Coal Dusters – Chapter XVIII – Birk Saves A Life

Coal Dusters

Chapter XVIII

Birk Saves A Life 

Birk and Manny shoved roughly against each other as they went up the gangway to board The Dingle Dandy. He and Clancy went to the aft with some of the miner they knew. Manny and his friends went to the prow. Their drunken shouting then singing echoed over the water.

“Too bad the engine can’t down ’em out.” Birk laughed. “He’s in for it though. Coming home drunk as a … I don’t know what. Won’t please his folks none. Sure goes to show how good them Godly Catholics are, eh.”

“Shows they know where to get Holy hooch.” Clancy said.

“Where’s those mine rats. There they is.” Manny and his friends clambered over the decks to them. “You know I could always smell you a mile away.”

Manny turned to his buddies. “Man was I glad to get away from this one. My prayers were answered.” He took a swig from a bottle he was carrying in a pocket inside his jacket.

“Surprised ya could smell anything with all that stink ya burns in church.” All Birk knew about Catholic services was the incense they burned.

“Funny ‘nuff.” Manny leaned close to Birk and breathed deep. “Ya don’t smell all that bad tonight. Though may be the fish rot on the docks has covered ya.” he laughed. “Or wuz you meeting some gals?”

“Nah,” said one of his buddies. “No decent gal from around here would want a hairy mine rat in her bed. Bad enough to find ‘em under the floorboards.”

“Could be a gal.” Birk nudged Clancy. “Right Clancy?”

“Lots of gals. Well one in particular.”

“Not from around here is she?” Manny persisted. “They prefer their men fully growed. Not half-sized hairy buggers.”

“Nope.” Birk  held himself ready to fight at any moment.

“He’s bunkin ya Manny. There’s no new gals here, less you count that teacher in Waterford.”

“He’d haf to know what a school was before that could happen.” Manny bellowed.

“Then who?” One of Manny’s friends said. “Not that one living with Father Pat?”

“What!” Manny turned to his friends. “No good Catholic gal I’d look twice at an orange rat. None. Especially that one. Did ya see her blush when the Draeger man stepped outta his suit.”

“Don’t be so sure of yourself.” Clancy said.

“What you mean?” Manny pushed his face at Clancy.

“She sure can tote a basket, eh, Birk.” Clancy nudged Birk.

“Yeh.” He saw that Clancy was talking about the woman they had seen going to the colliery.

“Pretty she was. Nice figure too.” Clancy went on. “Even under that apron.”

“You down low fu …” Manny staggered and swung at Clancy.

Clancy stepped aside and Manny fell over the side of the ferry and into the harbour.

“Stop the boat! Man overboard!” one of his friends shouted and ran to the helm where the captain was. “Man overboard!”

“Help!” shouted Manny from the water. “I don’t swim that well. Help!”

“Then try walking on water?” Clancy shouted back. “Or isn’t your faith deep enough.”

Without thinking Birk pulled his boots off and was about to jump.

“Gimme yer coat, lad.” Clancy said. “No use ruinin’ it for that fat arse fool.”

As he handed Clancy his coat the boat stopped. He launched himself into the water. It took a few strokes to reach Manny. Someone threw them the line with a life ring attached to it and pulled them back on to the boat. The ferry started up again.

Manny’s friends brought them blankets to dry off with.

Manny was shivering. “Thanks Birk.” he stuck his hand out. “You know I was joshin’. Hope you were too.”

“Savin’ you was no joke.” Birk said refusing to shake Manny’s hand. “Twas the decent thing to do.”

“Besides no one wants to be eating a lobster that ha’d been fed on your insides.” one of the other miners said.

Manny and his friends went back to the prow of the ferry which was docking to let the New Castleton passengers off. 

Birk and Clancy headed directly to the road that would take them to their section of the town.

“You still thinkin’ on that gal from the other day?” Birk asked.

“Not thinking but dreamin’.”


“Yeh, I had a dream about her a few times since that morning. Some ‘at about her sticks with me.”

They stopped in front of the catalogue office to admire the goods on display in the window.

“Sure wish I could get a couple of those pretty dresses for m’ sisters. They would go crazy over them.” Birk said.

“I bet they’d go crazy over anything other than that calico you mother uses.”

“Twas cheap and she did buy a lot of it. Had to keep her from making me a shirt out of it.”

“I dunno, you might look better in calico?” Clancy laughed and darted away.

“You tuilli.” Birk chased after him. 

They stopped at the front of Birk’s house. No lights were flickering.

“Best quiet down some Clancy.” He dropped his voice.

They slipped quietly round the house to the back yard. Clancy sprawled on the bench by the back fence with his legs stretched out in front of him. He lit a cigarette.

“Hey!” Birk said. “When did you start to smoke?”

“Since that Manny dropped his cigs takin’ a swing at you back on the docks. Good thing you jumped in after him before I could or these’d be ruined.” He passed the cigarette to Birk.

“Makes you feel yer a proper man.” He held it in his hand the way he’d seen men around the mines do. He took a few puffs and coughed. “Not as if we don’t breathe in enough slag when we’re there.” He handed it back to Clancy.

“You ever think of getting hitched same as you brother Geo?”

“Nah. Ma says I’m all she got when Dad passes on. That’s my sacred duty, she told me, to look after the family I have now, not to start another one. She was some unhappy when Geo got married too. Though she understood why.”

“Sheila going to have a baby?” he handed the cigarette to Birk.

“What! Nothing of the sort. Someone had to look after them, that’s all. Ma saw the sense in that.”

“You mean they wasn’t in love?”

“Love! That’s foolish talk. If you marries everyone you loved, there be more married to their dogs than their wives, ya know.”

“That’s truth.” Clancy laughed.

“You thinking about getting hitched?” Birk passed the cigarette back.

“Me! Not much, but I know it’s one of those things that happens. Same as dying. Sometimes I wonder how it’d feel.”


“Yeah that and getting married. I wonder if there’s a difference.” He laughed and stubbed out the cigarette.

“Guess we best turn in if we expect to get some fishin’ in tomorrow.”

Birk paused at the bottom of the stairs, flexed his knees and ankles for a little leap that let him catch the bottom of the railing. With a quick jerk he flipped himself up over the bannister and onto the second floor landing outside his room.

“Birk! How many times I told you I don’t want of that foolishness in the house.” His mother scolded him. “One of these days that rail’ll give and you’ll be on the floor with a broken back and I’m not going to look after you.”

“Yeah ma. You know we fixed that bannister so only a . . . a hurricane will budge it.”

“Don’t give me no excuses. One of these days you won’t be looking and you’ll land on one of your sisters. How you think that’ll make you feel.”

“It’ll give us one less mouth to feed.” Birk did a little step dance. “You comin’ up or enjoying gawking at me!” He said to Clancy.

Clancy stood where Birk had for his jump and measured the distance with his eyes.

“Think you can do it?” Birk asked.

“Not if I don’t want go through the ceiling.” He walked up the stairs. “You do that a lot?”

“Not anymore. Used to as a kid though. Knew it would drive Ma crazy. It was always a good way for me to get out her way when she had the spoon to tan me hide for something.”

In the morning Birk stood by the bed looking down at Clancy. He flicked some water from his tea mug on Clancy’s face.

“Get a move on, soft arse. Gotta get to the lake before the fish wake up. Easier to catch ’em that way.”

“They’ll be there when we get there Birk.” He pulled the blanket over his head.

Birk went downstairs. Sharing with Clancy wasn’t as bad as Birk had expected. His sisters took to him pretty well too. The first two mornings when Maddy came in to wake them she thought it was Geo come back.

Unlike Geo, Clancy didn’t move around in his sleep. Birk felt that he had the bed to himself after all. Geo was a restless sleeper. Thrashing about at night; rolling over and pulling the blankets, at times pushing Birk out of the bed to the floor without knowing what he was doing. Clancy hardly moved once he laid down on the bed. 

Though the friction between them hadn’t fully cleared up as Birk lost his temper more than once over some slip ups at the mine. He also refused to hear any of Clancy’s talk about the various girls in the neighbourhood. That wasn’t the way one was supposed to think of them. As some sort of object to pleasure a man. When he made it clear to Clancy that he wasn’t going to indulge in that kind of talk it became less. But he could always see when Clancy’s eyes were on some gal.

Plus having his ma overhear some of Clancy’s remarks. That sent her into a rage in which she threatened to send Clancy back to Mrs. Franklin’s if she ever heard that kind of diseased talk under her roof.

Birk often heard the men in the mines making coarse remarks about women that he tried to ignore. But in his home they were harder to bear.

He checked the fishing gear in the back yard. A couple of old bamboo poles with homemade spinners and reels that his granddad had fashioned. Nothing store bought for them. 

“Got anything for us to eat?” Birk rattled his lunch pail to get his mother’s attention. “Fishing builds a hunger.”

“Ya can have a bit of that cheese and some bread. That better turn into bread and fishes for us.”

“Yeh, I know bread and fishes. There’ll be some early berries up by the lake too.”

They set out to Blue Lake which was about mile beyond the edge of the town.

“We’ll go around town and the take short cut past St. Agatha’s.” Birk lead the way. “You’ll be happy up there.”

As they passed the backs of the houses along the lane Birk shared stories about the various families who lived there now or who had in the past. They forded the stream that ran off into the harbour. The next leg took them through the richer part of the town. The morning became warmer and Birk unbuttoned his shirt and then pulled out the tails.

“Feels better.” he said.

“How is it you became such a hairy one?” Clancy asked.

“Can’t say for sure. Geo hardly hairy at all. Ma says her Dad was thick with it, not as much as me though. Same with Blackie, his father was a scruffy one. Guess it skipped Geo and all that hair landed on me. Ma calls it my in-hair-itance.”

The houses here were bigger, gardens were bigger too. As they walked down one lane they were stopped by the sound of someone crying.

A woman sitting on a bench at the back of her garden was sobbing.

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