Coal Briquettes.


Mum always sent me for coal bricks, as we called them,
to the corner shop owned by Eric, you know
the one that dusted his cakes every night
with a feather duster.
He made briquettes from coal dust and concrete powder,
they were far cheaper than a bag of coal
and you know now why he needed a feather duster

Though he carefully wrapped the briquettes in newspaper,
I still looked like a chimney sweep by the time I got home
and humped them into the coal shed
at the bottom of our yard.

Coal was difficult to store in our two-up two-down,
Granddad and Grandma in one bedroom
Mum and Dad, me and our kid in the other
there was certainly no room for coal.
Some of our posher neighbours had a manhole outside,
which our coalman,
with the help of a leather apron over his head,
poured shiny black gobbets in a landslide rush
down their coal-hole into their cellar.
No such luck for us we had to go into the yard,
on pitch-black freezing nights, a job no one wanted.

Last thing at night briquettes sat stacked
at the back of the fire, smouldering till the early hours.
Then Mum got up at the crack of dawn
opened the flu and covering the front with newspaper.
watched the embers burst into flame
and she was able to heap on more coal
from the brass scuttle in the hearth
so Dad could come down to a cosy breakfast.

I was never allowed to use newspaper again
after I tried,
watching the flames dance higher and higher
behind the sheets like a Balinese puppet show,
lulled by the roar growing loader and loader,
till too late the print turned brown and bursting into flames
filled the air with smoke and charred paper,
scorching my grandmothers treasured rag-rug
and my eyebrows.

Girls got fire-burn from sitting too close to the fire
and if they jumped up too quick
their heads tangled in a washing rack
full of wet woollens and heavy linen sheets.

When the wind blew in the wrong direction
smoke poured into the kitchen as
Granddad added to the fumes
puffing hard on his pipe full of Craven Tobacco
engrossed in his crumpled Echo.

My grandparent didn't do so well by the coal bricks,
both died of bronchitis in their early sixties.
Mum and Dad fared better in their centrally heated
Sheltered accommodation
and of course I now live in Benidorm.

By N. Wallace