This week’s Mining Memories contribution is based on memory and actual events, but with fictional characters – we loved the sense of Irish life that it evoked, and hope that you do too – and it’s almost Christmas so pull up your chair for a yarn…
“It could happen any day now,” Mom said. “It always happens around the middle of December. Your father always seems to pick a cold wet day to clean the chimney.”
Now, cleaning the chimney for Christmas should be a straightforward and hassle free procedure, which indeed it was in every house, except ours. Along with the nightly lighting of the tilly lamp, the operation and maintenance of the range was a ritual solely in Dad’s domain. He had insisted on installing the Stanley no. 8, proclaiming it to all and sundry as the future of turf-burning technology. “It only burns half as much turf,” he invariably announced to all visitors, all the time demonstrating the fire bricks, dampers, riddlers, ash collectors, operating tools, and a lever to divert the flames around the oven, which had a clock on the door to tell you the temperature of the cake inside.
“He’s after starting at the chimney” Mom shouted to us in the back yard. “Come in straight away, and move the clothes hanging over the range out of harm’s way. Put out the couch and anything else that’s moveable, and cover the lino with newspapers. I’ll put away my holy pictures and statues for safety’s sake. Close the doors and isolate him in the kitchen!”
Me and my sister Sarah could watch the proceedings through the window from the back porch. To us, it was a source of great enjoyment, but Mom was always highly agitated, offering prayers to all the Saints, to guide us through this day. Now, it’s needless to say there was no cooking or baking and of course no heat in the house. So we sat in our overcoats and wooly hats. “Ye’ll have to make do with shop bread, ham sandwiches and cups of tea,” Mom announced. “How am I supposed to cope?”
First off, Dad vigorously yanked the flue brushes up and down the cleaning hatch of the chimney, bringing down a cloud of black soot that filled the whole kitchen. “Come in here and give me a hand, young Daniel,” says he. ”The brush is stuck above.”
I could barely see him in the soot, so I opened the front window to try to clear the air. By now he had his coat and cap off and was sweating buckets. Having retrieved the brush with a great deal of tugging and bad language, now it was time to clean the range.
The Stanley no. 8 was stripped down to the bare bones, and all its nooks and crevices scraped and brushed out . All the parts were laid out on the floor and it was my job to clean them till they shone like new. As the range was becoming cleaner, in inverse proportion, Dad and me were becoming blacker. Round about this time Mom looked in. Raising her eyes to heaven, she begged of The Lord above: ”God give me strength to cope with this man.” With that, she slung her coat over her head and shoulders and legged it down to her sister’s with Sarah trotting beside her.
Sitting on a milk crate, and pulling hard on a Gold Flake, Dad pronounced himself well pleased with progress. “So far ,so good” he said. “All is working out grand, the range is looking good. Since we are making good time, I think I will tighten up the pipes at the back, in case they leak later on.”
Engaging his monkey wrench on the big brass nuts, he gave it a good twist clockwise. Almost immediately a rivulet of black water emerged from under the Stanley no. 8. Having exhausted his full repertoire of expletives, he shouted “turn off the water, Daniel, quick, quick!”
By the time I had found the gadget for turning the stop valve, a pool to ankle height had built up in the kitchen. And it was then I saw Mom looking in the open window. She scowled and fumed, and her sister glared at Dad. Without uttering a word, Mom could convey venom, disdain and retribution, all at once. I swear, a man of five foot six was reduced to five foot nothing, by the intensity of the dual onslaught.
“If looks could kill, I’d be a gonner,” said Dad. Grabbing his coat and cap, he cut for the back door, with me in chase, out the back yard, up through Casey’s field, over the ditch and in the back door to Molly’s. “I’m sorely in need of urgent sustenance” he gasped. Now, it mattered not whether you were black, green, Pakistanny or Protestant, if you had the shilling, you got the pint at Molly’s.
“You are as black as the hobs of hell” says she, “what in the name of God is going on,” Dad wiped his face with his balled-up cap, revealing two eyes, a nose and a mouth, into which he poured half the pint in one gullop. “I have done the most important job of the year, cleaning the chimney and the range for the Christmas. Sadly, it seems not to be appreciated by certain individuals, who shall remain nameless. As long as I live, I’ll never understand women. Herself and her sister are clearing up the bit of dust, and putting the fire down, while myself and Daniel are taking a well deserved break. Take your lemonade over to the back window, Daniel, and watch out for the smoke rising from our chimney.”
It took a long time, several pints long. “I have a crick in my neck, Dad, its like waiting for the white smoke from the Vatican.”
Eventually, there it was. “We have a Pope, let’s go Dad.”
“Well, isn’t that the mighty heat off the range, my love,” Dad ventured, as we entered the kitchen gingerley. “We done a great job there, John. I’d say tis twice as hot since we cleaned it . I just knew there’d be heat when we got home. Is there ere a bit of dinner at all at all, my love?”
Mom rattled the long poker against the riddling grate with a vengeance. God, indeed had given her strength. All that was now required was patience.