Chapter LXII – Birk Faces Father Patrick

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Coal Dusters – Chapter LXII

Birk

Faces

Father Patrick

It was raining as Birk walked away from the court house. He peered around for Clancy but didn’t see him. He’s been to Sydney many times but never on his own. It was clear walking was the only way he would be getting home. He had no money for bus fare. He hoped he was walking in the right direction.

When he got to the corner of Charlotte St. and Pitt St. he was reassured. He could smell the harbour front from there and kept going in that direction. One of the ferries often stopped here and if he could find one to take him to New Waterford getting the rest of the way was simple enough. That is if he didn’t catch cold from getting drenched in the rain.

By the time he walked the length of the docks he was colder, wetter and disappointed. He hadn’t spotted any boat that might be headed where he needed to go. 

The hustle of men around him unloading, loading made him miss the noise and activity of the mines. Men working. He watched them and saw that he could easily do what they were doing. Work that took muscle and not thinking.

“Birk!” a voice called from behind him. “Birk Nelson?”

He turned around to where it came from. A tall thin man, about fifty, in long tight fitting black coat strode toward him, hand stretched to shake his.

“Dan’l Patterson.” The man said as he shook Birk’s hand.

“Of the Inverness Patterson’s?” These were the only Patterson’s he knew.

“Quite right. Pity them closing another of the mines.”

“They’d rather save money than pay money to make money.” Brik said.

“I’m here with another load of lumber from the mill.”

“Wet day for wood.” Birk finally placed Dan’l. He and his brother ran a lumber millworks outside of New Waterford.

“You here looking for work?”

Birk quickly recounted the incidents of the past few days. Dan’l chuckled and shook his head a few times.

“That’ll be story to pass on to yer kids when you’av ‘em. Some women take great joy is making the misery of men worse ‘an it is already.”

“So I’m learning. Not as if I set out for this lesson though. I’m fixing to find a way back to Castleton Mines.”

“Give us a hand unloading and you can come back with us after we collect for the wood.” He reached out to shake Birk’s hand again. “Deal.”

“Thanks.”

Their wood barge was the far end of the wharf where local boats with small loads would tie up to unload. The planks were lifted off with rope-and-pulley hoist and Birk guided them to the back of a truck.

“You can wait here below while we take these to the lumber yard. Or you can come along for the ride.”

“I’ll wait.”

“There’s a bite to eat on board. Help yourself but leave something for us, eh?” Dan’l said getting into the front cab of the truck.

Birk grabbed the hoist and swung over to the deck of the boat and dropped down on deck. The deck smelled of pine. Clean and different from the smell of the mines, or the pine they used in the mines. That pine always had a tar tang to it from the creosote. This pine had a clean sea salt bite to it. The smell comforted him.

He flexed his fingers to see if handling the boards had done any damage to them. They were a bit red but otherwise fine. No bleeding, meant they were healing up properly.

He sat at the enclosed end of the barge and ate one of the sandwiches he found in the lunch box. It looked a good life to work in lumber. Perhaps if the needed another couple of pairs of hands he and Clancy might be in luck. It would it be a change to work in daylight, in fresh air.

The lumber yard truck pulled and Dan’l hopped out.

“Another days’ work done.” He said walking down the pier to the dock. “You ready to cast off?”

“Sure.” Birk relied.

Dan’l unwound the ropes that held the scow to the pier then clambered down the ladder to get on board. 

“Over here.” He nodded to pier side hoarding. “We give a good shove and she’ll float away on her own.”

Birk braced himself against the rail of the boat and pushed hard away from the wet piling of the dock. The boat moved so quickly he nearly fell over board.

“Haha.” Dan’l laughed. “Don’t know yer own strength eh b’y. Then ’tis hard to know what someone is cap’ble of by lookn’ at them. Who’d think small you could cause such a ruckus.”

“Ruckus?” Birk asked.

“Talk of the town for too many. You and that Boston gal.”

“People taking about that?” Birk’s face was hot.

“Not as any one’d blame for taking a poke at her.”

“T’weren’t that way at all?” Birk balled his fists. “Not a bit.”

“Rest easy Birk Nelson I know how stories become something they never was. There’s always some truth to’em though.”

“I dunno know what to tell you. I’m sorry I ever met her for one thing.”

“Story of many men and women. People’ll forget it whatever it was in a few weeks. We all got enough to deal with.”

“I sure hope so.”

New Waterford came into sight.

“Might as well run you over Castleton Mines while I’m out.”

“Thanks.”

“I hear your Da’s going to the steel plant.”

“Yeh. They always need good boiler men there. He figures he can find something for me too.”

“We could always use some eager at the millworks. Mac show you much about boilers?”

“I know my way around them but I don’t have my papers.”

“Good enough. Come by tomorrow. Lonnie could use a hand as he’s gettin’ on and we could use you around the yard too. Not much by way of pay but better than nothing.” He stuck his hand out. “Deal?”

“Deal.”

They edged up to the Castleton Mines dock and Birk got off. Even though the rain had turned the Mudside streets to mud he had more hope than he had since the strike had started. 

Night had fallen by the time he was back at his house.

“Where you been?” His mother met him at the door. “Clancy’s been here for hours.”

“He has?” He squeezed past his mother to find Clancy at the kitchen table.

“Yeah the coppers drove me back in their wagon when Doucet was finished with me.”

“No such luck for me. I got brought over by Dan’l Patterson.”

“What did Doucet say to you?” His mother asked. “We thought for sure you had been shipped off to Dorchester.”

“What! He gave me what for letting my bare self be seen but that was it. I sure expected worse from the way Miss McTavish had been going on. Everyone was taking her side and so serious they were too.”

“There’s always those who are quick to believe the worse of the Mudsiders.” his Dad said.

“I went down to the Sydney docks to find a way back and met up with Dan’l Patterson of the mill. He brought me back across. “Says they’re lookin’ for help with the boilers at the mill yard.”

“The Lord at work.” His mother said. “Out of every time of hardship He brings good.”

“Might be …”

Birk was interrupted by a pounding at their front door. Before it could be answered someone shouted.

“Birk Nelson come out here and face your Maker.”

“Me Maker?” Birk said.

His father opened the door. Father Patrick pushed his way in with three men behind him. The hem of his cassock was spatted with mud.

“Take him.” he commanded the men with him.

Before he could react the men lifted him up and carried him out of the house into the street. They dropped him face first in the mud and stepped away.

“You Protestant abomination.” Father Patrick shouted at the top of his voice.

Birk felt a sharp blow across his back. The mud held his arms so he couldn’t turn over quickly. There was some scuffling behind him. When he got turned around, sitting in the mud, he saw his dad grappling with Father Patrick.

“No man whips my son in public.” ise Dad wrenched the whip out of the priest’s  hand. “What gives you the right!”

“See!” Father Patrick turned the men who had come with him. “This is how the Godless protect one another. How they chose to rut the way animals do, no better than pigs in the mud.

“You foul beasts.” He pointed at Birk, then Clancy. “Who flaunted their unnatural proclivities in daylight … in front of my niece. ” He gasped for air.

Most of the neighbouring families had come out to see what the commotion was.

“Go back to your church Father.” Someone shouted. “Tell the Pope wipe your arse.”

“I will not allow your kind to get away with treating our women in this way.” The priest said.

“Yeah, only you have that right.” Someone answered him back.

A clod of mud flew through the air and hit Father Patrick on the back.

“Take him.” The priest ordered the men with him.

“You’ll take no one.” Reverend Brown stepped out of the crowd and helped Birk back to his feet. “You Catholic hypocrite. You help your own in bad times, ignore those who don’t deem pure enough then dare to come here to punish the very one who didn’t think twice to save the lives of your precious parishioners. I’m sure that when Birk struggled up that shaft he wasn’t saying to God ‘Now God make sure only the orange get rescued.’ Did you Birk!”

“No Reverend Brown I wasn’t.”

“You were there when Miss McTavish told them that we hadn’t touched her.” Clancy said.

“It was her spirit you stained by the vision of what you two were engaged in.”
“And what might that be Father Patrick? Something you learned about behind those sanctified monastery walls from your brothers.”

Father Patrick’s face paled as he glared at Reverend Browne.

“How dare you impugn the purity of those righteous men.”

“How dare you think you can come here with your high-handed righteousness and think we would grovel, that we would let you get away with it.”

“We can’t allow these … beasts to get away with their depravity.”

“A depravity that exists only in your mind Father Patrick. And you men with him. That’s you isn’t David McInnis?”

“Yes Reverend Browne.”

“You were one of them working with Birk when the collapse happened?”

“Yes Reverend. We’ve been working together for years.”

“You have any reason to question his moral fitness as a man? Anyone here have any reason? I know this boy’s family. You all do. They’ve been good faith church goers as long as I can remember.”

All that could be heard was the squish of people’s feet in the mud.

“I suggest you all go home and have a good night’s sleep.” Reverend Brown said.

“You haven’t heard the last of this.” Father Patrick said evenly. “My niece …”

“You niece needs to mind her own business.” Brown said. “She’s an outsider. You too, I might add, Father Patrick. I’ve been here in Castleton Mines for over twenty years. You’ve only been here for three. I’m sure the Africans will appreciate you more than we have.”

“You haven’t heard the last of this.” The Priest looked to the men who can come with him but they had disappeared into the crowd.

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Coal Dusters – Chapter IV

Chapter IV

Lillian McTavish Makes Breakfast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Lillian. Lillian are you about.”

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

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

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

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

“It is my pleasure to be of service.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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