The coal boat's coming and a heart's on fire

15th August 1997 at 01:00
The coal boat's coming in tonight," the Senior Pupil informed me at home time one day. "Are you sure?" I enquired, a mite suspiciously. (It's not that the Senior Pupil actually tells fibs - it's more that he has a vivid imagination, and it can sometimes be difficult to sort out the nuggets from the dross. ) A pair of guileless blue eyes looked steadily into mine. "Yes, daddy said, " was the firm reply.

When I communicated this information to my husband at tea time, he went off to phone his cousin, who organises the coal. The Senior Pupil was quite right, we discovered. The coal boat was indeed coming in.

Island life can be expensive. Everything has to be shipped across the water and freight paid on it, but thanks to the folk who run the Coal Club that particular fuel is no more expensive than on the mainland.

The coal is bought wholesale and shipped to the pier once a year. Coal boat day is one of concentrated community action. Everyone who has a tractor and trailer goes down to the boat where the coal is unloaded, tallied and delivered round the island to everyone who has ordered it.

That's where the school playground gets involved. When the six houses backing on to it were built, no one seemed to remember about large-scale annual coal deliveries. The front gardens have only a small gate each, with no access for a car, never mind a tractor and trailer. An arrangement was therefore made with some long ago education authority to allow the coal to go through the playground.

Three gates were built into the school fence. These are opened once a year and the coal-filled trailers are skilfully backed up and the contents tipped into the gardens. (Ingenious, eh?) But officials sitting at a desk in a big city find our island ways a little difficult to comprehend. I still recall with glee the time such a gentleman telephoned me, in the days when we were still part of Strathclyde Region.

The school fence needed renewing and he had been asked to look into the matter. "What are these gates in the fence for?" he asked. I explained that these were coal gates and this seemed to confuse him. "What did toothpaste manufacturers have to do with it?" he wanted to know.

When he got back on track he said loftily: "There is no legal right of way for vehicles through the playground. We can replace the fence without the expense of these, er, coal gates."

"Of course you can," I said warmly. "As long as you don't mind starting World War Three." Suffice to say that eventually we got our fence and our new coal gates.

And now it was summer again and the coal boat was coming. I watched the weather forecast anxiously. You don't need to be a 5-14 maths expert to work out that rain and tractors mean a chewed-up, muddy playground, which equals gloriously dirty children (my pupils can't stay out of the stuff), which leads to lots of washing.

To my relief, the next day dawned bright and clear. My husband left very early for the pier with the tractor and trailer. This year the local quarry owners had kindly sent their barge to collect our coal.

My husband remembers the "puffers", those marvellous little workhorse boats which could run aground on a beach and discharge their cargo at low tide. In those days horses and carts went out over the shore to unload the coal and bring it ashore for distribution.

By the time I was leaving for school, he had returned for a cuppa. "Your star pupil's at the boat," he informed me with a grin. "He's helping daddy."

"Good for himself," I replied. "I hope he remembers to come to school. " He did. He came slowly and reluctantly up the hill from the pier but he told me all about the boat, how he had untied the bags, who was delivering coal to where and how someone had offered to pay him if he went back to help.

When I rang the bell to start school, his face fell. This was obviously not going to be the day for an upward learning curve. I did some quick thinking. Thirty years in this profession have made me devious, and sometimes it's better to go with the flow.

Taking him quietly aside, I said: "Look, if you can get all your work done really well by three o'clock this afternoon you can go back down to help at the boat, if daddy's still there." A grin spread over his face. "Be quiet about it, mind," I cautioned him, "or you'll have the mafia there wanting to go with you." He darted a quick glance at the five angelic-looking little boys who constitute my primary 3 class. "No way," he said. "Just me."

He worked like a Trojan all day, even when the others went to see the tractors come with their loads, and by the magic hour of three o'clock he was at my desk with his last piece of work. I scribbled a quick note to his dad, whom I had just seen going back down to the pier. "Off you go, then," I said, and he was off like a hare, out of the door, over the stile and away down the hill, his school bag abandoned on the playground grass.

I hope the Senior Pupil doesn't end up in an office in a big city like the official who phoned me about the gates. Poor man, I suspect he would have escaped too, if he could. But whatever the Senior Pupil does, I hope he'll remember childhood summers and the magic of the coal boat.

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