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

Conditions of use


Other formats

    Adobe Portable Document Format file (digital text)   TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

Coal Flat


page 14


Mrs Palmer was busy at the kitchen range shifting a big black-leaded iron kettle when Rogers walked in after coming from tea at Mrs Hansen’s. A tall greying-headed man sat by the white-scrubbed table, by a cup of tea. Rogers recognized him as the policeman. ‘Come in Paul,’ she said. ‘Do you want a drink—or would you rather have a bit of a snifter with the boys? Have you met Mr Rae?’

The constable erected his six feet and shook firmly. He was a man who prided himself on being open and above-board: he would do his duty openly and with a sense of mission. ‘You’ll find us not a bad crowd up here,’ he said. ‘No formalities. The miners are good people. I always say if you treat them square, they’ll treat you square.’ He sounded as if he thought he was presenting an unusual opinion.

‘Yes, Mr Rae, I reckon the same,’ Mrs Palmer said. ‘And there hasn’t been any trouble here since the Seldom strike and that was before we came.’

She was tall, Mrs Palmer, and her face had the drawn look that some Maori women get when they are past the plump freshness of youth, but unlike theirs it wasn’t relaxed; there was something harsh about it. She was a quarter-caste, originally from south, Pukereraki or somewhere near Dunedin. She was well educated and one of her satisfactions was in out-classing people who tried to be superior because of her colour. So she could act, when she wanted to, as if she were more respectable than the best-bred. Rogers could remember, five years ago, Mrs Hansen asking him, ‘And just how much Maori blood is there in her?’ She pronounced Maori immaculately, like a radio announcer, lest she should commit herself to any attitude to colour. Rogers was genuinely surprised and said it had never occurred to him. Mrs Hansen looked scornful. It was as if she had caught him out in a lie.

‘Here, Paul,’ Mrs Palmer said; ‘go out and get me a drink. We’ll have a round for old times’ sake, eh? … Won’t you, Mr Rae? … Well, I never yet saw anyone come to any harm by it as long as they knew when to stop.’

‘Oh no, Mrs Palmer, I agree. I don’t care what you say, moderation is the secret in everything. The man who’s moderate in all things makes the best citizen. If everyone was like you in that respect, well I reckon I’d be out of a job, and I’d be taking a pub meself. Though there mightn’t be much profit in it, eh?’

page 15

‘Doris and Frank are back now, Mr Rae. You know, they were up at Benneydale.’

‘You missed them, I’ll bet, Mrs Palmer.’

‘Yes, especially when you’ve had them all round you since they were little. And we’ve all grown up together. Dad and I were just like two of them when they were all kiddies. Still, when a girl gets married she has to study her husband; she can’t be worrying so much about Mum and Dad then.’ She said this as if she was trying to convince someone who thought different.

‘No, my word. When the wife and I started off, I had to do a lot of breaking her away from that.’

‘Still, if you can have them near you, it’s okay all round, I say.’

‘Well, it won’t be long now before Flora goes too, I suppose, Mrs Palmer. My word, she’s grown into a fine young girl, that. She’ll be a good wife to someone.’

‘Yes, but I hope it’s a good man she gets hold of.’

‘Well, she mustn’t throw herself away. That’d never do.’

‘And do you think I’d stand for it if she did? The way I’ve slaved for those kids, worried over them—he’d be a sorry fellah that ever laid a hand on any of my girls.’

‘You wouldn’t be doing yourself justice if you let her do otherwise. Every mother has a right to expect her girl to choose sensibly.’

‘But Flora would, Mr Rae. She’s a sensible girl. You know, I’ve got to hand it to her. She’ll sit with us at a party and all she’ll drink is a raspberry and she never gets cross or tired. She’s content to be in with the crowd—you know—and in on the fun.’

‘Well, I reckon you ought to be proud of her, Mrs Palmer. These days there’s every temptation for a girl to run wild.’ His voice became confidential. ‘You know, Mrs Palmer, if you knew the number of illegitimate births in this country—four per cent. Mrs Palmer, four per cent!—in the Force we get to know about these things. I wouldn’t mention this to anyone, Mrs Palmer. Only I know you’ll take it in the right way. It’s shocking. It’s hardly fit to be talked about.’ He blushed and continued: ‘I think you ought to be proud of her.’

Rogers came in with a tray. On it were a glass of beer and a brandy for Mrs Palmer.

‘Well, I hate to leave you out, Mr Rae, but here’s what-ho, eh Paul?’ She winked and jogged him with her elbow. ‘For old times, eh?’ She swallowed half the brandy. ‘We were just saying Flora would be a good match for you, Paul. Now, now. Look at him blushing, Mr Rae. But my gosh, Mr Rae, I wouldn’t oppose it. page 16 This boy, y’know, I look on him as another son. Old Mum, eh Paul? She’s always picking up waifs and strays, isn’t she?’

Rogers grinned without showing much embarrassment; he was used to this from her. He was at a loss for words, however, and stared passively. She had a way of sucking spontaneity out of young men.

Rogers uneasily adapted himself to her mood. ‘Well, it’s better than having to stand on your own feet all the time,’ he said limply. He recalled her sympathy once when she found out that his mother had been dead several years. ‘I’m a second mother to you,’ she had said. He had been drunk and sentimentally loyal to a remembered picture of his mother. ‘It couldn’t be the same,’ he had said. She had looked, for one of the few times he could remember, puzzled and cheated. But he chose now not to think of this or of his mother.

‘Don’t you believe him,’ Mrs Palmer said. ‘He’s stood on his own feet. He’s studied and passed his exams and everywhere he’s got, he’s got there by his own steam. Do you know Mr Rae’—her voice lowered and became more intense—‘his father was a common old engine-driver. Don’t worry, Paul, I don’t tell everyone. You can trust Mr Rae. We’re all friends here.’

‘I’m not ashamed of it….’ Rogers began.

‘That’s what I like,’ said Mrs Palmer, ‘a son to stick up for his old man, come right or wrong.’

‘Well, it’s to your credit, son,’ the constable said. ‘And I reckon if Mrs Palmer adopts you there can’t be much wrong with you. It’s a recommendation in itself.’

‘There was only one time, only once, I didn’t see eye to eye with him, and that was during the war. Paul didn’t like war, and he wouldn’t go.’

‘Oh, well,’ Rae said, protesting loudly. ‘There’s none of us like war. No one wants war. But we had to fight a country that did.’ Rogers recalled the time he’d first told Mrs Palmer of his objection. With chameleon cowardice he had falsified his attitude. ‘I’d rather be helping people than killing them,’ he had said. Flora had been there, and to demonstrate her loyalty to him, ‘It’s a good way to be, Paul,’ she had said. Mrs Palmer had said nothing for a while, thinking probably of Don in the North African desert; then quietly, as if to heighten the effect, she had said, ‘Well, I think it’s just a case of some people realizing their responsibilities more than others.’ To Rogers, the harmony of the situation had demanded his capitulation, and he still winced when he remembered what he had said: ‘Yes, perhaps you’re right.’

‘Oh, so you were the young fullah all the fuss was about?’ the page 17 constable continued, more severely. ‘Let me see, about 1942?’ He pondered this news with pomp and sternness, saying, ‘O-oh…. O-oh….’

‘But he saw reason after a while,’ Mrs Palmer said. ‘And he’s a returned boy like Don now. He was overseas just after he was twenty-one, so he didn’t lose any time. And he can hold his head up like the next one, especially in a place like this—look at all the young chaps here that hid in the mine. You know they come in and drink and I’ll drink with them and be good company and have their money—but I’ve always got that little bit stored under my cap: my boy was a man and that’s more than you dodgers were, skulking behind a protected occupation. And I’m not one to forget it, Mr Rae…. Here, Paul, it’s my shout. Murn’s dry. She’s been gassing too much. Give us a smoke, boy.’

The constable was leaving when Rogers came back. ‘Well, son, I’ll be seeing you again,’ he said. ‘You’re in good hands here anyway.’ His manner was not so hearty now: it was as if he was cautioning Rogers not to try to evade his responsibilities again.

‘Drop in any time,’ Mrs Palmer called from the stove. ‘You’ll always find me here up to my eyes in work. But Mum can take it—no eight-hour shift for me. We never growl—do we, kid?’

She turned round and gave Rogers a cigarette. ‘Get that into you, kid,’ she said and winked. ‘Well, it’s great to have you back anyway, son. It’ll be just like old times again and I can expect Don back any day. They always come back to Mum…. You know I asked the constable straight out about closing at eleven, and he says it’s all right so long as we close at eleven. I said, “You can trust me, Mr Rae. If I make a bargain, I stick to my part of it.”—“Well, you can rely on me for my side,” he says. “I know I can trust you and Dad” —they all call him Dad here—“I know I can trust you to run the place as you should do.”—“No,” I says, “Mr Rae, there are no fights at our place and we always refuse the undesirables.” Oh, it shows you, it pays to be on good terms with the right people. There’s no under-the-counter dealings with me. If I want something I ask straight out. And now we know exactly where we stand with the law and everything’s fair and square. Treat people square and they’ll treat you square.’