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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Chapter XXXVI

Coal Dusters – Chapter XXXVI

Birk and Clancy 

Fall Out

Since the start of the strike Birk had been going to the Sunday morning service with his mother and sisters. This morning he had spent a good part of the morning getting the pants Lillian had sent to fit him better. His mother said she would make alterations but he didn’t want to wait.

The striped shirt didn’t look too bad to him. The collar was okay as long as he didn’t button it all the way. He rolled the cuff one fold so his hands could be seen. But the cuffs needed studs to hold them closed

The pants refused to cooperate. The legs took three folds to get them to ankle height. The waist left five inches slack around his waist.

“That uncle of her’s must have a belly bigger than a cow.” Birk said as he cinched it with a rope. 

“Guess he was fully grown. Not half-sized the way you grew.” Clancy said. “You’ll look an idiot going anywhere in those clothes. Ya look a kid trying on his Dad’s clothes.”

Birk took the pants off. “Here. Ya try ’em on then.” He threw them at Clancy. He was able to pull the shirt off over his head without unbuttoning it.

“She sent them to you not me.” Clancy threw the pants into Birk’s face. “Besides they already stink of you.”

“Says who?”

“Says me you … you … runt. At least I finished growing up. The only part o’you that’s man sized is between yer legs. And you didn’t even know what to do with it till I showed ya!”

Birk shoved Clancy into the wall as hard as he could. “These fists are man sized too. In case ya forget.” He punched Clancy in the stomach with his right hand and in the ear with his left.

Clancy walloped Birk in the side with his right fist.

Birk yelped.

“Hope I broke something. I’ve been wanting to that for a long time.”
“Me too.” He swung and hit Clancy in the nose. Blood spurted.

They grappled with each other and fell on the floor at the foot of the bed.

“You boys stop fightin’ or I’ll get Ma.” Sal poked her head in the room.

Birk stood and hauled Clancy to his feet by the front of his shirt. Clancy stomped on Birk’s foot and pushed him back and out the bedroom door.

“When I came here that first time. Saw that it was you lived here. I almost changed my mind.” He hit Birk in the chest. “But it was cheaper than Mrs. Franklin’s.”

“Too bad you didn’t.” Birk connected again with Clancy’s jaw. “Ya soft arse know-it-all mainlander. You should’ve been paying me to put up with you.”

“I couldn’t sleep proper till I got you sort of washed up. I’d wake up and think I was stuck in some … Hell that stank of feet and … pig shit.”

Birk had Clancy in a headlock and lost his footing at the top of the stairs and they tumbled down over each other. They pulled away from each other when they landed.

His sisters were screaming for them to stop fighting.

“These feet ya mean.” Birk pushed his bare feet into Clancy’s face as they lay on the floor.

“Pigs’ i’d smell better.” 

“I’m sure you’d know that.”

Clancy bit Birk on the instep.

“Ow.” Birk pulled his foot back then slammed it into Clancy’s shoulder as Clancy was pushing himself up.

“Birk! Clancy! What’s got into the two of you.” Birk’s mother was trying to come between them.

“He’s had this comin’ calling me stupid, a runt.”

“I thought you guys had become good pals.” she said.

“Me too.” Birk wiped blood from his mouth. “Me too.”

“The last puss I want to see most mornings is this one.” He swung at Birk and missed. 

Birk pushed him through the kitchen and out into the back yard.

“Watch those tomaters.” His mother shouted.

Clancy stumbled and fell. Birk kicked him in the side. Clancy grabbed at the dirt and threw it into Birk’s face as he got up. They lunged at each other. Heads locked on each other’s shoulder and hitting at each other’s sides and stomach.

“Ya can always go back to Mrs. Franklin.” Birk gasped into Clancy’s ear.

“You can go to Hell you stinkin’ mine rat.”

Birk braced himself and gave Clancy a shove with both arms. Clancy reeled back against the shed and slumped to the ground.

“Soft arse.” Birk spit a gob of blood on to Clancy’s face and went back into the house.

“I’ll be ready for church in a bit Ma.” He splashed cold water on his face. Rinsed the blood out of his mouth.

Up in the bedroom he carefully folded the pants and shirt. He’d get his mother to alter them later in the day.

He passed Clancy coming up the stairs as he went down to join his mother and sisters for church. 

On the way home after the service his mother asked. “What was that dust up?”

“Nothing Ma.”

“I knows better. That weren’t no horseplay. Neither of you were holdin’ back.”

“He told me it made him sick to look at me. That  ‘cause I wasn’t tall, I wasn’t a full man and would never be one.”

“Hurtful words.” She shook her head. “How he feel about the gal as sent you the pants and shirt.”

“He think’s she’s pretty and such.”

“Could be he’s sore she sent you something nice and he got nothing.”

“But I don’t give a care about her. Could have been anyone caught in the fire and I’d ’av done the same thing.”

“I know.”

“I know my duty to you and the girls. Besides she’s practically a nun.”

When they returned to the house from the morning service he found that Clancy was gone. All his clothes and other belongings had been removed from the bedroom. On the bureau was a note:

“Seeing as you can’t read writing I’ve printed this note to tell you I got word that my mother was poorly and I have gone to tend to her. Clancy.”

He tucked the note into his pants pocket. Picked up the shirt and pants that Lillian had sent him and took them downstairs.

“Ma you think you can fix these so they fits me better.”

She shook the shirt out. “That’s quality.” She held it to her face then studied the seams. “Don’t want to tamper with it. Look at that stitching. It’s a blessed art. I could never sew that that fine.”

“Look! We fit yer pants, Birk.” His sisters had pulled on the pants, each standing in one of the legs and holding them up by the waist. They hopped toward him.

“Get outta there.” He laughed.

“Priest’s a big man.” His mother said. “These wouldn’t even fit Blackie.”

The girls got out of the pants and Birk pulled them on over the pants he was wearing.

“Even if ya can fix the cuff some.” He folded the hem several times so that it rode at the hight his present pants did. “Even if they too big around the waist I won’t be stepping on them when I wear them.”

“Your waist will always grow.” His mother laughed. “Give ‘em here. I can do a a few stitches to keep them from dragging along.”
“Thanks Ma.”

“Where’s that Clancy gotten too?”

“Gone.” Birk said. “Packed his things and gone.”

“Yer joking.” she went up to the room and came back down. “So he is.”

He gave her the note.

“I knowed his Ma was ailing.” She said. 

“He say anything to you about goin’ to see her?” Birk looked at the note.

“Yes but didn’t say when.”

“I’m sure he’ll be back for that union march at the end of the week.”

“Depends on his Ma.” His mother said.

After supper Birk went out to check his rabbit traps. There was one caught but he left it there as he continued on his way to his favorite sitting spot. He climbed up high in a branch of the oak tree.

His Ma was right, the things Clancy had said were to him mean. It was same as his first months in the mines where he had to prove himself everyday. The men all riding him for being so small, then for being so hairy but he showed them. Showed Clancy too that he wasn’t going to take that from him either. 

But how could Clancy have been hidin’ those thoughts the past months. Acting as if they were friends. Making him feel he was …. someone he wanted to be with. But foolin’ him all the time. 

Getting him to talk about his hopes and making him think about the future. All that was a big show, a sham. Birk rubbed his head against the bark of the tree. 

When he got the rabbit on his way home he remembered showing the trap line to Clancy, showing him to skin the rabbit easy and where the salt was to treat the pelt.

He sat on the garden bench. He didn’t want to go into the house. He didn’t want to go up his empty room. He didn’t know what he wanted to do. He couldn’t figure out why this had happened to him. That someone could become such a part of his life that when they were gone it was if he had no life ahead of him.

He heard men talking in the road in front of the house, the McKlusky’s arguing next door. 

“I’m going out.” He heard Jim yell. “Where to is none of your business.”

“Don’t be late. I know it isn’t union this time o’ night.” His wife shouted back. “It’s to that Dan’s you’re going.”

“I’ll go where I want and I’ll stay out as late as I want.”

A gate slammed and Birk half hoped it was Clancy coming back but it wasn’t their gate. It was Jim on his way to the bootlegger’s. 

What was his life before Clancy showed up? Him and Geo eating at the table in the morning. Shovelling coal into the carts. He missed that. Doing things with his hands kept his mind from thinking about anything. He wanted to stop thinking. 

His mother came out of the house with a couple of mugs of tea.

“Sweet summer night,” she handed him a mug and sat beside him. “Before you kids came along me and Blackie ‘d sit out here. Then you could smell the hay.”

“You ever want to get out of here? The mines I mean.”

“Before I wed Blackie I thought about teaching or even nursing but once I had Geo those were a girl’s dream. Never can get ahead with the company. You buys from the company store, owes them money. You pays the company a fair price for a house, too, as long as you working there, but the house never gets to be yours.”

“It would nice to have something that was yours.” Birk sighed heavily. “Think I’ll take a walk.”

“A walk?”

“Clancy ‘d do that to get away and think a bit. Yeh something to do.”

Birk headed along their lane and to Pitt St and along to Chestnut Avenue. The smell of the burned company store was still in the air. He nodded to a few folks as he passed them. We went out of his way to pass Mrs. Franklin’s. There were boarders laughing and smoking on the veranda but none of them was Clancy.

He went along the pier and sat on a piling staring out at the reflection of lights on the water. The last drop off by the Dingle Dandy had been half-an-hour ago.

He’d never had this much free time. Time with nothing to do except worry about when the strike would be settled; what had he done to rattle Clancy so; what was he going to do at lunch with Lillian and Father Patrick. 

If this was what a man of leisure had to do, he wasn’t interested. He’d rather be worked to the bone and back sore from the pits than have time to think about things he didn’t understand and problems he didn’t know how to solve.

The Reverend Brown once said that God makes each man to his purpose. All along Birk figured his purpose was to work, to crush coal, bring his pay home to the family, sleep and do it again. Cut and dry so he didn’t have make any decisions himself.

“Taking the air?” someone said from behind him.

Birk started and almost fell off the piling and into the harbour. 

“Oh, Jim, you about knocked me over.”

“Saw you and that mainlander having a go at each other earlier.”

“Got in one another’s way. Gave him a good what for though. Sort of thing I never could get away with Geo.”

“That Geo used to love to torment you some.”

“Ma says it was what brothers were supposed to do.”

“Never had a brother. All sisters. Thought getting married wud be an escape from that. Trouble is sisters is women and I married  a woman. Them ‘s the breaks.”

“How long you think this strike is going to go on?” Birk asked.

“Not too much longer after us burning down the pluck me.  Sort of thing the Corporation won’t stand for. There’ll action and not the kind of action we’re going to appreciate much.”

“You ever think o’ getting out of the mines?”

“And do what? I suppose I could try for the Steel Plant, or that iron foundry in North Sydney. But this is what I know. You want to try your hand at something else?”

“Clancy said future’s black underground. He got some schoolin’ though he could get on. Oh … I dunno … I was pretty happy doin’ what we all do …”

“But you feel there’s something more? I know that feelin’. When I was your age I wanted something more too. Sure wish I done something about it then. What did I do? I changed shifts in the mines. That’s what I did. Come on I’ll spot you a tip at Dan’s.”

“Ma ’d kill me if she finds out I went to the bootlegger.”

“You only die once.” Jim laughed. 

“Sure why not. I’m wanting to do something different. Maybe this is it, eh?”

Dan’s house was at the edge of the end of Castleton Mines past St Agatha’s hall. Birk knew that after the recent union meetings some of the men would end up there drinking their strike pay.

“If it’s not Blackie’s boy.” Dan greeted him. “Thought you tea-total same as yer old man.”

Birk grinned. He recognized several of the men there. There was also a couple women there. Wearing not much of anything. The place smelled of beer, cigarette smoke and sweat. He peered around afraid he’d see Clancy there.

“Aren’t you the hairy beast.” one of the women brushed up against him and put her hand into his shirt. All she was wearing was an untied silk robe. He saw that she was naked underneath it. He moved back.

“Look ladies we got a virgin here?” she laughed hoarsely.

Birk continue to back away. 

“Don’t be afraid, little man. I won’t hurt ya.” She touched his face and moved to kiss him.

“No … n … no … thanks Ma’am.”  Her perfume made it hard for him to breathe.

He turned and rushed out of the house and ran all the way home. Was this were McKlusky spent his time? Was this what men did? 

He took his boots off on the back porch of the house and went in quietly.

His mother was at the kitchen table.

“Where you been?” she asked.

“Down the dock. Thinking.”

She leaned over and smelled his shirt. “All this time?”

“I got took over to Dan’s. Ma it was … I never been in there … you gotta believe me. I was so afraid I’d find Clancy there. There was women. I didn’t know what to do so I bolt out of there fast as I could.”

“Who took ya?”

“I don’t want to say. Don’t ask me. I wanted to see what went on in those places. That’s all.”

“I believe you Birk. I do.” She shook her head. “You go to bed. You got to meet that nun tomorrow.”

“Nun?”

“The priest’s niece.”

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Chapter XXXII Birk Changes Shirts

Coal Dusters

Chapter XXXII

Birk Changes Shirts

The acrid smell of smoke hung in the humid morning air when Birk woke up. He lay on top of the bed to enjoy the gentle breeze that came through the window. Even in just his undershirt and underdraws it had been another night where it was too warm to sleep with covers on. He had woken a couple of times feeling the floor give way beneath his feet. Clancy, with just a pillow case over his behind, was still sleeping on the other side of the bed with his back to Birk.  

Birk could hear his mother in the kitchen downstairs singing, “Bringing in the sheaves. Sowing in the sunshine.” Her voice getting louder each time she sang ‘sheaves’ and ‘sunshine.’ His sisters would join in on ‘sunshine.’

Through the open window he heard people talking on the street. He caught small bits of conversation as they passed. 

“Terrible about that fire.” 

“What ya think the company will do?”

“She run up them stairs faster than a cat on fire.”

He sat up, swung around and reached for his shirt. Even though he had rinsed it before he went to bed it still smelled strongly of the fire. He’d have to leave it on the clothes line for a day or two to let the wind blow the smouldered stench away. The shirt was spotted with little holes where the scattered embers of the fire had showered on him when he ran up and down the stairs to rescue Miss McTavish. Most of the burns were along the shoulders. A few of the holes were large enough for his little finger to poke through.

“Ruin’t” he whispered. He took a clean shirt from the ones hanging on hooks along one wall. He had three other shirts, an old white, dressy one with thin black pinstripes, that Blackie out-grew, which Birk wore for only special occasions; the final one was his usual canvas mine work shirt. It was also hand-me-down from George. The once dark blue canvas was soft and faded pale from all the washings it had had and the patches on the elbows would soon have to be replaced. What was left of the cuffs was beyond repair. At least it didn’t smell so strong of the fire. He put it on and started to do up the mismatched buttons. 

“Come on lazy arse.” He gave Clancy a playful push. 

Unlike Birk, Clancy was happy to sleep in the nude. He was also not shy about being seen completely nude. Clancy rolled to his back. 

“Another day and no dollars.” Clancy stretched his arms to the ceiling.

“Don’t we know it.” Birk pulled on his pants.

“Fishin’s today?” Clancy reached up and pulled Birk on top of him.

“At’s right.” he half-heartedly pushed himself up.

“Feels as if your little feller’s ready to catch something.”

“Yers too.” Birk grinned sheepishly as he rubbed against Clancy. “But we … “ he didn’t want his sisters coming in to find them this way. Bad enough that Clancy was naked. “… better get crackin.”

“Didn’t we bring home enough last night?” Clancy got out of the bed and got dressed.

“Needs something to go with it.”

When Birk came down to the kitchen with his damaged shirt his two sisters sat wide-eyed and silent, staring at him.

“What is it?” he asked them. “I grow anudder head?”

“Mrs. Malone was here.” Maddy said.

“She says you saved a babby from burning up the fire.” Sal said rocking her doll in her arms. “No fire going to burn you up my little one.”

“You said nothing about that last night.” His mother pushed the loaf of bread toward him. 

“Didn’t think much of it.” Birk cut off a slice of the bread and sat at the table. “I ruin’t my shirt in the fire though.”

He handed it to his mother. “You think it can be fixed.”

She took the shirt and held it up the sunlight coming through the window. “I guess I could put a patch on these two big holes but not on all them little ones. Might just as well make a new shirt. Pity as it was good shirt.”

Blackie took the shirt. “Good thing you didn’t catch fire yourself.”

“You think I wants to hear things about my son from folks next door?” His mother twisted his ear.

“Ow! Ma I didn’t think much of it. I had enough of m’mind getting myself in and out of the company store with stuff you. Wasn’t that flour and such enough for you?”

His sisters grabbed at the shirt and each of held a sleeve to her nose to smell it.

“You wore this when you saved that babby?” Sal asked as her eyes grew big.

“Of course he did.” Maddy said looking though the burn holes. “I can see the flames now as they come down on me. Ow! Ow! Ow!” She ducked under the table.

“Ow! Ow! Ow!” Sal echoed as she ducked under the table.

“Let me check your back.” Blackie said. “Time’s I’ve been caught in a flare from the boilers and not seen how burned I was till I laid on m’back.” He began to help Birk unbutton his shirt.

“Not in my kitchen.” His mother pushed them to the back door. “Take him out back. There’ll be sun enough to see better, anyway.”

Before they could go out Clancy came into the kitchen.

“I suppose you know’d all about it, too?” his mother said to Clancy.

“Bout what. Mrs. N?”

“Birk saved a babby.” the two girls said almost in unison. Then began to dance around the kitchen singing. Each holding one the the sleeves of the shirt. “Saved a babby. Saved a babby.”

“Maddy! Sal! Quiet down.” Birk’s mother took the shirt from them. “If’un you tear this up there’ll be no way to fix it.”

“That’s not all he did.” Clancy helped himself to some of the bread. “He saved a gal too. You know, that one from away. Boston.”

“One that lives with the priest, that Father Patrick?” Birk’s mother asked. “That sort always looks to be the centre of things.” She sniffed derisively. 

“Same one.” 

  “Din’ matter to me who she was.” Birk pushed the backdoor open. “Caught her apron skirt on th’door tryin’ to get that babby out of the fire. That’s all. She done the saving. I only got her away from the fire. Let’s go out, Pa I do feel something on m’ shoulders.” 

“Birk, sometimes I feel you have a whole life outside these walls I know nothing about.” His mother said as Birk and Blackie went into the back garden. “Here take this salve out with you. It’ll help with the burns.” She took a glass jar out of the cupboard. She handed it to Clancy. “I uses this when I get a little burn tending the stove.”

Out in the sun Birk fidgeted while his father examined his arms and back in the light. 

“See much?” he asked.

“Lot’s a hair.” Chancy gave a little laugh.

“Yer not too bad.” His Dad said. “A few blisters though …”

“Where the embers didn’t bounce off your hair.” Clancy opened the jar and took a gob of the lotion out. He rubbed it along Birk’s neck. “Worse along here.”

“I’ve had worse sun burns.” Birk flinched as Clancy rubbed the lotion into him. The lotion was a thick petroleum grease that had a slight camphor smell to it. He could feel it cooling his skin here it was rubbed in. 

“Some along here too.” Blackie said, rubbing some of goo into Birk’s forearms. “Sometimes I get so used to the heat I don’t even feel it burn me.”

“I didn’t feel anything at all.” Birk said. “There a spot along here?” He gestured to his lower back.

“Felt nothing? Not even her kiss?” Clancy asked as he rubbed lotion where Birk had indicated. 

“Kiss?” Blackie said.

“That priest’s niece was sure happy to be rescued.” Clancy said. “She threw her arms around Birk and kissed him right on his mouth.” He put the lid back on the jar of salve.

“And crushed the baby?” Birk’s mother was standing on the porch with the two girls.

Sal had wrapped her doll in Birk’s shirt.

“Kissed a girl.” They broke into a song. “Birk kissed a girl.”

“Nothing of the sort happened.” Birk pulled his shirt back on. “She was grateful but the baby’s mother was right there and that Father McTavish. There was no kissin’. Her uncle shook my hand.”

His sisters kept up their chant. “Birk kissed a girl.”

“You stop that.” Birk swung his open hand playfully at them. “Or next time there’s a fire you won’t be getting no candy.”

“Don’t be scared.” Sal said to her doll. “He’s trying to save you.”

“They’re having you on b’y.” His father said.

“Now, here’s something t’eat while you are up there fishin’” His mother plunked his lunch tin on the porch rail. “There tea in the jar. Made fresh with what you saved from the company store.”

Birk flipped the lunch tin open and there was more of the bread, some cheese and a couple of cookies, still warm.

“You ever sleep. Ma?” He bit into one of the cookies.

“This hot, only time to cook is at night. Here’s for you Clancy.”

“Yeh, but you don’t ever sleep Ma.” Birk said. “I can never remember seeing you on the bed.”

“That’s enough of that talk.” she pulled her wooden spoon out of her apron pocket and shook it at him. “I gets rest enough in m’chair in the parlour.”

His mother had an over stuffed armchair in the parlour with a foot stool where she would sit when she had done her chores or when she was waiting for something to finish cooking. The flowered print had worn off from her hands smoothing the sides and the pillows before she sat in it.

His sisters sat on the back porch bench giggling and whispering to Sal’s doll about Birk kissing a girl.

“We best be off.” Clancy said.

“Sky’s clouding over so keep an eye for it.” Blackie warned.

“Yeh. We’ll try to be back before the streets are mud.” Birk said. “Then we can fish for mud suckers.”

“Bring us back a babby if you catch another one.” Maddy said.

“Bet those burns are where her kisses burned you.” Sal said and the two girls burst into laugher.

Birk’s face flushed. “There was no kissin’” He shouted at them and glared at his mother and father.

“Means nothing if there were.” His mother said gently. “Birk they mean nothing by it.”

“Yeah.” Maddy piped up. “Who’d want to kiss a hairy monkey like you anyway.” She grabbed Sal by the hand and the two of them darted into the house. The tail of the shirt caught in the door as it swung closed. His mother frowned as it tore as it was yanked divot the house.

“I know that Ma but still … it was bad enough with George makin’ fun of me. I was doing the right thing, wasn’t I.”

“Of course you were,” Blackie said. “Don’t think we are aren’t proud of you for doin’ it, while others stood around watching.”

“It happened so fast I can scare remember what I did. I saw her up there strolling. I can’t even say if she screamed for help. Did I run up them stairs?” he asked Clancy.

“I don’t know. I wasn’t paying that much attention to you, until I saw you up there with her. Could be you jumped up there from the ground for all I know.”

“Maybe m’ sisters are right that I did let that gal kiss me.”

“She did get your name though. I remember that. Asked who you were after she smothered you with kisses for recusing her.”

“Sounds like your sore because she did ask who m’friend with the bags of flour was?”

“Candy. I had those jars of candy.”

“Doesn’t matter now.” Blackie said. “Today’s another day. We have to figure out what to do now that there’s no store in Castleton to deny us credit.”

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Chapter XXXI – Lillian Has A Dream

Coal Dusters

Chapter XXXI

Lillian

Has A Dream

The remaining people stepped back as the fire truck from the mine pulled up. The water pressure was much stronger than the hand pump the men had been using and the remaining flames were quickly doused.

The fire did spread slightly to both buildings on either side of the company store but the men managed to keep the damage to a minimum. As the fire cooled there were abrupt pops and small explosions from the charred debris of the store.

“Canned goods.” her uncle explained.

He left her and went to talk to the men who were containing the blaze. All that remained of the store was a portion of the front under where the windows had been and the metal front door frame. 

“Where will you go?” Lillian asked Mrs. Seldon.

“I … I hadn’t thought of that. I’m sure Mr. Bowden will be able to find accommodations for us.”

“And after this?” Father Patrick asked.

“We lost everything in the fire.” Mr. Seldon wiped soot and sweat off his face. “So packing our possessions to move won’t be one expense we’ll have to face. I don’t mean to sound bitter, Miss McTavish, but it’s not as if I’m responsible for company decisions. The place they should have set fire to isn’t even on this continent.”

 

Fatigue washed over Lillian. More than anything she longed to go up to her bedroom in Boston, draw a hot bath and wash off the grime of the day. 

“I will return to the rectory now Father Pat.” she told her uncle.

“Yes, do so my child. Your fortitude impresses me when I least expect it to. We will have much to talk about in the morning. Can you manage to get home on your own?”

“I’ll see to it that she gets back safely Father Pat.” Manny O’Dowell approached them dabbing at his face with a kerchief he pulled from his back pocket. All it did was move the grime around his eyes. 

Similar to most of the men around her Manny was smeared with soot. His clothes were wet from helping with the pumper that had doused the flames. The fire was contained now.

“Sorry about m’appearance ma’am.” Manny said.

“Lillian?” Father Patrick asked nodding at Manny. 

“Yes uncle he’ll do fine, that is if you aren’t too tried from helping here.” Lillian took a clean rag from her apron and wiped some of the soot off Manny’s face.

“No ma’am. It isn’t that far, really.” He grinned.

She and Manny walked along Chestnut Avenue to the turn that would take her home.

“That a mighty brave thing, miss, that you done.”

“Thank you, Mr. O’Dowell.”

The sky was cloudless above them.

“The stars look so close.” Lillian said stopping to looking up. 

“Yes, miss. But a clear sky is often a sign of a storm coming soon.”

They continued on their way.

“You can tell?” she asked.

“Something you learn to see.” Manny explained. “Some can read signs in their bones. The way they ache moments before a thunderstorm.”

“I expect there’ll be a many aches tonight after what’s happened.”

“Too true there miss. But the color of the sky … ”
“How long have you been in the mines Mr. O’Dowell?”

“A few years now Miss. Pa said I had to know how the men earned their money so I could value it more when they spent it in our stores.”
“Do you know a … Birk Nelson?” she asked.

“Sure Miss. His pa, Blackie is in charge of the boilers at the colliery. Blackie’s a decent man but that Birk is a true Christer. Sorry miss … sorry about my language.”

“We’re all a bit tired from the day, Mr O’Dowell.”

“That’s no excuse. Why you asking about that ch … I mean … Birk. He thinks with his fists, if you understand what I mean. He acts reckless but he’s a decent sort, I suppose, for an orange bast … for a Protestant, I mean.”

“It was he who rescued me from the fire.”

“Wished it was me, miss.”

“He lives in the … “

“Bloody Mudder … I mean Mudside. That’s what we call their area Miss, cause it turns to mud when it rains. Yes, he lives there.”

“I suppose he’s one of the one with two kids already, too.”

“Oh, no miss. Lives with his folks. His brother Geo got hitched a some … a few months ago. Moved to Alberta for real work. Things so bad they had to take in a roomer too. Clancy … not sure what his last name is. He’s a mainlander, so I don’t even know who is father is.”

“Works in the mines too? Clancy, I mean.”

“Yes miss. He got my old job workin’ as Birk’s rake man. Birk as some sore about that. Me getting out from under the ground. His sport was born a mine rat and will stay a mine rat forever, if you ask me.”

“Mine rat?” Lillian hadn’t heard that expression before. 

“Yes miss. The mines is full of vermin that gets born down there. Sometimes they are born blind, they don’t need to see anyhow just smell.”

Lillian shuddered. “Not an easy life for them. From what I’ve heard the miners never had enough of anything.”

“Those in Mudtown gets what they deserved does them orange bast … sorry miss.”

They were at the front door of the rectory. The church hall doors were still open and the lights were on.

Lillian didn’t feel it was her duty to worry about these matters. She wanted to rest. Perhaps finish that letter to her brother. She had so much to tell him. The fire, the daring rescue. Then she remembered she was dead.

“Thank you for seeing me home Mr. O’Dowell.”

“Manny, if you please.”

“No, for the present I think it will remain Mr. O’Dowell.” Lillian recognized that look in his eyes. What was it about men that even a casual conversation with a woman would lead them to believe any further familiarity was invited or even wanted?

“Yes Miss McTavish.” His shoulders slumped. “It’s been a great pleasure to … have a … conversation with you.”

He shook her hand and walked into the night. She forced herself to go into the hall to turn the lights off and close the doors. There were papers, empty bottles, cigarette littering the floor but she would leave those for the church’s clearers to tend to. She left the windows open to allow the night breeze to clear away the smell of cigar smoke.

In the rectory she went up to her room intending to rest a moment before washing for bed. Her shoes smelled of smoke as she pushed them off. She lay on the bed and fell asleep immediately.

She dreamt that she had taken the train back to Boston. One off the train she ran from he station to her house but it wasn’t on the street where she remembered it was. She asked strangers where number 56 was and they looked at her blankly.

She up and down the street but there was no number 56. She saw people she recognized but none of them knew her. Over the shoulder of one of them she saw across the street to the front steps to her house. She rushed dupe the steps and put her key inot the door.

When door swung opened she was greet by the familiar smells of fresh cut flowers from the sitting room, the smell of cooking from the kitchen. She called out that she was home from Cape Breton, That she’d brought gifts of bread and jam for every. She’d baked the bread herself. 

Her mother appeared from the living-room dressed in black.

“Lillian is that you or is it a ghost?” Her mother stepped back fearfully.

“No Mother it is Lillian. I’m very much alive. Learning to bake bread didn’t kill me after all.” She reached out to embrace her mother.

“What do you think you are doing Lillian McTavish.” The figure of her mother had become Father Patrick. She was no longer in her Boston home but in front of the alter at St. Agatha.

Father Patrick was addressing the congregation from his lectern and pointing to her. All the parishioners were looking at her.

“She that has tasted of sin will never receive the life everlasting.” Her uncle was shouting. Spittle flew from his mouth, dribbled down his chin. Smoke rose around her. 

She woke gasping for air and pulling at the neck of her night-gown. She sat up in the bed and saw where she was. It was her room in the rectory. The smell of the fire on her clothes was strong. She got up and opened the window to let in some fresh air. Back in the bed she fell back to sleep.

The morning light was coming through her window when she awoke with a start. The clothes she had slept in itched. The room still smell of the fire.

She could hear noises from below. By the quality of the light she knew it was well past her uncle’s breakfast time. 

She shoved her feet into her shoes. The backs of her hands where slightly burnt. She hadn’t noticed that in her excitement during the fire.

She went downstairs to the kitchen. Her uncle was seated in his usual chair at the kitchen table.

“I’m sorry Father Patrick … I …”

“That’s quite all right my dear. After the ordeal of yesterday anyone would need a good night’s sleep. The people of Castleton Mines have been expressing their gratitude for your daring act last night. Sit.” he vacated his chair for her.

She sat. 

“Let me express my own gratitude by serving you.” He place a cup of tea before her. “It is the English, which I know you prefer over the Ceylon. Your egg will be ready in a moment, as well.”

“Father Patrick!”

“Your actions last night have made me aware that my judgements of you may have been harsher than necessary. You have changed greatly from the sullen, silly girl who arrived here some months ago. The Mother Superior believes you have all the qualities needed to be a fine nun. At first I wasn’t so sure but now I am convinced. Your brave willingness to sacrifice your life in order to save that child is what true martyrs are made of.”

“Martyr!” Lillian blushed. She wasn’t interested in becoming a martyr. “I didn’t do that to be a martyr but to … I want to be seen as a person, not as a burden. Not a daughter whose innocent indiscretion is such a family shame she is dead to them. I want to be free to be myself.” She gulped her tea.

“Granted, but one can only truly find themselves though the intercession of Our Saviour.”

Lillian wanted to laugh, to scream but contained herself.

“Yes Father Patrick. The way is becoming clearer to me.”

“As I prayed it would. I have tended to the water heater so there will be ample hot water if you wish to avail yourself of it before you attend to your household chores.”

“Thank you Father Patrick.”

She went into the bathroom and filled the tub. While it was filling she went to her room for clean underthings and a fresh pinafore. She unwrapped the last of the Castile rose soap she had brought from Boston. Another tie to her past now washed away.

She sat in the tub and undid her hair. She lay back allowing it to float on the water. 

The water quickly darkened with the soot from the fire, with the oils of her hair. When had she last washed it? Weeks? Months? She had no reason till now. She was sure that Birk Nelson would enjoy the smell of her hair.

One she was dry she rubbed lotion onto her burned hands. Refreshed she luxuriated in clean clothes. She went to the bin of cast-off clothing collected for the miner’s families. On the top of it were some shirts and trousers of her uncle’s. Clothes she had recently repaired even though they no longer fit him. She selected a shirt and a pair of dark grey pants. 

She wrapped them in brown paper with a note. One the package she wrote “Birk Nelson.” Finding his house shouldn’t be too hard for as brave lass as her.

 

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Chapter XXIX – Birk to the Rescue

Coal Dusters

Chapter XXIX

Birk to the Rescue

When Birk and Clancy got to St Agatha’s that night the meeting hall was jammed. Men were standing squeezed in all around the room. The windows had been opened to allow for some air. But the breeze barely moved the cigarette smoke that hung over their heads. There wasn’t room for the tea trolly even if the men had wanted tea in the heat. Some were drinking and sharing from their own bottles of refreshments. 

Alf Landen, the MLA was there once again, so every one knew this was to be more important than the last few meetings. He was talking quietly with William Gregory, Father Patrick and Reverend Brown in the front row. There were no company representatives there. 

Gregory stepped to the small stage. “Men I think you all know Alf Landon.”

“Yeah,” came a shout from the back “Some of us were made drunk enough to vote fer him!”

There was laughter and cat calls.

“Save it.” Gregory motioned for them to be silent. “He has some news for us from the cabinet.”

Alf stepped up to the stage. He hooked his thumbs under his suspenders and cleared his throat. “Thank you Will. First I want to reassure you that I am on your side, men. I think the way the coal corporation is treating you is shameful. But I am only one voice in the house. Not everyone agrees with me. Also, let me say how pleased I am that the strike has remained peaceful.”

“Not fer much longer.” someone shouted.

“I wish I had better news for you but we, at the provincial level, are at an impasse with both the union and the mine management. In cabinet we discussed the issues and after heated augments I can assure you we can see no way to force a change in company policy. We’ve taken it to the federal level as well.”

“We know how the feds deal with unions.” someone shouted.

“How?” someone else called out.

“They send in the troops to trample the miners and their children.”

There were more cat calls from the audience.

“Men!” Father Patrick got to the stage. “This isn’t going to help your cause in any way. If both sides remain … unmoved … ”

“Yeah! What will help?” someone shouted over him. “Praying to the Lord Jesus only hurts m’ knees worsen workin’ in the mine for twelve hours.” One of the miners walked up to face Father Patrick. “At least I sees some coal for that.”

“Men. Men.” Alf stood on a chair. 

They silenced.

“There is something you can do. You can go back to work on the company’s terms. That has to be better than letting your families suffer. ”

“That isn’t goin’ to happen.” Someone shouted. “They was suffering on what we were making before, anyhow.” Another of the men said.

“Okay. Okay.” Gregory got the men’s attention. “Alf you know that is unacceptable.” He pulled Alf off the chair and got up on it himself. “There will be a march in Glace Bay on Saturday next. That’s eight days from now. We have union members coming from the mainland to show their support. The steel plant will be closed down for the day when our brother members there put down their tools and join us. We have to show them we mean business.”

“What we been doing these past weeks?” Birk asked. 

“You should talk,” one of the them men said. “Yer pa Blackie still goin’ in there, isn’t he. Shutting down them boilers will show them we mean business, too. Won’t it?”

“Men!” Alf said. “Damaging the pits themselves won’t do you any good. You won’t have anything to to go back to if the mine closes down because you did something foolish to the boilers and let the mines flood.”

“Easy for you say,” someone shouted. “You don’t have a wife and three kids at home with nothing to eat.”

“I knows one place where we can something to feed our families.” Jim McKlusky said. “We all do! The Pluck Me.”

“The Pluck Me.” The men took up the phrase and started to leave the hall.

“Wait! There’s decisions to be made.” Alf shouted.

“We made em. Answer is no.” one of the men said. “No! No! No! To same work for less pay.”

“The Pluck Me. The Pluck Me.” The men chanted as they left the hall en masse. They marched in a ragged mob along Chestnut Avenue to the company store.

Clancy and Birk followed at the back of the shouting men. McKlusky was pounding on the front door of the company store. Two other men had gone around to the back to make sure the manager, Daniel Seldon, didn’t slip away, down the outside side stairs. The front windows had been boarded over the week before. The only light came from a window on the second floor.

“He ain’ going anywhere.” Birk muttered. “Too much stuff inside. He’d never step away from a profit.”

“Open up, Seldon. Man, we know you’re in there.” McKlusky shouted. “We don’t want to harm you. We know it ain’ your fault wha’s goin’ on but we have families to feed too you know.”

The window on the second floor opened. It was to the left of the front door. A woman’s head stuck out. “Dan’l t’ain’ here.”

It was his wife.

“He’s gone up to the big office. He was sent fer at supper time. He ain here.”

“Then let us in mussus.” McKlusky stepped back to call up to her. “We means no harm to you and yours.”

“I canna let you in. It’d be the end of me. He dinna want this to happen. But he’s got no choice He’s sorry he ever let his brother talk him inta runnin’ the cump store. Swore it was easy money. But it isn’t. It isn’t. We has to pay for everything same as you do. Even if it don’ get bought and goes bad we still has to pay for it.”

Birk had never heard Mrs. Seldon talk for so long.

“In that case we’ll have to ….” McKlusky reached along the edge of a piece of the wood that boarded up the windows and gave it a strong heave. It creaked and started to come loose.

The other men joined him and the boards were quickly all torn off. The windows behind were then shattered. Three men kicked in the door and they streamed into the shop.

Birk glanced at Clancy to see if they were going to join in the pillaging. Clancy grinned and muttered, “Well, guess we might as see what tea they got stashed there, eh? Or you enjoying that lilac leaf tea?”

“I don’t know. Don’t feel right to me.”

He looked up and saw Manny O’Dowell struggle out of store clutching packages of cigarettes.

“If the mick’s are doin’ it I guess we might as well too.” Birk said.

“Stop! Stop!” Mrs. Seldon was screaming as she rushed down the stairs into the store. She was pulling at the shoulders of the men to get them to stop. “Please stop.”

Some of the wives had joined the men in going through the shelves. One of them went to Mrs. Seldon and smacked her and shoved her to the front door.

“You had that comin’ for a long time.” she said to Mrs. Seldon. “Be quiet or we’ll tie you up and leave you.” 

“There’s more in the root cellar.” The woman turned to the crowd. “That door is over here.” Two of the women yanked the door open and one of them went down and began handing up sacks of potatoes.

Birk and Clancy pushed their way to the section of dry goods, beans, flour. Things Birk knew his mother could make use of. With their arms full they shouldered their way back outside. There was a flicker of flame near the rear of the store. The flicker quickly got larger.

Men where pushing and shoving each other out of the store.

“Watch my beans.” Clancy put his arm load of cans down and dashed back into the building. 

Flames spurted out of the roof. A baby was crying loudly. Dogs were barking. 

Clancy came stumbling out in a billow of smoke. He was clutching two jars of penny candy under one arm and a can of tobacco under the other.

“Something for yer sisters. Something for us.”

“You …” Birk had been fearful that Clancy wouldn’t get out of the fire. “You got a nerve Clancy Sinclair. True nerve.”

He saw a woman dash up the side stairs of the store that lead to the second floor and into the building. She appeared moment later holding something and trying to shelter it from the flames. Her skirt got caught on the door jam and she couldn’t get it loose.

Without thinking Birk bolted up the stairs, tore her skirts free and rushed her down the stairs. Sparks showered on them as the roof began to collapse into the building. He could smell his hair burning as it was singed in the heat. There was some applause as he got her safely into the crowd.

She thanked him repeatedly staring into his face. Even darkened by soot he knew it was the priest niece. She insisted on getting his name. He told her. When she was waving her uncle over he slipped away.

“Didn’t think you had that in you Birk.” Clancy brushed ashes off Birk’s face.

“Think I’d stand here and watch someone burn up?” 

They gathered the stuff they had taken.

The crowd stood silently and watched the flames destroy the company store. Mrs. Seldon stood to one side sobbing as she rocked her baby.

The fire was still going when they went back to Birk’s house. 

“Say nothing of what happened.” Birk said.

“You mean you playing the hero? It was a good thing.”

“I don’t care. There’ll be no end of it once Ma knows.”

In the kitchen they laid out what they had grabbed in their haste. Mrs. Nelson sorted through the various cans and stuff they had.

“I don’t know Birk Nelson. I didn’t bring you up to be … a… hooligan who’d take advantage of people in this manner.”
“But Mrs. N. what good would it have been to let this food go up in flames. Ashes don’t do anyone any good.”

“Wise words Clancy. Rest assured those ashes aren’t going to do any one any good when word gets back to the coal company what was done.”

“Yes Ma’am.” 

“Best wash off that soot before you go to bed. Yer almost as black as ya are after coming from the pits.” She smiled and rubbed Birk’s forehead.

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Chapter XXVIII – Birk Does Nothing

Coal Dusters

Chapter XXVIII

Birk Does Nothing

Even though they didn’t have their routine of work shifts to get to, Birk’s mother made sure he and Clancy were up at the usual time in the morning. The strike was entering its fourth week with no progress in negotiations.

“We goin’ ta have the best garden ever.” Birk wiped the sweated off his biceps.

He and Clancy were turning earth in the back garden. After the rain stopped in the first days of the strike Birk’s mother saw the soft wet earth as ripe for being worked proper. Potato eyes had been planted in a row along one side of the yard. Tomatoes were seeded in another row. 

Blackie had gotten cow dung from one of the farms and they were now working it into the soil between the potato rows. The potatoes had sprouted within days of being planted and Birk’s mother expected a good crop.

“Hope it grows fast. We’ll be eating soup made of boiled flour sacks soon.” Clancy said.

Over the past weeks they had, as had most of the miners, been looking after household repairs that had been let go of for some time. Even though the company owned the houses all maintenance was the responsibility of the miners. Miners who often had no time or energy after their shifts to do much more the eat and sleep.

Roofs were repaired, draughty windows stuffed with rags, broken glass replaced with thin wooden shingles, leaks plugged, eaves straighten, wells drug deeper or cleaned out, outhouses cleaned out. Things that could be done without spending money. The row of company houses Birk lived in were in the best condition than they had been in years. All they needed a coat of paint. Now idleness was setting in.

Birk and Clancy had been gone hunting with Jake twice and brought home some venison which was a welcome change from the rabbits that Birk trapped. But food necessities were dwindling in all the homes. Salt, sugar, molasses, flour and tea were slowly becoming scarce.

Birk’s mother made sure the Sal and Maddy were fed but even the portions for them were getting smaller. The girls went foraging with Birk for berries and dandelion greens. The greens were bitter to Birk but better than nothing.

One of the neighbour women showed them how to make a tea from the dandelion roots, how to dry certain wild flowers for tea, what mushrooms were safe to eat. The pickleweed from the saltwater marsh proved to a reasonable substitute for salt.

Birk and Clancy went to North Sydney to see if they could get part-time work on the fishing boats for a couple of days but there was no work for them there either. There were enough miners with actual sea experience who had taken what positions might be available. The fishermen were sympathetic but had be known to take matters into their own hands when any idle miners set out on their own to fish.

Clancy was able to get Mrs. Franklin to allow them to use the bath house once a week in return for keeping it clean and stocking the boiler room with wood and coal for the hot water. With the men not bringing in money she didn’t have many paying boarders left and was suffering financially because of that.

The young men showed up at the colliery for their daily strike shifts. To make sure management knew they were there, the miners would bring their fiddles to sing and dance to pass the time. Often with their children there as well to give their wives a break.

“Getting by on your dollar a week?” Jake Malone asked Birk.

The strike fund pay was a dollar a week for single men, a dollar and fifty cents for a married worker without children, those with children would get two dollars, regardless of how many children they had.

“Pays for milk but that’s about all.” Birk said. “How’s by you.”

“We’re stretchin’ it as best we can.” Jake replied. “Beth gets some from her folks. They have that farm out by Lake Ansley. Eggs this week. Yer welcome to a couple if you want.”

“We bagged some deer,” Clancy said. “Could swap you for what you may got to spare.”

“I’ll get Beth come over later. Good thing she’s not with … you know. This not a time to bring a child into this world.” He coughed and spat, toed the sputum. “Even m’spit is turning to water. Don’t look right without a heap o’ black in it.”

The church bells rang. 

“Time for us to knock off.” Birk said.

“See you at that meetin’ t’ night?” Jake asked. “About time the union had some news for us.”

Once again the union meeting was at St Agatha’s hall. There had been some informal ones at the Protestant church but the Catholics refused to come over to Mudside for union business.

“We’ll be there.” Clancy said. “Not much else to do these days.”

They headed back to Birk’s house.

“Doin’ nothing all day is making me want to … I don’t know … it’s like I’m hungry for something and don’t know what it is? Race you the back pasture.”

Birk knocked Clancy off his feet and started running over the uneven dirt lane that lead to the house. 

“You bastard. When I catch you …”

Clouds of dust rose from the dried out mud as Birk ran. The heavy thump of his boots on the roadway echoed off the houses. When he reached the side fence he stopped to see where Clancy was. He was no where to be seen.

“Ya give up that easily.” Birk grasped for air. 

Clancy darted out from the side of house, He dove head first into Birk and they tumbled though the gate into the garden.

“Get yer fat behinds outta my garden.” Birk’s mother burst out of the house with her wooden spoon held over her head.

“Sorry Ma.” Birk said pushing Clancy’s face into the dirt. He jumped up, leapt over the back fence and kept running through the field. He stopped at the oak tree and slumped against the base of it. He was tugging his boots off when he was showered by a handful of dirt.

“I guess you right Birk. We needs to get doing something besides nothing. But rolling in the dirt isn’t it.”

“I know. I know.”

“I could get used to this though.” Clancy tugged off his shirt and shook dirt out of it. “No coal dust and the life of leisure.” He rolled the shirt up and put it under his head as he laid on the ground beside Birk.

“Not me. I get this itch to do something. Used to feel so worn out from workin’ in the pit all day that I can’t wait to rest. Now I feel too rested.”

“We haven’t been fishin’ for awhiles now.” Clancy reminded him.

“True. Rocks don’t squeak loud as that bed o’ mine.” He caught Clancy’s eye briefly.

They had tried to rub on each other once but the bed rocked and squealed so loud they stopped before it woke anyone. 

“Don’t know how Geo managed that bed. Never made that much noise when he was on t’ other side o’ me.”

“One body movin’ isn’t the same as two.” Clancy said rolling over to his side to face Birk.

“Could be. So may be it’ll be fishin’ tomorrow. Depends on what Ma wants us to do.” His eyes met Clancy’s.

“I think we repaired every stick of future in your house already.” Clancy turned away.

“Except the bed.” Birk laughed.

“Hopes we catch another glimpse of that gal though. Nice of her to come by with bread for us at the gate there that once.”

“Could be she’ll be there t’night at the meetin’ ” Birk elbowed him.

“Could be.” Clancy grinned.

“That how you keeping your mind busy? Thinkin’ on her?” Birk shoved Clancy’s shoulder playfully with his foot.

“What of it.” Clancy grabbed Birk’s foot and pull him over on top of him. “She’d still smell a whole lot better than that foot of yours.”

They began to wrestle as they rolled over each other down the slope behind the tree. Each attempting to pin the other to the ground. Clancy stop resisting to let Birk sink on top of him.

“You giving up.” Birk asked.

“Nope. Just giving over. This ground don’t squeak. I feel you little fell’s ready ready.”

“So it yours.” Birk giggled.

“Stop horsing around you two. Ma’s be calling for you.”

Birk rolled off Clancy. It was Maddy.

“There’s some supper ready for you. Or would you rather play like kids in the muck?” She shook her finger at them. “You best wash up some before you come in the house.”

“Yes Ma.” Birk said. “I mean yes Maddy.”

He stood and helped Clancy stand. 

“You’ll need the broom to clean up properly though.” Maddy said as they followed her back to the house. “It’s either that or the spoon.”

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Coal Dusters: Chapter XXVII – Lillian’s Letter

Coal Dusters

Chapter XXVII

Lillian’s Letter

Since arrive in Cape Breton Lillian had received several letters from her Mother that kept her informed of family matters, of the parties she was going to and her brother’s upcoming nuptials in the fall. Letters that her Uncle had read first to make sure she wasn’t be contacted by suitors. This was wasn’t addressed to her but to her uncle.

“It’s my mother handwriting.” She eagerly opened the envelope then stopped. “It must be bad news. Otherwise you wouldn’t be giving it to me. Has my father died?” Tears came to her eyes.

“No. Someone even closer.”

In the envelope were two newspaper clippings. The first was an obituary for Lillian McTavish’s death.

“On the 20th day of June, 1925, the death angles visited Lillian McTavish when she succumbed to influenza while visiting her uncle, Father Patrick McTavish, at St. Agnes Parish in New Castleton, Cape Breton. She had gone there to join Father McTavish in his work the parish. Father McTavish found her to be always kind and good to each and everybody.”

Lillian looked up from the notice to wipe her eyes after skimming the family details. Then she continued to read.

“It was sad and hard for her loving family to give her up. But weep not loved ones for she cannot come to us, but we can go to her. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh, and His will must be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

“This is not God’s will,” she burst out. She then read aloud from the obituary. “‘Her voice is hushed, her foots steps still, her chair is vacant the can never be filled!’ This is a fabrication.”

The other clipping was an announcement of a Boston memorial service, to be held at the Holy Cross Cathedral, as the body had been interred in Cape Breton.

“What? I don’t understand. I am not dead.” She was trying to make sense of this. She looked in the envelope there was no letter.

“You are to them.” Sister Claire said gently.

“Why? What I did wasn’t my fault! Was it so shaming that they would …” She covered her face with her hands and wept.

She heard Sister Claire pour a cup of tea.

“Here my child. Drink this.”

Lillian pushed the cup away from her. She knocked it out of  the Sister’s hands to the floor. She hoped it had broken. She wanted to jump up and go the china cupboard and break all those dishes. All those reminders of a life that now rejected her.

“This came as a great shock to your uncle as well. He thought, as I am sure you did, that your stay here would only be temporary. He does care for you but he admits that he isn’t prepared to take on the task of raising you.”

“Raising me.” Lillian stood. “I am a woman! Not a child. I’m twenty-three years old.” She paced the room. “I will not go into your convent Sister Claire, or any other. I do not have that calling. My family may be willing to sacrifice me for their sense of propriety but I am not ready to make any further sacrifices of my own.”

“Be that as it may, Father McTavish wishes you elsewhere.”

“And he has brought you here to do what he didn’t have the courage to do! If this were God’s will my uncle would have no reluctance though, would he? He knows this is wrong.”

Sister Claire picked up the cup and saucer and poured Lillian another cup of tea.

“Sit, Lillian. Sit. He wanted you know there were clear alternatives.”

“The clear alternative is that we contact my father to tell him that I am alive!”

“Father McTavish has tried to do so but your family has refused any contact from him.”

Lillian sat and drank her tea.

“I’m not surprised you are upset, that you would feel this strongly. Perhaps once you have had time to consider what has happened you will be more prepared to accept the conditions of your circumstance. Many girls welcome the opportunity to find a new life in Christ.”

Lillian’s mind raced with revenge. Her family would pay for this. Her uncle would suffer as well. The thought of returning to her Boston life was the only thing that made what she had been going through in this house bearable. Now that return was impossible. What would her family do if she showed up at their door? 

“You have no other friends or family here?”

“No, Sister Claire. Miss O’Dowell did offer me a place in her home but that is not a solution.”

“No marriageable men amongst the congregation?”

“Marriage! To a miner?” At one time she had anticipated marrying a man of considerable means, of wealth. “Me, in one of those squalid little company houses stinking of cabbage and turnips. Barking dogs and unwashed children underfoot. A crying baby and a drunken husband stumbling home reeking of sweat and mud.”

“I see your uncle is right one account. You haven’t learned enough humility. There comes a point in life where we must learn to adjust ourselves to things as they are Lily, and not let things as we wish them to be get in the way.”

“Yes Sister.”

“Not all the men are miners either. Perhaps if you had socializes outside of Castleton you might seen brighter prospects.”

“Socialize!” Lillian laughed derisively. “I have been a veritable prisoner in this house. My uncle has seen to that. Opening my mail, restricting what I am allowed to wear, accusing me of … deliberate allure when any man acknowledges my presence in the room.”

“It is understandable, considering your past actions.” 

“Sister Claire as far as I can tell there are no men here capable of the sort of … No, this is pointless. I was sent here, as you apparently know, to be kept out of the sight of eligible men. Not to enter into the social whirl of Cape Breton.” Lillian took a deep breath. “If I agree to go into the convent how soon would that happen?”

“We could find a place for you by the first of next week.”

That was sooner than Lillian had anticipated.

“Could I have time to make a prayerful decision. I don’t want to be forced into some rashly that all may regret later.”

“How long?” Sister Claire picked at clumps of mud on the hem of her skirts.

As long as my uncle will abide Lillian thought. “I’m not sure. With the miners on strike I feel I should remain here at St. Agnes. I’d rather Father Patrick didn’t have to cope with keeping up the house and attending to his parishioners in this time of difficulty. I have been gathering and distributing food stuff for them.”

“You may not be aware Lily, you are heeding some calling. You are more … maternally caring than even you think. I’ll speak with Father Patrick. If  I assure him that you are seriously considering joining us he will be satisfied. It would be more suitable for our purposes if you joined in the fall which is when two of the sisters will be leaving to work for the Catholic Missionaries in Africa. Their departure would make the way for you more natural. I would not have to male a place for you.”

“Thank you Sister Claire.” That should give her enough time to find a husband. If she was going to a bride it wouldn’t be of Christ.

“I will go and inform Father Patrick of the good news.”

“Thank you, Sister Claire. But before you go, will you pray with me.” Lillian took out her rosary. She knew this would convince the Mother Superior of a sincerity she did not feel.

“I’d be honoured Lily.” 

The two women knelt holding their rosaries and facing the crucifix. Sister Claire started and Lillian joined:

“Hail Mary, full of grace. Our Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.” Sister Claire added “Christ thank you for bringing your lost lamb closer to the fold of your everlasting arms. Amen”

When Sister Claire left Lillian cleared the parlour and washed the dishes. In the heat of summer Father Patric only wanted a simple cool evening meal. It usually consisted lightly buttered sandwiches with cold meat and whatever greens were available.

She set the table in the dining room then went to her room. Staring out her window that overlooked the garden she leaned against the frame to still her trembling. So this is why her father had been so eager to get her out of Boston. Out of sight of anyone who knew her. How many of her family knew that his was his plan? Were they all complicit in it? 

No, she couldn’t see her mother knowing the truth. It had to be her father’s plan to rid himself of his troublesome child. He had never understood why women wanted to vote, wanted to work, wanted to be free of the domineering hand of superior men. 

On her desk was a letter she had been writing to her brother. She took his last note to her from the desk. The date was the same as her memorial service yet there was no mention of it in his letter which was concerned with preparations for his nuptials and how his bride, Margaret, was looking forward to having Lillian at the wedding as her maid of honour. This was a letter from someone who thought his sister was alive. 

She checked the envelope Sister Claire had given her for a letter or a note, there was none, then she examined the newspaper clippings carefully. They were, as far as she could tell, actual newspaper clippings. There was no way her uncle could have something of this nature forged so well. There were portions of advertisements on the backs of each clipping. One for silk blouses. For a moment she thought of asking her brother if he could send her some silk blouses. She shook her head to bring herself back to reality.

She began to add to the letter she had started but words didn’t come to her. She wanted to know how they could do this to her. Why was he pretending things were going on as normal? Could her father not have told anyone in the family? Would he father merely intercept any letters from Canada?

No, the next time she wrote them it would be to invite them to her wedding. First she needed a husband. Someone who would be an affront. Mr. O’Dowell was merely a dullard and he would fit too well in with her family. 

The hairy imp! Yes! Who could be better for her purposes. A mixed marriage would be sure to offend not only her uncle but the entire congregation that did nothing when they saw how her uncle had mistreated her. 

He was man she knew she would have no problem controlling. The marriage wouldn’t have to last for that long. Just long enough for a Boston honeymoon. Show him off to all her friends and family and vanish. He was so unintelligent he’d probably not feel anything once she left him anyway. All she had to was find a way into his life. What was his name? B … Brian, Bradly something.

She had spoken with him and his friend a few times when they were on strike duty at the colliery entrance. Next time she would be sure to get his name. Find out where he lived in Mudtown. She’d prove that even if her family deemed her dead she wasn’t going to be that easy to bury.

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Chapter XXVI – Lillian Gets A Letter

Coal Dusters 

Chapter XXVI 

Lillian Gets A Letter

Lillian paced in the dining room as her uncle talked in the parlour with the Mother Superior of St. Margaret’s Convent in Sydney. Her bruise was still visible but not longer as vivid. She was dismayed to see how quickly it faded away but she resisted the temptation to pinch it in an attempt to make it last longer. She was grateful that she had not been confined to the rectory as she first feared. With the miner’s on strike her uncle had more pressing matters to attend to but made it clear she would be sent to the Convent as soon as it could be arranged.

As she paced she plotted. If he thought she would go into some cloistered life willingly he was mistaken. She would see to it that he regretted any further action to punish her in any way. She had hoped the sight of the bruise would result in his parishioners losing respect for him but other than being mildly surprised at it, they were mostly indifferent. No one had asked how it happened. 

The women had been more sympathetic but even they were not shocked. It was acceptable to them that a man would raise his hand to a woman if her behaviour called for it. Even if than man was a man of God. Even if her behaviour didn’t call for it.

“Lillian if you would care to join us?” her uncle said softly as he opened the door of the parlour.

She stepped resolutely into the room. The first thing that hit her was the smell. It was of something unwashed but wet at the same time. It made her think of dogs coming into her house in Boston after the rain. She had to restrain herself from sniffing. She kept he face as placid as possible.

The Mother Superior was larger than she expected. She was nearly as tall as her uncle but with a more ample figure. Clearly the nuns ate well. Lillian had the impression that nuns were small, thin women in big black cloaks.

“It’s my great pleasure to introduce you to Sister Claire. Sister Claire my niece Lillian McTavish.”

Sister Claire stood and took Lillian by the hand. Lillian shook the sister’s hand. The nun’s hand was as rough as hers. Nuns didn’t have soft dainty hands after all. The Mother’s nails were uneven, some broken along the edge. Her knuckles red, rough and the back of one was mottled purple.

“Happy to make your acquaintance, Lillian. The lilies of our community do both grow and toil. We spin not, mind you, but we make easy the lives of those around us. It is propitious that we finally have a Lillian join the lilies.”

The Mother gave a small laugh and pushed her wimple back. The dark habit framed her oval face. Her eyes were a clear blue nestled in creases. Lillian was used to wrinkles but these marks were deeper. The right eyelid was lower than the left.

“Thank you … Sister. Mother Superior?” As an adult Lillian had never been introduced to a nun before. 

“Sister will do nicely if I can call you Lily?”

“Yes. Sister.” She hadn’t been called Lily since she was a child. Insisting on having her full name used had been one of the first things she was adamant about when she turned sixteen.

“Your uncle has been telling me that adapting to life here has been difficult for you.”

“At first.” Lillian stepped back. Her hands, now hidden under her apron, were restlessly squeezing each other. Would her hands look like the Mother Superior’s in a couple of years. 

“Did you find it that easy, Father Patrick? When you first arrived at St. Agatha’s parish?”

“I was quick to adapt, Sister, but … well … after the seminary it was a bit … of a challenge to be amongst ordinary folks again.”

“It is so much easier for a man to adapt isn’t it Father. Particularly one who feels, as you have demonstrated, that it is a natural part of his calling. A sacred vocation.”

“Yes, but Sister Claire, we’re here to discuss Lillian’s future prospects.”

“I know that but I wanted to make it clear that we are all aware of the challenges any new life will present.” She smiled. “What is easy for one may not be as simple for another. Now I wish to speak with Lillian.”

“Of course.” Father Patrick sat in his usual chair.

“Alone.”

“Ah …” He stood.

Lillian looked from Sister Claire to her uncle. She was amused at his discomfort. She had seen no one disconcert him this way since she arrived.

“Surely, you, of all men, must understand there are some things that require privacy.”

“Yes … uh … I do have matters to deal with at the church office. If you’ll excuse me.” He shook hands with the Mother Superior and left the room.

Sister Claire went to the window and waved to Father Patrick as he went down the front path.

“I had to make sure he was actually going.” She said. “before we spoke. I’ve learned never to trust a man.” She tittered and sat heavily in the chair the father had vacated.

Lillian was once again struck by the smell as the Mother’s habit unfolded around her. The hem of the tunic was dusty and frayed. The sleeve cuffs had been mended and there were square patches of a nearly matching serge on the elbows.

“I see you looking at my habit.” The Mother Superior said. “I know it has seen better days but those days have so full of grace I have found it hard to … replace it with a newer one. As you see I wear the double veil that represents my consecration to God.”

“Yes, I know. We had visiting sisters come to our school to explain some of these things.” Lillian served tea.

“Please sit Lily. There is no reason to be uncomfortable with me. I do have your best interests at heart.”

“Yes, Sister.” She sat in one of the side chairs. 

“Father Patrick is most concerned about your position in life.” Sh reached over to take Lillian by the hand.

“I know that but …”

“Hear me then I’ll listen to your ‘buts.’ He wants to protect you from the temptations of the world that are around us all. You may feel this is unreasonable on his part but your past indiscretions make it clear you are not a girl who can be trusted to make the wisest decisions on her own behalf.”

“So he has told you about Mr. Dunham?” Lillian stood.

“Yes, but that is not most concerns him. It is the attentions of Mr. O’Dowell that causes him the most concern.”

“But …”

“I told you no ‘buts.’ I have also spoken with Anthea O’Dowell and am fully aware that you have not sought such attentions. It has always been unfair to me that the pretty are blamed for how others respond to their prettiness. Yes, it is clear that often men are the victims of their own longings and hungers and it is up to us women to protect them from acting in unwholesome carnal ways. Their longings can be even more crippling than the chains that bound Christ.”

“How can we control hungers that we have not caused? Women have to live in this world with these men.” Lillian sat.

“Not necessarily so Lily. Which is why your uncle has asked me to speak with you today. He is concerned with your very soul. If you are incapable or unwilling to armour yourself then action must be taken.”

“Is that why you are in the convent Sister. To hide yourself from the eyes of men.” Lillian asked.

“We are the Brides of Christ. Some, to be sure, have hidden themselves with us, but most of our order does not hide. We have decided to surrender our human desires to confirm our dedication to spiritual fulfillment. We seek our protection from Christ so that we may work among His children. Although we are female, men stop seeing us as such but come to recognize us as emissaries of grace. Our very garment signifies taking on a new life in Christ.”

The idea of being protected from the unsavoury, and unwelcome, attentions of men appealed to Lillian. “I understand that it would be a blessing not to have to worry about pleasing mean or living one’s life at their beck and call. But if the price is to remove myself from the world around me I don’t know if I am strong.”

“What is it you have missed most of your life in Boston since coming here?”

“My family.” Lillian didn’t hesitate. “Being able to see my mother or father when I wanted to. To be able to come and go from my house as I pleased. To listen to my brother talking about his business affairs.”

“But those are sacrifices all women must make as we get older. If you married you would have to leave your family home, right?”

“Yes.”

“Is there anything you don’t miss.”

Lillian sipped her tea and thought for a minute. “Yes! Here I no longer have to concern myself so much with how I look. There is no need to prepare my hair in the morning to do my chores, to face my uncle. I don’t have to select the right dress to wear. Those were things I once enjoyed, looked forward to, but now that I don’t, my life is much easier.”

“Then perhaps you have already heeded part of your calling?” Sister Claire said.

“Calling?”

“To be a sister is a calling, an avocation. It is to be free of …. adornment. Father Patrick didn’t become a priest on a whim. He knew he was making certain sacrifices to serve Our Lord. Sacrifices he gladly made.”

“I understand that. Being here isn’t a sacrifice I wanted to make. How would he have reacted if the priesthood had been forced upon him?”

“What is that you want Lily? What do you see in your future?”

“I expect to return to Boston, of course. To return to my family. Their intent in sending me was to spare my father any embarrassment in his political career.”

“How long do think he expects to be spared?” She took an envelope out from a fold in her habit.

“I … I had hoped to be home before Christmas. For my bother’s wedding.”

“Father Patrick had two reasons he wanted me to talk with you. One was to get a sense of your willingness to consider our vocation. The other was this …” she handed Lillian the envelope.

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Chapter XXV – Birk In The Mud

Coal Dusters 

Chapter XXV

Birk In The Mud

Birk and Clancy went into the back garden and Clancy sat on the bench, Birk sprawled on the ground leaning against it. He took off his work boots and socks.

“You see how she looked?” Clancy asked. “That weren’t no bump on anything.”

“Yep.” Birk knew Clancy meant Lillian. He had watched her on and off all night to see if there was some indication of who had struck her. “At the end there. When she come up into the light in front of all of us.”

“Oh yeah that look o’hers at the good man of the cloth, that uncle o’ her’s. I figure everyone there saw that and knew who she got beat by.”

Clancy began to push his boots off. Birk yanked them off for him and then his socks.

“Blue Lake smell still on’ em.” he laughed.

“It was good day fishin’?” Clancy said.

“Yeh. You pleased with what we caught?”

“I’m pretty happy with it, if you are?”

“Yeh. It’ll be a week or so ‘fore we can go up there again to there.” 

“Figured.” Clancy ruffling Birk’s hair. “It’s been a long day though. More tired now than when I raked behind you all day.”

“What’s that?” Birk stood. “Sounds like singin’.” He began to pull his boots and socks back on.

“Coming from the docks?” Clancy pulled his socks and boots back on. “Could it be those micks drunk and singing to the Holy Ghost?”

They walked to the lane that lead to the colliery and followed the singing to the dock. A group of the miners we’re sitting around a bonfire on the dirt road that lead to the pier.

“Join us lads?” Jim McKlusky came over to them with a bottle in his hand. “Someone has liberated some of the good father’s wine.”

Birk recognized some of the miners from the other collieries. They had just started a ragged verse of Rule Britannia with some of miners supplying their own words:

“Rule BritCan Co BritCan Co rules the coal

Miners ever ever ever shall be slaves

The miners not so blest with greed

Must take their turn in Hell

While you eat great meals for free

On the blood and sweat of all miners”

On the chorus all the miners joined in, adding their own bits to it. ‘Rule rule rule but never feed,’ ‘To Hell Hell Hell with their command.’ 

Different bottles made the rounds. Some with mild wine and others with potent home brews that sung Birk’s eyes and one that he spat out as fast as he could.

The miner with a squeeze box started in on Mademoiselle from Armenteires who you couldn’t kiss unless you’ve had forty beers. As they went through the verses and choruses locations changed, what the mademoiselle would do became more dirty and her body parts more detailed.

“You blushing?” Clancy grabbed Birk in a headlock and rubbed his hair. “Too much for your innocent ears?”

“Get off me!” Birk pushed him away and sent him reeling into a couple of miners swinging each other round in a step dance. This sent the dancers sprawling on the ground to great whoops and applause from the others. The shift signal whistle silenced them all.

“Well men,” the miner with his fiddle stopped. “Looks like its time to face the real music.”

 Birk helped Clancy up and dusted him off. 

Birk’s mother was sitting in her armchair by the stove when they went in. She took a deep breath as they splashed water on their faces at the sink.

“Someone’s been playing in the mud have they.” She said. “Mud and homemade by the stink.”

“I’m sorry Ma.” Birk couldn’t look her in the eyes.

“At’s okay son, your about a man now and it’s time you started to learn about some of those men things.”

“I’ll keep an eye on him Mrs. N.” Clancy said.

“So what’s the word on the strike boys?”

“Strike Mrs. N.” 

“Pa’s gone to check the boilers. He’ll be back soon.” Birk leaned over and kissed her on the forehead.

Is was raining heavily in the morning. Birk couldn’t see past the back fence. The lane in front of the house was muddy.

“Better wait till we get to the main lane before you put yer boots and socks on Clancy. Yer about to find out why this is called Mudtown.” Birk said as they were getting ready to set out. “After a heavy rain last year Billy McLean lost a kid. Wanted to cross over to play with cousins across the way there. Got caught in the mud and couldn’t get out and got pulled under somehow.”
“Yer joking.”

“Not a bit of it. No matter how much of the slag gets dumped on the road it sinks to somewhere when the rains fall.”

The rain slickers they wore kept them dry but all the laneways had all become rivers of mud. Thick, cold mud. They sank up to their knees at some points as they struggled to the colliery gates. Even the main lane was pitted with bogs of mud.

There were several other miners there when they arrived. A couple of them had trimmed some thick branches they intended to use as weapons if need be.

“Ya think the company will try anything?”

“Maybbe not.” one of them said “But best be prepared. If we show them we mean business right off we already have the upper hand.”

The rain didn’t let up. At different times during the day other miners would show up, some would go home. The union rep visited with them for an hour or so bringing hot tea with him. Then Reverend Brown came by with a roast chicken for them to share.

The men were too cold and wet to joke amongst themselves or talk for long. They stood on either side of the gate glaring into the rain, looking into the mine yard to see who they might see. 

Two of the managers showed up. The miners crowded around the gate to impede them from going in but didn’t do anything to directly hold them back either.

“It’s all fer show these first couple of days.” Jake told them. 

It pointless to Birk. He’d rather have been going underground to work than wallow around in this cold wet muck. Although he knew that the unions helped make sure that the men had some benefits from their jobs – the wash-up rooms, a doctor, that sort of thing; he didn’t feel they did much for him in the long run. They got his dues right off his pay every week but never saw them active in the lives of the miners.

At least Father Pat or Reverend Brown came into their homes when they were sick or hurt, but they only saw the union rep when there was need for more money for the union.

The rep hadn’t even told them what the strike fund was going to do for them. They’d been paying something into for the last three years since the last strike. Was there going to be enough between him and Clancy to keep food on the table? Blackie would still get his full pay to tend the boilers but the most of that would go for the house and that wouldn’t leave enough for their needs.

Maybe they’d have to go fishing sooner than they planned. That idea pleased him. He hadn’t dwelt on what he and Clancy did sliding on each other. Now the memory made him happy.

“You got something to smile about?” one of the men asked him.

“Yeh getting home and into dry clothes.” He said.

“Sure it isn’t that priest’s gal.” Clancy asked.

“Not a bit.” He hoped they wouldn’t see his cheeks burning as they questioned him.

“Sure wish she’d come by with that tea trolly now.”

“She’s need a dory to get through to us here ya know.” Birk said.

“Maybbe she can walk on mud as Jesus did on the water.” One of them said.

“Time you two went home.” Jim McKlusky appeared out of the rain. “Before yer house gets washed away.”

“Right, Thanks Jim. See ya in the morning.” Clancy said.

“If we find a place to dock the house, that is.” Birk said.

They set off to the house and stopped at the rise at the top of the laneway, leaned against the fence, pulled off their boots and socks and slogged down the lane.

“You think much about what we did t’other day up at the lake?” Clancy asked. 

“When we was fishin’ ya mean?”

“Yeh then.”

“Not as if I forgot it b’y but there’s a lot goin’ on too. Why?”

“Just wondering. I didn’t mind it.”

“Me neither.” Birk shook rain off his shoulders.

“Ya think that Lillian might …”

“Get those evil thoughts outta yer head Clancy.”

“Only thing keeps me warm in this rain.” Clancy wiped the rain off his face.

“I’d warm the arse of whoever done that hurt to her.”

“Me too, but if’n I found out who did harm her and I did him a harm, she might be very grateful.”

“How many time’s do we have tell ya she’s not going look twice at some orange arse.”

“I’d convert.” Clancy laughed.

“No doubt you would. What would yer ma think though?”

“She wouldn’t care. She was a mick herself, you see. When she married me paw her family turned their back on her. When m’pa died they wouldn’t forgive her till she went to confession and the priest said she was penitent. She only did that so we’d have a place to live.”

“So you think this one would be different, eh? Not as if she’s your regular mick either. The priest’s niece. She’s almost a nun.”

“Never thought of her that way.” Clancy laughed tipping water out of his boots.

Clancy lost his footing the the muck and staggered into Birk and they both fell into one of the deeper ruts. Birk’s work boots went flying.

“So much for trying to spare them.” 

Clancy crawled over the mud and got the boots then pushed himself to his feet. He turned to help Birk up.

“What a pair we make!” Birk laughed. “Can’t even walk home in the rain.”

“Yeh. All we are is a couple of dirty, filthy Mudtown mine rats.”

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Chapter XXIV –  Birk Steps Up

Coal Dusters 

Chapter XXIV 

Birk Steps Up

Birk and Clancy stopped to chat with the miners gathered out side St. Agatha’s hall. There were various groups of them from the different pits in the area. Some had their wives and children with them. None of them were eager for a strike and some expressed that it was downright foolishness and were there to make sure their voices were heard.

“Is your Da going to be here Birk?” Jake came over.

“Depends on when get away from the boilers.” Birk said.

“Loves them more than anything else.” Jake offered Birk his tobacco pouch and papers.

“Nah.” Birk said. 

Clancy reached over and accepted it. “Thanks. Might as well enjoy a smoke when we can.” He spread a thin line of the tobacco and studied it and glanced at Jake before rolling the paper around it. “Looks a bit stretched.”

“Yeah well there’s some ground up hay in there. Something my pa used to do. Don’t taste it much though.”

Clancy lit the cigarette and took a tentative draw on. “If the strike goes on long well have to get used it.”

William Gregory, the union rep, opened the hall doors. “Not much space in here so I’ll have to ask the women to wait outside.” 

Birk and Clancy were separated as the men pushed in rushing to get seats. Birk ended up sitting with Jake Malone near the back with another of their laneway neighbours Jim McKlusky. 

Father Patrick started meeting with the Lord’s Pray. Not all the men knew all the words and Birk mumbled along as best he could. The moment it was over Jim started O Canada and the men got louder as they went along. he could hear the women outside singing too. 

The men sat and began talking amongst themselves. Birk was never at ease when there were so many people talking at the same time. Seeing all these men here and not in the colliery wash up was like seeing some of them for the first time. So Digger Johnny didn’t always wear that same denim coverall and canvas coat all the time. He was a different person in a clean white shirt and grey trousers, held up by striped suspenders. If it weren’t for the heavy work boots Birk would have taken him for a store clerk.

  Two of the union men were going along the aisles and talking to miners quietly. 

“Good to see you here tonight b’ys” one of them shook Birk’s hand. “We’re feeling that this time we can make a difference.”

“We’ve heard that before.” Jim McKlusky said. “Birk here might be too young to remember the strike of 1918. What the fluenza didn’t kill starvation nearly did.”

The meeting got started with William Gregory reading off the contract demands, none of which, he claimed, the management was willing to discuss. “As far as BritCan is concerned there is nothing to discuss.”

The men in the back row around Birk whispered furtively back and forth with comments about what was being said on stage. Having Alf Landon there added to the seriousness of the situation. No one was pleased to hear that there’d be no government support for strike action. 

The air in the hall was thick with the smoke from the miners’ cigarettes and the cigars the union men where puffing on. His eyes were watering. He looked around for Clancy but didn’t spot him through the haze. His side of the room was the most restless and resistant to the fact that the strike would commence at midnight that night.

“Let’s get some fresh air.” Clancy suddenly appeared behind him and tapped him on the shoulder.

They went out to the front steps of the hall and there were several men out there smoking. and passing a bottle around. He and Clancy shared the last of the Manny cigarettes.

“No hay in these.” Clancy took a long drag on his.

“You know what burns me up?” said one of the miners outside the hall. “The fact that we have to meet here in this Papist hall.”

“Not as if we have anything this size over our side of the town.” one of them said. “Fraid they’ll get their boots dusty in Mudtown.”

“Can’t expect to do this at the pluck me either.” another said passing the bottle to Birk.

Birk took a fast swing and nearly spit it out. It was some of the home made beer he’d tried at Geo’s wedding. He wiped the bottle neck and passed it back.

The men laughed. “If’n they did they would dock our pay for the wear and tear on the floor boards.”

“Yeh, I know that but it’s not as if we get anything from Rome to keep up appearance the way the good Father does.” the first man said.

“Or that niece o’his. Looks good even with that bump on her face.”

“Who you think did that t’her.”

“Maybe she did to herself.” Clancy said.

“Yeh. Tripping in the church on those things they kneel on and hitting her face on one of Jesus’s bleedin’ feet.”

The men laughed.

“I know a smack when I sees one.” Another of the men said. “Gives my missus enough of them.” He added knowingly. “Only way to keep ‘em in line.”

“Shows you care enough for ’em, too.” Another said. “They makes out that there isn’t enough for food ‘cause we stop for a pint or two on the way home from work.”

“So you think she’s … got some bloke from around here?” Clancy asked.

“I heared she has a past, you know, from Boston. Maybe the good Father had to keep her from going back. Y’ know bring the hand of God to bare.”

“The priest? Nah.”

“Remember Father Peterson. Coached us in hockey one year. Man, he wouldn’t hesitate to give any of a good kick in the arse if we didn’t do what we was told. He didn’t care if was orange or mick either. We have more bruises from him than we ever got on the ice.”

“Yeh, but that was b’ys.”

“Doesn’t matter to me now. Who cares how they treat their women. I only want them at the mine to play fair by us.” the first guy said. “No more playing favourites with the micks. Right Birk.”

“What?” Birk had been listening but not paying heed. From where he and Clancy stood they had a clear view through the window of Lillian standing by the tea trolly.

“You happy getting left in the pit while that Manny O’Dowell gets set up in the rake yard?”

“No!” Getting above ground was the hope of many of the miners. Didn’t matter where they worked or even the work was harder.

“Better get back inside.” Clancy said. “They’re finally getting to the important stuff.”

“Only important stuff is how much strike pay we can expect when we goes out.”

“An if there’s enough tea left for us.” 

When they went back in Birk saw that Blackie had arrived. Men were standing to ask questions about the strike or make statements of their particular concerns.

Jim jabbed him the ribs and whispered. “Say something about playing favourites.”

Birk stood. All eyes the room where on him. He feet got hot and he was slightly dizzy. He didn’t recognize his own voice as he spoke and when he finished he didn’t even know what he had said.

“Good on ye, lad. That’ll get those micks in a stir.” Jim said.

There were angry responses from the other side of the room. If there was an answer from any of the speakers to what he said he didn’t hear them. He did hear Seldon from the company store say there’d be no credit if they wasn’t working. When Father Patrick forced them to say the Our Father again he got up walked out with Blackie and Clancy.

The rest of the men followed shortly.

“Blackie!” one of the men shouted out. “You better be careful walking to work these mornings. Man could slip in the mud and hurt hisself.”

“Gerry Dunlop, if you show yourself on our side of town I’m not the only one’ll beat the crap out of you.” Blackie replied to the laugher of some of the men. “That is if there’s any o’you left that wife gets through beatin’ you.”

“We have to stand together.” someone else said.

“If you want a mine to come back to when this strike is settled you better stay out of my way and let us engineers do our job.” Birk and Clancy followed Blackie as he walked on.

A handful of dirt showered them. It was quickly followed by rocks and clods of grass. The three men stopped and turned to face the whom ever was behind them.

“Manny didn’t you get enough on the Dingle t’other time?” Birk raised his fists.

Manny was with several of the Catholic miners. The gang took a step back.

Blackie pulled Birk’s arms down. One of the men stepped past Manny to take a swing. Blackie reach out and the the man’s fist and held it in his hand.

“Look son.” Blackie said as he squeezed the man’s fist. “This isn’t how we stand together. Same goes for the rest of you.” He let go of the man’s hand

The man stepped away rubbing his fingers.

“Any of you on the midnight stand?” Blackie asked. “You best sober up some .”

The men turned and walked away grumbling.

As Birk walked past the company store he saw that windows had been boarded over. 

“They must have put those up while we were at the meetin’” he said.

“Seldon’s not taking any chances.” Blackie knocked lightly on one of the boards. “Last time we broke in and emptied the place. Casey Thomas was running it in those days. Mean cuss was only to happy to cut us off. The women dragged him out, tore his clothes off and chased him off the pier. Coldest February we remember. Bastard deserved it.”

“What?” Birk said. Blackie was always fairly calm around the house. Nothing his sisters, or even he, ever did unsettled him.

“Yep. Cut off credit, then cut off even selling to those who had cash to pay. Five weeks we’d had enough of no food, no coal to heat our houses in February. After we smashed into the store they brought in the troops.”

“From where. The base in Sydney?”

“Some, but mostly from the mainland. Too many in Sydney had kin here.”

“Y’ went to back to work with rifles on you?” Clancy asked.

“Pretty much. We didn’t get what we wanted and had to go back with less than we started out with.”

“Same as now?” Birk spat.

“Uh huh. Not before we did a bit of damage mind you. But not as much as they did riding their horses into the crowds in the Bay. We were marching on the mine office and they charged at us. Snipers on the roofs picked off a couple of guys, wounding them. Then church was getting out at the same time so those got caught up in things too.”

“The micks?” Birk snickered.

“Some. Most of the people that got hurt had nothing to do with the strike. That ended it. Priest then told all his congregation they better get back to work or go to Hell. They went and the rest of us had no choice but to follow.”

“This time’ll be different.” Clancy said.

“How’s that.” Blackie asked.

“What I hear is the the guys in the steel plant might go out in sympathy with us. That’ll bring things to a halt.”

“Don’t count it.” Blackie said. “Government won’t stand for that for long.”

“Lest we don’t have to worry about keeping warm.” Birk said pulling off his jacket and unbuttoning his shirt. “Can’t remember a hotter summer.”

They came to the lane that lead to their house.

“I’m goin’ to drop down to the boilers before I go to bed. All this talk makes me a little fearful.”

“You think they’d so something to them do ya?”

“Nah, but best to be sure or I won’t sleep right tonight.”

Blackie kept on his way. 

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