The Wee Bleck Can

Author: Hugh Robinson

Date: 1998

Source: Ullans: The Magazine for Ulster-Scots, Nummer 6 Simmer 1998


Hugh Robinson

This story, and “Mem’ries o oul Newtownards”, which appeared in Ullans Nummer 5, are among a collection of short stories written by Hugh Robinson in Ulster-Scots and due to be published as a book by Ullans Press later this year. Keep watching for this important publication.

Schuil-days, the happiest days o m’ life, soon cam tae an enn. As Ah hae said afore, Ah feenished m’ days o formal education at Newton Tech — the oul Tech — in Sooth Street. But Ah wus fifteen noo, an Ah cudnae get left schuil quick eneuch. Tae get awa frae it Ah tuk a joab in Walker’s Flax Mill which rin alangside the canal bank in the toon.

Ah niver liked the mill. Ah wanted tae be a cairpenter. Ah wus richt an haundy wi m’ hauns an Ah liked workin wi wud. A cairpenter. That’s whut Ah wanted tae be.

Weel, Ah hud a bit o guid luck. Twa or three months efter Ah stairted in the mill, in the month o May, Ah spied an advertisement in the Spectator:

Wanted. Young man, age 15-16 to serve apprenticeship in joinery trade.

Apply at once in person to: W J Orr, 6a Albert Street, Bangor.

That wus jist the chance Ah wus lukkin fer, an Ah determined the joab wud be mine. The very nixt moarnin, at hauf-past seeven, Ah wus on m’ bike, an ridin the sax mile ower tae Bangor. Ah must hae made a guid eneuch impression on Mr Orr. Ah got the joab.

Noo, there’s mony a yairn Ah cud tell ye aboot m' days in the buildin trade, an maybe Ah’ll dae that, in anither book. But fer noo, Ah want tae tell ye aboot m’ first encoonter wi m’ new workmates, an the wee bleck can.

It wus ma joab tae mak the tay. That’s whut Woodbine said. Ah wusnae convinced. Ah stared in utter confusion as m’ new mates gaithert aroon me in the front room o the wee hoose we were gan tae renovate in a Belfast beck street, jist aff the Albertbridge Road. Aa trades wus represented there: painters, plumbers, joiners, plaisterers, brickies an spairks, an each an ivery yin o them wus houlin oot tae me his very ain bleck an battered billie-can, an a mickle tin container wi yin enn mairked “sugar” an the ither enn mairked “tea”.

“Ivery apprentice has to make the tea when he starts in the buildin trade,” Woodbine informed me. “So it’s your job to do it.”

Ah still wusnae convinced. Ah stared at Woodbine, a wee fat fella wi a flure-brush moustache an a baldy heid. Ah stared at the jummle o billie-cans an the expectant expression on the faces o their owners.

Ah jist cudnae unnerstaun this. Ah kenned it wus m’ first day on the joab, an aa that. But Ah wus the new apprentice joiner. Ah had m’ ain hammer an screw-driver an Ah wus savin up fer a saw. Ah shud be makin dove-tail joints an hangin dures an buildin stair-cases. Ah wus a tradesman. No a tay-wetter. A fella in ma position had tae mak a bit o a staun.

“Ah dinnae ken hoo tae dae it,” Ah declared, hopin this wud throw the billie-can holders aff the scent. It wus proabably the warst thing Ah cud hae said.

“We know you don’t know how to do it,” giggled Woodbine. “That’s what ye’re here for. To learn. Come on. I’ll show you.”

The effect of Woodbine’s statement wus somethin akin tae the openin o the grey-houn traps at Dunmore on a Friday nicht. Ivery man in the place that hud a billie-can wus on tap o me in a flash, pilin them intae ma airms an addin the wee containers o tay an shuggar, as weel as paper pokes that Ah soon foun oot helt a mixture o baith, blended wi care tae suit the palate o its owner.

Ah staggered unnerneath the jummle an tried tae mak sense o the shooted oarders as tae whuther the tay wus tae be made strang or wake an hoo mich or hoo little shugger wus tae be added, an tae whut level the cans wus tae be filled. Ah clung desperately tae the tins an cans an packets, wunnerin hoo Ah wud iver mine wha belanged tae which, let alane what his parteeklar gastronomical preference micht be.

“Have you got a can of your own?” queried Woodbine on the way oot tae the beck yaird.

Ah shuk ma heid frae ahin the moontain o cans as Ah tripped ower a hauf beg o cement lyin at the beck dure. Ah’d niver seen a billie-can until twa meenits syne. Ah didnae ken it wus pairt o a joiner’s kit.

“Niver mind,” grinned Woodbine. “I’ll lend ye my oul one.” He pointed tae a water-tap hingin loose frae the white-washed waa in the yaird. “Fill them cans an bring them over here an’ I'll show ye how to light a fire.”

Ah tuk the cans ower tae the tap an tried tae scrub the bleckness o grime frae inside the biggest yin. Woodbine saw me an wus at ma elbow in a flash. “What do ye think ye’re doin?” he bawled, grabbin the can frae me.

“I’m tryin tae clean it!” Ah shouted beck tae him, stertin tae get a bit fed up wi the hale business o tay-makin. “Luk at the state o it! It’s boggin!”

“Don’t be daft,” snorted Woodbine, gien me a cuff roon the ear. “It takes weeks to get a can into a good black state like that. NIVER, IVER wash a billie-can! Ye just rinse them. That black carbon on the can adds to the flavour of the tea. Niver wash a billie-can.”

Ah lifted the cans an carriet them ower tae whaur Woodbine hud stairted tae prepare a fire. He’d clodded twa or three bricks thegither tae mak a sairt o a square, wi a hole in the middle. He tossed a haunfu o wud-shavins intae the hole an lukked up at me.

“First of all, we light the shavins. Okay?”

It seemed like a guid idea tae me. Ah nodded ma heid. “Okay. We light the shavins.”

“Okay,” echoed Woodbine. “We light the shavins.” He struck a match an drapped it on tap o the curly white ribbons o wud.

They flared up immediately. Woodbine nodded his heid in satisfaction an winked at me as if he hud jist tuk yin giant step forrit for mankine. He tossed a couple o cuttins o wud intae the bleeze an apened up the bricks for better ventilation, stressin on me the absolute necessity o daein this. Yince he hud got the fire established he placed three iron rods, each aboot a quarter o an inch thick across the tap o the bricks. Very precisely, he positioned aa the cans on toap o the rods. Ah watched, fascinated by it aa as the flames licked hungrily roon the cans.

Then Woodbine did a very strange thing. He lifted a hatchet an split a wheen o pieces o wud aboot an inch lang an a quarter o an inch thick. Wi the delicacy o a coancert pianist he drapped them, yin by yin, intae each o the cans.

It wusnae ony guid. Ah tried tae figure it oot. But Ah cudnae dae it.

“Why did ye put the wud intae the cans?” says Ah.

Woodbine smiled an nodded wisely. “That,” he replied, drawin hissel up tae his fu height o approximately five fut twa inches, “that is the most important part o the whole procedure. That wee bit of wood keeps the smoke out of the can. And don’t you ever forget to put it in. Them boys’ll have yer life if ye give them smoky tea.”

Ah watched the smoke swirl aroon the cans which were already pitted wi the bleckness o a hunner fires. Ah wusnae aa that sure Woodbine wusnae haein me on. Ah decided tae test him.

“Woodbine,” says Ah, “how does the wud keep the smoke out?”

Woodbine shrugged. “How do I know how it keeps it out? I’m a brickie’s labourer, not Professor Einstein! But it works. So you make sure ye put it in. Right?” He paused an fummled aboot in the poacket o his dungarees. “I don’t suppose you’ve got a feg on ye? A Woodbine even?”

Ah gien a bit o a lauch an shuk ma heid as it dawned on me of a suddent hoo Woodbine hud come by his nickname. “Ah’m sorry, Woodbine,” says me. “Ah dinnae smoke.”

Woodbine lauched an tossed his heid in the air as he stairted tae slip tay an shuggar intae the boilin cans. “Niver mind. Ah’ll pick up a wee butt somewhere …” He pu’ed oot a foldin rule frae yin o his poackets an slipped it unner the haunnles o the cans. Yin by yin he liftit them frae the fire an set them in a straucht line on the groun.

“Now,” he demonstrated, “to get the tea-leaves to settle, ye jist tap the side o the cans like this.” He gien each o the cans a tap wi the side o the rule an the tay-leaves sank magically tae the bottom. Then he picked up a narra lathe o wud an slipped it unner the haunnles o the five cans, pickin them aa up in the yin go.

Ah lifted the last twa wi a lump of wud, jist as Woodbine hud deen. Ah wus feelin richt plaised wi masel. “What aboot cups?” Ah asked. “Whaur’s the cups?”

Woodbine set his rail o cans on the groun an stared at me in exasperation. “Cups!” he repeated incredulously, lood eneuch fer hauf o Belfast tae hear. “Cups! What wud ye be wantin cups for? Sure they’d only ruin the taste of the tea. You’ll drink it straight from the can, the way any other civilized bein wud do. You won’t be needin any cups!”

Woodbine moved a wee bit closer tae me an waved a finger unner ma neb. “An I’ll tell ye somethin else. As long as you live, an wheriver ye go, ye’ll niver drink a better drap of tea than what you’ll drink from a wee black can.”

Ye ken, Ah’m glad it wus ma joab tae wet the tay thon day. An Woodbine wus richt. Ah hae wrocht on monies a joab since that, an in monie different places. Fortune has favoured me, an Ah hae dined wi the rich an famous, in luxury an opulence that wud be mich grander than ma natural habitat.

But whauriver Ah hae been, an whutiver Ah hae drunk frae, Ah hae niver tastit a drap o tay that wud come onywhaur near that sweet, strang, an wudden brew Ah first tastit aa them year beck, frae a wee bleck can.



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