By Joan McGurk
Jem, our coal delivery man in the Fifties, was a tall, thin, monosyllabic individual with a vacant stare in his eyes.
Dressed in a threadbare jacket and trousers with a greasy tweed cap on his head, every exposed part of his body was ingrained with coal dust.
His dumpy little wife, Molly, was the brains of the business. Not only did she help shovel the coal into the sacks and weigh them on the old rusty scales, she also “kept the books”.
From a home-made cloth purse with drawstring around her neck, which she shoved down her ample bosom, she dealt with all their financial transactions without the aid of a bank or a Post Office. Jem was both illiterate and innumerate, but Molly more than made up for her husband’s shortcomings as she was a canny woman with a natural flair for business.
Although Jem earned a good living, the couple lived frugally with Molly keeping every spare penny prisoner in her homemade purse. For many years, they lived happily together in a small terraced house with the coal yard at the rear.
On Friday nights, after Jem had made his last delivery, Molly would give him his pocket money, which was just enough to cover the cost of two pints at the local pub. Molly’s own social life consisted of one-monthly outing to the women’s sodality.
Walking at a slow stuttering pace with a horse and cart, Jem would arrive at our house looking as if he had come straight down the chimney. He would first remove the two steel pegs from the back of the cart, which caused the attached chains to jangle as the flap-board fell down. Jumping up into the cart, he would drag a sack of coal to the edge, jump down and load it onto his shoulders.
As we had no back entrance, Jem would have to carry the heavy sacks through our house to the coal bunker in the back yard. On wet days, he would throw an empty sack around his shoulders to prevent the rain-soaked coal-sacks from seeping into his jacket. As soon as he arrived my mother would spread old newspapers on all the floors to keep them clean.
Although Jem couldn’t count, it didn’t matter as most people had the exact change ready. Nobody ever tried to cheat him as ours was a God-fearing generation with respect for the Ten Commandments. One day, the locals were shocked to hear that Jem’s wife, Molly, had died suddenly at the age of 50 from a brain haemorrhage. Jem was devastated as not only was she his wife, she was also his best friend and business partner.
People began to wonder if Jem would be able to carry on the business alone. After Molly’s death, Jem continued with his coal rounds as usual but said even less than he had before. “Yis, Mam” and “No, Mam” were the only words he uttered during this time. A few months later, the local gossips reported that Jem had “taken up” with a glamorous childless widow who lived locally. Within a short time, Jem’s life took a turn for the better.
Now dressed in a new donkey jacket and cap, heavy trousers and strong leather boots, he carried out his coal deliveries from a small open-topped lorry; the three sides of which could be let down for easy access to the cargo.
Very soon Jem was seen driving the widow around in a black second-hand Morris Minor and instead of going to the pub alone on Friday nights, Jem and his lady friend began to dine at the local hotel. Within a year of Molly’s death, Jem and the widow were married. Now scrubbed to within an inch of his life, and suitably dressed in a new grey suit, black shoes and an Anthony Eden hat, Jem looked every inch “the gent” as he drove his new wife to Sunday mass. In time Jem reduced his 6 day working week to a 5 day one with a two-week annual holiday every year spent in the Isle-of-Man.
When he reached the age of 65, Jem and his second wife sold the house and the coal yard and bought a bungalow on the outskirts of the town. Overnight, he discovered a talent he never knew he had; gardening. Jem’s garden became a show-piece which regularly won the local gardening competition.
Jem spent the last 10 years of his life in quiet contentment with his second wife, tending to his beloved garden, driving out into the countryside and eating out whenever the notion took them. He died a happy and contented man at the age of 75. It has often been said that behind every successful man there is a women. In Jem’s case there were two!