In the days before Christmas the weather turned very cold and people said it would surely snow. Demand for coal, turf and blocks placed considerable pressure on my uncle’s yard. He ran the undertaking on the labour of his three sons, all big strong young fellows who were learning the rudiments of the family business.
I had been drafted in to assist over the festive season. ‘Give you something to do,’ my mother had muttered, ‘instead of reading books all the time.’ So I was installed as the yard boy, taking orders for coal, turf or blocks from customers ranging over various social strata reflecting the diversity of the developing suburb. The yard was an extensive enclosed cemented space that had once housed the stables of a considerable dwelling dating from the mid-nineteenth century. Old cobble stones paved the streets leading down to the river and the nearby dwellings had once formed an elegant Georgian square. The large house had been converted into flats and the yard now stood almost self-consciously embarrassed amid a fast expanding neighbourhood that included old mansions, fishermen’s cottages, rows of once elegant Georgian homes now falling into disrepair and recently constructed Council dwellings to accommodate those moved from the condemned inner-city slums.
A small wooden office provided the only shelter. Inside the makeshift structure, a desk, table and pot-bellied stove competed for space. In fact the stove seldom worked properly. Surrounded by all sorts of fuel, it never consumed any with adequate gusto to give off welcome heat on freezing cold days in the run-up to Christmas.
The centre of the space was kept generally clear in order to load the carts for deliveries. My uncle and his youngest son operated one cart while his two older sons had charge of their own horse and cart. Large weighting scales stood by the office and stacks of bags and various weights littered the narrow space. Of course back then we had pounds, ounces and stones, remember them, how about the hundredweight or CWT for short; a time when most men and women smoked and petrol came in gallons; way back then when television was black and white – colour only came when President Kennedy visited – when you had to salute priests and attend retreats where red faced Redemptorists preached hellfire and damnation and at the end of Sunday mass they prayed for the conversion of Russia; back then when a dress dance was the epitome of social sophistication and an innocent infant born to unmarried parents was called a bastard. Yes way back then before the arrival of personal computers and new technology, before the disease of instant gratification infected the young, well before mobile phones, internet banking and fake Facebook friends.
On that Christmas Eve so long ago, against the back wall fallen trees were lined up like prisoners of war awaiting transportation to internment camps. Christmas trees, a seasonal side-line, were dotted between the various piles of coal and turf. Pine scent wafted over the green trees and gave the place a Dickensian-like aura as freezing fog rose from the river.
My uncle’s three sons were all involved in running the coal yard. They were constantly engaged in filling the orders, making deliveries and collecting the cash. They referred to me as the ‘college boy’ because it was said that I was going on to University so they tended to order me around. While my father’s family were career minded and peppered the ranks of the Civil Service, his only sister had married the more entrepreneurial coal man whose talent was linked to making money. So when he needed a cheap labourer in the run up to Christmas I was dispatched to the yard by my mother who worried that I was shy and would never make friends. ‘It will do you good,’ she said. ‘You’ll have a bit of money for Christmas.’
My duties involved not only taking the orders, but also chopping the wood into blocks, then bagging the blocks and lining them up against the side wall.
My uncle had a methodical approach. On his return he leafed through the completed dockets then loaded the coal and turf bags onto the cart in an order he felt would take the least time to deliver. The second horse and cart under the control of his sons had a less professional approach. ‘Just load it up, college boy,’ they often jeered at me knowing well that I could hardly hump a coal bag from the scales to the cart.
On Christmas Eve both carts were out on deliveries making good progress through the stack of orders when two women came into the yard. They seemed to be mother and daughter. With my pink docket book in hand I approached them.
‘Do you have blocks?’ the older woman asked. I glanced towards the side wall. All the bagged blocks were out on the carts for delivery. Before I could answer no, the younger woman said, ‘We need a quarter.’ The words re-echoed in my head. A quarter was the largest order I had ever taken. Quickly I calculated a quarter ton would be eight bags.
‘Of course,’ I replied ‘Just give me the address.’ As I scribbled it down I could only think of my largest order – I was determined to show my uncle and his sons that I could rise to the challenge and ensure that the quarter ton was chopped and bagged by their return.
So I set about chopping up the trees into logs and blocks racing against time to finish the order before last delivery on Christmas Eve. Even now, a quarter century later I remember the ice flying off the branches as the axe chopped into the wood. Sweat poured down my face and blisters formed on my hands. Finally I had the eight bags filled and lined against the wall poised like commandos ready for battle.
On his return my uncle took the docket from me as we loaded the cart. For a second he hesitated and glanced at me, then whipped the horse and trotted off through the gate like Santa setting out on his rounds.
Fog crawled up from the river, the stove spluttered and smoked and I wrapped my blistered hands in a piece of discarded cloth as I relaxed in a state of almost total exhaustion.
Then suddenly hooves clopped on the cobbles as my uncle returned at speed and pulled the trotting animal to a halt. Seven bags of blocks swayed like amiable drunks on the cart as my uncle’s angry voice reverberated around the yard. ‘When I saw the place I knew… quarter ton my arse,’ he roared. ‘She wanted a quarter bag… get out of my sight.’
So I walked home on that Christmas Eve, sore and penniless, sad but a bit wiser and with a nickname that has stuck to me for over fifty years. Only a few days ago one of his extended family, a grandson by the look of him, leaned out the driver’s window of a shiny new delivery truck and greeted me.
‘How’s it going QB?’
‘Grand,’ said I and just to be sociable I waved my walking stick in salute.
‘Quarter Bag, Quarter Bag, Quarter Bag,’ he sang out loud accompanying himself on the truck horn. Laughing he drove away and focussing through my glasses I could just make out the logo on the side of the truck ‘Coal Turf And Blocks.’
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