Chapter XXIII: Lillian Serves Tea to the Union

Coal Dusters

Chapter XXIII

Lillian Serves Tea to the Union

After their meal she cleared the table. Washing up in the kitchen she could heard the church bells ring to call the men to the union meeting. The tea urn took three kettles of water boiled on the stove to fill it fully. 

Between each kettle Lillian attended to her cosmetic mask. Yes, this will be ideal. She had applied more power and rouge than she had ever before. The effect was clearly artificial. 

“Father Pat,” she called out. “The urn is ready for the meeting.”

“I’ll have a couple of the men bring the trolly over to the hall. You can follow with the biscuits. I mean the bread.” He said from the other room.

When the men arrived she pretended to be working at the sink so they wouldn’t see her face. As they were leaving she said. “Could you ask Father Pat to step in a moment.”

“Yes Miss McTavish.”

A few minutes later he came into the kitchen. “You wanted to see me Lillian.”

She turned around for the lantern to catch her face in full light. Her uncle gave a small gasp.

“Lillian. What have you done. You look …”

She knew that she looked similar to those low class women who sold themselves to men. She fumed at the way he acted as if covering her bruise was an act of contrition on her part.

“I … I  did the best I could Father Patrick. It’s been sometime since I’ve used my cosmetics. I wanted to be sure the mark was fully covered.”
“It is but … Well, it’s too late now.” He took the plate of bread she had cut. “Perhaps no one will notice. There are more important things at hand to occupy their thoughts.”

“I’ll be right there. I forgot the sugar for the tea.”

“Very well.” He left the kitchen.

She grabbed a damp cloth she had set aside for this moment and with a few sure movements wiped all the rouge off her face. Too much rouge on her face would reflect on her character but the bare face with its bruise would reflect on the character of the person who had caused the bruise. Even if no one the room knew who was responsible they would know someone was.

She slipped quietly into the meeting hall. On the wall behind the dais were portraits of King George V and Queen Mary, with a portrait of Pope Pius XI on side of of them; and a portrait of prime minister Mackenzie King on the other. Between the various portraits hung the Red Ensign and the flag of Nova Scotia. Over them was a crucifix. The union banner had been hastily draped along one side of the room. 

The tea service area was in the a corner to the left of the low stage. She cautiously nudged the trolly into a better light. As the men came for a cup she turned her face casually to make sure her face was visible. She could see their eyes dart from the bruise to her eyes then away as if shamed by seeing it.

William Gregory went to the dais and rapped on it with a gavel.

“I’d like to thank Father McTavish for allowing the use of Saint Agatha’s Hall for our meeting.” He motioned for the priest to come on stage.

“We will start this meeting with The Lord’s Prayer.” Father Patrick motioned for the men to rise.

The men all stood and recited the prayer. Without prompting someone began to sing ‘O Canada’ and all the miners put their hand over their hearts and joined in the anthem. Gregory rapped the dais with the gravel and all the men sat.

Once the meeting started and she sat. This was her opportunity to look over the men who were there. The various representatives of union, management and government were seated in the first row.

On stage, William Gregory the union representative, puffed on a cigar as he set out the conditions of the contract they had presented to the management board of the mine. The demands were merely to keep the tonnage rate as it was with a five percent per year increase over the next two years. 

She half-listened to the the various representatives. Alf Landon, the local Member of the Legislative Assembly was there; Mr. O’Dowell applauded loudly when the MLA stood to address the men. She almost laughed out loud as his white shirt cuffs kept popping out from under his suit jacket. The man’s family may own clothing stores but he certainly didn’t know how to dress. 

Running his thumbs under his suspenders, Landon explained the provincial government’s position of having to be supportive of management decisions yet would not stand in the way of any fair and legal labour action the unions chose to take. Alf stressed with word fair, intimating that the unions were on shaky grounds.

Some of the men stood to describe the unfair and dangerous conditions in the mines. There were representatives of the workers from the many mines in on the Island. It became clear to her that conditions were much the same in all of the mines.

One of the men she’d spoken with the other morning stood to say something. 

“I’m Birk Nelson, many o’ you know me. M’ father is Blackie Nelson. One thing some of us men want to know is why the mic … I’m mean the Catholic’s get favoured treatment in the Colliery?”

There was an immediate grumbling from the sides of the room closest to her. She could tell that the room was pretty much divided down the middle with parishioners she recognized on one side and the ones she didn’t on the other. They must be the Protestants.

She kept her eyes on Birk. What was it about him that fascinated her? It was something in his face, the blackness of his hair contrasted with the white of his shirt. It dawned on her that he resembled those engravings of the Devil she had in one of her childhood books of Bible stories.

“Gentlemen, please.” her Uncle stepped to the front of the stage. “Let us not get distracted from why we are here. This strike, if it happens, will effect all families regardless of their faiths.”

“He’s right,” someone said loudly. “But we can’t hide from them what damage this will cause our families. We will show them our true faces for once.”

“Yes.” Father Pat said. “The Lord hath no greater joy than to hear that his children are walking in the truth.”

“We need a united front,” William Gregory the union rep said. “Let’s not forget that. But Father I have to remind you that there is no ‘if.’ The strike has been called for and it will go ahead at midnight tonight. Not only here in Castleton Mines but in Sydney Mines, Inverness, Dominion, Glace Bay. All the collieries will be closed down and will remain so till the management concedes to our demands.”

The men to shouted their support.

“What about the engineers?” a man stood and asked. “Someone has to keep the boilers going properly. You know what happened in Caledonia when they were left unattended. They blew sky high.”

“That hasn’t been decided yet.” William Gregory said.

“It sure has.” another man stood up.

“It’s Blackie Nelson.” Several people muttered.

“I won’t desert them even if I’m the only one there. I built those babies with these hands and I won’t be derelict in my duties. My duty is to them. Not to no company or no union.’

There was scattering of applause and some boos to this.

“So you’ve decided to strike.” another man stood. “You men all know me, Daniel Seldon. I run the company store. As much as I agree with you, you know if you men don’t work there’ll be no more credit for you.”

“T’ isn’t fair.” someone shouted.

“Them’s the company rules. You all know that.” he replied. “I don’t make them but I’m obliged to follow them.”

“So we see where you stand, Seldon.” The union representative said. “The rest of you be prepared to man the picket lines starting at midnight.”

The room was silent for a few moments.

“We’ve come to the end of the meeting.” Father Pat said. “Let’s close the meeting as we opened it, with The Lord’s Prayer. Our Father …”

The men joined him. Before the Amen he added. “Father please guide these men as they embark on challenges so that they never forget they are on the path to reunion with you. Amen.”

“Thank you Father Patric.” Mr. Landon shook the priest’s hand. “And we all wish to thank your niece as well.”

Lillian pulled back into the dark corner behind her serving area.

The men stamped and whistled their approval. Mr. O’Dowell stepped past the tea trolly to bring her on stage. She held her hands over her face as if shy of the attention. Then dropped them so those who hand’t seen her bruised face fully now got to see it in the light.

She caught her uncle’s eyes then went back to her station behind the tea trolly. His expression made it worth while.

She was putting the used spoons into a washbasin when a hand roughly grabber shoulder and turned her around.

“Don’t let me ever catch you taking to my missus.” A drunk miner glared at her. “Or I’ll give sommat worse than that.”

Lillian couldn’t get out of his grip.

“Missus?” she asked.

“Jen tol me what you been tellin’ her?’ the man shoved her away.

“You mean Mrs. Hollerhan?” Lillian braced herself while looking to see which of the men were still in the hall.

“That’s right.” He moved toward her.

She grabbed the basin with water she’d been using to give the cups a quick rinse and threw it his face.

“You bitch.” He slipped on the dish water and fell hard on his back.

“What do you think you are doing?” Alf Landon grabbed the man’s arm and pulled him up. “Oh it’s you Davy Hollerhan. Mike, Robbie” he called to two men at the far end of the hall taking down the flags. They came over.

“Take Davy home. He’s seem to have had a few too many.”

“No such thing as too many.” Davy lurched at one of the me.”

“Right you are Davy. Come on we’ll have a few outside.” Robbie put his arm over Davy’s shoulder and lead him out. Alf followed them.

As the men departed her Uncle came over to her.
“What is the meaning of this Lillian.” 

“One of your drunken parishioners wanted to finish what you had started.” she mopped up the spilled water. 

It is your own doing then. You lead me to believe you would hide this. How could you do this to me?”

She wrung the rag out and poured a cup of tea to empty the urn.

“The Lord hath no greater joy than to hear that his children are walking in the truth.” she smiled and handed him the cup of tea. “This is my truth.”

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Coal Dusters – Bonus

Editing work to blog the chapters of Coal Dusters has been going very well. So far I’ve ‘published’ just over 32,000 words with at least another 80,000 to go. I say ‘at least’ because the edits so far have expanded each chapter more than I anticipated. 

I realized that I had included little or no historic time marks other than references to WWI. I’ve found spots to add facts that give a stronger sense of ‘when.’ Facts such as who was king: George V; Pope: Pius XI – people who were relevant to the lives of good Catholics, or good loyalists at the time. I found a couple of female silent movie stars so I could have their ‘photos’ stuck on the men’s washhouse wall. I didn’t have to work hard at creating places for these time marks.

I’ve also enjoyed expanding the social context of families at the time to make them more realistic. So there are new scenes of domestic violence & drunken abuse. As with the time marks these new scenes fell into place naturally – which tells me they are what the story needs to be real even if they don’t directly add to the plots. The same holds true for adding clothing descriptions.

Another thing I’ve really enjoyed is creating a new graphic for each chapter. I figured using the cover art week after week isn’t going to capture anyone’s eye. I’ve searched out images that suit some point in each chapter. Billie Dove for ‘Birk Blushes’ – these graphics only appear on the Facebook or Twitter links for each chapter as it gets posted. I do have to resist that research hunt rabbit hole though – falling down a mine shaft is enough for me.

Poke At The Pope

I had this dream

the Pope wanted to have sex with me

I told him that I wasn’t interested

that I was no altar boy

that I was over the age of consent

reassured him that it was’t his age

I have no dislike of old holiness

but he carried so much history

vestments invested with too much 

that I could’t see past

that to take and eat 

wasn’t going to happen


I’m not catholic 

not particularly religious

but I do read the papers

I’ve seen their polite rationalizations 

for the irrational

the endless trail of righteous decisions 

that held so many out of the embrace 

of whatever comfort their belief offered

pleasure was punishable by fish on Friday

all that stuff

all in the name of the unnamable


not that I am one to judge

I’m probably as biased and invested 

in my own sense of values

after all I’m only human

and for once I can say 


I don’t want to see the sacred

turned into scared then scarred

and one way is to do that 

to leave the mystery fully clothed

so I said no the Pope

every Tuesday

October 5/6/7 – Gratitude Round-Up

September or October but to be confirmed – feature – The Art Bar, Free Times Cafe

June  – Capturing Fire 2019 – Washington D.C. 

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Like my pictures? I post lots on Tumblr


Coal Dusters – Chapter XII – Lillian Faints

Chapter XII

Lillian Faints

Lillian was heating the small cast-iron frying pan for her uncle’s breakfast in the kitchen when the colliery whistle sounded. Three short and one long whistle was a sequence she hadn’t heard before. She had learned to recognize the morning, lunch and evening shift blasts that saved her from having worry about the time.  That and the school bell were how she organized her day.  

She had put the skillet on the stove and hadn’t broken the egg yet. Her uncle called down to her. “Was that three short blasts or four?”

“Three short Father Pat. What does it mean?”

“Trouble in the mine. An accident of some sort. Not a cave-in though. That’s four short and one long.” he called down.

The alert was sounded again.

“Will you have time for your breakfast.”

“No. Perhaps a cup of tea if it’s steeped.”

She poured him a cup. He was wearing his purple surplice that he wore only when visiting sick and probably dying parishioners. She watched as he checked his last rights box that included some small glass bottles for holy water and oil, a linen napkin, a cup, with a crucifix pinned on the inside of the lid next to a small engraving of Pope Pius XI

“It must be serious, though.” she said as he quickly gulped his tea.

“Yes. Serious enough to mean death.” 

She paled.

“Sorry Lillian. I didn’t stop to think. I’ve become used to these sort of harsh facts. Sit.” He pulled his chair away from the table for her to sit down. “I see you’ve cut my bread. Good I’ll take it along to fortify me.”

He picked up the leather travel case that held the things he’d need if he had to offer final unctions. 

“Pack some food stuffs in a basket and bring them along in an hour or so.”

“Yes, Father Pat.”

He checked his travel case again and then left.

She took the skillet off the stove. The news of death made her lose her appetite. She checked and banked the embers in the stove. If she was leaving soon she couldn’t leave it unattended.

She went into the pantry and there were two baskets there. Her uncle hadn’t said which one; or how much food stuffs she was to bring. The small one she often used when they went to the Company store to pick up staples.

The other was much larger. More of a hamper than a basket. It hadn’t been used or moved since she had arrived there. 

She scanned the pantry shelves to decide what it was she could bring. Bread. Yes, that was good place to start. She knew how to do that. She cut two loaves into slices.  Surely he didn’t mean any of the staples. Would sliced bread and butter be enough? One of the parishioners had brought them some tomatoes the day before, she sliced those as well to make simple sandwiches.

She poured the already steeped tea into a large jar, added more water and more sugar than usual. A jar of those picked onions, also one of those jars of green tomato preserves. The miners would want food they could eat now, not stuff that had to be prepared. Food to be eaten with the hands. Then the pickled eggs would be suitable too. She never cared much for them. 

Should she bring some plates? Napkins to wipe their hands on? No, the hamper was getting heavy. Some apples too though. Biscuits would be good with the tea. Surely someone else would be bringing tea. Once she was satisfied with the basket she went up to her room to change into a clean apron and a suitable dress.  

Since her outburst earlier in the week her uncle had relented slightly and the mirror was back in her room. He allowed her to keep a couple of plain dresses for public wearing. Plain, once he had her remove all ribbons and lace, had her replace the buttons with plain black or white ones. Suitable for matrons of forty but still a little more presentable than the shifts she wore to do housework. Maybe a more colorful kerchief for her hair? No. Men were dead. At least a clean one though. Dark blue.

In the kitchen it took both arms for her to lift and carry the hamper. She had to put it down outside to shut the door properly.

On the street she knew vaguely which direction to walk to get to the colliery. The priest’s house was on Upper Chestnut on the west side of Castleton Mines.  This was where the managers and other Company officials lived. Some of the houses were quite large. Theirs was one of the less ostentatious ones, it was only a little larger than the company houses the miner’s lived it. 

It sloped down to Lower Chestnut. She’d never seen a chestnut tree along the street either upper or lower. She crossed Fortune Road that went down to the harbour.

On Victoria Avenue she walked quickly past the shops on the main street. She wanted to stop to look at the hats and dresses in the window of the catalogue office at the Company Store. The bright silks of one of the dresses caught at her eye. When would she ever wear one of those again? Where? Certainly not to the church, even for one of their many social functions. 

The main street ended abruptly when she passed Carter’s carriage shop. She found herself in a maze of unnamed dirt lanes. This was what she had heard referred to as Mudside, sometimes even Orangetown because it was mainly Protestant families living here.

She knew the colliery gates were at the the end of Pitt Street. But there were no street signs to point the way. Several lanes meet at the intersection. The sun was in her eyes and she squinted to get her bearings.

The road was uneven underfoot and she found herself losing her grip on the hamper. Carrying it by the handle with one arm tired her arms quickly. It took both hands to manage it comfortably. If she merely held in front of her at waist level her knees kept bumping it, rattling the jars. She didn’t want to risk breaking anything. She knew that her uncle would see anything broken as a part of her deficiencies.

Why weren’t there even street signs on these lanes. Where she had stopped was more a back alley than a street. No sidewalks. The houses along the lanes were all the same. Mostly unpainted. Some with small patches of grass out front. Many with uneven, sagging roofs. 

As she struggled she could hear dogs barking, babies crying. Different smells assaulted her as well. Rotting food, washing, feces, someone was cooking cabbage at this time of the day? With the pervasive smell of body waste underneath it all. As if night jars had been recently slopped into the street.

She looked down to make sure she wasn’t walking in or near something disgusting. But she couldn’t see directly in front of her because of the hamper. If only she could balance it on her head as she had seen in those engravings in one of her father’s travel books.

The image of herself with the hamper carefully balanced on her head made her smile. She longed for someone to tell this to. How her brother would laugh at such a suggestion. Or would he be horrified to learn how she was living now as a common household drudge.

She stopped at another corner to get her bearings. Two young men were approaching.

One was taller than the other. He was fair, with almost red hair and a nice set to his jaw. The shorter one was dark, the grime on his skin looked ingrained. Clearly they were miners.

“Is this the way to the colliery?” she asked setting down her basket.

The men stepped closer to her. She could smell the mines on them. She had become accustomed to this oily smell being in the air at certain times of the day. On these men it was more pungent than she had noticed it on the parishioners when she was at mass. Of course these men hadn’t spent the morning getting cleaned up for church. 

Was this how they always smelled? A mix of unwashed clothes, that coal oil smell and earth. Yes, that was it, the smell of freshly turned earth. They smelled of the grave.

As they came closer she saw that the grime on the shorter one was his beard, or rather, his unshaven face. Even though his shirt was fully buttoned and she could see that he had hair up to his throat, even the backs of his hands were covered with black hair. His unwashed smell was overpowering.

They pointed her in the direction of the mines. One even offered to help her carry the hamper but she declined. Because she didn’t recognize either of these men from services as St. Agatha’s she doubted if they were parishioner of her uncle’s. If he saw her arriving with a non-parishioner she was sure he would be enraged.

She hefted the hamper to one hip and went on her way. Why hadn’t she thought of carrying it this way sooner? 

It took her less than twenty minutes to get to the colliery entrance. There were women and children milling about waiting to hear about their loved ones. She went to the gate keeper.

“Can you direct me to Father Patrick?” she asked him “I’m Lillian McTavish, his niece and have brought some provisions he requested.”

“Good morning miss. I think he’s in the infirmary. That’s were they’ve been bringing the bodies.”

Her knees weaken.

“I’ll get one of the men to take you to him. Manny,” he shouted over her head. “Manny come here and help this young lady.”
“Yes sir.” 

A short heavy set young man separated himself from a group of other men. 

“Manny O’Dowell, ” he bowed quickly. “Miss McTavish.”

She recognized him from mass.

“I’ll help you with that.” He took the hamper. “Heavy! You been carrying this far?”

“Oh yes.” she followed him. “From the house.”

“Quite a weight for wee thing such as yourself.”

“I can manage.” His remark pleased her, bolstered her spirits. She wasn’t as useless about some things as her uncle made her out to be. 

“Father Patrick.” Manny called out when they went into foyer of the infirmary.

“He’s at the rear.” one of the aide’s said. “But … not to be disturbed.”

“Let him know Miss McTavish is here.” he put the basket down. 

“Thank you,” Lillian said.

The hospital smelled of disinfectant, vomit and human waste. Her nose curled.

“The gas makes them vomit.” Manny explained. “That’s a good thing. Gets out of their system faster.”

“Gas?” she asked. She looked for some place to sit.

“Yes, miss. The coal damp. It seeps in through the coal you see. The ventilation system clears it out so as not to harm the men but sometimes it can get trapped in a turn or a tunnel. Deadly. Kills fast.” He snapped his fingers. “You can’t even smell it.”

She was faint and reached out to the wall to keep from falling.

“You alright, miss?” Manny moved closer and she ended up leaning against him. He slipped an arm around her waist to keep her from falling to the floor.

“Yes I’m fine.” She tried to push him from her. She didn’t want her uncle to appear and find her in the arms of a stranger.

“I brought some food stuffs.” She pulled the basket towards her. 

“Ah, Lillian.” her uncle came into the infirmary foyer. “What took you so long? Let’s see what you’ve brought.” He flipped the basket open. “Good. Good. What’s this?”

He pulled out one of the jars of blackberry jam. “I hope you brought something to spread this with? If not you might as well have left it at home. Good, I see you did have sense to cut some bread for the men. Tea too. No cups though? Well I’m sure the men will have their mugs for tea. No milk for the tea?”

Lillian held back her tears. “No Father Patrick. I … I …”

“This is good.” Manny said as he bit into one of the sandwiches. “Most of us had our lunch pails with us but, well, who has had time to find them in all that’s been going on.” He opened the blackberry jam and scooped some out with a jackknife he took from his jacket pocket. “None of the men goes far without something ter eat with Father. Our hands often aren’t all that clean, you see.”

He held his left hand out for Lillian to examine.

Short thick fingers with lines almost inked in with coal dust; under his fingernails was black as coal too. She shuddered at the thought of eating anything with those hands. Yet here he was with the white bread she had cut, eating a sandwich. A bit of tomato drooled down his chin.

“Yes, I see.”

“This is excellent Lillian, my child.” Her uncle said. “What more could one expect at such short notice.”

“Have many … ”

“There were several deaths. Not all from my flock though. You don’t have to stay any longer.”

“Oh.” Lillian had imagined herself sitting at the bed side of an injured miner, holding his hand or wiping his brow with a damp white cloth as he moaned in pain. Even helping change his bandages. Or give sympathy to a grieving widow.

“I have nothing more to do here. If you’d permit I can accompany Miss McTavish back to the rectory.” Manny offered.

“No, that won’t be necessary.” Father Patrick said. “Perhaps there is something for you to do, my girl.”

“Bring that along.” Father Pat nodded to Manny and then the basket. He lead them to the shed where the Draeger men were.

“Good afternoon, gentlemen. We’ve brought you some refreshments.”

Manny put the hamper on a low stool. Lillian stood behind and opened it up.

“My niece will be happy to serve you.”

“Thank you father.” Two of the men stood up.

“All the miners are up now?” he asked.

“Yes Father. All accounted for.”

“Good. That means no more rites for me to perform here today, Lillian. Once you have served these men I’ll walk home with you.” He give Manny nod to dismiss him.

Some of the men were still wearing their outer suits. Another was carefully removing his. To Lillian they were creatures shedding a skin to reveal another being underneath. 

That other being was Steven O’Dowell. 

“Miss McTavish, this is an unexpected pleasure.” He said as he hung the clumsy suit on the wall. 

“I didn’t know you worked in the mines. Mr. O’Dowell.”

“On call as a Draeger man. I was special trained during the war. There was gas there to deal with as well.”

As he put his equipment away he explained how they stored their gear, checked the connections for the oxygen canisters, how they refilled the canisters and how the breathing apparatus worked.

“The suits are quite heavy Miss, it takes a strong man to wear ’em for long.”

“And fearless.” added one of the others.

“Only drawback is that you can’t communicate well with one another.”

“Drawback for you Gilles. Not having t’ listen t’ you is a blessing if you ask me.” Mr. O’Dowell said.

“Not having took at yer ugly puss is something I always look f’ward to.” 

The men laughed at this.

Lillian wondered if the men were always this light hearted after a rescue, after so many had lost their lives.

“Sorry, miss. We gets a bit silly sometimes.” one of them said. “That pure oxygen can effect us in strange ways.”

“So can a pretty face, Steven?” one of them laughed.

Lillian blushed.

“Ahem.” he uncle gave a little cough. “The hamper seems sufficiently emptied. I think it’s time to take it, and you home my dear.”

“Yes Father Pat.”

Most of the jars of jam and other preserves she had brought were empty. All the sandwiches and apples were gone. She packed what remained back in the hamper. Her uncle carried it home.

“You seem to have your usual effect on the eligible young men, Lillian,”

“Mr. O’Dowell isn’t that young Father Pat.”

“That man,” He replied testily, “Is a rogue. More than one innocent girl has been comprised by him. He acts as if his bravery gave him permission to act as he sees fit and that he deserves their gratitude rather having to seek their or God’s forgiveness.”

“I have met men of his ilk in Boston.” 

She thought of when she first met David Henderson at a dinner party of her father’s. He was brash, fresh from the war with his own medals to prove his valour. Medals that swept her off her feet. 

“So I understand.” Her Uncle replied.

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

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