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



Miss Dane woke to a strangely excited state the morning after she had been to Ngahere with Don. It was as if she was hesitating on the doorstep of a strange house that was hers for the asking, that would answer all her dreams and give her rest and security. For a few seconds she tried not to wake, so that she could hold the excitement, but the effort itself woke her. And then the memories of the previous night came bashing on her conscience and she was flooded with guilt. She dressed hurriedly and furtively as if she was dodging somebody’s eye. Fear struck her so suddenly that she had to steady herself against the bed-post; there might be a child. How was she to know? She had done what he had told her, she had had a bath when she got in. She couldn’t remember it clearly; she had been so weary that she had forced herself through the motions, trying to be quiet about it in case she should wake people and set them wondering where she had been. How could she know before a month or two? The possibility was too dreadful to contemplate, the conse- page 183 quences beyond her seeing…. But why should it turn out that way? Weren’t there thousands of women doing the same every night and getting off scot-free? Why should she suffer more than anyone else? She forced the thought right out of her mind, there and then.

She was relieved that Don wasn’t at breakfast; he was probably lying in; his mother often gave him breakfast in bed. After breakfast she did an unusual thing. Sitting on the bed, she forced herself to study her situation as objectively as she could. She excluded the possibility of a child and looked at her guilt in its full acid rancour. She was a woman who had a strong sense of purpose working through all events. Whenever she read a woman’s paper her eyes and fingers sneaked awesomely to the astrology column and memorized the destinies predicted for those born under Aries, or if the paper was a week out of date, found correspondences between the predictions and what had actually happened to her during that week. It was an emollient necessary to her nagging puritan conscience, to be able to pass the responsibility on to the stars or God. And now the idea flashed to her like a revelation that there had been a purpose in last night’s events. They were inconceivable otherwise. Wasn’t it obvious that God had planned them? It was His way of saving Don Palmer. She realized suddenly how little love there had been in her surrender, in her lust to dare damnation; but now like a weeping sore her heart oozed love for Don, for God, for the world, that she was chosen to be a vehicle of grace for Don Palmer. ‘At heart he isn’t evil at all,’ she thought. ‘I could have a great influence on him. I could lead him back to a life of goodness.’ It was true she had taken a short cut to intimacy with him, she had cheated, yet out of this evil might come great good. Only there must be no more cheating, she would have to teach him that he had to respect her; his self-denial alone would help her to convert him to a life of goodness and respectability. She prayed that it would happen like that; in her prayer she offered genuine repentance for her sin, yet she felt it was only token repentance because she was applauding the divine purpose that had brought it off. How could God have let it happen to her if He hadn’t contrived it Himself?

Before she left for school she patted her hair attentively before the mirror; she wondered if she should change her hair style, perhaps let it grow longer. She noticed that her face was more animated. She would have to do something about her complexion; it really was a little coarse. And then she looked at her watch and almost trotted to school because she was later than usual, thinking, ‘It’s just as well I chalked up those sentences last night, seeing I’m so late. page 184 In fact it’s just as well I was there or I wouldn’t have seen Don. Oh, how obvious it is it was all meant to be!’

She was bright and good-tempered to her class that morning. At lunch time she walked tremulously to the hotel, and hearing Dad and Don talking she popped her head through the slide. ‘Peep-bo!’ she perked. Don was wiping glasses. He turned his head and for a second looked puzzled. ‘Oh, hullo,’ he said.

‘Just getting my own back,’ she said.

‘What’ll you have, madam?’ he said. ‘Bottled or draught?’

‘I think I’ll just have a spot of Adam’s ale,’ she said. ‘I’m off for my lunch. Flora will be my barmaid.’ She said more quietly, ‘How are you?’

‘Me? I’m all right.’

As she left, the disappointment didn’t sink in: she was congratulating herself that she had been able to rise to his banter.

Don turned back to Dad. Dad said, ‘She’s bright today. She’ll be sinking long ones with the boys next.’

Sometimes there were a few old men in the bar at that time of day; but today there were no customers. Dad had spectacles on. There was a letter opened out on the bar.

‘I can’t see they’ll have anything to complain about,’ he said.

‘Well, they won’t like it much.’

‘The cost of living’s going up all the time. It stands to reason beer has to go up too.’

‘The trouble is it’s such an odd amount.’

‘That’s our worry, not theirs. We have to get the change. They only have to pay. It isn’t as if they can’t afford it. If there’s anyone in this country in 1947 can afford to pay a penny more for their beer, it’s the miners.’

‘Are you sure the trade won’t go off?’

‘Awh,’ Dad said, meaning No. ‘Even if it did, we don’t lose by it. What we lose on the roundabouts we picks up on the swings. Anybody’d think everyone else in the country wasn’t paying sevenpence already.’

‘When did it go up, exactly?’

‘While you were away. Oh, I dunno for certain, about 1942 I think. Jimmy Cairns said he wasn’t putting it up. One or two pubs in town tried, but they soon came down again when they found that most of the other publicans were still charging sixpence. And that’s the way it’s stayed. Only the West Coast charging sixpence and everywhere else sevenpence. Oh—Mum said that Jack Thomson’s wife in a letter said some of the pubs in Central Otago are still charging sixpence. It’s an anomaly, that’s what it is. Why should page 185 the publicans over the hill make a penny more than us on every beer?’

‘Well, I suppose they’ll get used to it, Dad, same as everyone else did.’

‘Conditions have changed now. What you could buy for sixpence five years ago you can’t buy now. And they’ve had rises. We’re entitled to something out of their rises.’

‘I was just thinking of the boys.’

‘Oh, the boys. It’s a hard commercial world when you get down to tintacks, and the boys have to pay for their pleasure just like everyone else.’

The letter announcing the decision was headed Licensed Victuallers’ Association: Westland Branch. Mr Palmer put it in a drawer under the till.

After school Miss Dane tried again. She saw no harm in buying a packet of cigarettes. She poked her head through the slide with an air of amused tolerance, and self-consciously asked Don for them. He looked at her quizzically and said, ‘You’re going gay, aren’t you?’ She was flattered and blushed. ‘Coming out of your shell,’ he said. ‘Dad says you’ll be in here with your foot on the rail soon.’ It hurt her that her gestures in his direction had become common property. Nervously she opened the packet and clumsily offered Don a cigarette. ‘I’ve just put one out,’ he said. ‘Oh, go on,’ she said. ‘Just to show there’s no ill feeling.’ He took one casually. ‘Why should there be ill feeling?’ he said.

She saw Rogers at the bar. Don had been talking to him before she came. She felt jealous of men that they could so easily and openly get into Don’s company. ‘I think the kids must be wearing you down, Miss Dane,’ Rogers called, ‘if you’re taking to smoking.’ He meant it as a friendly taunt but Miss Dane did not take it kindly. ‘I think that you should be a chain-smoker in that case,’ she called with sprightly acidity.

As Don lit his cigarette he murmured, ‘Did you make sure you did what I told you when you got home last night?’

Miss Dane flushed and said: ‘Yes…. You’d be surprised at what I’d do for you,’ and overtaken by her own temerity she ran up the stairs to her room where she smoked with a sense of abandonment and wrote another passage of her novel. Archly, coyly and tenderly she brought Rosslyn and Sandra together where their chirrupy efforts each to outscore the other were underlain by soft stale adolescent awakenings of romance. She wondered whether she should make Rosslyn dark instead of fair.

Mrs Palmer shoved her head through the slide and called softly page 186 to Arthur Henderson who had joined Rogers in the bar. He went to the door. ‘Mr Henderson,’ she said. ‘Can I see you for a minute please?’ In the kitchen she asked, ‘What happened at the meeting last night?’

‘Well, Mrs Palmer, as you know, what goes on at the meeting isn’t supposed to get out, but….’

‘I understand, Mr Henderson. But I know how to keep a secret. I just want to know what happened to Heath over strapping Donnie.’

‘Well, I can tell you this much, Mrs Palmer. He didn’t get let off too lightly.’

‘What happened to him?’

‘We censured him, Mrs Palmer. We said straight out he’d exceeded his duty. We’ve forbidden him to use the strap on infants again.’

‘I should think so too.’

‘We thought it best to leave it as it is, Mrs Palmer. We aren’t going to write to the Board about it. We thought it was enough to give him fair warning this time.’

‘I’d like to give him a bit of leather, just to let him know what it feels like.’

Henderson laughed complaisantly, patting her on the back as if to say, ‘You are a one for your jokes’. He went back to the bar and sidled heartily into conversation with Rogers. ‘What I always say, Paul,’ he said, ‘is that a young chap has to look after himself. Now when I was your age—oh, things weren’t easy then, I tell you. I was in a sawmill then. There were more chaps looking for work than there were jobs for them. You daresn’t speak out of place then or you’d get the sack. The unions didn’t have the power they have today. Well, I always found it paid to ask no questions and do your job and mind your own business. Oh, you couldn’t tell me. I saw it all. Chaps getting the sack for being a bit too independent. Pride’s poor consolation to an empty stomach.’

‘Did you get the sack?’

‘Me? No. That’s what I’m saying. If a chap minds his own business he’s always on the safe side.’

‘You’d better not let Jock McEwan hear you talk like that.’

‘Oh, well, Jock now. Jock’s a damn good chap, one of the best. But he carries things too far. He’s got one thing on his mind—class struggle and all that. I believe in live and let live. Life’s too short for all this arguing. Don’t you think so, Paul?’

Rogers shrugged. ‘It may be, I don’t know.’ He didn’t agree, but he didn’t want to be drawn.

page 187

‘There, you see. You’re not convinced about it yourself. What I say is a young chap like you’s got to look ahead. You’ve got a fine career ahead of you. I only wish I’d had your opportunities when I was a boy.’

They swallowed in silence for a minute.

‘There’s other things in life besides bargaining with the bosses. Anyway the Government is our boss now. There’s pleasures to be got out of life. Company. Good fellowship. Well, friendship. I always reckon if a man has a good job and a good mate he’s well off…. You don’t mix enough, Paul. What I say is you should get out and meet people more. A fine young chap like you shouldn’t go to seed. I’ll tell you what, you could come up home some evening. Just for a yarn and the company and perhaps a beer or two….’

‘Well, thanks. I can’t promise. Would your wife mind?’ He was flattered at the invitation; yet he wanted his evenings free to walk with Flora.

‘No. Not at all. She’d be glad to have you. Anyway, if you came around on a Wednesday she’d be at the Red Cross group. The kiddies’ll be in bed. We could have the place to ourselves. Women are all very well in their place but I always say there’s nothing finer than male company….’

His patter seemed to be exploratory; every assertion trailed off as if it implied a question. Surely, Rogers thought, surely….? He had heard the vague rumours about Henderson, that he had a weakness for young men, that his children were not his own; but he had never believed them. Perhaps they weren’t true, perhaps he had generated the rumour by talking to young men of the town as he had talked to Rogers. Oh God, what a life, he thought; how stupid and unintelligible life can be. The man was to be pitied. Would Peter grow up like this? Perhaps he’d be worse.

‘I can’t come Wednesdays,’ he said. ‘Perhaps I’ll look you up one day. Anyway I can always see you here.’

‘Yes, yes. There’s nothing like a bar for good company. Never mind. But what I was saying, a chap like you has to be careful. You see I’m not supposed to mention this, but what I say, it’s not fair to a young man to come at him without warning.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Well, as you know there was a committee meeting last night and I’ll tell you, just between ourselves, mind, that your boss is after your blood. Oh, if you knew this town as I know it, Paul. All the squabbling and backbiting and slandering. You’ll have to watch out.’

‘What’s he going to do to me?’

page 188

‘Well, I don’t want you to so much as whisper a word of this to anyone….’

‘I’ll keep it quiet, whatever it is.’

‘Well, there’s talk of a delegation from the committee dropping in on you some time soon. Just to see if your class is as rowdy as your boss says.’

‘Oh, the bloody fool!’

‘Well, just so you won’t be caught unprepared, like. But my advice to you is keep your mind on your job and don’t be independent. You could easily get along with your boss if you wanted to.’

‘More drinking and less talking, you two,’ Don said. ‘Magging away like a couple of old maids. Drink while you can get it for sixpence. It’ll be sevenpence in a month’s time.’

Rogers looked up, resenting Don’s intrusion. Already in the two months he had known him he could see a change in him. It was somehow a change of stance. There had been moments before when unconsciously he had been upright in spirit. Now as he leaned over the bar or bent to draw the tap, his shoulders seemed rounded, his butt hung on his lip; he had the stand and the expression of a street-corner lout. Rogers checked his train of thought. He was his mate: a funny sort of mate he’d be to be picking faults in him; you couldn’t expect everyone to be a hero.