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



When Mrs Palmer called out to Mr Heath going past she stopped with her mop upright and watched him. Her face took on a drawn concentrated look rather like a gipsy fortune-teller’s and her big. eyes narrowed slightly. ‘Dad,’ she called, not very loud, ‘Dad.’ Old Don Palmer appeared in slippers and shirt-sleeves, just risen from breakfast, ‘What, Lil?’

‘I wonder how Paul will get on with old Heath.’

‘All right, I s’pose. He got on all right with the last one, didn’t he? Till he got those silly ideas of his.’

‘I dunno. I’ve just got a funny feeling.’

‘Oh, what’s wrong with you?’ old Don said with exaggerated gusto. It was his way of dealing with the expression of any sentiment he couldn’t understand. ‘Heath’s got his job to do. Paul’s got his. If they do their jobs, what can go wrong?’

page 12

‘I dunno. There’s something not quite above-board in Heath’s nature. You can’t tell me….’

‘Well, I always reckoned the same about Paul.’

‘Oh no, Dad. He’s a good young chap.’

‘You’ve got a soft spot for him, that’s all. Anyway, what are you worrying about? If Paul does what he’s told, what can go wrong?’ Before he took the hotel old Don used to be foreman at the dredge and he didn’t have much time for employees who were difficult, ‘It’s a contract, that’s what it is, and they’ve each got to fulfil their part of it.’ His lips seemed to have borrowed finality and importance from the editorial language.

Rogers came down the stairs just then. ‘Oh, Paul,’ Mrs Palmer said. ‘You just missed your boss. He’s just gone ahead…. Well, you’ll get a clear run this time, son, and you make a bird of it and get ahead in your job.’

Rogers grinned with engaging embarrassment. ‘I’ll try,’ he said.

‘You mark my words, Paul, it’s Mum talking.’

‘You see,’ old Don said when Rogers had gone, ‘I’ve got nothing against him—I like him—but he’s not straightforward. He doesn’t look you straight in the eye. Anybody’d think he was ashamed of something.’

‘Now, Dad, he’s got nothing to be ashamed of. He always has been shy. He’s a good open-natured boy.’

She knelt and vigorously started to polish the floor. Old Don said, ‘I s’pose I ought a shave,’ and went away. A boy of eight came running down the passage, a fresh comely girl of twenty-one after him. ‘Good-bye, Grannie,’ the boy said and with a certain inner withdrawal volunteered his cheek for her to kiss. ‘Good-bye, pet,’ Mum said. ‘Now you work hard at school, and Donnie, watch your new clothes.’ ‘Yes,’ he said and ran out.

‘Did he take his book, Flora?’

‘Yes, Mum, he’s got everything,’ the girl said. She was dark and softly fleshed; she looked like a pale-faced Maori and she spoke with a plush voice.

‘He’s a worry, isn’t he, Flor? I don’t know what they’d do without us. Poor kid, he’d be in a home somewhere. And young Don in Christchurch enjoying himself, and poor old Grandma gets all the work and worry. I thought once Doris might have taken him when she came out of the home—but you can’t blame her really, Flor. No woman wants to rear anyone else’s kids—even her brother’s. I wouldn’t want to lose him now.’

‘You and I can manage him between us, Mum.’

page 13

‘Well, the time’ll come—you know—that you’ll be stopping off and leaving us….’

‘I can’t see that happening for a while, Mum.’

‘Well, there’s plenty here’d be glad to get you, Flor. But there’s none of them I’d let you spit on their boots. Except Paul….’

‘Oh, Mum….’ Flora pursed her lips.

‘Well, he hasn’t settled yet. He doesn’t know his mind yet. But I can tell you, if he asked you, it’d suit me down to the ground. He’s a fine clean-living lad and he doesn’t push himself like most of them.’

‘Paul knows his own mind, Mum, and if he sees fit to ask me, it’s time enough to think about it, not before.’

‘You’re a sensible girl, Flor. I wouldn’t want to lose you.’

‘You wouldn’t Mum. If—you know—if it happened, we’d be seeing you pretty often.’

‘Well, Doris said that. But I dunno—that thing she married. When he was going with her we tried to bring him out and I didn’t reckon at that time you could have met a finer fellah. But now he’s just slipped right back into his sullen old ways. He never comes to see us if he can help it, and he keeps Doris at home; she won’t have a word said against him. I’m going to have it out with them some day.’

‘Don’t go starting trouble, Mum; you’ll only make it worse.’

‘Don’t you worry about your mother, kid. She’s old enough to look after herself and she knows when it’s time to do something.’

‘Things didn’t work out the way we expected.’

‘No … Myra with us all those war years and little Donnie. And then to clear off like that and Don in hospital. After flghting [sic: fighting] for her, that was the thanks he got. And now Don’s away tearing round spending his money on some Christchurch sheilah. And Doris and Frank a stone’s throw away and not coming to see us; and twice she’s tried, and each time the baby died. I dunno, sometimes I wonder what it’s all for.’

‘Mum, you’re getting morbid.’

‘I am, Flor. Too much work and worry. Look on the bright side’s what I always say.’

Don came down again. ‘What are you two moaning about?’

‘We’ve just been having a blues session, Dad,’ Flora said.

‘You don’t want to come at that. Here.’ Dad went into the bar and brought a brandy for Mrs Palmer. ‘Get that into you. And never let it be said there was any moaning at the bar at Palmers’.’

There was no doubt about it, Mrs Palmer thought as she finished the passage, you could always fall back on Dad.