August Recap September Sneak Peek

August was my best month yet for this blog – one day getting 100 hits – severals days over 60. Canada at the top of the hit list, India 2nd place, USA 3rd, with !! Kenya 4th. The blog now has 345 followers (up from 298 at the start of the year). 216 Twitter followers;239 Tumblr followers. Steady increase is best. Managed to keep plugging away on Coal Dusters while I was in Cape Breton with 126,000 words posted so far – maybe another 15,000 to go to wrap things up.

The visit to Cape Breton was leisurely & energizing. Spent time with some old friends, got to some AA meetings, drove all over the area – the furthest was to Baddeck. Took lots of pictures, many of which I have been used here. Blogged everyday while I was gone, some days twice. Who knew I had so much o say, right. My favorite pictures have to be the big blue sky shots. But the ones of objects from my past are sweet as well, in particular the cover of the Oxford Dictionary.

Hot Damn! pulled of a bonus round 🙂 with an open stage as part of the Bricks & Glitter Festival. A Monday night show that was full to capacity. That’s right Monday night. It makes it clear the the show serves as valued opportunity for the community. The season 6 launch is September 24 at Buddies in bad Times.

Also coming up in September are a couple day-trip theatre outings. First to see Mae West’s “Sex” at Niagara-on-the-Lake. This is the play she went to prison for because it was lewd & immoral. I’ve done a bit of research & it was more because she was an amazing successful woman. The following week we’re off to Stratford to see Little Shop Of Horrors. I’ve seen different productions of the musical before, as well the original film & the movie of the musical. It all depends on the romantic chemistry between Seymour & Audrey 2.

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Cape Breton Reflections

My visit to Cape Breton had me living in many worlds – my memories, my sister’s memories, the present day & the fictional worlds of Emile Zola’s amazing Au Bonheur des Dames, & Aliette de Bodard’s Servant of the Underworld, set in the fifteenth-century Aztec Empire (which I was reading alternate chapters from on my Kindle.) Both of which I’d highly recommend.

The weather was perfect – hot, sunny & not overly humid. The Travelodge was the right distance from the downtown – I could walk where I wanted in 40-50 minutes – which is my usual daily walking routine so I certainly got my steps in. I deliberately didn’t use my iPod so that I was present for the walks. Only listened to my airmac iTunes when I was writing & even then I enjoyed working in ‘silence’ most of the time.

I did a couple of my school walks but retracing those steps wasn’t the point of this trip. The same with meeting up with a few old friends – it was more about today than reflecting on the times we spent together. Though the past did provide a few highlights in my sister’s house, which is the one we grew up in. The old dictionary was sweet to leaf through, the silver set was similarly sweet to see & handle. The chest it was in was enough at first then we opened it up! The Singer 🙂

Visiting the Fortress of Louisbourg is always fun, taking pictures was even more fun. Seeing the wind turbine farm at Lingan was a totally new memory. Finding a bunch of original Whitman YA novels on my last full day was a treat too. I can’t wait to read them 🙂

The flight back to Toronto was trouble free, as it should be right? There was a team of young athletes from the Ontario Track & Field association heading back on the flight – wearing red, white jackets. I had opted to wear the red hoodie I’d bought so I did get some interesting reactions as they wondered why they hadn’t seen this guy at their events.

I didn’t get to do everything I set out to do, which is a good things – I’ll have stuff to do on my next visit.

Sydney Academy 2

 


I remember some of the teachers: Mr. Miller known as Jolly Miller behind his back who taught mathematics: algebra, trigonometry _ I excelled at the first & got lost with the second. Two English teachers stand out as well. Mr. Mould – an English gentleman whose accent we all tried to imitate. Rather staid & he always favoured the memorizers. Miss Laura Donaldson: perhaps my favourite English teacher who was sarcastic, challenging & stern. The English literature we were taught was never modern though. Dickens was as up to date as it got.

The other teacher I can’t forget is Mr. Mills who taught phys-ed at all grade levels. We had to have our gym shoes whitened properly for every class, we lined up for shoe & sock inspection, as well fingernails. Boys & girls got separate gym classes, to keep those raging hormones under control. We were never taught about how to control them expect avoidance. There was no sex ed that I recall.

I stumbled through basketball – never learned a lay up. Managed volley ball, hated gymnastics, found wrestling confusing – thanks to my raging hormones 🙂 After gym there were communal showers where I always washed as fast as possible, keeping my eyes on the floor to avoid slipping on soap suds. Our lockers were assigned so I changed next to the same boys each term. It was here I saw lots of different cocks, saw that some were darker skinned than the rest of the body, saw public hair, hairy chests, hairy legs.

There lots of taunting & bragging. Because I was crappy at every sport, except badminton, I was derided for not being good at basketball etc. There was no physical abuse though. In fact I experienced little of that but there was lots of verbal abuse in the halls.

My sense of style surfaced in high school. I had some paisley shirts, the first seen in the school. My hair was longish & Mr. Mills frequently suggested I get a haircut. I remember seeing a band on TV wearing shirts with cuffs & collars that matched so I had my mother cover the collar and cuffs of one my shirts with some polka dot fabric. I loved it. Another time I had her sew epaulettes on a shirt for me. The teasing increased & escalated to shoving. I didn’t back down.

Suffocating

me face down flat on the floor

me: fifteen

the floor: high school gym

pine slats and the smell of socks

 

lift from the waist

me lifting sweating

I could do this much of the class

I felt safe in one spot

not facing anything   anyone

 

now roll over

this was a little worse

I could see the other guys in my class

but I’m still safe

in one spot on the floor

 

I dreaded it all so much

I’d arrive at school in my gym clothes 

to avoid the change room

okay on your feet boys

we groaned up

jumping jacks

 

I was still safe in one spot

I could keep up with this

it was basketball that did me in

where I could never remember left from right

never could manage a lay up

traveling with the ball – whatever that was

I would pass whenever I could

sometimes I’d fall to get out of the way

 

but that fear was merely prelude 

to what I dreaded the most

the showers

I’d yank my glasses off right away

soft focus everyone

into naked fuzzy forms

I would slink in as small as I could

rinse down

dart back to my locker

keep my eyes to the floor – to faces

but there was always someone too close

someone I couldn’t keep from focusing on

when I was trying not to look

at hair everywhere on some of them

asses backs around their balls

 

I would dress barely dried off 

rush up the stairs and outside

to breath

to keep from drowning 

in the damp desires

that were suffocating me

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every Tuesday 2019

August 2-13: getting back to my roots in Cape Breton
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September

Shaw Festival – Sex (Mae West)

Stratford Festival – Little Shop Of Horrors

October

Stratford Festival – The Crucible

December

The Secret Handshake Gallery – feature – date TBA

June  – Capturing Fire 2020 – Washington D.C.  capfireslam.org 

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Cape Breton Day 9

A fun day of driving & dining that started with a morning walk to a great recovery meeting. Did my first Tim Horton’s stop of the trip. The coffee is no longer stronger than than Toronto’s. I like morning meetings as a way to start a day. Familiar faces are comforting. All the meetings I went to turned out to be topic-suggested-by-members meetings. I suppose there are some that discuss the literature. All started with the serenity prayer 🙂 & all ended with the Lord’s Prayer :-(. No hand holding to deal with.

Walked up to my sister’s & took the Terrace St. hills I used to walk to Sydney Academy. They seemed much steeper then. My sister had dug out some old photo albums, one that included some toddler pics of me. After a few minutes of looking though them & taking pictures of pictures we headed out on the day’s real adventures.

 

My Dad was fond of taking us kids for country drives and my sister has the driving bug in her blood too. our first real stop was in Sydney Mines so I could get pictures of the Municipal Region Police Station that was once a Customs House. An impressive building that dates back to the early 1900’s. It certainly stands out amidst the endless aluminium sided boxes that abound everywhere. Why does progress mean lack of architectural character?

 

 

Next we went to North Sydney. I was hoping to find out information about the German U-Boat that surfaced in the harbour – the local citizens jumped dirtier boats to defend out shores. North Sydney was a major communications hub & thus targeted by the Nazis.

Blank faces were all I got from the staff. I did get lots of pics though included some of a 1918 fire engine. We had a decent lunch at The Black Spoon. I was hoping the name referred to some naval jargon or iron smelting but Black was the last name of the owner.

Tomorrow Fort Petrie.

 

Chapter LVII – Lillian Faces The Future

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 LVII

Lillian

Faces

The Future

Lillian turned Steve’s face back to hers. The weight of his head was heavy in her hands.

“He’s lost consciousness.” Lillian looked up to Dr. Drummond. “All that blood he’s lost has made him weak. He’ll be alright now, won’t he Dr. Drummond?”

She leaned to kiss Steven again. “My husband! I didn’t realize how proud I would be to say those words, Steve. My husband.”

“I think he should rest now.” Dr. Drummond gently removed her hands from around Steven’s head. “You need some rest too.” He helped her stand. “It has been an ordeal for both of you.” He took her out of the infirmary.

“Yes. Yes.” She held her hand up to look at the wedding ring. “Married. I’m actually married.”

She glanced back and saw the orderly pull the sheet over Steven’s face. “No! He’s not …”

She couldn’t stand. Dr. Drummond signalled to one of the nurses to help lead Lillian out of the infirmary. 

The nurse helped Lillian sit on one of the benches in the wash area. 

“Would you like some water? I could get you a cup of tea, if you’d like, Miss McTavish.” 

“It’s Mrs. O’Dowell now.” Lillian replied savouring the words. “Mrs. Steven O’Dowell.”

“I’ll be back in a bit with a nice cup of tea for you Mrs. O’Dowell.” The nurse left.

Restless Lillian walked aimlessly around the wash house. She stepped out and went toward the main gate. The cramped feeling of walls and roofs was suffocating her. She wanted to be able to breathe deeply without the smell of coal in the air.

Her steps took her up the road that lead away from the colliery. One rather side she saw dark shuttered houses. Some had light flickering in various rooms. People with homes. At least homes for now until he company made the move.

How many of them had lost husbands fathers to the mines? A second story curtain flashed white in the dark. She saw the white sheet being pulled up over Steven’s face. Was he actually dead?

She felt the ring on her finger. Yes, they had been married. She felt his head in her hands. His face smudged with coal dust and blood. His eyes so full of love for her. 

She stopped and began to weep. She couldn’t stop her sobs and she let herself give out a howl of grief, anger and fear. Wiping her face on her shawl she stopped  at the steps to St. Agatha’s. She found the key where it was hidden in a nook under a window sill and let herself in.

Her eyes quickly adjusted to the dark.  A few steps to her to the votive rack. She found a candle and lit it before genuflecting and going into the church. 

The air was still and clean. It was silent.

She knelt, took out her rosary and prayed aloud.

“Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou amongst 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. Amen.”

After each amen she moved to the next bead sometimes visualizing Steven transcending out his pains. At other times she reaffirmed her trust that Mary would be lead her to do what was right for her. after the last prayer was said she remained still for a few moments before slowly standing.

Dizzy she sat on the pew. She turned so she could lay flat and stretched her legs out, pushing her back against the firm wood of the bench. How many parishioners has sat here over the years. She fell asleep.

 

She woke with the sun streaming through the windows. Straightening out her skirts she left the church, locked the door and put the key back in its nook. She went to the manse and went in though the back door.

While she started a fire in the stove to make herself a cup of tea she wondered if her uncle was back. All she knew was that he had been summoned by the Bishop. Perhaps he had been reassigned a new parish with this sure to be closed thanks to the strike and now the disaster. She caught her breath. Steven was a victim of that disaster too. What would become of her?

Everything was where it had always been in the kitchen. There were some biscuits in the back pantry but little else. So her Uncle had not yet returned.

After going to the mine infirmary to see Steven’s body to convince herself that he was in fact dead she collected the the marriage licence and other papers he had had in his coat pocket. She kept the blood- stained ribbon he used to tie their wedding rings around his neck. 

Back at the O’Dowell house she gave the  envelope to Clara to open.

Clara sat and quickly went through the papers. 

“I think the most pertinent, to you, at this time are these two letters.”

Lillian took the two single page letters. The first was from the American Consulate in Ottawa. It affirmed that Lillian Patrinella McTavish was alive. There was no legal record of her death registered with the authorities. The other was a letter from her father saying that he had been misinformed of her death by his brother and that he regrets any distress this may have caused his daughter.

“Lillian, I have seen these documents already.” Clara said. “Steven used his Federal connections to make sure that his marriage to you would be … legitimate. They were to be his gift to you after the ceremony. Which I guess in a way they are.”

Clara patted her eyes with her handkerchief.

The next few weeks moved so quickly Lillian often longed for the cool silence of the manse that morning which seemed like another world. After the funeral she remained unsure of her position in the O’Dowell household.

As she went down the stairs she could hear a babble of female voices coming from the living room. This was the day the Women’s Association for Catholic African Missionaries met at the O’Dowell house. After attending two of the meetings, solely to please Clara, she didn’t feel at ease with these women. All of whom were ten or more years older than her. They talked more about their neighbours than the plight of the African Missionaries.

Lillian ducked into the kitchen.

“You’re looking better to day Miss Lillian.” Aileen said.

“I wasn’t aware I wasn’t looking well?” Lillian joked. “Can I help with anything?”

“No, Miss. You join the others I can tend to this.” Aileen was pouring water into the tea pot.

“I’ll take that in Aileen. You can set a spell.” Lillian took the tea tray and went into the living room. “Good afternoon ladies.”

“Ah Lillian,” said Mrs. Donaldson. “We were talking about you and your future.”

“You are thinking I’d make a good missionary to Africa?” Lillian poured tea into their proffered cups.

“Oh dear no!” said Mrs. Murphy. “Rather we were discussing how happy we’ve been to have you here in our midst.”

“And how much they’d hate to see you leave.” Clara said.

“Yes!” came in a chorus from several of the ladies.

“What we offer to propose,” said Mrs. Murphy, “is that you teach our daughters proper etiquette.”

“The Sisters at the school are good for educating them,” said Mrs. Murphy, “but that doesn’t prepare them for being in society at large.”

Lillian looked at them. She wanted scream, ‘Look at me! Look at the society my fine upbringing has brought me to. You want your daughters to be cast aside the way we would a piece of furniture that has lost its use because it has some insignificant damage!’

“I’m sincerely flattered.” Lillian took a deep breath as she considered her reply. “I’m sure you mean well but …”

“Hear our offer first Lillian.” Mrs. Murphy said. “I’ve talked this over already with Mrs. Prentis and Mrs. Donaldson.”

Those two ladies nodded their heads.

“This came a pleasant surprise to me too Lillian,” Clara said. “I had no idea that you had made such an impression.”

“How could she not. Being at Steven’s side …” Mrs. Murphy paused to hold back her emotions. “during his campaign we all saw what a refine and practicable person you were. Even then it occurred to me that I would love to have daughter exactly like you.”

“Again I am flattered. But what exactly is it you want me to teach?”

“How to comport yourself.” Mrs. Donaldson said. “Too many of these young Catholic girls are becoming …. too modern. They talk about getting a job, not raising a family.”

“That’s right. It’s one thing to want to be a clerk at O’Dowell’s but to want to learn short-hand and typing and work in an office.” Said Mrs. Murphy. “That’s a step too far. That might be fine for Protestant girls but well … you know the morals of that sort.”

“I understand your concerns ladies but fail to see how I can impart anything to them of that nature. There are no books to fall back on. I might instruct them in needlepoint but that isn’t going to strengthen their morals as you imply.”

“But your example …” Mrs. Murphy started.

“No, ladies I don’t see what I can do.” Lillian shrugged.

“She is right.” Clara said smiling. “After all the way Lillian comports herself was learned in her own home. Right Lillian?”

“Yes, Clara.” she again resisted the temptation to lecture these women. “ It is probably more advantageous for your daughters to learn practical things that they can use in the world. Needlepoint and how to set a proper table won’t take you as far as short-hand. In fact, I’m sorry I never got the opportunity to learn it myself. Do you want your daughters to be so dependant on a husband that she can’t fend for herself in the world.” Lillian sighed deeply.

“We were looking for ways to be helpful to you.” Mrs. Murphy said taking Lillian by the hand and patting it. 

“I know that Mrs. Murphy.” She leaned and kissed Mrs. Murphy on the cheek. “I’m not that helpless. The Lord has made clear my path thus far and He will continue to do so. I don’t need a crystal ball to be sure of that.”

“Shall you be wanting another pot of tea?” Aileen came into the living room.

“No, Aileen.” Clara said. “The meeting is about to adjourn.”

“I’ll help clear these things away Aileen.” Lillian busied herself with the cup and saucers to avoid any further conversations with the women.

She knew her first step would be get out of the reach of these well-meaning women. Perhaps though it might be wise to heed them after all her own plans had so far not worked out as expected. Each solution had produced yet another trial for her to face. 

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Chapter LV: Lillian Tries on a Wedding Dress

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 LV

Lillian

Tries on a

Wedding Dress

“Lillian, it won’t matter what trousers I’m wearing down into the mine. The miner’s overalls will cover all I’m wearing.” Steven tried to joke. “This is the last day I’m joining them. It has been an education.”

“Yes, so you’ve told me every night.” She handed him a pair of brown serge pants.

“I’ve grown up here and yet never knew much about how they lived and worked.”

“Yes, yes. You’ll be able to represent them even better in Ottawa when you run for the Federal seat.”

“When I win!” He snapped his suspenders.

“When you are premier.”

“No! When I’m Prime Minster.”

“Oh, ho! Your dream get bigger every day.”

“With you at my side I have every reason to dream big.”

“Not now!” Lillian avoided his kiss. “They will be taking your picture before you get into the mining gear. You have to keep in mind that people’s eyes will now be on you, more than ever before.”

“I want them to see that I am one of them not some … shop display manikin of …”

“You want to look how the workers want to look themselves someday.” She interrupted him. “These clothes are dressy but simple enough at the same time. Now that things are getting back to normal, the miners will be ready to improve themselves.”

“I do wish you would be coming with me.”

“A woman in the mines!” Lillian laughed. “Worse than a woman on board a ship. No!”

“At least come with me. Be there when I go down with them. The other wives will be there everyday so far to celebrate their men returning to work. There’ll be those cameramen, too.”

“Dressed this way!” Lillian pointed out her housecoat and slippers. “By the time I’m prepared to go anywhere, they’d have hauled up the first ton of coal.”

A car horn tooted outside the house.

“There’s Gus now to take you along. Be sure to send him back with the motor directly, so me and Clara can go to Sydney.”

“Sydney?”

“That’s right. To your store there. They have some new wedding dresses for …”

“Wedding dresses.” Steven broke into a wider smile. “You mean …”

“That’s right you can confirm that the date is two weeks from today.”

The car horn tooted again.

Lillian went to the porch with him. As he got into the car she leaned in to remind Gus to bring the motor back.

She took Steven’s breakfast plate to use herself and was eating toast when Clara come down to breakfast.

“You’ve seen Steven off?”

“Yes. He’s looking forward to the official reopening of the mines more than the miner’s are.”

“No doubt. He only has to go down once more. They have to go down everyday.”

“He wanted to know enough to answer any questions the reports might have.”

Lillian dabbed a piece of her toast in the egg yolk on the plate.

“I see you’ve eaten.”

“Only some toast.” She glanced down. “Oh goodness! I’ve used Steven’s plate! Uncle Pat lived so simply he only had one plate, one cup for his breakfast. I’d wait till he was finished before having my own. It did mean less washing up. Strange how a habit starts and sticks with you.” 

She put the plate on the sideboard.

“I’ll get dressed for the drive while you have something to eat.” Lillian said.

Once she had changed her clothes she made sure her two war bonds where in her purse. She hadn’t told anyone about finding them and planned to deposit them in a bank in Sydney. Knowing she had a something to fall back on when she needed it made her fell more secure. Ready cash could come in handy.

The road to Sydney was fairly smooth though Lillian did have to hold to her hat a few times. Sydney wasn’t nearly as large as Boston but after spending so much time in Castleton it appeared to be  huge a metropolis. There were more cars than she’s seen anywhere else on the island. 

She had Gus drop her off at a corner a couple blocks away from O’Dowell’s.

“I’ll take a little walk to see more the shops.” She explained to Clara. “I’ll meet you at the store.”

She watched until the car was out of sight and went onto the Bank of Montreal which she knew was not the one the O’Dowell’s used. 

It took her longer than she expected to open an account of her own. Luckily the manager recognized her from Steven’s campaign so establishing her identity wasn’t an issue. It would take two weeks at least for the funds for the bonds would be in her account.

O’Dowell’s Sydney store was a three-floor building on Charlotte Street corner. Even though it was several years old it still had the feeling of newness to it. The name was in gold letters in arcs on all of the front windows. Over the main entrance there was stained glass with the name illuminated so the sun appeared to shining through it always. 

On the first floor was housewares. Lillian admired the gleaming stove and refrigerators.

“Eyeing possible wedding presents?” Clara asked.

“I was thinking this was the type of gift my family would never give. Too practical. They’d be more inclined to send something of this sort.” Lillian walked over to the fine china department. “A large, fancy, floral set of chinaware that could only be used once or twice a year, if that often.”

At the back of the first floor was a Toys and Children’s Furnishings department.

Lillian looking longingly at the line of dolls standing on a shelf on one wall. 

“Planning children?” Clara asked.

“Yes. But I was wondering what had become of my doll collection.” She’d left so much behind when she came to Cape Breton. Being in O’Dowell’s reminded her painfully of the many things she’d lost.

They took the lift up to the second floor. It was Men’s and Women’s Wear. When she stepped off the lift the first thing she saw was a mannequin in a short, pale green, one-piece dress. The skirt was pleated and the top had a loose beaded fringe around the neck.

“Oh.” Lillian sighed. “That is so pretty.”

“Pretty yes.” Clara touched the hem. “Too short to be practical.”

“It’s not meant to be practical Clara. It is meant to be pretty.”

Clara lead her to the back of the store to the bridal area.

“Missus O’Dowell.” A small woman with a strange accent scurried out from a side room. “What a great pleasure it is to see you.
“Thank you Karina.”

“Ah, and this must be Miss McTavish. Let me look at you.” She stepped back to gaze at Lillian. “Such a waist. In old country girls would be fattened up before being married. Here, ach, they want them skinny as boys.”

“You have something to show us.” Clara asked.

“Yah. Yah. You wait here. I get.” She went into the side room and came back out with two boxes. “Now the lace isn’t as good as we’d make back in Koniakow but I haven’t forgotten how. This first one is very traditional.” Karina took out a full bodied, white dress with a neck high top, long lacy white sleeves and full wide bottom. “Some crinolines will make you appear to be a queen. The veiling is quite simple though.”

She held it up against Lillian. Lillian pressed the dress’s shoulders to hers and stepped back. It was  similar to ball gowns of her mother’s she had envied. The bodice had seed pearls in an arc across the breast bone. She kicked out the bottom so it bounced lightly in the sun. She did a twirl so that it wrapped around her legs before falling away as she stood in front of the mirror.

“Lovely.” Clara said wiping a tear away from her eye. “The sort of dress I would have loved to have been married in.”

“Oh, yes. The young lady looks radiant even holding such a dress. It’s been so long since anyone has wanted such a gown. Things being as they have been.” Karina shook her head. “But perhaps that will change now.”

“It is more than words can say.” Lillian stared at herself in the mirror. Could this be the same girl who was cowering in fear as her uncle struck out at her?

“This other is much … plainer. Miss McTavish insisted we order it as it is more … modern.”

“You make modern sound more of a disappointment than an improvement.” Lillian replied, reluctantly handing the gown back to Karina.

The other dress was a simple sheath with a similar high neck but shorter sleeves. The white satin had a green and gold sheen to it as it caught the light. It had a small hat of the same fabric with a simple veil attached to it.

“It is lovely.” Lillian knew this was the one for her. She held it up to herself and stood in front of the mirror. The color complimented the red of her hair while the length would allowed some of her calves to show. “I’ll try this on, if you don’t mind.”

She saw Clara’s look of disappointment.

“How long would alterations take, of either?” Lillian asked.

“This one a few days. The beautiful lace one a week or more.”

Lillian stood in front of the mirror in the sheath dress. 

“This one won’t need alterations at all.” She said with a smile. “I do think it conveys the right message as well. After the hardships of the summer the other one is too …”

“Opulent.” Clara said. “You only get married once.”

“Yes.” Lillian teared up as she looked at her reflection.

“Perhaps one for the wedding and the other for the reception?” Clara suggested. “Do try it on. For me?”

  “Of course.” She took the larger dress. It weighed much more than the simpler one. The hem fell below her feet so she had to lift it up as she walked from the dressing room.

“It is …” Clara walked around her. “It is stunning.”

Lillian didn’t recognize herself in the mirror. The wedding dress was all she could see. 

“I do prefer the other dress.” Lillian said. “It is something I could wear again, but this …. No, it is too stunning for me.”

Lillian came out of the dressing room and handed the elaborate dress back to Karina. “The simple one is perfect. Perhaps a more elaborate veil with it would be in order.”

“Yes.” Karina’s face lit up. “I can have something. How soon.”

“Two … ?” Lillian said.

She was interrupted by alarm bells.

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Chapter XLIX – Birk Drunk in the Trees

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

Chapter XLIX

Birk

Drunk

in the Trees

The O’Dowell rally to protest the back-to-work legislation was at the North Sydney arena. After what one newspaper called ‘an armed insurrection’ an emergency sitting of the federal government had been called and a bill ending the strike was passed. BritCan had been granted all its conditions for reduction of tonnage payments. Most of the miners had returned to start the work getting the collieries ready for use. 

The stands at the area were three-quarters full when Birk and Clancy arrived.

“Not many left to show up for the other candidates’ rallies tonight.” Clancy said looking around. “O’Dowell knows how to play his cards.”

They got some free cheese sandwiches and tea and pushed as close as they could to the raised stage area in the middle of the auditorium.

“I hope he’s stronger than this tea.” Birk said pouring his paper cup out before crumpling it to toss it away.

“Tea’s never right in anything but a mug.” Clancy said. “I hope he’s stronger than the bunch that caved in to BritCan.”

The near by church tower rang the hour and at the last of the seven peals Steve O’Dowell came out from beneath the stands to rousing applause. He was followed by Gus McLelland, his campaign  manager, his sister and Lillian McTavish. As they walked through the crowd he, or Lillian, stopped to shake hands with various people.

When Steven got to the stage, the audience stood and continued to applaud. Gus went to the microphone. “Thank you all for coming out. It’s been a short but hard fought campaign and from the turn out here tonight I’d say we’ve already elected our new member of the legislative assemble. Steven O’Dowell.”

Another roar of approval came from the crowd.

Steven stepped up to the microphone, adjusted his tie and motioned for the silence. “I don’t want to count my votes before they are cast. All I want to say is that we proved we can stand the gaff. Once the tories are in power we’ll see if the BritCanada Coal Company can stand the gaff when we force them to listen to us, to listen to the people who live and die here and not to their fat board members in Montreal and Toronto and London. Strike breaking laws have no place this country.”

The audience was back on its feet, stomping on the floor boards, whistling and yelling their approval.

Steven unbuttoned his vest and signalled for silence again. “I have to thank Gus for all he’s done, for my sister whose faith in me has kept me going and my fiancee, Lillian McTavish, whose promise of marriage as given me another goal to aim for.”

“When’s the date?” someone called from the audience.

“A week after the mines fully open again and you take home your first pay packs. Only then. Once you’ve had your just reward then I’ll deserve mine.”

“She sure looks fine up there.” Clancy said to Birk.

“More than she ever did before.” Birk hardly recognized the Lillian on the stage. He was used to seeing her in her plain shifts, her hair tucked away under a hat or a shawl. Here she wore a form-fitting dark blue dress with a hat that allowed her hair to fall to her shoulders.

“Sorry you didn’t fall for her.” Clancy nudged him.

“No! Us poor miners could never give her the things she deserves.”

“When BritCan said let’em starve we won’t negotiate because the workers can’t stand the gaff, we proved them wrong. We’re going to take the gaff and shove it into their faces. I’ve learned from the mistakes of my my worthy opponent. I’ve seen where he’s refused to change, to actually listen to the people and do what has to be done. 

“He’s done a valiant job but he’s trapped in a party that won’t listen. The Tories have listened and have already promised you to put an end to this strike breaking legislation. That is their first matter of business once they are elected. And mark my words we will be elected.”

Brik and Clancy pushed their way out while the cheers continued. 

“You going back to your ma’s on the mainland to vote?” Birk asked as they walked back to the ferry dock.

“Haven’t given it much thought. Neither of us can cast a vote for O’Dowell, no matter how good his sandwiches are.”

“Old enough to starve but not old enough to vote.” Birk said.

They sat on the railing of the Dingle Dandy back to Castleton Mines.

“Steven sounds like he’ll get things done.” Birk said lightly tapping the deck with the heel of his boot. “Blackie says it’ll make little difference who wins the feds hold the cards.”

“Yeah, the cards BritCan dealt them. Here take a tug of this.” Clancy pulled a flat bottle out of his coat pocket.

“Where you come by that?”

“While you was taking the piss behind the arena.” Clancy unscrewed the top and took a swing before passing it to Birk.

“Not sure if I ought to.” Birk took a small sip. It had a sour apple taste that burned as it went down. He shuddered, took another swallow and passed it back to Clancy. 

“A bit strong for ya?” Clancy took another gulp and put back in his pocket.

The ferry docked and the passengers exited.

“Warming up.” Birk said as they walk up the short rise that lead to the main street.

“That happens in June.” Clancy said. “This’ll warm it up faster.” He took another swig and passed it to Birk.

Birk glanced around to see if anyone was paying them any attention.

“Go on! No one cares. Birk it’s as if your ma was always hovering around you somewhere.”

Birk moved into a shadow between two buildings and took a bigger swig. He coughed as it went down. He took another one before handing it back to Clancy.

“You’re getting the hang of it.”

“Not old enough to vote, but old enough to drink bootleg.” Birk said.

“Old enough to fight and die for your country too, if you had to.”

“Dodging that machine-gun fire was enough war for me.” Birk said. The moonshine made his head spin a little. “I was never so scared in m’life.”

“Not even when the little nun first smiled on you.”

“Not even then. That weren’t fear anyway.” He swung his fist playful at Clancy. “She got what she wanted and it sure weren’t me.”

“Sure weren’t me either.” He grabbed Birk in a headlock.

Birk slipped out of it and darted up the lane that lead to his house. Clancy followed. The street light didn’t go as far as Birk’s house at the end of the lane. 

Birk hid in a shadow and his eyes adjusted to the dark. He saw Clancy stop to peer around for him. He skirted behind two houses till he was at his own. Peeking out from around the corner he gave a little whistle to let Clancy know where he was.

“Got you my slippery one.” Clancy grabbed him from behind. “Two can duck around in the dark you know.”

Birk elbowed Clancy into letting loose his grip. He scrambled to the back of the house and out into the field behind it. He stopped by the tree where he did his thinking.

The sky was clear.

“You out here?” Clancy said quietly.

Birk gave another little whistle. Clancy made his way over to the tree.

“Nice view of things from here.” He sipped from his flask.

“Yeah.” Birk took the flash, took the last swallow and tossed as far as he could. “There’s that empty.” 

They leaned against each other shoulder to shoulder.

“We should go fishin’ again soon.” Clancy slurred. He grabbed Birk in another headlock.

“Hey!” 

Birk grabbed Clancy around the waist to break free and they fell to the ground. Even when Birk broke free of the headlock neither was willing to let go their hold. They rolled in the grass attempting to get the other to submit.

“Say uncle.” Birk grunted as his pinned Clancy beneath him.

“Not until you do.” Clancy heaved and pushed till he was on top once again.

“You may not want to,” Birk wrapped his legs around Clancy and held him between them. “But your little fella sure feels he’s ready to give up the battle.”

“Yours too.” Clancy muttered.

“Not as much as yours.” Birk stopped squeezing with his legs.

He sagged on top of Clancy, enjoying the closeness, the urge of the hardness trapped in their pants.

“Quick.” Clancy pushed him away, kicked off his shoes and yanked off his trousers. “Don’t want to muss these up anymore than need be!”

Birk did the same, tossing his overalls and shoes in opposite directions. “Ma’s got enough washing up to do with me adding these to the pile.” 

Flesh to flesh. Face to face. Clancy spit on his hand and slicked their members as he pulled Birk to press on him.

In a few moments it was over.

They rolled away from each. Clancy’s hand rested on Birk’s hip.

“What do think of?” Birk asked

“When? Now?”
“Yeah. When we was … rubbing?”

“Can’t say as I think of anything ‘cept what we’re doing. How good it feels and that I want it to last longer.”

“The … spark at the end you mean? I try to hold off but I can’t.”

“Not only that but all of it. The wrestling, the holding, the …. the closeness of us. Even when you needs a good wash up I don’t mind.” Clancy moved his hand along Birk’s rib cage.

“You saying I stink?”

“When was the last time you were in the tubs at Mrs. Franklins?”

“Last time we was there. That Colonel Strickland won’t any but him use the tubs. ” Birk stared up at the stars. It was as if he could count them individually. 

He dozed off till Clancy’s snores woke him. His back ached from where he had fallen asleep in the grass. It was still night. He wiped himself as clean as he could with a handful of grass and put his clothes back on while he watched Clancy sleep on the ground. Clancy’s shirt was open and his nearly naked body glowed in the darkness.

“Clancy?” He whispered, then repeated louder. “Clancy” He gently toed him in the soft of his belly. “Clancy.”

Clancy woke with a start. “Wha!”

“It’s Birk, you drunken fool. Get yer pants on afore it rains and washes your little fella away.”

“You taking advantage of me in my sleep.” Clancy joked as he reached for his clothes.

“No more ‘an you do when I’m awake.”

“Were are m’boots?” Clancy pulled on his pants.

“I think I heard one of them hit the tree over there. Don’t know where t’other one ended up though.”

“You’r ma mind if I kip over tonight.” Clancy put on the shoe he had and hopped over to find the other one by the tree.

“You must be some drunk.” He put his arm around Clancy shoulder and pulled him close. “You’ve been kipping since I don’t know when.”

“Good drink that.” Clancy said. “M’name’s Clancy, innit?”

 

The next day Birk accompanied his father when he went to the poll to cast his ballot.

“You comin’ Ma?” Birk asked his mother.

“No. It’s not fittin’ a woman should cast her vote.”

“But it’s allowed. Mrs. Mc.” Clancy said.

“What’s allowed and what fitting are two different things Clancy. I was not one of those who wants women to be able to do everything and anything a man can do. Politics is no place for a woman. No place.”

“Can’t say as I blame you.” Clancy said. “Sometimes it doesn’t aim to be a fitting place for men either.”

Outside the polling station miners were gathered, smoking and talking about who they were going to vote for. 

“Even if wasn’t going to vote for O’Dowell I sure wouldn’t say so in front of these guys,” Birk said to Clancy.

“At least you could read which one he is on the ballot.” Clancy joked. “I hope his soon-to-be missus must have taught you to read that much.”

Mac went in and came out ten minutes later.

“It’s pretty simple boys. There I was thinking I’d have to write me name down somewhere at least or even his but all I had to do was mark an X and put it in the box.”

“Let’s pray that X makes a difference.” One of the miners said. “Sometimes out with the old doesn’t mean much if the new broom can’t sweep what the old broom couldn’t sweep.”

“New broom might it hard to sweep this mess up.” Clancy said.

The next afternoon word was out that it had been a clean sweep of the old government. Birk hoped the new broom would do some good.

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Coal Dusters Chapter XLVII – Lillian Goes to Church

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Coal Dusters

Chapter XLVII

Lillian Goes to Church 

Lillian stood on the front walk of the the McFadden’s home. The O’Dowell’s had come over to New Waterford for the night on Saturday so they could attend the special service at Mount Carmel. The strike was nearing its fifth week with no sign of ending. The Monseigneur had called for a special service on Sunday to bring the Word of God to the parishioners of the area. Her uncle was one of the priest asked to speak to the men.

Clara had insisted on her and Lillian spending the night so they wouldn’t be rushed in the morning to get across the bay to New Waterer in time for the service. She plucked a stray thread off of her dark coat. She was pleased at the opportunity to wear some of her Boston clothes. Even more pleased to have her lace gloves to cover her hands. Her eyes kept going down to her pumps. How dainty her feet looked in the dark blue shoes. Probably two years out of style by now, she thought, but still looking better than anything she had seen anyone wearing here.

“Ah Lillian, there you are.” Clara came out of the house followed by the McFadden’s and their two daughters. “You are looking quite well turned out today.”

“Thank You Clara. I haven’t gotten much opportunity to dress my best.”

They walked the few blocks to the church.

As she with Clara, Lillian noticed a large number men in uniform along the street. They were smoking and laughing. Some appeared to have been drinking.

“Who are they going to protect.” Mr. McFadden said. “The choir?”

The extra militia had been brought in to New Waterford at the demand of the coal company. The management had pressured the local police to beef up security around the mines after many of the company stores had been ransacked. It was as if they had been hoping the miners would take that more militant action after the ambush hadn’t succeeded. Any action so the company could escalate things in their own way.

Lillian and Clara passed through the main part of of the town. Off to one side street were more men on horseback. There was also some artillery on a wheeled cart. Colonel Strickland stood there with his hands behind his back watching the men inspect the artillery. 

“What do they expect the miner’s to do?” Lillian asked Clara.

“They are sure there are agitators working to undermine the company’s influence.”

“Agitators?”

“Men whose only intent to disrupt lawful business under the guise of making things better for the workers. Communists.” Clara waved to her brother. “Steven, any word from BritCanada Coal?”

He crossed the street to join them. “Good morning.” He kissed his sister on the cheek and shook Lillian’s hand. They had decided to keep their engagement a secret for the time being. The assembly is in full agreement with Wolvin’s statement that the men can end all this simply by returning to work. They are willing to open the mines so the men can start earning their keep. As general manager he has no ability to negotiate. He’s only a messenger but the men feel he’s the one keeping the company from giving in.”

“Their keep!” Mr. McFadden said. “They were being paid barely enough to keep house and family together under the old contract and now they have to settle for less?”

“Mr. McFadden, in order for the company to remain competitive in the market they have to have the coal for less, that means paying the men less. The alternative is to close down more of the mines. Is that what you think the miners want?”

“You know as well as I do that the miners want an end to this starvation. BritCanada Coal is letting the miners’ children pay the price of their profits.”

“BritCanada Coal can’t be held accountable for the ….” Steven glanced apologetically to Lillian and the other ladies, “… the propagation habits of the miners. If you can’t afford children don’t bring more into the world.”

“Steven!” Clara snapped. “What a thing to say!”

They were at the church steps. In the foyer the Monseigneur was greeting parishioners as they arrived. Father Patrick was at his side. She hadn’t seen him since he had ‘cast her forth into the wilderness’ as it was reported to her by Aileen. She didn’t offer her hand to him but merely nodded as his glance went quickly to Mrs. McFadden beside her. 

Seeing him again made her bruises throb. She had kept Clara from seeing how severe they actually were. She had made Dr. Drummond swear not to mention the severity of them to anyone. The few long hot soaking baths which she had over the past week had eased the pain considerably. Aileen had insisted she try a poultice of comfrey and mustard which reduced the swelling and discolouration.

She followed Clara to the pew they were to use for the service. On the way she was stopped by Hanna Seldon.

“Miss Lillian, it’s good to see you looking well.”

“You too Hanna. How’s the baby.”

“Poorly miss. He has that flu so many of the children have had the past few months. Least we have been able feed him to keep his strength up. The doctor says there’s a good chance he’ll pull through.”

Lillian shook her head in dismay. As the strike progressed and food became scarce many families had less and less to eat. Gardens had helped stave of some of the hunger but many of the children were weak from lack of proper nutrition. This weakness made them more vulnerable to colds and recently a flu. There were funerals daily.

“I wish there was more I could do.” Lillian said.

“Knowing your prayers are with us is more than enough. At least we have a roof over our heads. There’s now many that doesn’t. When they closed the Lingan mine those families were forced out of the company houses. No mine no home. Where is a person to go?”

“There’ll be help I’m sure.” Lillian kissed Hanna on the cheek and joined Clara. She was more grateful that ever for having been given a haven when she needed one, but how long could even the O’Dowell’s  manage with things getting worse for everyone around her.

The service washed over her without her paying attention to it. She heard bits and pieces of the various rituals and the sermon. Other parishes were sending money. The Monseigneur had spoken to the Premier to no avail. The Bishop had spoken to the some cabinet misters but was told this was a provincial not a federal matter and so they would do nothing. The conclusion appeared to be that God helps those who help themselves, which in this case only the BritCanada Coal Company had pockets deep enough to help themsevels.

“What does helping themselves mean?” Lillian asked Mr McFadden as they made their way out after the mass.

“Pray and listen to the guidance one gets from the Lord.” 

“What if the Lord tells some helping themselves is to strike for better working conditions and tells others that accepting any working condition is better than not working at all?”

“Miss McTavish your words are dangerously similar to those of the Communists.”

“They … they are?” Her face flushed. “Perhaps I’ve been listening too much what Steven has to say about all this.”

“Miss McTavish you are in many ways still an outsider here. This isn’t Boston.”
“I comprehend that but …”

“The folks here don’t think logically. They have no idea of a future only of their stomachs in the now.”

They were in the foyer once again. The crowd was stopped at the doors.

Screams and shouts came from outside.

“Father,” one of the parishioners shouted. “They are charging with horses as we leave the church.”

The Monseigneur and her uncle pushed through the crowd.

The parishioners pushed back and she fell against the wall. An elderly women stumbled back into the church helping her husband. He was bleeding from a blow to the head.

“They rode up as we were walking down the street. Swinging their batons and hitting anyone they could reach.” The woman gasped. “Anyone! We’re not miners!”

Over the shouting she could hear the horses. Then gun shots. There was brief silence.

The miners who were still in the church rushed out. Some pulling up the picket fencing around the church lawn to give them something to use in self-defence.

Lillian cautiously went to one of the side exit doors to peer out. She saw a mass of men with wooden pickets flailing at the militia on horses wielding thick black clubs. Both sides were shouting accusations at each other.

“BritCan doesn’t even want us to go to church in peace. They have no respect for the God.”

“Commie rabble. Papist scum. Pray to your God now.”

“I knows you father Billy Davis.”

“Get off the streets now or …”

“These are our streets, ya goddamned company bastard.”

Another shot rang out. The fighting stopped a moment. The miners fell back to the church grounds. The militia pulled back a few yards to regroup.

A runner dashed up to one of the horsemen with a message.

“A man is dead because of you.” The lead horseman said. “How many more have to die before you learn your place.”

“Who?” several men shouted at once.

“Daniel Jenkis!” the horseman shouted back. “You ready to leave peacefully.”

“We was till you charged as us with no cause.” someone yelled back.

The horseman nodded and all the troops stepped forward. “If that’s how you want it we’ll trample the lot of you.”

“Kill a child. Is that what you want?”

“Not us. You behave and there’ll be no trouble.”

Lilian’s uncle pushed through the men and stood alone in front of them. “How can we disperse with you blocking the streets and sidewalk?” he asked quietly. He puts hands out palms up.

One of the horses reared and the front hooves hit her uncle. He fell forward under the horse. Lilian darted out to drag her uncle out of the horse’s way.

“Get out of the way you Catholic biddy.” One of the other horsemen laughed and Lilian glanced at him as he swung his baton at her.

“That’s it!” a male voice from the other side of that horseman shouted as the horseman was yanked backwards off the horse. She caught a glimpse of Steven O’Dowell wresting that rider to the ground.

The rider of the rearing horse had it under control and had pulled it away from the prone body of her uncle.

She knelt beside him. He was on his stomach and she wasn’t sure if she should turn him over.

“Uncle Pat can you hear me.” she said squeezing his hand.

“Yes child.” He turned his head toward her.

She saw that he was bleeding from a gash on his forehead. He pushed himself up painfully with his right arm. She struggled with his weight to help him stand. Two miners came over to take his weight from her.

“Thank you. I’m a bit winded. When I saw the beast rear before me it was the horsemen of the Apocalypse come to life to warn me. But this one was only an animal, not a messenger.”

“Lillian …” Steven came quickly to her brushing dust off his coat. “You haven’t been harmed in any way have you?”

“No, Steven I haven’t. Father Pat has been injured sorely. We must get him some medical attention.”

They helped her uncle back into the church. Inside on the benches were several others who had been assaulted by the militia. 

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Chapter XLI:  Birk Reads From The Bible

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Chapter XLI 

Birk Reads

From 

The Bible

“Can you see her?” Birk’s mother called from the front of the house.

“No sign Ma.” Birk called back from the corner of their street. “Miss McTavish is usually here by now.” He walked back to the house.

“I hope she hasn’t come down with what Sal has.” she went into the house. “You best stay here in case she arrives. We can’t let her in the house until Doctor Drummond has checked to make sure Sal hasn’t the flu.”

“Right Ma. Not as if I have anything better to do anyway. Should I change of m’good clothes?” 

“Not until after the doctor has been.” She went into the house and came out with a chair. “You can sit here. Don’t want you sitting on the stoop in those pants.”

“Thanks Ma.”

“They look as if they were bought special for you I did a good job of getting them to fit. They look better on you than they ever looked on the priest uncle of hers.”

Reverend Browne arrived with Dr. Drummond.

“Is it that serious?” Birk asked the Reverend. “I mean to bring you here.”

“Not that I know Birk. I ran into the doctor as I was heading over here anyway. Your mother wanted to to have word with you.”

“With me?”

“She’s worried about you and Miss McTavish.” Browne said.

“You haven’t heard?” Doctor Drummond said. “Miss McTavish has left Castleton. Yesterday it was. She’s convalescing at the O’Dowell’s in North Sydney.”  

“What!” Birk said.

“She had a … she suffered an injury.”

“She’s teachin’ us to read better.” Birk wasn’t sure what else to say.

Dr. Drummond went into the house.

“Birk, you didn’t fancy her.” Browne asked.

“She’s a fine lady. Pretty.”

“So you …”

“But I know my place. I know she has her’s too. It wasn’t as if I set out to rescue her from that fire.”

“I heard that was how you came in contact with her.”

“Yes, sir. Then Father Patrick had me to their house to thanks me. Gave me these clothes.”

“Decent of him.”

“I thought so too. So did ma. So when she, I mean Miss Lillian offer to teach us all some, Ma said we couldn’t rightly shut the door in her face.”

“Your mother is concerned. She’s afraid you might get … infatuated with Miss McTavish.”

Birk’s knee twitched. “I got nothing to offer a fine lady. Nothing.”

“Sadly, that doesn’t stop most men.” Reverend Browne shook his head. “They …”

A harsh, broken shriek came from the house. Birk and the Reverend rushed in. Dr. Drummond was helping his mother down the stairs.

“What is it?” Browne asked the doctor.

“There is nothing to be done.” He helped Birk’s mother sit at the kitchen table. “She might last a week.”

Two days later Birk stared down at the two coffins in the grave. One fresh pine and the other partially rotted and collapsed maple wood. The old one was the brother who died decades ago. The family plot wasn’t expected to be filled so soon so they were burying Sal beside her brother in the same grave.

“You want a hand with that?”

Startled Birk whirled around. “Clancy! Where’d you spring from.”

“Your Ma said you’d be here. Sad day.”

“It came on sudden. She was feeling sort of hot and in the afternoon and went to her bed. When Maddy went to get her for supper she was … gone already.”

“Poor Maddy. Never find as sweet a sister to replace her. They were such good playmates. So close. No other word for it but sad.”

“Sad times.” Birk picked up one of the shovels. “Heard BritCan is really sending troops rather than settle up proper by us. That Colonel Strickland isn’t such a bad sort after all. He tells us what BritCan doesn’t.”

“Cavalry to Calvary.” Clancy said.

“Huh? You not back no time at all and making fun of me already?”

“Sorry. Forgot how little that Bible stuff means to you. Calvary was where Christ was put on the cross.”

“And it was the horsemen who did it! Same as they are trying to do to us, you mean?”

“Yeh so they are.”

Birk was flooded with conflicting emotions. Happy as he was to see Clancy back again he didn’t want to always feel he wasn’t as good, as smart talking as him.

“Stop gawking at me and grab that shovel.”

Birk tossed a spade full of the heavy clay dirt into the grave.

“You’d think the soil up here would be more sandy, being so close to the sea.”

“Nope. BritCan picked this spot cause the soil wasn’t apt to have coal running through it.”

“Not for the view.” Clancy stopped for a moment to shade his eyes.

The cemetery was on a low hillock that give a partial view of the harbour.

“I suppose. The miners didn’t want a view of the pits. After years of working in’m no one wanted to spend eternity looking down on them.” Birk sighed deeply.

“What is it?”

“Sal didn’t get many years to work at anything. We buried her with that doll of hers that she was always dragging around. Sometimes I think it’s good to die young rather than go on living this way.”

“You’re turning to a thinker Birk Nelson. Life can sour one on life. That’s for sure.”

“So what is that brings you back?”

“My Ma didn’t need my help and there was nothing going on the railroad either. When there’s no coal or steel to sell and ship, then there’s no money to spend. When there’s no money to spend on goods that have to be shipped and sold. What hurts one thing eventually hurts everything. I heard Sydney Mines went bankrupt. The town ran out of money because there was none coming in, they had to close the schools with no money to pay the teachers.”

“You coming back to stay with us or what?”

“Nah. I’m tossing in at Franklin’s, for now. Even with those militia men there, I’ll get a room to myself. Least ways I won’t wake up with you kicking me in the shins.”

“Or you pulling the blankets off a me.”

“You been fishing much?”

“Took my …” Birk swallowed back the tears that suddenly came to him, “ …. took the little ones over a few times. Made them feel useful to catch some for us to eat. Didn’t tell’em they were nearly small enough to toss back in.”

“It was a fine spot to fish.” Clancy grinned.

“If you sun on the rocks.” Birk knew that Clancy was talking about the times they had spent near each other.

“We’ll have to do that again soon.”

“I’d welcome that.”

“That’s done it.” Birk levelled the dirt and packed it down. “When it rains we have come back to make sure it stays level.”

“You think you can make a leap at that?” Clancy nodded at the iron arch that spanned the entrance to the graveyard. It was about seven feet at either end.

“Don’t know. Been a while since I’ve wanted to clamber around for fun.”

“You mean it’s too tall for you?”

“You’ll eat those words.”

Birk brushed the dirt off his hands, adjusted his stance and ran the few yards to the gate and jumped the lower end. He grabbed a handhold on the top of the column. A simple flex and he spun up to straddle the gatepost. Without hesitation he stood on it.

“Nothing to it.” He said standing on one foot.

“Comes natural to you monkeys.” Clancy laughed.

Birk flipped over to his hands and walked across the arc, flipped back to his feet and walked back again then dropped lightly to the ground.

“I should do that more often.” He rubbed his hands on his coveralls. “Makes me feel I’m my old self for a minute. Someone without a care in the world. That was one of the things Sal always laughed to see. Me walking on m’hands.”

They headed back to Mudside.

“You ever heard anything from Geo?”

“Nary a word but takes time for mail. General delivery’s at Franklin’s since the pluck me was burned down.”

“I keep hearing how much better things are in other places.”

“Pa says it’s the same all over. Sure they may pay you more but underground is underground. When you get paid more you get charged more.” Birk said.

“You seen any of the McTavish lass.” Clancy asked.

“No much and yet more than I want. She did come to pay her respects when she heard about Sal.”

“Mrs. Franklin tells me she’s gone to North Sydney.”

“That’s what I heard too but we go another of our own here to occupy me. Good to see Clancy.” He reached out to shake Clancy hand.

“Same here Birk.” Clancy let Birk pull him closer. “I didn’t know how much I’d come to … miss Castleton.”

When Birk got home the house was silent. His mother was sitting alone at the kitchen table. On the chair beside her were some of Sal’s things. Tattered dresses and stockings.

“Not much to anyone now.” She flattened one of the dresses on the table. “Can’t even make a decent wash cloth out it yet we was right proud to let her wear it. A hand-me-down that the Rev gave us. I never thought I’d have to dress my children in hand-me-downs let alone bury them in them.”

“Ma, you did the best. That’s all we can do.” Birk ached to say something that would make her feel better. “Want me to read to you from the good book?”

“Yes! Something from the Psalms. The one about loving kindness. Which is that?” She got up and went the living-room.

Birk followed her and sat beside her as he flipped through the Bible to find the verses she wanted.

“Here it is number 103.” She handed him the book.

“Bless the Lord, O my soul: and all that is within me, bless his holy name. Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits: Who forgiveth all thine iniquities; who healeth all thy diseases.” He read slowly and didn’t find himself stumbling over words as much as he used to. As he read his wondered what had happened to the good things that were supposed to satisfy, to merciful graciousness that the verse talked about.

“Read that part about his children’s children,”

“This part? ‘But the mercy of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting upon them that fear him, and his righteousness unto children’s children; To such as keep his covenant, and to those that remember his commandments to do them. The Lord hath prepared his throne in the heavens; and his kingdom ruleth over all.”

“Yes. A throne in heaven for my children. All my children. I’m sure that’s what he has for Sal and Charles.”

Although Birk didn’t fully understand what the verses were saying he was pretty sure it his mother didn’t know either. It was clear that God didn’t pity them at all but rather enjoyed letting the miners struggle without any sign of mercy.

“I sure hope so. I doubt if anyone will forget we are dust though. A handful of coal dust.”

“Coal dust to dust.” His mother laughed. “At times you are funnier than you know Birk.”

“I sure don’t aim to be ma. Mayhaps we don’t fear the Lord enough, as it says here. ‘For as the heaven is high above the earth, so great is his mercy toward them that fear him.’ ”

“I don’t think it says we have to be scared, the way you would be of a ghost or that the mine’ll fall in on you. It means to be more in awe of Him. To be aware.”

“Maybe that’s it, Ma. Oft times when we’re in the pits I never think or worry about the mine fallin’ in on us. I do my work and gets though the day.”

“You check to make sure the braces are set proper?”

“Always.”

“That’s fear. That’s being aware. Those braces are your prayers. Once they are in place you don’t have to keep saying them you get on about your day in faith.”

“I see.” Birk didn’t see but accepted what she was saying. Maybe if he had prayed more this wouldn’t be happening? He rarely said prayers the way he saw his sisters do at the side of their bed every night. He knew some would say them before going into the mines but thought that foolishness.

The prayers his sisters said didn’t keep Sal alive. Her dying so sudden couldn’t have been God answering anyone’s prayer.

“You must be gladdened to have your old pal back.”

“You mean Clancy? Yeah, he come over to the graveyard to give me hand putting Sal to rest. He’s staying at Franklin’s.”

“He told me. He’s a good’un though. Your Pa and I were happy when you two started to along some. Better than you and Geo every did.”

“Maybe that’s cause Clancy wasn’t told to torment as much as he could to make a man out of me the way Geo was.”

“Where you hear that foolishness?” His mother got up.

“From Geo. Told me that before he left for Alberta. How’s it was your idea.”

“My idea was that he not to be soft with you. He took that in his own way.”

“I know that Ma. I’m not getting at you. Not even sure why I told you that.”

“I’m trying to do the best for you as I can.” She wiped a tear away. “By all my children.”

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Chapter XXXVII – Birk Pays a Call

Coal Dusters – Chapter XXXVII

Birk Pays a Call

Holding Maddy loosely by the hand Birk stood at the corner street. He stared down at the door of the rectory. His mother had pressed the shirt and finally stitched the cuffs of pants Lillian had sent to him but he thought he still looked unkept. His borrowed belt made the pants bunch out around his behind. That was a tailoring job his mother said would take more than a few stitches to do. He was already sweating from his walk there. His face itched from shaving it twice in the same morning. His hair refused to stay down no matter what he tried. He looked down at his work boots wishing he had shoes more fitting to wear. 

The boots, even when they were new, didn’t hold any kind of shine. There weren’t meant to. His sisters had tried to clean them but there was nothing to be done about the scrapes on the toes. The crease of the pants made the boots look even more unsuitable. His mother wouldn’t let him go in bare feet.

“We going to stand here all morning?” Maddy asked. She was wearing her Sunday dress with a new piece of lace sown around the neck. There was a yellow satin bow in her hair that she kept pushing back into place.

His mother had insisted he take his sister along so she could see how those outside Mudtown lived. He was sure it was to make sure he acted proper. He wished Clancy could have been with him but after the scrap they got into yesterday that wasn’t going to be. 

When Birk had woken that morning it took a few minutes for him to remember that Clancy was gone and not sleeping on the floor where it was cooler in the summer.

He walked to the front door of the house and knocked. No answer. Knocked again a little harder. Maddy kicked at the door but her shoes did make much of a sound. 

“You sure you got the right day?” she asked.

“It’s the day Clancy read to me from her note.” Did he have the wrong day? Wrong time? Clancy had read those things to him off the note. Was that his idea, to send him there at the wrong time to make an even a bigger fool of himself. Maybe the note didn’t ask for him to lunch. “You read it too, didn’t you?”

“Yes.” She stood on tiptoes to see through the side  window.

He turned to leave.

The door opened.

“Mr. Nelson.” Father Patrick said. “You have to knock louder than that.”

Birk turned back to the door. “Sorry.. uh … Father McTavish. I wasn’t sure how ….”

“Come in, please.” Lillian appeared behind Father Patrick and pushed past him.

“Thank, ye, Miss. You remember my sister Maddy.” He was awed at Lillian’s appearance.

“Hello.” Maddy curtsied. 

Previously Birk had only seen Lillian dressed in dark green pinafores with darker green aprons around them, a black kerchief of some sort covering her hair. So similar to a nun he had assumed that she was one.

Today she was wearing a light blue shift with a pleated skirt that ended directly below her knees. A row of blue buttons along the back went from her neck to her waist. How did those buttons get done? He had enough trouble with ones that went up the front of his shirt. She was wearing black shoes with small heels and with straps across the top of her foot.

He took this all in with a couple of rapid shy glances as they followed her into the parlour. She continued through the parlour to another room.

“How is your family faring during the strike?” Father Patrick asked him. He gestured to a chair for Birk to sit. Maddy sat on chair by the fire. Hey eyes wide as she looked around the room.

“We gets by.” Birk looked briefly at Father Patrick. “We have … a little garden… we hunt some and …. fish in the lake.”

The room wasn’t much bigger than the parlour in his house. The furniture was more ornate. The window panes were so clean as to be nearly transparent. The lace curtains barely held back the sun.  He was nervous with the crucifix on the wall that loomed over his shoulder.

“Very enterprising.” Father Patrick said. “How are you doing is school.” The priest asked Maddy.

“Good. How do you get the windows so clean? The curtain are so white. My sister Sal wasn’t feeling strong today so she couldn’t come with us. She supposed to help Ma with picking pears, which means finding any that fall from the tree.”

“Pears?” Lillian asked. 

‘Yes ma’am.” Birk said. “There some pear trees and apple trees in behind our lane.”

“Very nice. I’ll get the tea things.”

Lillian retuned with a tray on which was a tea service. Birk had never seen such a set. The tray was highly polished silver. The whitish ceramic tea pot had a thick gold braid along the base, the cups had saucers that matched and weren’t cracked. The gleaming ivory of the china glowed in the sunlight that came through the window. He was afraid to handle it.

“Tea? Mr. Nelson.” Lillian asked him.

“Why thank ‘er miss.”

She handed him a cup and saucer. 

He quickly put them on the table beside him before they could notice how much he was shaking. Maddy went to the tea service and brought the milk over and poured some into Birk’s cup.

“Thank you.” He said as she stirred for him. He tired to pick the cup up by the handle but his fingers could barely hold it. He sipped trying not too look too clumsy.

“Father Patrick, my uncle, and I wanted to express our gratitude for your daring rescue. Your brother is very brave.” She put a cup and saucer on the table beside Maddy and poured her a cup tea.

“T’wasn’t me who saved that babby, it was you miss. That took a brave heart to do that. I only helped when I had to.”

“Be that as it may, I wanted to thank you in person.” She handed Birk a plate with a couple of biscuits on it. “I made these fresh this morning.”

Birk looked directly at her face for the first time. Her dark auburn hair shone in the light that came through the window. The light gave it a reddish tinge. Her skin was clear. No sign of the bruise remained. She smelled of flowers. He didn’t know what kind. Lilacs or roses. A delicate clean smell.

“This is thanks enough for me.” He touched the shirt she had sent to him.

“A little large on you.” She laughed lightly.

“True miss but it’ll wear well.”

“Not those trousers through.” Father Patrick said. 

Maddy started to giggle. “Me and Sal each fit in a leg of them.”

“Stand so I can see how they fit you.” Lillian said.

Birk blushed as he stood. Some of his mother’s hasty stitch work had come loose. The cuffs were unrolled and caught beneath the heels of his boots. The waist was bunched by the belt he had borrowed from Blackie to cinch it. They had tried suspenders but the pants drooped so he looked as if he was wearing a cloth barrel.

“I am much taller than you, my lad.” Father Patrick grinned. “But I think Lillian can alter them to fit you somewhat better.”

“Yes. Thank you …” Birk blushed that they were going do those alterations right away.

“I can bring them over another day.” Maddy said. “Ma’d’ve done them but she was busy tending to Sal.”

“Yes.” Lillian laughed. “We aren’t going to do it now, if that’s what you feared.”

“I like your biscuits.” Maddy said. “Can I have one to take home to Sal?”

“Of course.” Lillian turned to Birk. “Do the men think the strike will last much longer?” She asked.

“Can’t say miss. We have the … demonstration at the end of the week.”

“The attack on the company store was not a wise action.” Father Patrick said. “I’ve sure troops will be brought in soon to make sure order is maintained.”

“Not as if that at the pluck me was planned. Happened so fast none of us was ready for it.”

“Not from what I hear.” Father Patrick said. “It has been brewed up by a couple of the men for a few days. They were waiting for an opportunity. You know Jim McKlusky?”

“Sure. He lives next door to us in Mudside.” So Jim was the ring leader of that pack.

There was knock at the door. Lillian went to answer it. She brought Mr. Bowen, one of the mine managers, into the room

“It’s Mr Bowen, Father Patrick.”

“Sorry to barge in on you this way Father but ….” he caught sight of Birk. “Oh, I see you have company.”

“Yes. This is Birk Nelson. The young miner who  saved my niece from the fire the other night.”

“Least he could do. It was them bastards that started it.” Mr. Bowen glared at Birk. “You men should know better.”

“I didna’ have anything to do with that.” Birk said. 

Mr. Bowen give a dismissive snort and turned to Father Patrick. “Father I have some urgent business that I must speak to you about. In private.”

“Why don’t we step out into the garden Mr. Bowen.” Father Patrick said. “It won’t take up too much time will it Mr. Bowen?”

Father Patrick lead Mr. Bowen out through the kitchen to the back garden.

“The garden is where we first saw you a few weeks back.” Birk said.

“I was not very happy that day. You were going fishing with your brother. I envied your freedom.” Lillian got up and leaned against the fence.

“Clancy’s no brethren to us.” Maddy said sharply.

“Oh I see.”

“They fights like brothers though.”

“Sush Maddy.”

“It’s true! You and Clancy were as bad and you and Geo t’other day punching away at each other.”

“He’s had some schoolin’ mor’n me and thinks he’s better n’ me ‘cause of it. Same way as so many mainlanders, you see. I jus’ got tired of him lordin’ it over me.” Birk said.

“You do want to improve your mind, don’t you.” Lillian looked at Birk, “You don’t want to be a … an uneducated miner for the rest of your life, do you?”

“Twas good nuf for my father, his father, good enough for me.” Birk shifted uneasily on his chair. Each move of his caused it to squeak.

“The mines can’t last forever you know.”

“Long nuf for the sorts of me, ma’am.”

“Is it such a bad thing, I mean, to improve your mind.”

“No ma’am. But I jus don’t see the point in it, for me. Fir my sister’s it’s different. Ma wants them to leave here one day.” Birk stared up at her. “There’s isn’t much else for me. Not that I care for the coal but …”

“Don’t you have any dreams, Birk.”

“Dreams, miss. Sure but they are dreams not life.”

“You don’t want, say a wife, someone to look after you and someone you can look after.”

“Got me ma to look after me and I got my sisters to look out fer. My family’s enough family for me.” He nodded at Maddy.

“The right wife could be a helpmate in that though, wouldn’t she?”

Birk was confused and unsure what she was getting at. He didn’t want to ask her because he knew Maddy would be telling his Mother everything she heard here. He stood. “I thank you miss, for taking the time to talk with me. We best be on our way though.”

“Wait a moment and I’ll give Maddy some of the biscuits to take home.” She took Maddy by the hand and they went to the kitchen.

He looked around the room. He couldn’t picture Lillian living anywhere else. She would never be suited to a life in Mudtown.

Maddy and Lillian were laughing when they returned from the kitchen.

“I’d be happy to come by to visit with Sal.” Lillian said to Maddy. 

“She would never believe how nice you are.” Maddy said. “She’s gets better and better, so our ma tells us.”

“I’m sure she is.” Lillian smiled. “Don’t forget what we talked about.” She adjusted Maddy’s hair ribbon.

“I won’t. Thank you kindly for the biscuits.” She curtsied. “We can go now, Birk.”

She took Birk by the hand as Lillian opened the front door for them

“Thank you again for rescuing me.” Lillian kissed Birk quickly on cheek.

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