grip on it with m’hands. We need some sort of way to pry at it and hold to the wall at the same time. Someone light enough so as I can give hold to him in place long enough.” Red said.

“He’s talking about you Birk!” Clancy muttered as he gripped Birk’s forearm.

Birk nodded but wasn’t sure he’d have the strength to do what was expected. He couldn’t picture the bottom of the cage. When he went down in it all he cared about was that it was firm beneath his feet.

“Who’s the smallest here.” Sandy asked.

“That’ll be me.” Birk let go of Clancy’s arm and stood. 

“So y’are Birk Nelson, so you are. Your dad’ll ner forgive me if anything happens to you.”

“He’ll never forgive me if I don’t do what I can now either. If we’re dead there’ll be none to forgive. What’s the plan? My head is hard but not that hard.”

He knelt beside Clancy. “I’ll get us to the lake.”

He let Clancy pull him close for a moment. He hoped Clancy couldn’t feel his heart racing with fear.

“Anyone got a pick?” Red asked. “Or a better yet a crow bar. Small enough to carry up a few hundred feet.”

A couple of the miner’s dropped to their knees to feel through the rubble. 

“All’s we have is these couple of shovels, Red. We dropped everything when we ran to get here.” Sandy said handing Birk one of them.

Birk took the shovel and struck it hard against the floor. The blade sparked. 

“Careful boy.” one of the miners said. “We don’t can’t risk setting gas off.”

“If that was a danger we’d all be dead now.” Sandy said. “Might have been a blessin’ in the long run. Better than waiting down here.”

“I was hoping for something stronger than this.” Birk tested the wood for breaks. “But if it’s best we got, it’ll have to do. I’ll make the most of it.”

“Give me your belts boys.” Red said. “We can use them to hook on to the cage floor for safety.”

Birk strapped a couple of the belts around his chest and pushed the shovel between them at his back so his hands would be free for the climb. He hadn’t clambered up or down the cage shaft since he was a kid. Once he Geo had snuck in to the pit and without thinking began to climb down the side of what they thought was the empty shaft. When they heard the creak of the car being hauled up they panicked and didn’t know what to do. Didn’t know if they could get up before it reached them. 

That time he found a shallow recess barely big enough for him where he and Geo were able to press themselves into while the cage rattled past.

Birk looked up the shaft and there wasn’t even a thin light reflection from above or below. It was darker than he could remember it ever being. 

He recalled Lillian telling him it was a shame he had to start working in the mine so young. He’d told her ‘That’s how it’s done here. Schoolin’s fine for them who expect to make more of themselves. I’m happy to bring something home to keep the family fed.’ Now he’d probably die here.

He took a deep breath and reached up for the first of the hand holds in the framework and swung himself up over the pit. He could hear the drip of water from below. Once he had pulled himself up far enough for his feet to find the holds he moved faster. Red was right behind him. 

Some of the holds were loose in the rock, others were tight to the frame. His eyes peered for the next one. Once he reached for one and that wasn’t there and lost his footing. “Oh God!” he gasped as he pulled himself hard to the wall with the hand that was clutching the scaffolding.

“You okay, Birk.”

“Yeh Red. Hope I didn’t piss in yer face.” He was cold and sweating at the same time. His undershirt was sticking to him and he longed to scratch his balls. “Got an itch that I can’t scratch.” He laughed and the laughing calmed him down.

“That’s the story of every man who gets married.” Red laughed a little.

They came to where the cage was jammed. The trap door was on the bottom of the cage on the side furthest from them. A slight light filtered from above. Birk could see where the slide catch was and also saw that there was rubble on top of it.

Red threaded a couple of the belts and a rope he had brought through the spaces in the iron slats of cage floor.

“Hold on to these as best you can.” He helped Birk slip his arms through the loops. “If I lose grip of ya these’ll should hold you.”

“Same as that guy in the circus.” Birk was trembling. “You got no safety thing for you?”

“M’legs’ll hold me here.” He’d squeezed one of his legs between the scaffold and the wall.

“It’s alright to be scared, lad.” He kept an arm around Birk’s waist as Birk leaned as far forward as he could and tried to pry at the catch.

Birk locked his gaze on the underside of the cage. Even though it was pitch dark beneath him he knew it was a far drop with nothing between him the the levels beneath.

He tested his weight on the belts that Red had wound around his shoulder and slotted through the bottom of the cage. They held firm enough but didn’t leave much head room to move around in. Birk angled himself as best he could and pushed at the catch with the blade of the shovel. It didn’t give.

“How’s it lookin’ lad?” Red asked.

“Doesn’t feel’s if it’s ever been opened. Stuff on top of it holding it in place. Maybe if I can reach with m’fingers I can grasp it.” He leaned a bit further. One of the belts loosened. His saw red as he abruptly lurched out of Red’s hold.

“My God!” Red pitched forward off his perch on the scaffolding.

Birk felt Red’s hands grab at his coveralls but not find a way hold. Birk twisted to see if he could help. In seconds Red was gone. A few moments later he heard a dull thud as Red’s body hit the bottom of the shaft.

Birk was dangling, held by the belts, from the bottom of cage. His whole weight thrown on it. The cage groaned and shuddered but remained where it was. He blew at the dust on his face. He was afraid to move his arms lest they slip out of the belts.

He tried to get a foot hold but his feet couldn’t reach either wall. He squinted again at the trap. Each motion caused him to sway in the dark. His eyes saw spots and he didn’t know where to look. He felt like a bean vine clinging at anything it could get a hold of as it grew. He heard Sal giggling in their garden patch.

She’d been out there every day checking on the beans she’d planted. After the looting of the company store she’d found some dried beans in ashes. She soaked them for a week or so in saucer of water and to his surprise they’d began to spout. She planted them and reported to him daily as the the sprouts became stalks that sprouted leaves and more stems that climbed up around the fence. Now it was flowering.

“Sal!” he’d told her. “They won’t grow any faster with you watching them.” She was on her back staring up at the climbers. “Come on!”

“Come on!” she said to him. “Come on Birk.”

He shook his head. The seam in his coveralls cut into the flesh between his legs. The giggle was the squeak of the cage inches from his head.

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Chapter Lii – Birk Back Underground

Coal Dusters: Book 1 is now available as as PDF – this covers the first 35 chapters – 65540 words – send $1.99 to  paypal.me/TOpoet

Coal Dusters – Chapter Lii

Birk

Back

Underground

Birk woke with a start. Clancy was at the foot of the bed, shaking the frame gently until he woke.

“You know strike’s over b’y.” 

Birk pushed himself up, not sure if he was dreaming. “Wha?”

“We gets to go back today. Election’s over too. Winning don’t change a thing.” Clancy tossed his rucksack on the dresser.

“I knows that.” Birk sat up and put his legs over the side of the bed.

“You sleepin’ as if there’s nothing to do.”

“I’m sleeping the way someone who don’t have to share his bed with someone who tosses like a … a shirt on the line on a windy day.”

“And smells as fresh.”

“Yeh, freshly fished out of a net.” Birk tossed his pillow at Clancy. “So you’re back?”

“Had to check up on my mother before going back to the colliery here. Nothing better to do.”

“I was getting use to having all this bed to myself.” He pulled his work pants on and pushed his feet into his work boots. “Been a while since I wore these. Kinda stiff.”

He stood facing Clancy. He’d forgotten how blue Clancy’s eyes were. He grinned not know what else to do or say. He thought of grappling with Clancy, wrestle him to the floor but reached out and mussed his hair instead.

“Time’s a-wasting!” A shout came from the bottom of the stair.

“Yer Ma hasn’t changed.”

“Good things never do.” Birk laughed.

 

No management was to be seen when the miners gathered for their first day in the mine. Father Patrick was there to to bless their efforts so that the town could be rebuilt in the light of God.

The first days in the pits where spent making sure the shafts and stavings were sound enough for the mine to be worked. After the endless weeks of inaction it was good to be back at the work but at the same they would only get paid for the coal they produced. There was no pay for replacing, reinforcing the hoardings, for doing all the maintenance work that had gone undone during the strike. The scabs that the company had trucked in lacked the skills to do more than sweep and shovel so they only worked the first tunnels.

“You’d think they’ve cleaned out the carts at least.” Red grunted as they went down for their first maintenance shift.

“Least they ventilated the shafts. Inspector went through ‘em already to make sure.”

“They don’t want to kill us that fast. At least not before we reopen.”

No one was happy about the way the strike had been settled. Everything forced on them by the management, the government, who didn’t appear to care about the miners but only about their taxes and dividends. The newly elected provincial government couldn’t undo what the Feds had done despite their promise to do so.

Birk was too focused on getting things ready to be bothered talking much with Clancy beyond quick grunts of agreement as they did their tasks. When he got back at night after their shift he was too tired to talk. Sometimes they both fell asleep during dinner. But he could sense Clancy’s restlessness.

Even as he tried to keep his distance in the bed, their shoulders or hands would brush briefly in the night. Clancy had something on his mind but Birk couldn’t get him to talk about more than the mines.

“What did you make of what the men of the cloth had to say before they let us go down today.” Birk asked Clancy as they walked home after their shift.

“They mean well but that Father Pat always acts as if he’s judging us and not happy with what he sees. Father Browne acts as if he knows how hard it is to be as good as we aim to be.”

“Too bad he didn’t give us all that other prayer.  Mac was always fond of one that went  ‘Each dawn as I rise, Lord, to face a pit filled with hell. To scratch out a living as best that I can. But deep in m’ heart is the soul of a man. My black covered face and calloused hands, rides the dark tunnels.’ When I was small Mac’d sing that and then chase with his hands stretched trying to tickle us boys.”

“I can see that now.” Clancy laughed. “My Dad was never around much to play with us. When he was it more shouting as us to keep quiet and sit still.”

“The dark tunnels used to scare me some. I’d have nightmares about them and the black faces trying to eat my soul.”

“That I can understand. Can’t imagine even a mick’d be thankful to be made a miner though.” Clancy said.

“Least ways they came to bless us without making the micks stand on the side the rest of us on t’other.”

 

Birk and Clancy joined the miners who were massed in the work yard around the opening to the colliery.

“What’s going on?” Clancy asked.

“Steve O’Dowell is here to wish us well on our first paid day back to work.” someone said.

“That explains the reporters from the Post and the Herald.” someone else said.

“Can’t say as I’d hold that against him,” Red Mac said. “He’ll do a good job getting us back a decent contract. Armstrong wanted us to settle for nothing.”

“Where’s  O’Dowell? We want get down there before lunch break.” someone said.

“Up in the office with James Bowden. Waiting on final word from the inspectors it’s safe to go down.” Someone else said. “Otherwise Bowden would send us down.”

Scotty Sullivan, the assistant manager, came out of the management building. Red Mac, the shift foreman, walked over to him.

“Much longer?” Red asked.

“Nah, you can start down now if you want. Inspectors say all but bottom level’s been okay’d.”

“You know we can’t start until all have been given the okay.” Red said.

“We won’t send any shifts down to that level.” Sullivan replied.

“You know we can’t do that?’ Red said firmly.

“I’ll let the press know that on the first day the mine’s were opened that the union was refused to go back to work after signing the contract. Suits me fine.”

“You bastard.” someone shouted. “So it starts already!”

There was grumbling amongst the miners.

“If you fellas have done as good job down there as you claim to have done on the other levels what are you afraid of. BritCan didn’t ask for a rush job half-assed done by you qualified miners.”

“You were told it would take either more men or more time.” Red said.

“Not my problem. Today is when we are to open and either we open, or your union face the consequences.” Sullivan walked over to the the boxes upended to make a low stage. He stepped up, “If any of you men are unsure about the safety of the mine after you’ve been the ones to do the repairs you are free to leave. There are those who are eager and willing to do an honest work for reasonable pay.”

Birk turned to Clancy. “What do you think?”

“I think we’re ready to work. They push us around now to prove they are still in control.”

Steven O’Dowell and Gus Murphy came out of the office with James Bowden, Father Patrick and Reverend Browne and walked through the men. Steven was wearing miner’s coveralls, carrying a pick and one of the helmets. He could have passed for one of them except for the white shirt and tie he had on under the coveralls.

He stepped up on the overturned boxes. The miners cheered and applauded.

“Men. Friends. I call you friends because I am one of you and will be even more so after this day.” There was more cheers and applause. “I’ll be going down into the mine to work with you. Something my predecessor never did.”

“When’s the date?” someone called out.

“Date?” Steven asked. “Oh! My wedding. Funny you should ask that as we set the date this morning before I came here. It’ll be two weeks from today at St. Teresa’s in Sydney. She’s over to O’Dowell’s in Sydney this morning to pick out a wedding dress. You are all invited to come.”

The men stomped and whistled.

“Now before we go down Father Patrick and Reverend Browne are here to offer blessings. Father Patrick.”

Steven stepped off the box and Father Patrick stepped on it.

“Parishioners, men, it is with great happiness that I see you finally getting back to your calling. I’ll offer two short prayers. First the Ave Maria. 

Ave Maria, gratia plena,
Dominus tecum
Benedicta tu in mulieribus,
et benedictus
fructus ventris tui, Iesus
Sancta Maria, Mater Dei
ora pro nobis peccatoribus,
nunc, et in hora mortis nostrae
Amen.”

Several of the miners joined in while others of the Catholics mumbled along as best they could.

“The other is one that, with a small change of my own, suits all men. “O My God, I adore Thee and I love Thee with all my heart. I thank Thee for having created me, for having made me a miner and for having watch over me this day. Pardon me for the evil I have may done; and if I have done any good, deign to accept it. Watch over me while I take my rest and deliver me from danger. May Thy grace be always with me. Amen.’ God bless and God speed you all.”

The men applauded politely.

“Now for the rest of you Father Browne will offer some words.”

Father Browne stepped on the box. “Those of you who know me know I’m a plain spoken man. My father was one you and died in the mines. I’ve seen trials and tribulations and I’ve seen brave miners rise to them and to help each other as best as they. I’ll use no fancy words,” he glanced at Father Patrick, “but I’ll offer one I heard often from my father.

“Look at these hands, Lord, worn and rough. A face scarred with coal marks, and my language is tough. But you know in the heart, Lord, is the soul of a man that toils at a living few men can stand. Sulphur, coal dust and sweat on my brow. If you’ve got a corner after my work is through, I’d be mighty proud to live, neighbours with you.”

Most of the miners joined him from the first line. They stomped and roared as he finished. He stepped off the box.

“Who’s ready to go to work.” Steven pulled on his helmet, hefted the pick-ax over his shoulder and hopped off the box. He went into the crowd shaking hands with the miners. “I may have to borrow a lunch form one of ya. Got so rushed to be here I forgot to pack a lunch pail.”

A couple of the miners lifted him up on to their shoulders and lead the way to cars that would take them to the cages down. He went down with the first group of miners.

Birk and Clancy went down the with second group.

They got off at their level. Red was waiting as their shift crew got off.

“Where’s our fair haired boy go to?” One of them asked.

“Down to next level. Said he wanted to see how they did a blast. Virgil’s as good a blaster as any we’ve got. He’ll make sure O’Dowell gets a good show.”

“There’ll be campaign speeches out of this for his next run, sure.” Someone said before they headed down to the various staging areas where they were working. “Least Father Browne knows the work the way that Papist bastard ever will.”

“Least he speaks English.” Another of them laughed.

“I’m surprised that priest don’t crawl down to scatter holy water on the seams for luck.”

“Nah we’ll do that with our own holy water.” one of the miners joked.

“Don’t be pissing down on me ‘cause if you do he’ll down to give you the last rights.” Another said.

“Be careful boys or you’ll slipping someone’s shit before you know it.”

“Won’t be yours. We know that stink anywhere.”

The miners laughed.

“Everything look good?” Birk asked letting his lantern play over the joists.

“Given the time we had, things looking great.” Red said. “Try to pace yourselves some though. We’re not going to make up for all that money lost in the first day.”

Birk and Clancy made their way to the face they were assigned to work.

“You think O’Dowell’s going use that pick much?” Clancy asked.

“Only on his teeth.”

“That is if they’re his own.”

“Best hope there’s no gas down there, they’ll never smell it over that perfume he’s wearing.”

“Didn’t smell half bad to me. Better than most of stench when we’re down here. Wonder if she picked it for him?”

“Nah, that’s what he stunk of before she ever showed up. You could always tell when O’Dowell had been anywhere.” Birk laughed.

They came to where they were going to be working. The first severals blows with the pick numbed Birk’s hands then he stopped feeling anything expect the way the point connected with the coal. When he stopped to catch his breath he could hear Clancy raking behind him and singing.

“This is the way we pay

This is the way we pay

for the right to die this way”

After an hour or so Birk stopped to wipe sweat off his face.

“Feels good.” He said to Clancy.

“Whatever you say boss.” Clancy replied.

“Forgot how it smelled down here though.” Something scurried over his boot. “The rats must be happy to have us back again.”

“Useless buggers probably gnawing away at the joists. Do more damage than the water.”

Birk pulled his rag back over his mouth and went back to clawing at the coal.

“Hush.” Clancy plucked his pant leg.

Birk stopped and they listened. There was low brief rumble beneath them.

“O’Dowell getting his little tap o’blast.” Birk said. “I can tell the size by what we hears. Didn’t get much out of that one.”

“It’ll give him something to tell the missus when he gets home!”

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Chapter XLIII – Lillian  Seeks Advice

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Coal Dusters – Chapter XLIII

Lillian 

Seeks Advice

Lillian waited with Dr. Drummond, outside the modest Protestant church that was so unlike St. Agatha’s she would have mistaken it for an oversized storage barn where not for the arched windows on the sides and the crucifix over the front double-doors.

Birk and his mother came out from the funeral service. Three pine box coffins preceded them. Each followed by its own grieving family.

“I was so sorry to hear about Sal.” She came over to console his mother.

“One gets used to these things.” His mother gently pushed Lillian away and nodded to Dr. Drummond. “Sad to say. Sad to say. We get used to these things.”

Lillian and the Doctor fell into step with them as they walked to the cemetery. She saw that none of the families were particularly tearful, more grim and sullen than caught up in sorrow.

She didn’t go in to the cemetery though. She knew that being so connected to St. Agatha’s she wouldn’t be welcome there at such a time.

When she’d heard from Dr. Drummond that Sal had died she couldn’t believe it. She had been with the girls earlier in the week. Both of them looked healthy enough and eager to keep learning. Perhaps if she had done more, brought them food, more vegetables from the garden. But even the O’Dowell’s were stretching out what goods they had.

Shortly the families left the cemetery nodded to Dr. Drummond as they walked around hime and Lillian. None of them acknowledging her presence. Birk and his mother stopped a few yards along and spoke quietly. He came to her as the rest went on their way.

“Miss McTavish, Ma thanks you for all you did for the girls, but thinks it best you don’t put yourself out anymore on our account.”

“I understand. How’s Maddy? She’s not ailing too?”

“No. She was too busted up to be with us. The Malones is minding her.”

“I am sorry that …”

“Sorry won’t bring Sal or any of the other children back.”

“I know that, but Birk, this is none of my doing.”

“I know.” He turned and started back into the cemetery. “I have to finish things now.”

“Finish?” Dr. Drummond asked.

“We bury our own. I dug the grave this morning ‘fore the service. Same with the other families. Digging in the earth again. Joe says he hoped we didn’t find coal or the company would stop us from burying our dead. They would too, if they thought they could.”

“They couldn’t do that.” Lillian said.

“They owns all the coal here abouts regardless of whose land it’s on. If you find coal digging your garden that coal belongs to the company not to you. So, if you don’t mind me Miss, I have a sister to bury.” 

She watched him go in the graveyard.

“Thank you for accompanying me Dr. Drummond.” Lillian said as she walked back with Dr. Drummond to the pier.

“It was my pleasure though I was bit puzzled when you sent the request to me.”

“I … needed someone to talk with. Someone who knew something of my situation here. I feel I can trust you.”

“I’m pleased you thought of me Miss McTavish.”

“I have to tell you something that no one is aware of.”

“I am used to the confidences of my patients.”

Lillian took the newspaper clipping of her death notice out of her purse and give it him.

“My word.” He said after reading it through. “How is this possible?”

“I am not that familiar with the …. legalities of this matter.” Lillian said. “I was hoping that you, as a Doctor, might advise on how to proceed.”

“I would say in this case there has to be at least a death certificate of some sort to act as proof of your passing away.”

“Death certificate?”

“Yes that is a document signed by a medical practitioner that serves as  legal record of a death.”

“Oh. Who would issue such a document? I had no attending doctor until you were called upon.”

“I can check with the Provincial Registry where all births and deaths have to submitted. I can find out who signed your certificate. Might I ask if you have your birth certificate?”

“I’m not sure.” Lillian tried to remember what personal papers of hers she had in her trunks.

“Or any other proof of who you are. If ,as this notice says, you are deceased, to contest it you’ll need some documentation to prove who you are. Have you written your family?”

She gave him the letter her father had written to her uncle.

“This is unbelievable” He said after the read the letter. “Who knows about this?”

“Everyone in Boston knows I’m dead. I don’t know who else my father had used to insure his political success.” Lillian put her documents back in her purse.

“I never thought Father McTavish was such a scoundrel as to cooperate in such a subterfuge. But after seeing his physical abuse of you, it comes as no surprise either.”

The Dingle Dandy arrival horn sounded.

“Thank you for your understanding Dr. Drummond. I didn’t know who to turn to.”

“You will need someone more knowledgeable about the law. You are comfortable with the O’Dowells?”

“Oh, yes! They have been most welcoming.”

“Perhaps you might consider Steven. He is a lawyer.”

The ferry’s departure horn sounded.

“I’ll keep that in mind. Thank you again.”

The only other passengers on the Dingle Derry were some of the troops now stationed in the area to keep peace. She overheard them talking about the ‘armed insurrection’ of the fool miners the previous night.

“Pardon me,” she went over to their bench. “I couldn’t help but overhear you mention an incident last night?”

“Yes, ma’am.” The heavier set of the soldiers lifted his cap. “We were in a convoy bringing replacement miners to the colliery here.”

“Yes.” the other stood and kicked his friend to do the same. “We have been detailed to go to North Sydney for more provisions.”

She could tell by their eager smiles they found her attractive.

“Was it a serious incident?” she asked.

“One fool Bolshi got shot dead. Sent to his maker.”

“Daniel! We were told to watch which locals we told what to.”

“Sorry, Miss?”

“I’m not a local. I’m visiting friends in North Sydney at the moment.”

“Perhaps we might call on you if we have time?” 

“I’m sure Colonel Strickland would rather you do your duty and return directly.” she said.

“You know the Colonel?”

She nodded as if to say yes.

“Perhaps I can convey your regards to him.” the heavy set soldier asked.

Lillian found herself enjoying the interest these men were taking in her. Because of her uncle most of the men had kept a cool distance from her.

“You can tell him that Miss McTavish …”

“McTavish!” the other soldier said. “Not related to that priest?”

“My uncle, I’m afraid to say. Please don’t hold that against me.”

“No ma’am. We sure hope he wasn’t hurt too bad. I mean I didn’t mean to bash him so hard when he came rushing in at me.”

“I’m sure he forgives you.” Lillian said. She wished she had been there to see her uncle get bashed. “His head is hard. He can take it.”

The ferry docked and she directed the soldiers to a dry goods store, one that was opposite way from the one she was taking.

On the ferry back to North Sydney she was relived that her attempts to befriend Birk had been futile. Punishing her Uncle would have only confined her to the dreary life these men lived. Even Dr. Drummond was threadbare. He was unlike the well-to-do doctors in Boston. It was as if everyone had taken a vow of poverty.

She walked along the main street. The few open shops were empty of people and goods. Even the O’Dowell’s had closed off portions of their department store. Without the money generated by the mines some shops had been shut down and even boarded up. She hadn’t realized how many were dependant on mining industry. Up to now she has only seen the actual miners struggling. The struggled rippled out to nearly everyone in the area.  

“Miss Lillian.” It was Mrs. Seldon, who used to the manage the company store. “Wasn’t that ambush business some terrible. It’s a wonder so few were hurt bad. Damned fools, if you ask me, trying stop those outsiders from getting into the colliery. How’s Father Patrick?”

“His head is as hard you’d expect.” Lillian forced herself to smile. Part of her had been glad to hear her uncle got what was coming to him.

“It was brave of him to even try to make some peace when the miners saw they were out-manned.”

“He was never one to stand down.” Lillian resisted blurting out what a hypocrite her uncle had turned out to be.

“I hear you are no longer tending to him?”

“No. I’m with the O’Dowell’s here in North Sydney for the time being. My uncle and I felt it was ….”

“I’m surprised you haven’t returned to your family in Boston by now Miss.”

“One day perhaps.” She couldn’t see herself back there now even if they hadn’t had announced her death; even she could prove she wasn’t dead. Revenge didn’t tempt her. “I’d best be on my way.”

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Chapter XLII – Birk Hides in the Bushes

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Coal Dusters – Chapter XLII

Birk

Hides

in the Bushes

Birk pushed the piss jar back under his bed. By the shadow of the moonlight he figured it was about midnight. With the colliery closed there was no hourly reminder of the time. He rolled back into the bed and found the comfortable rut that held his body like a grave. 

A grave! That was what his bother Geo would say when they rolled into each other in the bad. ‘Get back to your grave!’

The door to the bedroom squeaked open.

“Birk!” Clancy whispered. “Are you awake?”

“Yes.” His sleepiness disappeared. Had Clancy snuck  into the house to get into bed with him? “They kick you out at Franklin’s?”

“Get yer pants on. There’s trouble brewing down at the colliery.”

“What?” Birk pushed off the bed and groped for his trousers.

“I overheard that Strickland talk with Bowden, the mine manager and they are going to sneak in the scabs tonight. I’ve already told Gregory. He’s getting some of the men together to give them a proper welcome.”

“Those bastards.” Birk laced up his boots and started for the door.

“Might put a shirt on though.” Clancy laughed under his breath.

“This’un will do.” He grabbed the work shirt that had been singed in the fire.

Outside there was a dozen or so men milling around at the corner of Birk’s lane and the Pitt Road. His eyes had adjusted to the darkness. He recognized Jake Malone, Jim McKlusky, and the cigar-puffing, union rep Willam Gregory.

“I’ve been in touch with the men in North Sydney and the scabs is coming by bus along the number 6 road. They have troops with them too.” Gregory told them. “They left about an hour ago so they should be here pretty soon.”

“None coming by the ferry?” Jake asked.

“Not as far as we know. After that face-off t’other day the Dingle doesn’t want to take the risk of their boat being scuttled.”

“He’ll take us from side to side but he ain’t taking sides.” One of them said and the others laughed.

“Guess the navy has enough sense to stay out of this.” One of the miners said.

“Quiet now.” Birk said. “If they want to surprise us we better extra quiet so we can surprise them.”

“Right.” Gregory said. “Here’s what I’m thinking. Some of us can take the ridge trail over to the turn off from Number Six road.”

“There’s that maple outcrop along there. We can block the road with some trees.” one of them suggested.

“Not have enough time for that much chopping.” McKlusky said. “How about we scatter broken glass. Cut up the tires.”

“Good plan, if we can get enough broken glass. What did you have in mind Mr. Gregory?” someone asked.

“I think if we make a show of force there to delay them, we can get ready for them here at the gate. Or maybe they’ll turn back once they see there’s no surprise.” He said.

“They’ll have troops with them.” Clancy said. “Least ways that’s what I heard.”

“Let’s burn em up.” McKlusky suggested. “We can make some kerosine bombs and toss them.”

“We just want to stop them,” Birk said. “Not kill them.”

“Speak for yourself little man.” McKlusky said. “We gotta show them we really mean business.”

“Okay. Okay.” Gregory said. “Six of you head over that turn off and do what you can to delay them. The rest of us will go to the colliery gate to reinforce our guys there.”

“Alright.” McKlusky said. “I’m for the turn off. Who’s coming with me. Tommy Driscoll?”

“Yep. We can handle ‘em.” Tommy raised his fists.

“Fists and flat iron.” Another miner shook an ax over his head. 

“Good man Davy.” Tommy Driscoll shook Davy’s hand.

Birk and Clancy stepped forward. 

“I know the Ridge Trail.” Birk said. “Stick close to me and we can get there without using lights at all.”

“Good lads. We’ll show them Cape Breton miners are as tough as they come.” Tommy Driscoll said. 

They set off up Pitt St. with Tommy Driscoll in the lead.

“Wait here men.” McKlusky said. “Tommy and I have to pick up something from m’place.”

They returned shortly. Each with an ax and carrying wooden crate between them.

“That’s kerosene.” Birk said.

“Yes it is. We made these bottle bombs a while back in case we had a use for them.” Tommy said pulling out a bottle half filled with kerosene with a rag stuffed into it.

“Okay Birk lets get a move on.” McKlusky said.

Birk lead them toward the trail to Blue Lake but took a different path that ran at a right angle off it. The smell of the kerosene made him nauseous. 

“Careful here.” He slowed them down. “We’re almost at the culvert by the road. The earth is loose along here.”

“You couldn’t find a better way.” McKlusky said. “Shit.” He lost his footing, let go of his side of the crate and slid down the embankment.

“Good thing there hasn’t been much rain.” Birk said helping Tommy hold the crate. “We all might as well take the McKlusky short cut.”

They slid down and Birk made his way up to the road. He reached out to help Clancy up.

“There’s a spot on the other side where we can watch who’s coming up or down the road.”

They dashed across the road to a hillock of bramble bushes. 

“You think we’ll have long to wait?” Tommy asked. “Must be near three bloody o’clock in the morning.”

“Ye missing getting your piece of fun?” Davy said.

They all started to laugh.

“Shh.” Birk said. “I think I hear something.”

The men stilled and held their breath.

“Sounds like motors.” Clancy whispered.

“More than one.” McKlusky said.

The noise got louder. Lights appeared on the road as the vehicles approached.

“That has to be them.” McKlusky stood to look over the bramble.

Birk crept carefully around to get a clear view. He saw at least two set of headlights, then a third.

“What was the plan?” He asked McKlusky. “We jump out and say …”

“This.” McKlusky lit the rag in one of the bottles and tossed into the road in front of the first truck. It arched up and landed at the side of the road, shattered & burst into flame. The three trucks stopped as the flames burned lower and lower.

The tarp cover on the first truck flipped open and troops climbed out.

Another bottle flamed over from the opposite of the road and smashed on the roof of bus in the middle of the cortège. As the kerosene flames spread there was shouting inside the bus. Men shoved each other out the doors. some climbing out the windows.

Birk looked beside him and saw that Tommy wasn’t there. He must have run dashed to the other side while the troops were debarking.

Another bottle flew into the air and landed on the tarp covering the first transport. Two of the soldiers shot in the direction the bottle had come from.

“I said not to shoot.” One of the militia said. He stepped into the headlights of the transport. “This is Corporal Stevens. We are armed and have orders to do what we have to get these men to the colliery.”

“Turn back if you value your lives.” McKlusky shouted back.

“You have been given fair warning.” Stevens signalled his men. “In the air.”

The men discharged their guns into the air. Another bottle arched down on to them. A spotlight on the roof of the first transport’s cab went on and began to play across the trees on either side of the road. A similar light shone from the roof of the third transport.

“Get back in the bus.” Stevens ordered the men. “Nothing more is going to happen.”

Birk kneeled and felt on the ground beneath him and found a stone. He stepped briefly into the light and threw it at the spotlight. It hit the bulb and it flickered out.

“Lower aim.” Stevens ordered.

The troops fired into the bushes on both sides of the road. 

Birk heard a ragged cry from the woods near him. 

“They must have hit Davy Rudenko.” McKlusky said. “You two get to the colliery and tell Gregory what’s happened here.”

“What about Tommy?” Clancy asked.

“He’s already hightailed it back the way we came. I’ll check on Davy.”

There was another round of shots. Bullets hit the dirt at Birk’s feet.

“Let’s get.” Clancy grabbed Birk by the shoulder and started to the wood behind them.

“This way.” Birk nudged him into a different direction to a well-used path that took them directly to Chestnut Street. 

When they got to the colliery Birk quickly explained what had happened. 

“You and Clancy best get back to your place Birk.” Gregory said. “You both stink of kerosine. Wash up as best you can when you get home.”

 

Birk woke to voices at the bottom of the stairs leading up to the second floor. At first he thought it was his mother talking with Sal then he remembered Sal was no longer with them. He rolled to get out of the bed and Clancy was there beside him. When they had gotten to the house it was too late for Clancy to go back to the boarding house without drawing attention to himself.

He got out of the other side of the bed and tip-toed to the door to listen. He recognized Mrs. Franklin’s voice.

“It’s best that you tell anyone who asks that Clancy Sinclair has been boarding with you since he returned.” she was saying. “If they find out it was him who alerted the miners there’ll be hell to pay.”

“Yes. I understand Mrs. Franklin.” he heard his mother say.

Birk got dressed silently and went down stairs.

“She gone?” He asked his mother.

“Yes. She brought Clancy’s kit bag over. That Colonel Strickland is convinced Clancy was spying on him. Davy Rudenko is dead, you know.”

“Yes’m I was there when it happened.” He quickly told her about trying to delay the cortege. 

“That’s why your clothes are hanging on line.” she said. “Yours and his.”

“Yeh. We must have got splashed with those kerosine bombs Jim McKlusky was tossing. We never handled them, Ma.”

“It’s all made a mess more trouble that it avoided.” she poured him a cup of tea. 

“I better take this up to Clancy.” Birk hefted the kitbag, “Or he’ll be coming down the stairs naked.”

“You mean you boys snuck in the house like that!”

“Yep. We were too tired to think beyond making sure our clothes was airing.”

He took the steps to his room two at a time. Clancy was still asleep.

“Getting near 10 m’boy.” Birk shook Clancy by the shoulder. 

“Like old times.” Clancy sat up.

“Here’s your gear. Mrs. Franklin brought over. Colonel Strickland is on your trail. So as of now,  you’ve been here since you got back from the mainland, right?”

“Sure. Any other news from last night.”

“Only what we know already. Davy Rudenko is dead.”

“You decent?” Blackie came into the room

“Yes Da.” Birk stood the closet door way to make room for his father.

“Thanks to the militia those scabs got into the colliery. There was a face off though. Father McTavish come down to try and get the strikers to see sense but he got bashed good on the head. That shut him up.”

“Bashed? That all.” Clancy said. “By one of his own parishioners.” 

“No one know for sure.” Blackie said. “There’s talk of murder though.”

“You mean Davy Rudenko?” Birk said.

“No. One of the new miners was shot out on the road.”

“What!” Clancy pulled a pair of pants out of his kit bag. “None of us had guns. Must have been one of the soldiers that shot him.”

“Don’t matter to BritCan, now does it? They’ll blame the union for everything.”

“Shit.” Clancy said.

“Except the fact that the miners they brought in don’t know what they’re doing. Most of them have never been near a mine in their lives. Most of them were recruited off the street in Halifax and Montreal.”

“Figures.” Birk shook his head.

“They’re sweeping up the yard until the company can get someone in who can teach’em how to wield a pick and rake underground.” 

“And set a blast.” Birk said.

 

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Chapter XVI – Lillian Makes A Promise

Coal Dusters

Chapter XVI

Lillian Makes A Promise

During the week after the coal gas disaster at the colliery Lillian received more house calls than she had even when she was living at home in Boston. It was as if the parishioners accepted that she was actually here, that she belonged here, living in the rectory. A different mother or wife would drop by in the afternoons to take tea with her.

One afternoon about midweek it was a young mother, Jen Hollerhan with her two children. The children were one and two years old. Jen was a little taller than Lillian but much heavier. Her deep brown hair was already streaked with grey.

“Having babies certainly puts the weight on ya.” Jen explained. “You’d think having them to tend to along with m’ husband would have worn it off but it hasn’t yet. Ages one too.” She smoothed her hair away from her face.

“They must be quite a handful.” Lillian held the youngest on her lap. The baby reached up to grab at Lillian’s loose hair.

“I sure hope I’m not keeping you from your chores?” Jen asked. “But I wanted to meet you, you see.”

“My uncle, Father Patrick says my best work can be done talking with his parishioners. Thank you.”

“I hears you are from away. Boston, is it?”

“Yes that’s right. Father Patrick is my father’s brother.”

“Ahh. And who’s your father?”

“James Whitely McTavish.”

“Not from these parts is he?”

“No. In truth, none of my family is. Father Pat is the only the family I have here, but I have been made to feel most welcome these past few days. He has told me the congregation has made him feel he has always lived here.” 

Holding the child Lillian began to wonder if this is how it would have been if she hadn’t lost her baby. At least Jen was married. She wasn’t sure if would have even been allowed to keep the child.

“Not the same as living in Boston though is it? My sister Kelly’s in Boston now. Working for a rich family in the kitchen. The Gibbons?”

“I may know them.” The last thing Lillian wanted was for anyone here to make any contact with families she knew in Boston. “I see. What are your children’s names?” Lillian didn’t want to talk about Boston.

“The wee one is Moira. We named her after John’s mother. The big ’un is Chester. That’s my granddad’s name. On my mother’s side. She was a McDonald. From up Inverness.”

“Chester already getting to be quite a little man I see.”

Jen was keeping Chester from climbing on the back of the settee by holding the back of his pants at the waist.

“Don’t I know it. He’ll soon be working with his Dad I can tell. He’s as stubborn as his father too. That’s be Davy Hollerhan. Get’s a notion in his head and won’t let go especially when he’s been drinkin’. Davy I mean ”

“I see.” Lillian wasn’t sure of what to say. 

“Look, Miss McTavish.”

‘“Miss Lillian, please.” One thing her uncle has told her was to let his parishioners feel she was a part of their lives without becoming overly familiar with them.

“Miss Lillian it’s about my Davy that I’ve come to see yer. His drinkin’ ‘s getting worse.”

“That must be difficult for you.”

“I knew you’d understand. It isn’t as if it was my doing but when he comes home I don’t know how to settle him.”

“But where does he get the drink?” Lillian knew prohibition was keeping the saloons closed.

“There’s those that know where to get it when they want it. Bootleggers. Many makes their own, you know. I guess yer wouldn’t know being here in the priest’s house. But there are lots of places a man can get a bottle. Easy.”

“Perhaps we should tell the constabulary?”

“The what? Oh, you mean the law. Not much they can do. They can’t be at every house. Besides one of them makes his own, too. Only Our Lord can be in every house.”

“Yes, I know.”

“I was hopin’, Miss Lillian, that you could pray for my Davy. Perhaps if you spoke to him, tell him how much it is hurting me and the children.”

“Speak to him? I’m not in a position to do that sort of thing. That’s my unc … I mean, Father Pat’s work, isn’t it? To speak to the men and help them see the light.”

“Yes, but if a proper lady such as yerself spoke to him the shame might make him see right.”

“Shame?” How could she cause shame in anyone?

“Then you won’t help me?” Jen began to cry. “The other is even harder for me to bear.”

“The other?”

“Davy has been …. I don’t know how to tell you this Miss … you being such a lady and all.”

Lillian resisted the temptation to tell Jen that she wasn’t such a lady. That she had done things in her recent past that made her less than a lady, that she was in need of repentance and salvation as much as Jen’s husband was. She longed to share her heart with someone, another woman who might understand, but she held her tongue.

“Go on Jen.”

“Miss, I know you aren’t sworn to silence the way Father Patrick is but what I tell you can’t be repeated.”

“Yes. Jen.” she reached out and grasped Jen’s hand. “I promise.”

“John has been keeping with another woman.” her voice dropped after ‘keeping’.

“He has what?”

“Tis adultery ma’am. S’ another woman. On t’other side of the village, in the orange. Only them type would do such a thing. At first I didn’t mind. It meant he wouldn’t be using me to satisfy his bestial cravings. I know a woman has duty to perform but anything more than that is sinful.”

“So I understand. The good book is very clear ‘He who commits adultery destroys himself.’” Lillian said.

“But he comes home sometimes smelling of her. Drunk and saying as I think I’m too good for loving. He thinks that …. that bestial act is love. It’s a sin. He’s is destroying himself and his family at the same time. He used to be sweet and gentle too. Taking my clothes off and folding them tidy. Now he don’t even bother. Pawing at me and shoving his tongue in my mouth.” She stopped to shiver. 

“Father Pat sermonized about it once. Carnality is the tool of Satan. We must not let the flesh come between us and Our Redeemer.” Jen began to weep loudly. She let loose her grip on Chester who slid the floor and began to cry as well. This set off Moira who had been dozing in Lillian’s lap.

Lillian didn’t know what to do or say. She recalled her degradation at the hands of James Dunham. She had remained almost fully clothed, as had he. The notion of being naked with him had never occurred to her at that time.

“When I told him what I suspected he went into a rage. The worst I have ever seen. He …” she covered her face with her hand. She stood and removed her shawl to reveal bruises on both her arms. “He shook me so hard I couldn’t see. I feared he would strike the children. Said all I did was complain.”

“How …” Lillian was about to say ‘how could any man raise his had to a women but stopped.

“It’s a good man’s fault.” Jen wrapped her shawl around her again. “I know it isn’t fittin’ for me to say anything but I don’t know what to do. It’s first time he put his hands on me to make me mind what I was saying.”

She sat back down. 

“Perhaps the children would enjoy some warm milk.” Lillian suggested. She handed Chester a biscuit from the tea tray. He stop crying and put it in his mouth.

“You are too kind for listening patiently to the likes of me. I have no one here in Castleton Mines to talk to, you know?”

“No family?”

“Other than Davy’s kin no. I have some cousins for sure, but my family is from Inverness. Jake Struthers is m’ father. I’m the only one to have made a leave from them.”

Lillian handed the bawling Moria back to her mother. Jen unbuttoned her blouse and breast fed the infant.

“She’ll be quiet now miss.”

As the baby began to suck eagerly Lillian felt a flash of heat in her body. She had come so close to motherhood. 

“I … I’ll make fresh pot of tea.” She stood and went to the kitchen. Nothing in her upbringing had prepared her for this sort of emotional out pouring. She was embarrassed to hear such intimate details about another person’s private life. Then to have a child breast fed causally in front of her. That sort of thing was to be done where no one could see it.

She opened and closed drawers and cupboards loudly so that if Jen should be listening she would think Lillian was occupied with domestic duties. Tongue in her mouth? Was that some sort of kissing? The two men she knew had kissed her cheeks or her hands but never on the mouth. 

When she came back into the parlour with tea Jen had put on her shawl.

“Thank ye very much. Hearing me out Miss McTavish. I knew when I saw you helping at the colliery the other week that you would be the one to listen to me. I know there isn’t anything you can directly do other than have a word with Father Patrick. Perhaps if he spoke to Davy he might set Davy back on the righteous path.”

“There is one thing I know we can do.”

“Yes Miss.” Jen said eagerly.

Lillian took out her rosary. “We can pray right here and right now.”

Jen took out her rosary as well.

“Thank you Miss. He’s going to that fight tonight and I fear he’ll come home blind drunk.”

The two women knelt and Lillian started in on the hail Mary. 

“Hail Mary, full of grace. Our Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. And if you can please intercede with John Hollerhan so that he may once again see the light and be brought back to salvation in Your Son, Jesus. Amen.” 

Jen quickly joined her.

“Thank you!” Jen said when they were finished. “I knew you were the right one to talk to.”

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Chapter XIII Birk Tends the Boilers

Chapter XIII

Birk Tends the Boilers

When Geo announced that he and Brenda were leaving Castleton Mines Birk didn’t fully understand what he meant. He thought it meant they’d be moving from the village to Sydney not moving off island. Alberta was another world.

“Alberta’s jus’ another part of Canada.” Geo explained. “The miners there are getting double what BritCan is paying us, when they let us work at all.”

The house was full of neighbours for Geo’s going away party. Someone had brought some moonshine from Dan O’Brian’s.

Robbie McFaddin from across the way was playing his fiddle and there was dancing on the back porch, singing in the street in front of the house.

Birk watched with amusement as various older miners came up to Geo to give him advice.

“Wish’t I had done that years ago, me son.”

“Don’t get too good to drop us a line even if we canna read it.”

“Don’t forget yer mother tongue. Ge milis am fìon, tha e searbh ri dhìol. [The wine is sweet, the paying bitter.]”

“Don’t forget yer mother.” 

Birk went from group to group. Joining in for a song or a bit of a dance. 

“You thinking of joining him?” Clancy asked.

“Me! Nah. The family’ll needs me more than ever now. Ma’s going to miss him sorely.”

“Must be hard to see a brother go.”

“Won’t know that till he’s gone.” Birk shrugged.

“I never had a brother. Can’t say how you’ll feel.”

They wandered through to the back porch.

“He was always looking out for himself. Never did much to make things easier or me I can tell you that. Always ribbing me in the pits for being smaller than him.”

“It’s a fact.”

“You are the same as him.” Birk made a fist.

“We’re not getting into that again.” Clancy backed off a few steps. “This is supposed to be a going away for your brother. Not another set to between us.”

“That’s right you little hot head.” Geo laughed behind him

Before Birk could turn around Geo grabbed him and wrapped his arms Birk pinning his arms to his side. He lifted Birk off the ground, holding him to his chest and began to spin around with him.

“Put me down you big pile of slag.” Birk struggled.

“It’s like spinning a toy top.” Geo laughed.

Birk kicked back with his feet and caught Geo on the knee. As Geo began to buckle Birk slammed back into Geo’s face with his head. Blood spurted from Geo’s nose. Geo let go and Birk darted off.

“Why you little Christer.” Geo shouted. “I’ll give you one last lickin’ before I leave.”

“You have to catch me first.” Birk laughed. He did a running leap and summersault over the back fence, rolled to his feet and vanished into the night. 

“Hold on there.” Clancy was running after him.

Birk stopped for him to catch up.

“He never could catch me.” Birk said. “One thing I had on him. He’s bigger but I was always faster.”

“Ma says you better watch yourself.” Sal came out of the dark. “She’s some mad with you busting Geo’s nose and him on his way to a better job.”

“It’ll be fine by the time he gets to ‘Berta.” Birk said. “And we’ll fine once he’s gone.”

In the morning Birk went down to the dock to see Geo one last time. There were several families there with their trunks and suitcases ready to make the trek to Alberta. Once they made their way to Sydney they would catch the train to Halifax.

“Hey Birk.” his brother waved him over. His nose was swollen.

“Sorry about that Geo.” He walked over. “I didn’t want you to leave with any hard feelings.”

“Yeh I know.” He playful punched Birk’s shoulder. “I’m … it was good of you to come by.”

They walked a little away from the others.

“I want you know that I’m mighty proud of the way you turned out.”

“Proud.” Birk teared up.

“I know we have never been the best of buds or even brothers, I suppose. But … well I guess its safe to tell ya now …”

“Tell me what? That I an’t your brother.”

“No! Never doubted that for a minute. I used to say that to get you going. It’s that …. most of the rough stuff I did to ya was Ma’s idea.”

“Ma!”

“When she saw how wee you were and were going to be she figured we’d have to grow you up in other ways. Get you used to things people’d say about you when you were in the world.”

“Half time it was you started them in on me. I wanted to left alone.”

“We all want to be left alone at times, Birk. Ma was right, though, as you’ve turned out pretty good.”

“You didn’t have to enjoy to torment me so much.”

“I didn’t care for being like that.” George put his hand on Birk’s shoulder.

“Geo you are bad liar. I could tell you got pleasure to torment me. It was in your face every time.” He shrugged off Geo’s hand.

“No!”

“It’s in yer face now.” Birk saw Geo’s face redden. “I hope that’s shame you is feeling now.”

The departure whistle sounded for the ferry.

“I don’t know what to tell you Birk. But whatever it is doesn’t mean I’m not proud now to call you my brother.” He stuck his hand out.

Birk shook Geo’s hand and walked back to the wharf with him. His parents were there as well. They waved till the boat docked on the opposite side of the cove.

“Think we’ll ever see him again?” His mother asked.

“Don’t think so, Ma,” his father answered. 

“They never do come back,” she wiped her tears away and blew her nose. “Never.”

Birk wanted to ask her if what Geo had told him was true. All those years of being tormented because she thought it would be the best thing. It made sense to him that was she something would do, the same way she said to let his sisters win when they were playing some guessing game.

The result of that was they they treated him the same way at Geo did, as if he weren’t as smart or as good as them because there were going to school.

“What you thinking?” His sister Maddy slipped  her hand into his.

“Geo’s got a long way to go before he gets to’ Berta.”

“It’s Al – berta.”

“I know that!”

“It’s over 2000 miles away.”

“That’s pretty far. Geo will have to take trains all the way.” Birk said. “You going to miss him?”

“Some I guess. What does it cost to go all that way?”

“Can’t say as I know.” Birk wondered where the money came from.

They came to the corner intersection that spit off to their lane one way and to the colliery the other.

“I have to go help Da with boilers. Tell ma’ll be home before suppertime.”

“Okay. Remember Al – berta.”

If Birk didn’t have a shift on Friday he’d go down to the boiler sheds to keep his father company and learn about running them. He knew most of the routine, what gauges to watch, how to keep the temperatures right. He’d sat for the written test once last year but couldn’t make sense of it on paper. If they had asked he could have told them but to write it he was lost. He’d given up after five minutes.

After checking the coal hoppers that were used to feed the boilers he leaned against the wall to chat with his father.

“How Geo afford to go away?”

“Brenda’s two brothers, Fergus and Will, are already there. They chipped in enough for her to go the whole way. Geo has enough to get to Montreal. He’s going let her go ahead while he tries to get work there.”

“Never said anything about that last night.”

“None needs to know all our business Birk.”

Just then Bill McLean came to the door of the shed. “BritCan is closing the number 6 over in Lingan!”

“What!” His dad pulled out a cloth and wiped the sweat off his forehead.

“Yep. That’s the second to shut down in the past month. Same reasons too. Not producing enough to keep it going.”

“But six was one of the best.”

“Sure sure but they say the leakings are getting too much work to keep pumping it out. That’s another hundred or more out of work.”

“Maybe there spots for them in Alberta.” Birk muttered.

“Sure if they’s willing to walk.” Dave said. “They’ve been given till Monday to clear out of the houses too.”

“What difference it make to BritCan if anyone is in them houses. If they close the mine the houses aren’t of any use to them.” his father said.

“Wolvin don’t care about any of that. Better get a move on. Other’s are going to need to know this.”

“Union talk about this soon I hope.” Birk asked.

“Hell with that union. They gets their dues automatic that seems to be all they worry about. As long as we’re working somewhere they get their slice.”

“Not going to be getting much of a slice from number six anymore.” Birk said. “What happens to the dues they already paid into the union?”

“Good question Birk. Be careful of who you ask it to, some might think you’re another of those Bolshie reds trying to stir things up.”

“Me!” Birk laughed. “Got enough to stir up right here.” He went to check the boilers.

When he got back to the house there was no one about. The silence soothing. His ears where still active with the constant crackle and hiss of the boilers. He went up to his room and was grateful it was empty too.

He slipped out of his boots and coveralls and laid on the bed to enjoy the breeze coming through the window. He’d have to caulk the frames before winter. They never fit properly and each spring they seemed to get worse.

Would the houses in Alberta be any better than this? Couldn’t be much worse, he figured. None of the houses in Mudder were much better than theirs. They spent as much time repairing them as they did working in the pits.

Even houses he’d seen in Sydney Mines weren’t all that different. Glace Bay’s company houses were as bad. At least this one had a bit more room than many of them. His da had said they were lucky to have the end lot so he could make the place a bit wider. Many of the houses had were crowded together, nearly sharing a wall between them. Some had began to lean onto each other. At Jake Malone’s you could hear the family next door as if they were in the same room with you.

He woke with a start to the bed moving.

“Didn’t mean to wake you.” Clancy was sitting on the inside window sill pushing the bed with his foot. “You need your rest.”

“Helping pa with boilers tires me out more than the pits. Must be all that heat. After awhile I dream about going to sleep.”

“I was talking with Dan. He tells me they closed number six.”

“Heard about it.”

“You think they’ll close us down too?”

“What! You heard something?”

“No, but I thought six was one of the big’uns. If they can manage to keep those going why would they bother with little ones like this one here?”

“Nothing keepin’ you here if losing the job is what your worrying about.”

“That’d make you happy wouldn’t it?” Clancy shoved the bed a bit harder.

“Can’t say as I care one way or t’other. If they cut back on our shifts more then we’ll have something to worry about. By we’re still producing.”

“Birk pull your head out of the scree. Six was producing too, but what it was producing wasn’t making them enough money.”

“If they can’t sell the coal why do they bother with it?” Birk swung to sit up on the bed beside Clancy.

“I’m just a miner not a … not sure who it is that understands the whys of BritCan thinking. If I could figure that perhaps I’d have a better job where I wouldn’t have to share a bed with a stinkin’ mine rat.” Clancy pushed back and jumped up off the bed.

Birk grabbed him by his pant waist, spun him around and shoved him hard against the wall.

“What have I told you about calling me a stinkin’ mine rat.” Birk snarled. “You know what this means.” He pressed his forearm across Clancy’s throat.

“What?” Clancy gasped.

“Time for another bath.” 

He let go. Clancy slumped the floor rubbing his throat.

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Coal Dusters – Chapter VIII

Chapter VIII

Birk and Clancy Get Acquainted

Knowing that Clancy wouldn’t be sharing his room till the end of the week didn’t make working with him any easier for Birk. Clancy had already paid for a week in advance at Mrs. Franklin’s boarding house and she wasn’t going to refund any part of that if he left before the week was over.

When their shift started Birk would grunt hello and that was it. He didn’t care to know anything more about Clancy. As long he wasn’t underfoot, didn’t gripe about things and worked hard in the pit that was enough, barely enough to make him tolerable. 

Clancy had an irritating habit of humming as they worked. Sometimes muttering something under his breath or scraps of songs that Birk had never heard before. 

“Shovel and pick … pick and shovel … ” 

Things that didn’t make much sense to Birk even when he could make out what the words were. But as long as Clancy kept to himself, did his share of the work, he didn’t care. 

Clancy approached him during their lunch break on the third day of their working together. “We can’t go on this way Birk.”

“Says who?” Birk picked up his lunch pail moved to another part of the stretch they were working on. 

“If I’d known it was your house … ” Clancy followed him a few steps.

“Once you did, you coulda changed yer damn mind.”

“I can’t afford to stay at Mrs. Franklin’s on what we earn down here. I need to send something back to my Ma in Stellarton.”

“Why didn’t you stay there and work the mines?”

“Same story there as here.”

“Not my worry to deal with. I gotta deal with you.”

“Can’t be as hard as me having to deal with you.” Clancy went back to where he had been crouched for his lunch.

At the end of shift the cage was jammed already only one of the could fit on and Clancy shrugged as the cage went up leaving Birk below. When Birk got to the surface he took off his work coveralls and dashed to the wash up room to his usual spot. Clancy had taken it.

“Gotta be faster than that Birk. Yer gettin’ slow b’y.” Clancy chuckled as he continue to wash his underarms.

Birk pushed him aside. “Make way ya tuilli. You knows this is my spot now.”

“Careful.” the miner washing up next to Clancy said as Clancy stumbled into him.

Birk reached for the basin to toss out the dirty water and get fresh. Clancy upended the bowl so it splashed Birk.

“You …” Birk swung at Clancy. His fist caught Clancy on the jaw.  Clancy staggered back but quickly regained his footing. His longer reach let him swing back before Birk could react. His punch knocked Birk into a group of miners coming into the washroom.

“That’s it.” Birk took his fighting stance with fists raised, feet firmly planted on the wet stone floor. Clancy did the same.

“Bad enough I get stuck with you here.” He jabbed Clancy in the stomach. “But I’m not puttin’ up with ya any damn longer. I’ll send you back to the mainland to lick yer wounds. That’ll give you plenty worth singin’ about.”

Clancy jabbed Birk in the ribs. Both protected their faces as best they could. The other miners made a circle around them and if one fighter got too close to them they pushed him back into the centre of their ring.

“Isn’t m’ fault Red Mac didn’t think you were good lookin’ enough work above ground.”

“I didn’t want that soft arse job.”

They clinched and fell to the ground, wrestling and jabbing as best as they could. Blood dripped from the noses of both of them when someone hauled them away from each other and back to their feet.

“Enough of this.” It was Red Mac. “If yer want to beat the piss out of each other don’t do in here. We got men who deserve to be clean enough to go home to families that want them home.”

The miners held Birk and Clancy back from each other.

“Oh, it’s you Birk.” Red Mac said.  “Can’t say as I’m surprised. You two want to keep workin’ here?”

They both nodded yes.

“Then don’t let me catch you brawling during my shift on company time or on company grounds agin. You understand.”

Clancy nodded yes. Birk glared at Red Mac.

“Birk Nelson yer a good worker but yer always a disagreeable orange cuss too.”

There was some grumbling from the other miners.

“Okay! I knows there are more’n one orange men here.”

“So does we,” one of them shouted back. “That’s why we’re still buried underground and you fat arse micks get all the breaks.”

“You call this getting the break.” Red Mac said. “A good Catholic such as me having to deal with a bunch of … heathens … I mean you lot of ground hogs. Can I help it if I had the …. brains to get where I am?”
 

“You sayin we do don’t have as much brains as you?” another of the miners called out.

“All I’m saying is get cleaned up and out of here if you expect another shift tomorrow.” He went back to his office.

“Look! The Red Pope says its okay for us to wash up.” One of the miners joked. “The sacred waters better do their job.”

Birk filled his basin and washed off the blood, the mud from the floor and the coal dust from below as best as he could. His left hand throbbed. He had hit Clancy harder than he intended. He hoped he hadn’t done himself an actual injury. If he had Clancy would regret being the cause of that, too. How was he going to share his home with that tuilli.

As usual Jake was waiting for him at the gate.

“I dunno how I’m goin’ ta do it. Have that blowhard living with me. I’d rather move m’self before I share more than work space with him.”

“Ah lad, you gotta let go of it. Hard enough for us to get by as ‘tis. He can’t be that bad.”

“He is.”

“Things ‘re getting worse. We may not even be here long enough anyhow.”

“What?”

“They may cut some of the nights shifts. That’s why there’s strike talk agin.” Jake coughed harshly and sent a thick black gob of spit onto the road.

“Careful there, some ‘un will trip over that.”

“Yah.” Jake laughed hoarsely. “Least they aren’t charging me for the dust I sneak out in m’lungs.”

“What’s that ‘bout a strike?”

“Gregory was talking with some of us while you was … washin’ up. Says to us that they want not only to do away with night shifts but aim to cut back on the tonnage rate.”

“They can’t.” Birk punched at the air with his sore hand.

“They can if we let ’em. We gotta send them a message that we won’t put up with all this hurting of us workers who put food on the table for them but don’t get enough pay to put food on the tables for themselves.”

“Damn rights.”

“There’ll me a meetin’ tomorrow night at St. Agatha’s Hall.”

“They ain’t gonna let us orange in there, you know.”

“Sure they will. We got our union cards.”

“Yeh, but some of us don’t have our foreskins.”

Jake began to laugh again and had to stop to catch his breath. “Lad you are gonna be the death of me before the mine’ll do me in.”

Birk went around to the back of his house. His mother and Maddy were on their knees in the garden. The same as many of the miners they had a garden patch that spilled into the field behind their house. Each year his mother would grow vegetables – carrots, potatoes, tomatoes – with seeds or eyes saved from previous crops.

“Goin’ get much out of the patch this year?”

“There’ll be some.” His mother glanced up.

He went over and kissed her on the forehead. He pulled Maddy up and held her in the air at eye level to himself.

She giggled and wriggled. “Puts me down.”

“You been to school today?”

“Of course.”

One of the things Birk wished he had been able to do was continue in school. But when he got to twelve all he wanted to do what his dad did, what his brother did, what grandfather did – be a man who worked in the mines. In the mine he didn’t have to use his thinking much, only pay attention to what was happening right then. No need spell or add numbers up. Not that he couldn’t read or do enough arithmetic to make sure his pay packet was right. He knew enough keep track of what went on in the mines.

He’d seen some of the men reading from books, or from newspapers. He tried, but all those letters and words confounded him. He could follow word by word given time. He only trusted what a man said. You can tell if he was lying by his voice. Words on the page had no voice to judge them by.

He went to the well and got water to clean his socks and face rag. 

“I’m goin’ to check m’ traps, Ma. Might have a little something to add to supper tonight.”

He took several deep breathes as he walked along the grassy field. The smell of the mine stayed with him. Somedays he couldn’t shake it. He plucked a long blade of grass and chewed on it then spat it out. 

The rabbit traps had been pretty much in the same bushy area, beyond the three apple threes, where his great granddad had first set them. The apple trees were in bloom. He pulled a branch down to smell the flowers but all he could smell was the mine.

He stretched his arms up as high as they could go. It was only out in these fields that he could stand up fully. Even in the house he was pressed down by the ceiling. He’d find himself ducking under the door frames even though they were well over the top of his head.

During the run of a week the traps would be good for two or three rabbits. There was two this day. One pretty pump too, he hoped it wasn’t about to have little ones. It wasn’t.

He skinned and cleaned them there and was happy to hand them to his mother when he came into the kitchen. 

“Good. Good.” she said. “What you do with the skins?” She took the rabbits and quickly chopped and deboned them.

“Usual place on the back fence.” 

She would salt the skins and store them. Once a year around Christmas she’d trade them in at one of the furriers in Sydney. The money wasn’t much but would add something special to the Christmas dinner.

He poured some hot water from the kettle into a basin, rolled up his sleeves and washed the rabbit blood off his hands. 

“You’d think Blackie’d built us a little boiler for hot water around here.” He said.

She dropped the meat into a pot of water already simmering on the stove.

“Why we always have rabbit.” Maddy leaned against him as he sat the the kitchen table. 

“That’s what fits the traps. That and skunks. You want a stink for supper some time.” he tickled her.

“You stink enough for me.” she laughed and pulled away.

“You bring that bedding down tomorrow so as I can get it washed up before Clancy comes to share the room wid yer.” his mother said. 

“Don’t go countin’ on that. Might be lays-offs or worse, a strike.”

“I’ve heard. We‘ll know better when you Da gets home.”
“He’s usually back before me.” The smell of the cooking food made Birk hungry.

“He went to see Jim Spot who lost a hand a few weeks past. Union’s going see if they can get him something somewhere. He can always push a broom, ya know.”

“Not as if we don’t have enough one-handed broom pushers now.”

“What the union can’t do the lodge often does. Lest the company don’t own the lodge, yet. There’s Blackie.” 

Maddy ran out to meet him at the back gate. He handed her his lunch pail and they came into the kitchen. He hung his cloth cap on a peg by the door.

“Hear ya had a donny brook at wash up.” 

“He had it comin.” Birk knew this tone of Blackie’s meant he wasn’t pleased or amused. “Why? Clancy come cryin’ to you?”

“No. Red Mac’s gettin fed up with your carrying on. You worse than school kids. You know how he feels about us orange. After all, it was him, when he got that job, who started to replace all the good orange men with his own mick pals. Getting so bad you’d think it was Father McTavish that was running things and not the union or even the company.”

“Sorry Blackie. I wasn’t think about any of that. You know how I act I get riled up.”

“That’s no excuse.” His mother said.

“I’m goin’ rest in the parlour for a spell Ma.” Blackie unhitched his suspenders and shambled away. “Stuff to consider.”

When supper was served Birk went in and woke him. 

“I’ll take something up for Sal.” Blackie said. He came down a little while later. “She’s gettin worse?”

“Yes.” his mother answered. “The reverend’s wife was by this afternoon to look in on her. She’ll be back tomorrow with a remedy she think will help.”

“We don’t need charity from anyone, you know.”

“It’s not charity to let Sal get worse.”

They ate in silence.

After supper Birk went to check his traps to make sure he had left them set properly. There was a dell where he could sit on a low branch of an oak tree. He’d been going to it since he was so small he needed help to get to the branch. Now he could pull himself up on it and let his feet dangle in the air. He let his heavy work boots fall off.

He rested his back on the tree trunk and stared up at the sky. He couldn’t smell the mine or the coal.  

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Chapter VII Lillian Sews In The Sun

 

Chapter VII

Lillian Sews In The Sun

The men bowed and complemented her once more on the meal. She went back to the kitchen and poured hot water from the kettle into the sink and put the remainder of the dishes in carefully. She was very cautious with the good china.

“Lillian.” her uncle came into the kitchen “That was …”

She could tell by the tone of his voice he was upset by something.

“What is it uncle … I mean Father Patrick?” she faced him.

“I observed that each of these so-called gentleman connived to spend a few moments alone with you. Did you notice that?”

“I was too occupied with my serving duties to notice anything other than that Father Pat.”

“Considering your past I find your innocence difficult to accept. Yes, watching your conduct this day I see you may have done nothing deliberate to lure these men. You must find a way to … ”

“Me? Find a way to what.”

“Not appear as you do for one thing.”

“With no mirrors I do not know how I appear.” She looked at what she was wearing. The shapeless blue, or was it green, pinafore, her stained, and now wet, flour sack apron. She held her raw, red hands out to her uncle. “How am I to appear?”

“Woman has always been the downfall of man. It is in her nature. It is in the air she breathes out. If men are helpless to resist it is the fault of the female.”

“Am I to be a mute. Not speak even when spoken to in your home?”
“I will contact Sister Claire.”

“Sister Claire?”
“The Mother Superior of St. Margaret’s Covent in Sydney. It would be best for all if you were to be removed from contact with men. Your wickedness has to be curbed somehow.”

“I will not go into a convent Father.” She grabbed one of the Royal Worcester plates and dropped it. It shattered into four uneven pieces. “Do you understand? Yes, I was lead astray by a so-called gentleman and this is my penance for my inability to withstand the affection, the attentions of that man but I will not be punished for the rest of my life for the callow actions of man whom my own father encouraged me to see.”

“My child this is not punishment nor is it penance. It is salvation.”
“You should offer those presumed gentlemen the path to salvation. All I served them was the food you provided. That they wished to partake of more is not my fault.”

“Perhaps not deliberately but your gender is the cause of original sin. You allure without awareness.”

“The next time you hold conference with men in your home you should have someone else do the serving.”

“You may be right Lillian. I …” he plucked at the cross around his neck. “I have things to attend to at the church. But before I go you must pray with me.”

He got to his knees and gestured for her to do so. She knelt beside him. They took out their rosaries.

Father Patrick recited The Hail Mary and she followed suit. When he was done he added: “Mary Mother of God please intercede into the hearts of men to spare my niece temptations she may not have the fortitude to withstand.”

He helped her back to her feet. “I won’t be back until later in the evening. Do not prepare a supper for me.”

“Yes Father Pat.” Once he left she picked up the pieces of the broken plate. She began to weep that another piece of her connection to Boston had been broken by her own rash anger. She would try harder to be less obdurate, more infused with the grace of God. She prayed fervently as she washed the rest of the dinnerware.

She had placed the last dinner plate back in the sideboard when there was a knock at the front door. Annie Clark and Mary Francis always came through the back. Anyone who wished to see her uncle would go to his office at the church.

She peeked out of the dining-room window as the knocking continued. She couldn’t see clearly who it was till the man stepped back to survey the upper windows of the house. It was Mr. O’Dowell.

What was she to do? She could see that his knocking had caught the attention of the McIssac’s on the opposite side of them. Regardless of what she did her uncle was sure to hear of it.

She went to the door and opened slightly.

“Mr. O’Dowell my uncle …  Father Patrick has gone to the church office. You may speak with him further there.” She attempted to shut the door but O’Dowell placed his hand against it to prevent from closing further.

“It is you I wish to speak to Miss McTavish.”

“That is not possible. It wouldn’t be proper without my uncle here.” Even in Boston the men she had met had first asked her father’s permission to approach her. Her father had informed her first.

“We aren’t as proper about such things here in Castleton Mines.”

“That might be so, but Father Patrick said nothing to me about allowing a gentleman caller. Please speak to him first.”

She sorely wanted to let him in but with Mrs. McIssac already watching the house she was sure that the Danvers, next door to them, were now also peering from behind their windows.

“I don’t …” Mr. O’Dowell said.

“Mr. O’Dowell! I have my uncle’s position in the community to think of. I am his niece. It wouldn’t be fitting for me to see you under these circumstances. You must understand that.”

“My apologies Miss McTavish. I surely meant no offence to your honour.”

“Mr. O’Dowell this conversation is over.” She leaned heavily against the door and shut it, threw the bolt. What would she do if he came to the back? No, she prayed he was still too much of a gentleman to such a thing. She went to the back door to make sure it was also secure.

What had she done that deserved this sort of attention? Did Mr. O’Dowell sense something about her, about her past and feel that that was permission to treat her in such a way. Or was her uncle correct about the innate sinfulness of women. 

She stepped into the parlour to clear away the remaining cutlery. She knelt and swept the crust crumbs into the palm of her hand. It seemed wherever men were, something damaged, sullied remained behind.

She tidied the dining room and the kitchen. With no dinner to prepare she had no pressing household duties to perform. The sun was shining in the small back garden. She recognized that she hadn’t left the confines of the house for more than a few moments the last two days. She got the sewing basket from the pantry and went into the yard and sat on bench there that caught the sun.

The skills she had in embroidery were easy to adapt to repairing her uncle’s clothing. A button here or there, darning well-worn socks and even maintaining the lace on his surplice. 

She wondered what would become of her. She didn’t see herself banished in Cape Breton forever, confined to either this house or the uncle’s church or some convent. She wasn’t a pet that need to be confined in such a way. Surely her womanhood wasn’t such a threat to humanity. Yet her Uncle was correct in the way these men had reacted to her, as unaware as she had been when it happened.

She wasn’t the only woman in the world. Surely all women didn’t have such an alarming effect. Did it stop once they were married. Was that the purpose of marriage? To protect the wife from unwanted male advances. How did her mother cope with such events.

Her mother had been very adamant about men’s unwholesome desires. Did they end with marriage as well or did men expect some sort of debasing satisfaction from the women they professed to love and cherish. 

Was what transpired between her and James Dunham a mortal sin or merely venal. She had never encouraged his actions with her but had never discouraged him either. The act he performed on her was neither pleasant or unpleasant to either of them, for he seemed as shamed by his desire as she was. Yet neither of them could resist when those opportunities presented themselves. In fact she rather enjoyed the secretiveness of it all. She enjoyed having something of her own that was a secret from her family. 

The sun started to go down and the garden cooled quickly. She could hear the men in the street passing on their way to night shift at the mine. The men whose worries and concerns were being discussed in this very house. Her uncle held their fate in his hands, or so it seemed to her. The same way he held hers.

“Hallo.” A woman’s head appeared over the fence. “Is that you Miss McTavish.”
It was Vera McIssac. She was dressed similarly to Lillian. Lillian envied the floral print of Vera’s smock. It was almost feminine even with the dusty, dirty apron that was over it.

“Yes, Mrs. McIssac. The Father has been delayed at the church. It gave me the opportunity to do some sewing and enjoy the fresh air.”

“Not much fresh air round here.” Vera pushed open the back gate and came into the garden. A small child clung behind her. “Now don’t be shy Marie. You’ve met Miss McTavish before. Remember? Now say hello.”

“Hello.” The freckled face darted from behind her mother’s skirts and hid again.

“I seen that the union man was here this afternoon?”
“Yes he was. As well as Steven O’Dowell and James Bowden.”
“So there is a strike on, is there?”

“I don’t know.” She understood that the men’s conversation was private and chose her words carefully. “They did talk about the miner’s being unhappy with their wages and that coal is no longer selling as well as it once did.” It was safe to repeat what she had previously heard the parishioners discussing.

“Could be. Could be. But they aren’t the ones getting thinner, are they. It’s us here. The Father hasn’t agreed to anything drastic has he?”
“I don’t know that he is in a position to agree to anything.”

“Ah, Miss, they know they need him on their side to keep the men in check. He’s same as havin’ the eyes of God on them. Keep’s the sorts of O’Dowell in line. He was a rough ‘un. Got them medals in the war and come back thinkin’ he was a gift to the women.”
“Medals?” Lillian couldn’t imagine the over-primped man fighting anything more threatening than a cold.

“Oh yes. That was before Father Patrick came to us. Mr. O’Dowell rescued his unit during some battle. Can’t say as I know which one now.”

“I hope there isn’t a strike Vera.”

“We all do Miss McTavish. Last time was a sore hardship for so many. By the way, Mrs. Seldon tells me there’s a new Eaton’s catalogue if you can to drop by the store.”

The mine whistle sounded for the coming shift change.

“I best get going. Red Mac‘ll be home for his dinner.”

Lillian went back into the house. Did she want to pour over another catalogue at the company store? Mrs. Seldon was the store manager’s wife. Going there to shop for various food stuff was Lillian’s only excursion, if one could call a twenty minute walk with her uncle at her side, being away from the rectory. He would leave her alone there while he talked with men across the street at Calder’s Iron Foundry.

Mrs. Seldon was from Portland, Maine and understood in some ways Lillian’s sense of displacement. The company store was also the catalogue order office.

The catalogue could wait until the Friday when her uncle brought her down to the store.

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Coal Dusters – Chapter VI

Chapter VI 

Lillian Washes The Lunch Dishes

“No, best stay where you are. I don’t want them to see you a servant. You are a McTavish after all.”

“Come in gentlemen. Come in. Please excuse the state of my home but my niece is still learning how to keep cleanliness next to Godliness.”

Lillian hid her hands under her apron and nodded to the men.

“I don’t think any of you gentleman has had the pleasure of meeting my niece. Lillian McTavish.” As he introduced them to her, each man took off his overcoat and handed it to Father Patrick.

“We have seen you at Mass, m’dear and was wondering when the good Father would allow us to meet you.” A short, thick set man with an uneven moustache reached out for her hand. He reeked of cigar smoke. His large red hands had uneven cracked fingernails. “The rectory can always benefit from a woman’s presence.”

“Enough William. This is William Gregory the local union representative.” 

She extended her hand briefly.

He quickly introduced her to the other two men. 

James Bowden, one of the mine managers, bowed to her. His brown tweed coat fit him much better than Mr. Gregory’s dusty black sports coat fit him. His short black hair was peppered with grey.

Finally, Steven O’Dowell, an assistant to the county’s provincial government representative. He didn’t hesitate to bring her hand to his lips. His hands were smooth with a heavy gold ring on his left pinky finger. His dark blue sports coat was well-fitted with a rather florid green and blue tartan waistcoat underneath.

She recognized him as the type of no-longer-so-young man she’d met frequently at social gatherings in Boston. Unmarried and dressing a little younger than they should in hopes of appearing a little younger than they were. He smelled strongly of Bay Rum. It reminded her of James Dunham. James had began his courtship by kissing her hand.

Lillian started to back out of the room. In Boston she would have been at ease making small talk with such men but here she was still unsure of her role. Was she house drudge or valued relative, all be it female.

“Perhaps your charming niece will pour a glass of wine for each of us before she’s leaves.” O’Dowell handed his Bowler hat to the Father and gestured to the tray of glasses.

“Please, do Lillian. As you can see my hands are full.”

“You know, the Father has more than spiritual power.” Steven leaned toward her. “He was able to get my nephew Manny transferred out the depths of the mines to a job more suited to his temperament above ground.”
She handed a glass of wine to each of the men.

“There was nothing to it,” Father Patrick said. “Red Mac is a good member of my congregation and was only too happy to stay in God’s graces. After all he knows what I hear in confession and he was eager to do penance.”

The men all laughed.

“A nice wine, Father Patrick,” O’Dowell said. “Mrs. Donati makes a wine almost as full bodied as she is.”

“Mr. O’Dowell I will not have such talk when there is a lady present.” Father Patrick said.

“Yes, uh … the good Father wields power even we in management can only dream of having.” James poured himself another glass of the wine.

“I am sorry.” O’Dowell bowed in Lillian’s direction. The twinkle in his eye told her he had no regrets.

“Thank you. Now Lillian, please take the gentlemen’s overcoats.” Father Patrick laid the coats across her extended arms.

She was relieved to have an excuse to exit the room. Where was she going to put them? These were the first visitors they had had since she arrived and there was no coat rack, only a couple of hooks by the back door for her coat and for his.

She leaned to the Father to whisper. “Where might I put these.”

“Excuse me gentlemen while I check on the progress of lunch.” He stepped into the dining room. Lillian followed him. “Lillian I understand you are still getting used to our ways but I didn’t think you were … stupid. Do I have to explain to you how everything is done? You are nearly an adult woman. You’ve certainly demonstrated the ability to think for yourself in the past. Or is all your knowledge from the artifice of theatre productions. Now I must returns to my guests.”

Lillian gasped. This was the first time he had mentioned why she had been banished to his care. She turned her back on him and marched into the kitchen kicking the door shut behind her. She glanced around for a surface large enough for the coats. There was none. She elbowed open the back door and dumped them on top of the hutch that protected the wood pile. As long as it didn’t rain they would be fine.

She stirred the soup. She had made enough for several more than arrived so they would be having it for the next week. She ladled enough into the tureen to fill each bowl once and an extra ladleful for spillage. Her uncle had been very clear on the importance of measurements, of never offering more than enough. 

She brought the tureen to the table. She stood in the parlour doorway listening to the men talk for a few moments. It brought her back to memories of evenings at home with her family in Boston. The men were jovial but wary with one another as they discussed political issues.

“I’m sorry,” Bowden jabbed at the air between him and Gregory. “But since the war ended the demand for coal as declined drastically every year. We can’t afford to keep paying what once did. Even Premiere Baldwin … ”

“Don’t talk about Premiere Baldwin,” Gregory said. “He might as well be on the BritCan board of directors. That  the miners have to make a working wage, means nothing to him. The families are already suffering for want of the basic necessities.”

“Surely there has to be an alternative to cutting their wages.” O’Dowell played with gold watch chain in his waistcoat absently.

“Whatever we do, they are the one’s to suffer. Either we cut …” Bowden said as he glanced up from the papers he was referring to. “Ah Miss McTavish.”

“Lunch is served gentlemen.” She stepped aside to allow them to enter the dining room. “Father Patrick, would you care to serve the soup while I get the sandwiches.”

She knew that asking him to ladle the soup would let him see how much each man got, and how she had been attentive to his household management stipulations.

She placed the tray of sandwiches beside the tureen where he could continue to keep his watchful eye on what was consumed.

“Thank you Lillian. I’ll let you know when we are ready for dessert.”

She returned to the kitchen and sat at the table. Her tea from breakfast was still on the table. She glanced up fearful that her uncle might have caught her neglect. It was no longer hot but the sweetness soothed her. She never knew how good it would feel to sit and sip a cup of tea, hot or cold.

She could hear bits of the men’s conversation in the dining room. She gathered than the miner’s were unhappy with the tonnage pay they were getting, that they were unhappy about safety conditions in the mine, unhappy about nearly everything – the company houses were too cold, the school teachers weren’t teaching their children, they needed better medical attention. The list went on and on. 

To each complaint Bowden’s response was always the same – the coal itself wasn’t generating enough profit to pay for all these services. 

She found herself getting sleepy sitting close to the warmth of the stove. How nice it would be to go up to her room in Boston and rest on her big bed there. Cool, soft clean sheets. Or to go the bathroom by her room and sink into a the tub, to rub scented ointment into her hands.

A shaking awoke her.

“I’m most sorry to disturb your slumber Miss McTavish.” It was William Gregory. “But we have finished and are retiring back to the parlour. I brought these in for you.” He hand placed the soup bowls on counter by the sink.

“Thank you Mr. Gregory. That was most kind of you.”

“Father Patrick would have you serve the pie and tea once you have cleared the rest of the table.”

“I’ll do that directly. Thank you again.” What must he think of her sleeping at the table … she was not a scullery maid.

Once he left she filled the kettle and put in on the stove. Stoked the fire a little. She sliced the pies. The kettle came to a boil. Which should she steep. Ceylon or English? The English was cheaper so she brewed that.

She went the the parlour to retrieve the tray with the wine and glasses to use it for the tea service. She had been tempted to use her cutting board but knew her uncle would never have permitted that.

“Allow me to assist you,” Bowden followed her into the kitchen “My wife always tells me a woman needs more arms than an octopus at times.”

He took the two pies and she brought in the plates and forks.

“Thank you my dear.” Her Uncle said.

“Will there be anything else?” She wanted to get back to her kitchen. Having the eyes of the men on her made her comfortable.

Back in the kitchen she prepared to wash the dishes and wiped down the counter for them to dry.

“Bring the gentlemen their coats now Lillian.”

“Yes Father Pat.”

Bowden follower her. “Let me help you with those, Miss McTavish.”

“That’s quite alright Mr. Bowden. I can manage.”
He waited in the kitchen while she got the coats from where she had placed them.

“Ah! That is mine on the top. At least let me take that one.” He pulled the coat on. “Your uncle is a fine man. We count on his influence with his parishioners when we have less that good news to give them. Not only is he the mediator between them and God but also between them and the mine owners.”

“I see.” she continued into the parlour with the other coats.

“Thank you for your hospitality Father, and for the fine cooking of your lovely niece.” Mr. O’Dowell caught her eye as he put on his coat. His look was quite flirtatious, she hoped her uncle didn’t see it.

“You must tell me what you do with the bread. I can’t remember when I had delicious bread.” Mr. Gregory asked as he put his coat on. “If you’ll allow me the recipe I’m sure my wife would be most appreciative. Not that her bread isn’t equally as fine.”

“I …” Lillian blushed. “It was given to me by Annie Clark’s mother.” She didn’t want to admit that her secret was an accident. While preparing the flour she had accidentally knocked pepper into the batter. That was the first loaf that her uncle had called perfection.

“Surely not. I’ve had her bread many times and it never tasted that good.”

“Then …” relieved of the coats she thrust her hands under her apron and thought a moment, “It must be prayer! You see before I arrived here in Castleton Mines I had never baked a loaf of bread, or anything else for that matter. Each time I put the bread in the oven I pray.”

“I see,” Mr. Gregory laughed. “Every housewife keeps a little secret to herself.”

“Prayer is no secret to those who avail themselves of it.” Lillian longed for the quiet of the kitchen. “If you’ll excuse me gentlemen I have dishes to wash.”

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