Title: Coal Flat

Author: Bill Pearson

Publication details: Paul’s Book Arcade, 1963, Auckland

Digital publication kindly authorised by: Paul Millar

Part of: New Zealand Texts Collection

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Coal Flat


page 6


It was a sunny February morning throbbing with cicadas, and the main road, in spite of the unpainted wooden houses and the sections filled with rank growth of blackberries and Yorkshire fog, had its air of attraction. It belonged to the wilderness, to the hills to the left knobbled with bush, fresh and damp in the summer sun, to the never far-off gurgle of waters in the creeks on either side of the township and in the water races running through the town, to the crackling of the tree-cicadas in the bush across the creek. Truman Heath, fresh from six weeks’ holiday, warmed to the sun and the prospect of another year’s work. He was conscious of his ready-made blue suit, awkwardly fitting him, just demoted from Sunday to everyday wear, of his soft hands and the leather case he carried. The children too looked cleaner on this day than they usually were, and this seemed to confirm his anticipation of a year of zestful work. As he passed mothers at their front gates he tipped his hat and said in his ingratiating way, ‘Good morning’. To the post-boy sweeping the steps of the post office his tone implied ‘Well, you and I didn’t hit it off at school, but now that you’ve left, well, bygones are bygones’. To Mrs. Palmer shaking a mop from the hotel door, he called, ‘Lovely morning!’ To an old man silent and contemplative at the corner, ‘Good day!’ What if some of the mothers only muttered in reply? What if the old man didn’t answer? It was part of his job to mix with all types and classes of people, and so far, he told himself, he hadn’t had any trouble. With his trilby hat and suit and case he could afford to be indulgent.

Round a couple of corners there were only children on the road. He didn’t bother to speak to them unless they addressed him, which except for the infants, was seldom; but he blessed them all with a general smile which seemed to say, ‘Well, kiddies, ready for another year’s work?’ Occasionally his leather case annoyed him because he felt an impulse to rub his hands. The school showed up as he’d seen page 7 it before the holidays: a long yellow box with many windows, painted a faded laburnum yellow in flagrant defiance of the sombre tones of the bush on the hills that overshadowed it to the left. The scarlet paint of the roof was flaking and peeling from sun-blisters broken by heavy showers. It was built on a terrace, and across the creek behind it the sun brought out a desolate appeal in the swamp of dead trees, white with death and black from fire. From that direction he could hear the dredge screaming.

This year, he thought as he entered his office, he hoped to make a go of it. No year to his memory had ever lived up to his expectations, but then, he smiled to himself, that was because his expectations were so high: he was in his way an idealist, a very practical idealist though. And his staff had to realize that he had never been anything but fair; if only they were to co-operate they would find him one of the easiest men to deal with. ‘There’s nothing very frightening about me,’ he muttered, looking into a mirror and fingering his chin smooth and pink from shaving; and chuckled. ‘No, indeed,’ Well, he was prepared this year, as always, to let bygones be bygones, to start off on a new foot and if they were to see reason and recognize him for the man of goodwill he was, there would be no friction, and furthermore, he would be doing all that could be expected of him.

And this year, he expected, would be his last in Coal Flat. His standing in the eyes of the Education Board was high enough now for him to be sure of getting whatever school he chose to apply for. He looked out of the window. ‘The new assistant,’ he thought, and watched him open the gate for Miss Johnson. What he saw was a tallish, rather ungainly young man in sports clothes, with thick red hair greased low. His forehead was tall enough to suggest that he had some intellect. His lips were vaguely open and his face carried a faint beam of goodwill for any of the people or objects his blue, slightly bulgy, eyes happened to light on. ‘Not what I expected,’ Heath thought. ‘Gawky looking. Doesn’t look like a returned man. But I might have known. He’ll be completely inexperienced. All theory—green as they make them!’ he muttered aloud. ‘You’ll see—no experience!’

‘You’ll meet it,’ Miss Johnson was saying. ‘All too soon you’ll meet it.’ Rogers opened the gate and children stopped in their play to stare at them. A girl’s voice called, ‘Hey! It’s Mr Rogers back again!’

Heath was in the corridor waiting for them. ‘Mr Heath,’ Miss Johnson said, ‘This is Mr Rogers, the new assistant.’ Heath beamed while Rogers, still with the same expression of vague good- page 8 will, tallied up. From all they had said he had expected an aggressive jaw, a domed forehead. Instead there were flushed and rather immature cheeks, an expression as sociable as his own, two widow’s peaks burrowing into a thin but adequate head of fine hair, and a rather weak chin dropping in automatic good-fellowship. A characterless hand grasped his with glib pressure. ‘Oh, yes, you were here before, as probationer, weren’t you? Before my time. Well, you’ll know your way around. Your room’s up there. Miss Johnson will show you. Just make yourself at home and I’ll be up to see you later.’

On the way to Rogers’s room they ran into Mrs Hansen. She was big and firm in belly, buttocks and breasts, and today her lobes sported pearled earclips. Her face betrayed, in spite of the subdued coating of powder over the hairs on her cheeks, her thirty-six years, yet, no more than at five years before could Rogers detect any sign of her having once in that time doubted her own ability or her own judgement. ‘Hello, Paul,’ she said. ‘How’s it feel to have to work for a living?’ Her eyes sparkled: they weren’t above a wink at a private joke.

He smiled the smile of renewed acquaintance, rather sheepishly as if she had caught him out on some peccadillo. He was a boy when she was at training college; he had seen her through the fence next door down in Greymouth, while she berated her mother with the new-found independence of a girl who had been away from home and seen how other people live. She had taught in the primers of his school when he was in Standard six. She always treated him as if that relationship had not changed. ‘Have you met the worm yet?’ she said and compressed her lips. Her jowls were flabby like a bulldog’s.

‘I was agreeably surprised. He’s not as bad as I expected, Belle.’ He wanted to demonstrate that he wouldn’t boycott this man on other people’s say-so.

Her face went aloof, with raised eyebrows. ‘You’ll find out,’ she said. ‘Well, have to skip! Sue, come and I’ll show you that pattern-book.’ Miss Johnson followed her.

The classroom was pretty bare with its twenty-odd desks and his table and chair. A long strip of brown paper bellied from the wall where a drawing-pin had fallen out; the cut-out chickens and dogs on it had faded and lost their sheen in chalk-dust. On the back wall there was a Pictorial Education poster, an agricultural idyll: the purposeful muscular farmer of an unidentifiable country stood, while his wife mixed flour, admiring a table heaped with bread and fruit as in a country church at harvest thanksgiving; while children page 9 played innocently by their feet and fields of wheat were ripe behind them. This much last year’s teacher had left for him.

Mrs Hansen lined up the younger half of the school by the end entrance. ‘Heads up! Shoulders straight!’ she said. ‘Look how I’m doing it. Like soldiers.’ Rogers looked at her and wondered if she had missed her calling. ‘Forward march. Left, right, left, right.’ Infants in the first process of being made self-conscious grinned or sternly strode with high arms through an avenue of coat-hooks and wash-basins into the room.

Rogers had been away from the game so long he didn’t know where to begin, till a face gave him an idea, the face of a boy in the front desk—the healthy face of boyhood, of Hollywood boy actors, of advertisements for breakfast cereals. He had seen this boy on the bus the day before, and it made him feel familiar with his class to know one of them. He looked from eye to eye waiting for expectant silence. He kept it up longer than he needed: it was a game of suspense, and he knew they liked it.

‘Well, kiddies, we won’t be doing much today,’ he said, ‘till we find out what books you’ll have to ask Mum to buy for you. So in the meantime we might just have a few talks. Perhaps you can tell me what you did in the holidays—all those six long weeks and no school to go to. One of you went to Christchurch. I know because I saw him get on the bus at Stillwater yesterday. Who knows who he is?’

A chorus trumpeted, ‘Danny Hales!’ and Danny got up.

Rogers knew this unreal goodwill would flake off in no time: affections, scorns, personal attitudes would creep in like heresies. He thought, ‘Well, for them it’s self-expression.’ But it wasn’t. Danny Hales went on and on: ‘And Uncle Tom took us to the races and we saw all the horses. And there’s a lot of trams in Christchurch. And a lot of pitcher-theatres. And Uncle Tom hasn’t got any fowls.’

He studied them while Danny prattled and the rest of the class listened with more attention than they had given him. Miners’ children, a bit cleaner and sprucer today than they would be later in the year; brought up in a hard puritan society, materialistic to the point that it was afraid of ideas because ideas were not material. Yet he was glad that he wasn’t in a farming district, where the children would accept their parents’ beliefs as unquestionable. These children were brought up to sneer at authority and vaunt their intransi- geance. That was a start. And if they paraded their toughness, they did it in so innocent a way; contact with their innocence and simplicity would be the subterfuge by which he would educate them if that page 10 were within his power. A subterfuge—because New Zealand does not take kindly to anyone who wants to change things. Rogers had an idealist’s vision of a socialist world; but he felt that it could never be brought about till the ethics on which his socialism was based were commonly accepted—tolerance, service of the common good, consideration for others, self-sacrifice. Only in the young was there any hope, and he would teach these children those values.

The door whinged and Heath came in, a prepared smile approving. ‘No one,’ he seemed to be saying, ‘can say I start any discord.’ The children looked at him. ‘Good morning, children,’ he said and half of them replied, not all together. ‘Now sit down, you,’ he said to Danny Hales, and spoke aside to Rogers. ‘By the way, Mr Rogers, it’s a school rule that if ever I come into the room for the first time in a day they must stand…. Well, Mr Rogers, glad to be back? One or two things I want to tell you, to start off on the right foot, eh?’ The prepared smile opened again. ‘If there’s anything you ever want to know, anything you want a hand out in, come and ask me, won’t you? Don’t go running to the other teachers. Because I’m in authority here, Mr Rogers, and I’m responsible if anything goes wrong. That all right?’ His smile seemed to preach the value of starting off with amicable understanding, but beneath it Rogers was aware of Heath’s internal fumbling. ‘And you will find, Mr Rogers, there’s a lot you’ll have forgotten after being away from the game so long.’ He checked Rogers’s protest before he had framed it. ‘Oh yes, your refresher course. I’m not forgetting that. But that’s not first-hand experience, is it? It’s not in the front line.’ He smiled at the aptness of his military reference. ‘You’ve only had your probationary year in actual teaching, Mr Rogers, where I’ve had twenty-five years. I’ve had the experience and I have the ability. I’m looked on as one of the most efficient teachers the Board has.’ He dropped it as a cold fact immune to challenge. ‘So just remember, Mr Rogers, when in doubt, ask me.’