Coal Dusters Chapter V

Chapter V

Lillian Sets The Table

“Now you remember that today is the day the union men are coming to speak with me.”
“Yes Unc … I mean Father Pat. I baked two pies last night.”

“Apple and rhubarb.”
“Yes, as you requested. I also made some of the chicken soup you enjoy.”

“Not too meaty I hope.”


“Good. We want them to know the Lord is bountiful but also that we aren’t foolish with his bounty.” He wiped the last of the egg yolk up with a crust of the bread.

“This is very good bread, Lillian. You have learned very quickly. I’ll never forget that first loaf.” He laughed as she blushed. “I’m still using it as a door stop at the church.”

“God finds a use for everything.” She forced a laugh. It was all she could do not to run from the room to cry.

As he got up, she took his plate for her own use. Once he was gone, she sat at the table with her egg on a thin slice of bread. She held her breath till she heard the gate swing shut. This meant he was gone. She looked down at the yellow yolk of the egg and screamed. She beat the table with the palms of her hands.

She stopped abruptly and ate her breakfast.

There was much to do before the union men arrived for their lunch. This would be first time anyone had been into the house other than Mary Francis who would bring them fresh vegetables and milk once a week. 

She didn’t know what her father had told her uncle but it was clear she was not to leave the house unaccompanied. He would walk with her to his church where he did trust her enough to help with the children in the Sunday school rooms.

She took her mop and pail into the dark dining room. The window faced St. Agatha’s Church and very little light came through at any time of the day. No matter how much she cleaned, the house was never clean enough for her. Coal dust from the mines would be caught up by even the slightest breeze and get into the house. Even as she washed and wiped things down now, she knew by lunch time there would be some grime to catch her Uncle’s eye.

She continued from that room to the front parlour. Not much could be done to the over stuffed settee. She took the doilies off it and the other arm chair and shook them in the sun. She wiped the mantle piece and the sideboard twice. There was a rough wooden crucifix with a gleaming silver Jesus over the mantle where a mirror might have been. On one end of the mantle in a less-gleaming silver frame was picture of Pope Pius XI in white vestments. His hand raised in blessing. She lifted it gingerly to wipe behind it. Before she continued she genuflected before the portrait. 

She then dusted the heavy legs of the dark wooden chairs that flanked the front window. The window looked out on Upper Victoria Street. The window panes had been imported by a previous parish priest. They were thick but clear with beveled corners. Lillian looked forward to cleaning them to enjoy the refraction of light that came though the bevel angles. This room was the most ornate in the house. 

Father Patrick kept their private quarters as if they were cloister but here, where he might receive members of the parish, he allowed some ostentation. The furniture had been shipped from Boston from the estate of an aunt who had willed it to him. 

Was it her fault that her father had money while all Patrick had was religion? Was it her fault she had been brought up with servants – a cook, housemaids – who did all the chores in their home so she never had to do them herself. She had never cooked, washed a floor, or even had to worry about doing laundry. Now here she was doing all these things.

Now here she was having to be careful that her private things weren’t seen by anyone. Washing her undergarments in secret, as if sunlight might reveal them to be what … she wasn’t sure. 

The memory of her uncle’s reaction to them when he examined the contents of her trunk was even more shaming to her than her first attempts to bake bread.

The morning passed quickly. Lillian found she worked better without the help of Annie. Not that the local girl was slow but Annie never had the hurry or the need to please as deeply as Lillian did. Her uncle would rail at Annie for small things and she would stand there blank faced and nod and keep on doing what she was doing the way she wanted to. After two months it was deemed that Lillian had the skills to do what was required and Annie had been reduced to being used only when needed.

When her uncle railed at Lillian she was fearful. She didn’t want bad reports going back to her father in Boston. The better she did here the sooner she hoped she would be able to return to her comfortable life. Her brothers’ letters were full of events and people she longed for plus there was the tantalizing suggestion he might be getting married in the fall. Surely she would be allowed to attend the nuptials.

She had made a simple chicken soup for the lunch. There was enough for several people as she wasn’t told how many were expected. Soup was easy to stretch out with a bit of water and a pinch of salt if there wasn’t enough. There would be sandwiches. 

She carefully buttered the bread. If there was too much butter spread, her uncle would chastise her for being wasteful. Bread was good on its own, he told her, but for company he requested the butter along with thin slices of hard cheese.

She slipped a wedge of the pale yellow cheese into her mouth. This was another of the foods that were rarely served in the house. Even with its lack of taste the cheese delighted her. She was grateful that the meals her uncle enjoyed were simple and did not tax her limited kitchen skills.

As the soup simmered she went back to the dining room to make sure the table was set properly. One skill she had brought with her was the ability to set a table for guests. Knives, forks, wine glasses and soft linen napkins all in their proper places. The china and silverware were the few expensive things her uncle owned. 

The china was from a Royal Worcester set that had come into her family and been split amongst her aunts and uncles. Her uncle had a serving for six, almost, as over the years various plates or bowls had been broken. The ten-cup tea pot was serviceable. It pleased her to run her fingers over the thick roped gold edging of the soup bowls. The soup tureen she had to use wasn’t part of the set though, but she trusted no one would notice.

“Lillian!” her uncle called as he came through the front door. “Lillian!”

“Yes Father Patrick.” She put the soup bowl carefully back on the table and stepped into the parlour.

“Here is some wine from Mrs. Donati.” He handed her a glazed earthen ware jug.  “You did clean the wine glasses.”

“Yes.” Did he think she would neglect his pride and joy.

He followed her into the dining room. He took the wine glasses off the table and set them on an oval silver tray around an empty crystal decanter. These had been left by the last priest.

“We’ll only need, let me think, three, no four including me.”

“There’ll be four for lunch then Father Pat?” She began to remove the unneeded place settings from the table. “You won’t be crowded.”

“These are a wonder.” her uncle held one of the heavy crystal glasses up to the window to admire it in the dim light. “Father Guinness had an eye for good crystal. Such a wonder.” 

A wonder to keep clean she mused. “Is there anything else I should tend to? Before your guests arrive?”
“No. I’ll pour this wine into the decanter. Bring me something to strain it with. Mrs Donati’s wine is delicious but the sediment can be distracting.”

She brought him the piece of cheesecloth she often used. She knew it was porous enough for the wine.

“Those pies smell heavenly.” he said taking a deep breath. 

“Thank you Father Pat. I put them to warm as you suggested.” 

There was a knock at the door.

“I’ll let them in.” Her uncle took the tray with the glasses and wine into the parlour and set it on the side board. “Don’t come in until I call for you.”


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Coal Dusters – Chapter IV

Chapter IV

Lillian McTavish Makes Breakfast

Even though the chill of spring was over Lillian shivered under the heavy woollen cover. It wasn’t even a blanket as far as she was concerned. It kept the heat in but she was cold. The sheet between her and the wool wasn’t thick enough to keep the coarse fibre from chafing her feet.  The cover was the same as everything in her uncle’s house. Coarse. Homemade. She tried to picture the parishioner who had made this and brought it as gift to her uncle. It was meant to be a rug. Under it she tugged her mother’s shawl tighter around her shoulders. The shawl smelled of comfort, of the life she had left behind to come here to this clumsy backwater coal mining town.

Lillian pushed the stiff cover off her and swung her feet to the floor. They recoiled from the cold. She should have left the rug where it was but pulling it over her in the night was the only way she could think of to keep warm. Her uncle had offered one of the quilts but she had refused. The tattered rag-patterned comforters looked even more homemade than the rug.

Lillian put on her slippers and wrapped her dressing gown around her. The dark blue silk was embroidered with small pink flowers along the hem with larger ones on the pockets and lapels. It was one of the few things her uncle had let her keep when she arrived. He believed her Boston clothes were too good, too impractical for someone living his house. He didn’t want anything to be a distraction for his parishioners.

“Such gaudy goods are a sign of a lack of faith. The Lord wants us plain when we stand before him not gussied up as peacocks.” He had said this as he went through her trunk shoving all her pretty clothes aside and picking the ones he deemed suitable. “The trunk be in the attic till you are fit to leave us. Your father thinks he’s made a man of himself but he never knew the meaning of decorum. I’m not surprised you arrived so ill-prepared.”

Her tears made him impatient with her. Now here she was dressing in rough, colourless, shapeless pinafores, coarse linen shifts that gave her no shape. She wondered if he was more concerned with her being a temptation to him than a lure of Satan to his parishioners.

Her room didn’t have a mirror. She hadn’t seen her face clearly since she arrived three months ago. There were no mirrors in the priest’s house and certainly none in the small church.

She splashed cold water on her face. Her hands were red and chafed from the housework she was now responsible for. Learning things here that her uncle said her father and mother had failed to teach her. How to be a woman who could serve others, not a wonton who only served her own pleasures.

She sat at her dressing table to brush her hair. More than her clothes, she missed the lotions and creams she could use to keep her hands, soft, to keep her hair radiant. All she had been allowed some Castile rose soap. She stared at the space on the wall where a mirror had once been. She knew that by the discoloured, and water-mottled rose wallpaper around a clean rectangle of red roses.

She tugged the brush through her hair trying to be gentle with the knots that always crept into it overnight. She resisted the temptation to pull harder, not wanting to break it off in clumps. She longed for a long, hot bath but that wasn’t possible in this house. Too much work to heat enough water for a bath. 

One snag pulled painfully at her scalp. She began to cry. This was unbearable. All she had wanted to do was get married. At twenty-two it was time for her to get married yet her father was always on the guard for young men who wanted his money, wanted her for his money. At the same time her mother was wary of men who might not respect her as a woman. Men who would corrupt her with their unwholesome demands.

When she had met David Henderson two summers ago, she hoped she had found someone to please them both. Older than her by five years, David came from an equally prosperous family. He was modest. The two of them had signed temperance cards. They had never been together unchaperoned expect when they walked to church together.

Yet when he asked her father for her hand in marriage her father had said no. He forbade her to ever see that ‘Henderson man’ again. When she pressed him for an explanation her father told her she was only to obey. At church the next week she was told that David had been sent to England by his family. His family also claimed this would be an unwise match. She later learned the the problem was that David’s mother was Jewish. 

That was when James Dunham came into her life. A dashing and very rich man in his thirties who charmed both her mother and father. James had no family in Boston and was there to establish himself in banking. A man her parents trusted and whom she was allowed to be alone with to go to the theatre.

Only he didn’t take her to the theatre every time. He would make a great show of it to her parents and then whisk her back to his rooms at the Lennox Hotel. There they would dine in private. He was eager to show her what ‘unwholesome demands’ meant on two occasions. On the second her father arrived at the door unannounced. The hotel manager thought it wise to alert her father as to what was happening.

Cape Breton was where she had come to from the bright promise of Boston. Her father was about to become a senator and here she was exiled in shame is this dirty coal-mining slag heap of a village. At least she didn’t end up in a home for wayward girls. Even though she had miscarried she was deemed unfit to be seen as member of the family in Boston society.

Her father’s brother, Uncle Pat, whom she was now to refer to as Father Patrick, had agreed to take her in. He needed a housekeep, as his letter proposed. Housekeep! All she had here was an occasional kitchen helper. She was sorry she hadn’t died when she lost the baby.

“Lillian. Lillian are you about.”

“Yes Uncle Pat. I will be down momentarily.” She gave up with her hair. Without a mirror or the proper pomades there was no point in trying maintain it. 

She shrugged her smock on over her head and tied a dark blue rag around her hair to keep it off her face.

In the kitchen she was relieved to see that her uncle had cut wood for her. Most mornings he left that work to her. He had even started a fire in the stove. He sat at the small pine table in the one chair in the room.

“Thank you Father Pat for getting the fire going.” She had learned quickly that her uncle expected gratitude for every thing he did around the house.

“It is my pleasure to be of service.”

She pumped water into the kettle and set it on the stove. 

“Tea will be ready shortly.” she told him. “Would you prefer the Ceylon or the English?”

“The Ceylon I think. Yes, it’s definitely a morning for the Ceylon.”

Lillian put the iron skillet on the stove and greased it lightly. It was quickly hot enough for the one egg and one piece of bacon that her uncle ate every morning with one thick piece of bread. She was to prepare his before she could eat anything. She wasn’t allow the bacon. 

Her uncle had come to Cape Breton several years ago after two years in a monastery. There he enjoyed an austere life of silence free of concern about, what he now called, objects. Yet he found the solitude taxing and decided that he was more suited to being of service with humanity in a more direct way.

The kettle whistled and she poured the water into the tea pot. She was allowed to have a cup of tea with him but was to remain stranding. He claimed eating in the morning together would be unseemly. Too similar to what properly married Catholics would do.

Lillian crossed herself at the time as he did before he said grace.

“Lord for the food we are about receive I humbly thank you. We also thank you for keeping Pope Pius in good health. Amen.”

Lillian said the amen with him. She served him his breakfast.

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Coal Dusters Chapter III

Chapter III

Birk Teaches Clancy Sinclair A Lesson

When he was back in his spot Birk chopped faster, sent larger chunks of coal down to Clancy. He didn’t worry about making them smaller as he had for the first load. Let Clancy break ‘em. Call him a monkey would he. Time to show that soft arse how hard mine work was.

When he knew there was enough for another load he scrabbled back to Clancy. 

“Gettin ‘re done b’y.” He peered at the scree. “Not bad.”

He pounded hard with the head of his pick to reduce the larger chunks. The smaller the pieces the more the cart hold. The more they shipped up the more they would get paid.

After the third load Birk got his lunch pail from the niche by one of the support staving. He hunched with his back against the wall and opened it up. Clancy leaned gingerly against the wall, his legs stretched out as far as he could in the space they had. He rubbed at his back.

“Being big’s not always good, eh?” Birk said. “Some never gets to stand up straight after a a few months down here. You’ll see’em hunched wherever they go in or out of the mine.” He took a swallow of his tea. Didn’t taste right without a bit of sugar. He rinsed his mouth with it and spat it out. Cleaning his mouth of coal dust as best as he could before biting into his lunch. Bread with some grease drippings spread on it. Today he had a thin piece of the wedding cake. His sisters had already picked the icing off it. The bit of sweetness left almost cut through the taste of the coal in his mouth. The cake was as tasteless as the bread. He wondered if he could dissolve it his tea to sweeten that some.

“Done?” he shut his pail.


“Back to it then b’y.”


“That all ya got ta say?”

“Not much of a talker.”

“Couldn’t shut Manny. Talk the head off a rat given the chance.”

“Yeh, well, its bad enough t’work with one let alone wanna to talk to one while I’m eatin’.”

Birk twisted around. 

“I’m a rat, eh? Monkey ‘s bad enough, ya snotty main lander.” He swung at Clancy and slipped on the uneven ground at the same time.

Clancy was on top of him, batting at Birk’s ribs then ears. 

“You half-size rat giving me orders all day. Think l’m going to put wid that.”

Birk got one knee into Clancy’s stomach and pushed him off. The tunnel wasn’t high or wide enough for either of them to stand and take punches. They wrestled each other to his knees. Head butting when possible.

Birk could taste blood in his mouth.

“Yer a tough guy for a rat you know.” Clancy had his forearm under Birk’s chin. “Smell worse than one, too.”

Gasping, Birk hit Clancy as hard as he could in the side.

“Christ, breakin m’ribs.” he rolled off.

“Ya stay there for now laddie.” Birk leaned against the wall. “I got work to do. This way yer not underfoot.”

Birk went back the face he was working on. Each blow of his pick axe was a blow into the grinning face of Clancy. No one pushed him around. At eighteen he’d been in the mine for five years now. He knew what he was doing and how not to take anything from anyone. If you took it yer were on the losing side. 

He could hear Clancy raking away the scree. The need to prove he was the top man here was as important as making sure they got enough coal loaded.

They worked the rest of the shift without speaking. Eating their supper in separate nooks in the shaft.

It was night when they came to the surface with the rest of their level’s day shift. Birk headed straight to the wash up room after he hung his work clothes on their hook and pulled them up to the ceiling.

This was when he moved as fast as he could. The first in got the cleanest water. He wasn’t sure where the blood in the wash bowl was from, then he recalled the dust up with Clancy. Showed him this little guy can’t be dealt with that way. 

He took a straight razor out of his lunch pail, lathered his face as best he could and began to shave under his chin. He glanced up at Clancy who was opposite him splashing water onto himself. He was trying to wash the grime out of his red hair.

“Yer hair will be black fer’ver m’son.” He stopped shaving a moment.

“Only those don’t know how to wash proper have that problem.” Clancy replied.

Birk finished his shave, rinsed his face off. The skin was always fresh to the touch when he’d done that. He ran his hand long to make sure he got most of his whiskers. Without a mirror he did as best he could. At least he missed a different spot each time.

“Get a move on,” one of the waiting miners shouted. “Some of us got dust to wash outta our arse hair too, you know.”

The miners laughed.

Birk dried himself quickly and got back into into his overalls and shirt. He could smell the clean of the shirt. His body ached for that big bed. Ah, yes, that almost made the day bearable now that he had that all to himself. Something to look forward too. No snoring Geo to deal with ever again.

“Same time tomorrow, soft arse.” Birk gave Clancy one last shove. “Keep pissin’ on them hands too or ya won’t last the week.”

Jake was at the exit gate waiting for him. Birk couldn’t wait to to tell him about the new guy he was breaking in. 

“Main landers always think they know it all.” Jake said.

“Thanks to the union we have ‘ta let ‘em work then act as if we’re the ones doing them a favour.”

When he got home he tugged off his work boots and socks. The cool air was always good on his bare feet. He tossed the socks and his face rag into a bucket and poured water over them. He’d scrub them out in the backyard later.

Blackie was home sitting at the kitchen table.

“Gotta another new guy. Why do I always get’ em. A big mouth main lander. Manny got that sweet job in the train yard. When’s the union gonna do something for me beside taking dues. I shoudda had that spot, you know. That Red Mac never considered me much.”

“My fault b’y.” Blackie nodded his head. “Should a been a mick. Not yer fault he takes his direction from the priest. Manny ‘s the priest’s pet. You know that. Probably told Red Mac the devil would get him if he didn’t do right by Manny.”

“What about right by me. I’s been there longer ‘n him, too. But I showed that new guy his place fast enough.”

“Whose his father?” Blackie asked.

“He’s outta Stellarton.”

“His Da’s probably a train man then. Wonder why he ended here and not the trains. Good money in that.”

His mother came in from the backyard with some carrots from their garden.

“Jus look at these.” She held up a some stunted roots. “Soil here’s so bad nothing grows. I tries every year and it’s the same.”

Maddy followed her in with some daisies.

“Thank you little miss.” Birk reached for them.

“They’s for Geo.” she hid them behind her back.

“I should a guessed. How long for we eat?”
“When they get here. Sheila bringing a fish stew she made to thank me for the cake I baked.” His mother wiped at the table.

“I’ll be above.” Birk went to the stairs. “How’s Sal?”
“Same. Sat up for a spell to look out the window. Weather’ll be fine soon to take her outside for awhile. Sunshine’ll fix her up fast.”

Birk went up to his room. Before he went in he looked in on Sal. She was propped up with a couple of pillows stroking the hair of a rag doll his mother had made for her.

“How’s my sweet sister today.” He said gently as he sat on the end of the bed.

“Don’t” Sal flushed in alarm. “Don’t get that dirt on dolly.”

“I … ” Birk stood and walked out of the room. “T’ think I shaved special for you. That’s all the thanks I get, eh?”

He flopped on the bed and stared at the ceiling. At least his room didn’t want to be rid of him the way his sisters did, or his new workmate did. It was a change to not have to put up with Geo hounding about the smell of his feet, as if Geo’s feet smelled of roses. Good luck to Sheila getting Geo to clean up better.

He drifted off to sleep to be wakened by loud laugher from below. His brother had arrived with his new wife. Same old Sheila but new all the same. He went down to the kitchen. 

Someone with his back to Birk was talking to Blackie. The someone turned around. It was Clancy.

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Coal Dusters Chapter II

Chapter II

Birk Nelson Gets A New Rake Man

The sun was rising over the steaming mounds of slag coal. The mound never got any smaller no matter how much was carted away to the wash plant. Coal was already being loaded into a rail car to be transported to the dock.

They went into the change room and lowered their work clothes from the overhead hangers. 

“Birk Nelson!” Red Mac, the shift foreman, called to him.

“Yeah.” Birk grabbed for his brass counter. 

“Birk,” the foreman nodded for him to come over to the small office. “This is Clancy Sinclair. He’ll be your rake man.”

“Manny was doing okay.” Birk squinted at Clancy.

Clancy looked to be a head taller than him, a lot wider in the shoulders with blond almost brown hair. 

“Not my say so,” Red Mac shrugged. “Orders from above. Manny’s moving on to the scuttle yard.”

“Fuk,” Birk spat. He had hoped to get that position. Scuttle yard was where the coal was loaded into the rail cars. It was as hard work as being under in the mines but it was above ground. All the miners longed to work above ground.
“I know you wanted it but yer too good. Yer a lucky chap Clancy. Birk Nelson is one the best we got.”

“Yeah sure. Sticking me with this skinny rat. He must disappear down there.”

“Whose yer father?” Birk asked.

“Scott Sinclair.”

“The Bras D’Or Sinclair’s?” Birk said.

“Nah, Stellarton.”

“Main lander?” Birk said.

“What of it?” Clancy replied.

Birk grabbed Clancy’s left hand. Clancy pulled it away.

“What you up to?”

“Checking to see how tough your hands is. Skin’s too soft this job.”

“Least we’ll know when my hair ‘s clean. You black as coal already.” he sniffed the air. “You sure you washed ‘for you came here?”

“Mac, you stick me with puddin’ boy here and I won’t make enough to pay for a pint let alone our tic at the pluck me.”

“Soft! Least I’m full size.” Clancy stood as tall as he could. “Not some half-sized hairy mine monkey.”

“Who you callin’ a monkey, you soft arse.” Birk launched himself at Clancy and landed two solid punches in quick succession. One to the side of Clancy’s head and the other to his stomach.

Clancy staggered back and was ready to punch back when Red Mac pushed stepped between them.

“Nuf of this. You want beat the dust out of each other do it out of my yard.”

“Then stick this soft arse with someone else ‘cause only one of us is coming back up and you know it’s me.”

“Both of you will come back. Listen and listen good Birk Nelson. You have sisters who need what you put on the table. Next time to want to take a swing at someone keep that in mind, ‘cause the next time you take a swing at me you’re out of here. You understand that.”

Birk snatched his lunch pail and rammed it under his arm.

“And you Clancy. You’re new here. You gotta learn to mind your tongue. This isn’ a place to run off at the mouth with guys you don’t know. Some here wouldn’t be as gentle wid ya as Birk here was.”

“No one calls me soft.”

“Who is to say.” Red Mac pulled himself up to his full height – a head taller than Clancy, two heads taller than Birk. “Only a soft arse would let himself get riled up this easy. And that goes for the two of you. Birk you take him down to the face with you. I’ll be down soon enough to make sure you’re acting the way men should and not school kids. Understand.”

“Yes sir.” Birk glared at Clancy. “Follow me.”

“I’m not taking orders from him. You’re not paying enough for that.”

“You want to work or not. I git plenty looking for work here me son. Plenty. You can go back to …”

“Christ! I’ll give it a try.” Clancy cut Red Mac off.

“Come along then,” Birk grunted and added under his breath, “soft arse.”

“What you say?” Clancy snapped back.

“I said come along we got a long way to go. Level Ten.”

They got into the cage with a dozen other miners. Adjusted their head lamps as it rattled down the shaft. The shift car pushed the men back and forth. Each time Clancy was forced up against Birk, Birk roughly shoved him away. 

The smell of earth got stronger as the cage descended. Earth and coal. The dampness increased. As the cage passed some levels Birk could hear water dripping, or blasts as new seams were opened. The levels spread out from the elevator shaft. Some for a few hundred yards, others went for miles. Some, such as the one on Level 10 went under the ocean. Birk still expected his pick would punch right through to the sea bed above.

Total blackness quickly enveloped the men but not all of them turned on their lamps. It was better to let the eyes adapt to the dark as quickly as possible. Birk could find his way to the face he was working on without light. 

“Stick close now or yer arse is going get hard fastern than you want it.” Birk said when they got off the cage. He took a deep breath. “Better take a breath while you can. That’s the last of the fresh air you’ll get till we’re ready to head up.”
“Get moving.” Clancy give Birk a slight shove.

Knowing his way Birk moved quickly over the uneven surface to the crease where he was working. He could hear Clancy stumbling behind him. That’d teach the big mouth who was the big man.

“Watch yer head here.” He muttered as they came to the final turn. He ducked down and then up avoiding the staving joist that was holding the ceiling.


“Y’d think y’d never been in the dark before.” Birk chuckled as he heard Clancy bump the rafter.

“Never down this deep.” Clancy was trying to catch his breath.

“Better get used to it quick, as yer going t’be spending most yer awake time in the dark, same as in your sleep time. Day light’ll not be your pal again.” He stored his lunch can behind the upright paling that helped to support the weight of the ceiling.

“Thanks.” Clancy gasped.

Birk stopped and Clancy stumbled into him.

“Watch it.” Birk pushed him back. “Tight nuf in here ya know. Here’s yer rake. You know how to handle one.”
“Christ yeh. I rake, pile and when pile is big nuf we shovel it in into the cart, when the cart is full we get it to the line to dump it into the shuttle.”

“Trick is to keep up wid me boy.”

Birk tied his face rag around his mouth and nose, tuned his headlamp on and starting hammering with his pick axe at his crease. As the shards and chunks of coal loosened he pushed them behind him for Clancy to rake away. 

After a few minutes his shoulder muscles loosened and his mind stopped thinking about anything except what he was doing, how fast he was doing it. Steadily he deepened the vein as he followed it along. He could feel the change in vibration in his pick as hit different types of rock, sulphur, granite, different strata of the vein, even different hardnesses of the coal itself. He had no sense of time but of quantity. Once he had dislodged enough coal to fill the hopper he wriggled out to help Clancy push the cart to the main line. Before they dumped into the shuttle he relived himself on the coal.

Clancy was about to do the same. Birk took Clancy’s free hand and peered at in the light of his headlamp. The skin on the hand was rubbed raw, bleeding along the thumb.

“Just as I thought soft. Piss on it.”
“What?” Clancy tired to pull away.

“Yeh it’ll help toughen the skin faster. Took me a week before m’hands could take it.” He watched as Clancy rubbed his hands in his own urine.

“Christ feels okay.”

“Don’ think I forget what ye called me up there but don’t want you to slow me down any either. You un’stand.”


“Do ya think ya can keep up wid me by?” Birk muttered.

“Nothing to it.” Clancy wheezed.

“You gotta learn to breath down here.” Birk said. “You breathin’ too deep.”

All they could make out of each other in the dim light of their head lamps was their eyes. Their face coverings were coated with black dust.

“I’ve been keepin’ a bit slow. Two more of these and we take a wee break for eatin.” He began to shove the cart back to where they were working. 

“Oof.” Clancy bump hard into the low rafter.

“Listen an learn. Not goin to warn you every time m’boy.”

“I’m not yer b’y.” Clancy snarled. “Keep goin’ ya damned monkey.”

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License

Hey! Now you can give me $$$ to defray blog fees & buy ice-cream in Washington at 2018’s – sweet,eh?

#NaNoWriMo and Loss of Innocence

This week I’ve been working on the major emotional climax of the my nano project. As much as I enjoyed the challenge of the big action scenes: protest marches, clashes with troops, mine explosions & collapses, and store burnings & lootings, it was the big emotional confrontation I was most looking forward to tackling.


That confrontation was simple enough to set up: female protagonist come across the guys, naked after swimming in the lake & displaying a moment of affection – not even a sex act but a caress. The confrontation is between her class, education, Catholic religion & grief and the guys lack of those – under-educated, dirt poor & Protestant. Neither side comes out unscathed but my sympathies are clearly with the guys.


My male protagonist loses some of his innocence as he sees his affection for his mate is more than buddy/buddy and that affection is returned. My female protagonist now antagonist – well I’m not sure what her lesson, if any, will be, because judgemental people only become firmer in their resolve when frustrated in their efforts to be proved right.


word count 47800 – expect to pass 50000 today 🙂



Lillian was outside the church as 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 hug his mother.

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

Lillian 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 the priest she wouldn’t be welcome there at such a time.

When she’d heard that Sal had died she couldn’t believe it. She had been with the girls earlier in the week. Both of them seemed well 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 and walked around 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.

“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 no ailing too?”

“No. She was too busted up to be with us. The Malone’s 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?” Lillian 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.

She was deeply puzzled as to why her attempts to befriend Birk had been rebuffed. At least he no longer expressed open animosity towards her. Religion couldn’t be the only reason. He surely didn’t see her real motivation in trying to play a part in his life?

She went back to the main street. The few open shops were empty of people and goods. Many had had been shut down and even boarded up.

“Miss Lillian.” It was Mrs. Seldon, who used the manage the company store. “Fancy seeing you again so soon.”

“Yes Hannah, I hope it isn’t going to be as dramatic today though.”

“Wasn’t that some terrible. It’s a wonder so few were hurt bad. How’s Father Patrick?”

“Recovering well. His head is as hard you’d expect.” Lillian forced herself to smile. Part of her was glad to see her uncle get what she felt was coming to him. Especially now that her hopes of embarrassing him by consorting with the Protestant miners hadn’t gone as quickly, or as easily, as she had hoped,

“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 after what she had experienced even if they hadn’t had announced her death. “I’d best be on my way.”

Was what had happened to her so dreadful? She racked her memory for other girls she had known in her Boston social circle. Surely she wasn’t the first and only one who had gotten caught up in that sort of misadventure.

“Good evening Miss McTavish.” It was Steven O’Dowell. “You seemed to be in another world.”

“Not exactly Mr. O’Dowell.”

“I’ve told you many times to call me Steven.” He offered her his arm.

Since she had come to reside at the O’Dowell’s house his actions towards her had changed. He’d become much more circumspect, as if his sister were always present with them.

“Not too long ago you mentioned a Mr. James Dunham?” She hadn’t forgotten how Steven had caught her off guard with his knowledge of what had happened in in Boston. Or at least of knowledge he implied he had.

“I regret those remarks Miss McTavish. He proved to be most untrustworthy in his business dealings. Quite distasteful in fact.”

“By business dealing you mean …”


Lillian wanted to laugh at his discomfort. She recognized in Steven the same recklessness her older brother had when it came to quick money.

“I hope I haven’t shocked you. But I realize we got off on the wrong foot and I intend to be as honest as I can with you.”

“Thank you, Mr O’Dowell. But your vices are of no concern to me.”

“I gather from Clara that you have been instructing some of the Mudder brats.”

“Yes. They don’t have a the good sisters that our children are lucky to have. If we want to lead them out of their ways they need to be taught.”

“Lead them!” He gave a half-laugh. “You think of yourself as a missionary.”

“Quite right. If we can make socks for the children of Africa, who as far as we know have no religion at all, in hopes of leading them to salvation why shouldn’t we do it here, when there are children right under our noses who need those socks just as badly.” She a bit taken aback at the vehemence of her own words.

“Well said. Clara was right that there was more to you than good pies and tidy needlepoint.”

(rest of scene in next post)

fountain of delight
fountain of delight

NaNoWriMo Feet First

Jumped into NaNoWriMo with both feet and fingers flying. Past years its taken a week or so for me to really get into the rhythm of writing a set amount each day and then pushing that amount higher in a race with myself. This year I set myself a minimum of at least 2000 words a day. So far I’ve exceeded that every day. Not by much, yet, but that pace is enough for me.


I’ve made a few changes in my daily routine to give me more flying fingers time – getting up ten minutes earlier, reading less, shorter morning walks – because the walks are actually thinking time I won’t cut them too short – plus they are ideal for my experiment in brain balancing with binaural beats.


I opted not to go back and read any of the first part of the novel that I wrote last year. I pulled up my cast list because names had been forgotten. I have some major ‘set pieces’ to work on – the miners’ march that gets fired on by militia, the miners forced back to work at gun point, mine cave in, and my female protagonist’s transformation into the antagonist. Man, oh, man does she suffer before she gets redemption.


On top of which my male protagonists will come to learn that their innocent affection isn’t seen as innocent by some & also they’ll realize it’s deeper than affection. I’d say there’s at least 60,000 words in all that – of which the flying fingers have caged over 12,000.


Coal Dusters Sample

(55,000 words already written, set in Cape Breton, mid-1920’s, Birk 19 – Lillian – 21 – exiled by Boston family )

Lillian was disappointed to hear that the strike was over. She had found helping the children with with schooling was rewarding and even though that would continue she knew that the extra time she had been able to give to the non-parish miners would end.

She had started the afternoon sessions of basic reading and writing with the adult miners partly as a show of community involvement to her uncle. [Her uncle is the parish priest]. Not that she expected his approval or wanted to be back in his good graces but she had to prove to him that she was good for more than just washing his dishes.

Teaching the younger miners who had been forced out of school and into the mines at an early age was to her an ideal way of being useful. It also gave her the opportunity to get closer to Birk. She’d even given him and his sisters, Maddy and Sal, more private time.

“You’re doing well Birk.’ Lillian couldn’t get him to look her in the eyes for more than a few seconds.

“Thanks ma’am.”

“Too bad you had to start working at such an age.”

“That’s how its done here. Schoolin’s fine for them who expect to make more of themselves. I’m happy to be bring … well, when I was working, happy to bring something home to keep the family fed. You understand.”

“Yes.” Lillian was getting a greater insight into the lives of the families in New Castleton. When she arrived she had been kept from the reality of their lives by the reality of hers.

It was clear to her that she had been protected from so much of what was going outside of her home by her family’s position in Boston. Even here she was distanced from most of it by her uncle’s position. An ordinary Catholic girl wouldn’t dare be seen in Mudside [one area of New Castleton is known as Mudside because it has unpaved streets] let alone the priest’s niece. Sure she had some glimpses of the hardships the miners in the parish lived under but until now she had felt more like an observer, someone who was only visiting. News of her death had certainly changed that. She was really here. [To fully disown her, her family claimed she had died of influenza in Cape Breton. Full backstory in last year’s NaNo]

“Your penmanship has improved Birk.” She passed the page back to Birk. “Soon you’ll be as good as me. Won’t he Maddy?”

“Oh, yes, Miss.’ Maddy beamed up at Lillian.

Lillian enjoyed the way Birk’s face reddened at her praise. That meant she was making progress. When she had offered to help him with his schooling privately he had refused. So she had included his two sisters. She’d come by their house and sit in the tiny living-room with them and encourage them. She was keenly aware how Birk’s grooming had improved much faster than his penmanship.

“There’s a fresh pot tea,’ Birk’s mother came into the parlour.

Lillian knew that Mrs. MacDonnell was responsible for making sure her brood was presentable for these visits. But she was rarely left alone with Birk for long. Even if he accompanied her home one or both of this sisters would tag along.

“This is what a family must be like,” she said as they walked along one evening. His sister Sal between them holding each of their hands.

“Family?” Birk mumbled.

“Someone who didn’t know us might think we were husband and wife out for a stroll with our daughter.” Lillian wanted to tell him to walk taller and not to talk at his feet. Over the past couple of weeks she had come to see him as more than her revenge but as someone she could like. Though the thought of his hairy arms against her whiteness made her cringe.

“Ah, I see.” Birk nodded. “But those that know would nev’r think such a thing. A good mic … I mean Catholic woman like yerself and a mudder like me could never be together.”

“You’ve never thought of starting a family of your own?”

“I got one now.”

“I mean like your bother George.”

“Nah. Ma knew he’d settle down soon as he was able. The oldest gets wed but the younger stays to help with things. Hard enough to make ends meet with what we bring home when we is working.”

“Surely you’ve had a girlfriend. Some lass you were sweet on?” Lillian was determined to find a way into Birk’s mind. Over the past weeks she had found him taciturn to the point of silence most of the time. At first she though it was because he wasn’t intelligent but he was. He was merely shy and unused to any kind of female attention from any one other than his mother or sisters.

“Can’t say as I have. Never seems to be enough time for stuff that that when we’re working. Besides …. ”

“What?” Lillian made sure she made eye contact with him.

“It’s not fittin’ to bother … women with untoward attention. It’s not seemly. Our mother says that no God fearing woman wants that sort of attention from a man. And them that does aren’t worth a pinch of salt.”

“Salt!” Lillian contained her laughter. “But how do you think families happen, Birk?”

“That’s not right talk in front of my sister.”

“Sorry.” Lillian hoped she hadn’t pushed him too hard. It was useless for her to compare him to her own brothers or the men she had grown up around in Boston. They had educations. Sometimes Birk acted and spoke like he was the same age as his sisters and not an adult.

“I was thinking it must be pretty lonely though for you?”

“Ma’am it’s only been since Clancy been gone that I had a bed to call my own. There are time’s I longs to be alone.”

They stopped at the corner down from the O’Dowell’s where she was now staying.

“I want to thank you ma’am for taking the time to teach my sisters and me.”

“Oh Miss! You’ll still come even though the strike’s over.” Sal let go of Birk’s hand to squeeze Lillian’s with both of them.

“I might. Too bad you can’t come to St. Agatha’s but it’s just for the Catholic children.”

“We’re back to work tomorrow.”

“You don’t sound too pleased.”

“Who’s pleased!” Birk spat on the street. “Two dead and soldier’s lined up to force us back. They can afford to feed those army fuckers, sorry to swear ma’am, and let our child’n starve.”

(for more, see my posts in November 2012)

big wheel - no longer turning
big wheel – no longer turning

My Eyes on #NaNoWriMo

catch you later

NaNoWriMo kicks off officially in two weeks – yeah & shudder both at the same time. I’ve kept the decks clear for November – declined a feature opportunity to maintain focus focus focus. I’ve done a bit of warm up writing with some non-story line character development. As this is to be the conclusion of the project I started with last year’s NaNo I do have a solid set of characters to work with, plus I didn’t get to the two, or maybe three, major scenes in the story.

One thing I always have difficulty with is when to let go on a time-line to jump forward a month or two, to get time to pass. Because I am including some historic events I’m sort of anchored to those time points but I also figure that I’m writing fiction so I might be able to play around with that as well. For me emotional truth is more vital than historic accuracy.

my goal's beyond
my goal’s beyond

I’ll possibly go back over what I have written to see what more I need for the secondary plot lines. But I do have huge set pieces to work with -the miners’ protest march that ended up with military intervention in which many were injured and at least one miner killed; a coal mine cave in – one can’t write about a coal mine without a cave in; also the discovery by my antagonist of the friendship between the man she has set her sights on & his best friend.

Mary Mary
Mary Mary

There’s at least another 60,000 words in all that – I’m totally looking forward to the reversal of, or perhaps the deepening of, sympathies for my female lead – who goes from victim to revenge seeker to bully as her revenge unravels in the most unexpected way.


October 18 – Friday – attending – Racket at the Rocket

October 20 – Sunday – attending – Cabaret Noir

life is a cabaret NOIR, bitch
life is a cabaret NOIR, bitch

October 22 – Tuesday – maybe attending – Exquisite Corpse


October 31 – Thursday – attending – The Beautiful and The Damned


November 1-30 – participating – NaNoWriMo


November 3 – Sunday – attending – Lydia Lunch Live

June 6-8, 2014 – attending – Bloody Words


A little something to get you in the mood for Halloween:

My Eyes

what colour are my eyes

I’ve been told so many things

legends merged with facts

conclusions were at odds with reality

the myths weren’t meant to be believed

were they

they were lessons

but do they apply to today

if the mirror should reflect or not reflect

is it relevant to the moment

to my desires

I have no hunger for anything more

than that reflection

I don’t long for fabled conquest

I’m not driven by rumored blood-lust

but the desire to see

what I look like in the mirror

I can see my body

others could see this body

but I’ve never seen my face

I don’t know the shape of my mouth

the colour of my own eyes


Getting Wired and #NaNoWriMo Prep

pretty lowe?

Electricians have infested my house as the wiring is finally being upgraded from mortar and pestle (or some such configuration) to what I presume will be state of the art. This mean, amongst other things, no power for several hours a day, until the work is complete. The plan is to have it done within two weeks, so there’ll be no interruption for NaNo in November.

The other thing about the re-wiring is moving stuff, lots and lots of dusty of stuff – bookcases overloaded with books that have to moved to make baseboard access possible. Forcing a long needed purge of books to the Trinity College book sale (I hope) and probably some long neglected dust bunnies to be sent packing as well. Perhaps that missing sock will surface.

how lowe can you go

But now to the topic at hand. NaNo preparations: my plot came to me a few years ago after a visit to my Cape Breton home. I visited several local historical museums. I loved the details about lives that I was mainly unaware of – the large black community for one – not only in Sydney but in the mining towns as well. Miners were imported from the Bahamas etc. I think of this as lost history.

Plus the number of other immigrants who worked those harsh jobs underground, at the steel plant etc. Photos of their fraternal organizations, church picnics, sports teams and schools.

12-14 hour shifts

So many fascinating details about families, wives, husbands, relatives, music and daily lives. All so heteronormative I wondered if there were gays in those days. Gay history isn’t lost but hidden, unrecognized or unacknowledged.  I realize there really wasn’t a language at some levels of society for otherness. That lead me to thinking of what life might be like for men with such feelings yet with no way to describe them even as they acted on them.

the lunch room

My research into sexual mores of the time lead me to conclude that often leisure time, education and money play a big part in awareness and judgment. People who work 12-14 hour grueling shifts don’t have the energy to care who sleeps with who.


here’s a piece from 2007:


I know you’re sore

after that gal you’d been hitting on

walked out on you

after three drinks

I heard you moan to your pals

how the last two chicks you dated

dumped you via text message

one of them still won’t return your calls

that they turn into such selfish bitches

when they know they can get

what they want from you

but just because I’m a clean old queer

doesn’t mean I have any interest

in your macho macho meat

the fact that you’re straight

ain’t my aphrodisiac

I agree it’s too bad

every woman you’ve known

thinks you are some sort of egotistic jerk

who only thinks of himself

when all you want to do is please them in bed

then roll over to fall asleep

I suppose it’s unreasonable

that you show up on time every time

you say you’re going to pick them up after work

yeah I guess those bitches are just lazy

unfair and expect way too much

when all all you want to do

spend a few hours watching TV all weekend

I can see how that is pretty mean

but the fact that you’re straight

just ain’t my aphrodisiac

you may think I’m one of those

predatory homos you are sure

are always lurking around

that I’m hungry for any straight guy

to come along and fall

into my eager mouth

well honey

you are living in a dream world

the fact that I checked out our jeans

was because I was wondering where you got them

so why don’t you go back to your buds

because you aren’t getting anything here

‘cause if them nasty hos

you always end up with

aren’t interested I’m certainly not

the fact that you’re straight

just ain’t my aphrodisiac, mac