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 177


Rogers was impressed with the change in Peter Herlihy after his fight with Dick Cairns. Within three days Peter had become, instead of the victim of boys’ gangs, a leader of a gang. He no longer chased and tormented girls, he led boys against other boys. He stopped his obscene drawings. His challenge to authority was more open, and, Rogers thought, more dangerous in that he might provoke other teachers to punish him. Mrs Hansen noticed the change in him. She looked out of the staffroom window and watched him yelling commands to his followers. ‘Quite a little gangster,’ she said. ‘He doesn’t run away snivelling like he used to. He’s not worrying girls now. That strapping I gave him must have done him a bit of good.’

Heath looked at Miss Dane. ‘I hear you’ve been too easy on that boy, Mr Rogers. He’ll have to learn to be quieter. If his reading doesn’t improve he’ll have to be put down a class, I’m afraid.’

‘I’m sure I won’t thank you for him,’ Miss Dane said. ‘He’s older than my children. He’d be a thoroughly disturbing element in the class. He said something most rude about you when I went into your room last week, Mr Rogers.’

‘You see you don’t get any thanks for being soft with them,’ Mrs Hansen said. ‘That right, Fred?’

Fred Lawson grunted. He was no believer in gentle handling of children but he didn’t want to be caught agreeing with Heath. He had never forgiven Heath for raking off the credit for his art work.

Rogers, however, encouraged Peter’s new confidence. He would call him to the table and ask him to make a story out of a picture on the front cover of his reading book. It was a picture of a crowd of baby-faced infants by a tree: one of them sat on a branch and the others danced excitedly with open mouths beneath it. Some of them had flung their books into the air. ‘That’s you up on the tree,’ Peter said. ‘The kids are all laughing at you. Look, they’re shouting at you.’

page 178

‘What are they saying?’

‘They’re saying, ‘Maddie! Maddie! Mad Mr Rogers!’ His eyes shone with forbidden excitement. ‘See, those two have got their arms up. They’re throwing their books at you.’

‘Books won’t hurt me.’

‘These are heavy books, but. They’ve got hard covers. They’ll hit you in the eye.’

‘I’ll put my hand up to catch them.’

‘No, ‘cause you’ll fall off the tree if you do. And then the kids’ll all jump on you and trample all over you.’

‘Why do they want to do that?’

‘’Cause they say you’re mad. You’re the maddest teacher they ever had.’

‘Why am I mad?’

‘’Cause you’re soft. You let the kids do anything.’

‘What would you do if you were the teacher?’

‘I’d make them do everything I told them. I’d hit them. I’d say, “You come out here!” and I’d sneak up to Mr Heath’s room and steal his strap and I’d go bash! bash! bash! “Now you sit down and stop your crying or I’ll give you some more.”’

‘Do you want to be a teacher?’

‘No. I wouldn’t be a teacher for anything. Teachers are mad. All the kids are going to kill them.’


‘’Cause they don’t like teachers. They give them the strap.’

‘But you said you’d give them the strap if you were the teacher, ‘They might want to attack you then.’

‘I wouldn’t let them, but. ‘Cause I’d know. I’d be clever and watch them.’

‘Wouldn’t you ever want to be nice to them?’

‘No. I’d yell at them, like Mum does, like you yelled at me that night you were with Donnie Palmer’s auntie.’

‘What were you following us for?’


‘’Cause what?’

‘I wanted to see if you’d do that what you told me about.’ He paused. ‘Mum and Dad used to do that. I used to get scared when Dad came into the room. He used to try to do something to Mum. Mum screamed at him. I wanted to see him give her a hiding. But they just fought without anyone winning. You and Donnie’s aunt didn’t fight.’

‘You shouldn’t take any notice of a man going for a walk with a woman. It doesn’t mean he’s going to fight or do anything. They page 179 don’t want to do that thing. People only do that when they’re married. There’s nothing in it for you to worry about. You’ll do it yourself when you’re a man. While you’re young you should forget about it and play with other boys.’

‘Why can’t I do it now?’

‘Because you don’t want to.’

‘I want to know what Dad tried to do to Mum.’

‘When you grow up you’ll know.’

‘I want to find out.’

‘Just you forget about it. You play with your gang and you’ll never think about it. Why do you have to think about it so much?’

‘’Cause it’s a secret. I want to know every secret.’

‘Well, there’s a hundred and one other secrets for you to think about.’

‘What secrets?’

‘What it says in this reading book.’

‘Oh that. I don’t have to read it myself. I can ask Dad and he’ll tell me straight away. It’s mad stuff in this book. It’s not worth knowing.’

‘But when you grow up, how will you read when your father isn’t there?’

‘I won’t want to read. I’ll be in my hut in the bush, with my Alsatian.’

Rogers couldn’t find any way to convert him from his obsession with his dirty secret. Yet it was already more open than it had been; in making it articulate, he seemed to be freer of it; perhaps it would be eroded by exposure to the light. And Peter was now more concerned with defying authority; that was a healthier sign. He hoped that that too might work itself out, and Peter become more of a normal boy. If only he could get free of the home that had made him what he was. And now the other teachers were beginning to come down on him. Heath came into the room the morning after the committee meeting. ‘I’ve had a complaint about this boy Herlihy,’ he said. ‘He’s been reported for throwing coal on people’s roofs. I’m not pursuing it myself because I’ve informed the police. He’ll hear from Constable Rae.’

‘I’ll speak to him,’ Rogers said.

‘I wish you would speak to him a bit more often,’ Heath said. ‘He’s becoming well known. Even the doctor says he has the makings of a criminal. Remember that if he becomes a criminal it’ll be partly your fault.’

‘Yes,’ Rogers said. ‘I know that.’

Heath looked at him, wondering. Was the man coming round to page 180 his way of thinking? He decided not to say any more lest Rogers might respond too readily and have his class more orderly when the delegation were to drop in on him. ‘Well, just remember what I said,’ he said, and went out.

At lunch time that day Peter came up to Rogers and said. ‘You told me a story.’

‘When did I tell you a story?’

‘You told me people only do that thing when they’re married.’

‘Well, they’re not supposed to if they aren’t married.’

‘I saw someone do it and they weren’t married.’

Rogers was bewildered. He hoped he wouldn’t name them. He didn’t want local scandal to get drawn into his battle for Peter’s soul. ‘Don’t tell anyone about it, Peter.’


‘Because it’s their business. Anyway, you shouldn’t follow people like that. Some day some man will give you a hiding for that.’

‘I wouldn’t let him see me.’

‘Why do you have to follow them?’

‘I want to watch what they do.’

‘I told you weeks ago what they do.’

‘I couldn’t see much. It was too dark. Why do they only do it in the dark?’

‘Because it’s not something to do in the daylight. Only dogs do it in public. If you have to watch it, watch dogs. Or Mrs ‘Thompson’s bull near Ngahere. Don’t follow people.’

‘I didn’t follow them last night.’ He was suddenly resentful. ‘They walked in just near me. I was in my hidey-hole.’

‘Where’s that?’

‘I’m not telling you. It’s my secret. They came right by me and I was frightened to move.’

‘Well, you’ve got your secret. Why don’t you let them have their secret? That’s why they do it in the dark. It’s their secret.’

‘He burnt my drawing,’ he said.

‘You can draw another.’

‘I don’t want to draw any more like that now.’

Rogers was pleased to hear this. ‘Then why do you care if he burnt it?’

‘Because it was in my hidey-hole. I know who they were too.’

‘I don’t want to know who they were.’

‘I’m not telling anyway. It’s my secret.’

‘Well you keep it a secret. And don’t tell anyone else.’

Donnie Palmer, after Heath’s punishment, had become less frank and trusting. He was a member of Peter’s gang and Rogers noticed page 181 that he had developed a slight sniggering attitude to him, giggling secretly if Rogers spoke to him in praise or blame. It wasn’t that Donnie was growing out of infancy into boyhood, it was an intrusion of an underhand attitude to authority. He became more friendly with Peter, who showed him his treasures. Once he let Donnie play stag-knife with his knife; another time he gave him some marbles. Rogers, noticing this friendship, remembered Flora saying, ‘He’s corrupting Donnie, too’. He didn’t expect that Donnie’s innocence was strong enough to resist or conquer Peter’s evil. Yet he hoped that the out-reaching of Peter’s emotions might cleanse them of their nastiness. By now he had come to see how fragile and unpredictable was Peter’s chance of regeneration. There were so many complex influences. And he was involved himself. It wasn’t the detached manipulation of sentiments entangled and ingrown, the right word here, the expert question there, letting the boy paint out his obsessions, being supremely rational in face of the irrational. He hadn’t foreseen how he himself would be affected. He was himself a man struggling to keep balance, to hold his job, hold the affection and esteem of other people and yet not to turn against his understanding of this boy’s madness. What if Donnie were to talk of Peter’s friendship at home and Mrs Palmer or Don were to ask him to keep them separate as they would if they knew? What if Flora were to tell them what he had told her that evening about his treatment of Peter? And of course it was impossible to desert Peter now; he had led him too far. If he dropped him now he would be worse than if no one had taken him up.

He was to have worse worries. Peter told him one day that one night after school he and two boys from Mrs Hansen’s class had gone with two girls of the same age, into the scrub where they had exposed themselves with guilty and studious curiosity. Rogers wanted to say, ‘Don’t do that again,’ but he did not. He didn’t dare reveal his concern to Peter or it might confirm his suspicion that it was worth being obsessed with because it was secret and shameful. Of course, he told himself, this sort of thing was a routine affair in the psychology books; it was natural curiosity and had no vicious implications. Yet what if anyone else knew? Or if Peter told anyone that he had told Rogers? He was making his treatment of Peter secret and shameful itself. ‘Well, now you know all about it,’ he said. ‘There’s nothing more to find out.’

Peter went away looking very pleased with himself. Perhaps, Rogers hoped with excitement, that was the end of his quest; perhaps it was all over, except his defiance of authority, which was a simpler matter.

page 182

Next morning Donnie came with animation to him from a long exchange of car-whispering with Peter. ‘I just thought up a story about you,’ he said, sniggering as if at his own temerity.

‘What story, Donnie?’

‘Peter and some boys went behind the bushes with some girls, And you were there too.’

Rogers turned pale. ‘Donnie Palmer.’ Then he spoke lower. ‘Look here, Donnie! That’s not true now, is it? You know it’s not true. Did you see me there? Do you think I would want to do a silly thing like that?’ He was holding Donnie by the upper arm.

‘No,’ Donnie said more shyly, as if he had dared too much.

‘Well, you know it’s not true, Donnie. Why do you say things like that?’

‘I don’t know. I thought it was a funny story.’

‘Well, don’t tell stories unless they’re true. Don’t make up any stories like that. And don’t you repeat that story to anyone. Because it’s not true. You’re telling lies!’

Peter Herlihy was listening intently to this and when Rogers told Donnie to go out to play until the bell rang for school to start, he caught him up. ‘That made him wild, Donnie!”

Donnie withdrew from him. ‘He only laughs when you tell him stories,’ he said. ‘He doesn’t talk to you like that. You’re his pet. I’m not playing with you.’