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



As the days passed Miss Dane became obsessed with Don. She went to bed holding in her mind an image of him that soothed her into sleep. But later she found it harder to sleep. She lay awake plotting elaborate schemes by which she could inveigle him into intimate talk. She drifted into fantasies in which Don emerged from his casual callous shell and exposed himself a tender sensitive serious young man relenting the pain he had caused her; they were dreams of tender static reconciliation in an atmosphere of exotic calm and warmth. It now seemed imperative that she should save him. Since that was the obvious purpose of her surrender to him that night, it would be meaningless unless she did. She wanted to tell him that the way he was heading he would end in hell. Surely he could be made to recognize one who loved him in his best interests; surely he would notice her air of patient unobtrusive love and awake to gratitude. She prayed for him.

But when he spoke to her as occasion threw them together, he page 189 showed no recognition that their relations were any different than they had been before that night. He seemed to think he had done enough if he only kept the secret. She overheard one day in the kitchen that at last his divorce from Myra had been granted and she was glad. Perhaps that was why he hadn’t wanted to be seen talking too openly to her, not until he was free anyway. Now perhaps he would make some approach to her. But he didn’t. She felt sorry for him; he had been unfortunate in his experience of women, and he no longer trusted them. If only she could show him that here was one woman who loved him more than anything else, one woman who would never take advantage of him. It was so difficult for her to catch him alone so that she could sound him. He was either in the bar or in the kitchen; there was always someone else about; and his mother had a nose like a bloodhound when anyone looked at her son. She wrote several notes which she put in a drawer, reading them several times a day, but never able to find the courage to pass them to him. She did one day post a short letter:

Dear Don,

There is one person who knows your secret. You are not the callous trifler you pretend to be. At heart you are good and I know it. You need the care of a woman who understands you as I do. I would do so much for you.

Please remember I am always waiting. You do not notice me as you did once. But I do not care about myself, only you.

From Your Ever-loving

You Know Whom.

Surely he would be touched by the self-sacrifice explicit in the last sentence…. She was careful to be vague in case the letter should get into someone else’s hands; she addressed it carefully to Mr Donald Palmer, Junior, and underlined the last word.

But Don didn’t know whom. When he read the first sentence he thought he was being blackmailed. When he got to the end of it he wondered if it was from the girl who had run out on him at Christchurch. But she wasn’t likely to use phrases like ‘callous trifler’, and anyway the letter had a Coal Flat postmark. Perhaps it was some local girl who was admiring him from a distance. Why didn’t she show herself then?—perhaps they could use each other. He didn’t show the letter to anyone till the afternoon when he passed it to Rogers. ‘Know this handwriting, Paul?’ he asked.

Rogers read it and laughed aloud. ‘You bastard, Palmer. You shouldn’t have shown me this,’ he said. ‘Someone’s pulling your leg. How do you know I didn’t write it myself?’

page 190

‘I wouldn’t put it past you either,’ Don said. ‘The way you were magging away to Pansy Henderson the other night.’

‘Are you sure it wasn’t addressed to me?’ Rogers said.

‘Who the hell would want to write love letters to you?’ Don asked.

It just didn’t occur to Don that Miss Dane would want to write him a letter like that. But when she slipped a note over the slide one day, and he recognized the handwriting, he was knocked off balance. ‘Christ, the woman’s getting too serious’ he thought; ‘she’s putting the nips in; a man doesn’t want to be trapped a second time, not to her, anyway.’ The note asked him to see her in the lounge after dinner. When he looked in, she was sitting there alone.

‘Oh, Don,’ she said. ‘I hope you didn’t mind my writing you that note.’

‘No. What do you want?’

‘You’re sure you’re not offended with me?’

‘No. Why?’

‘I haven’t done anything to offend you, Don. You never seem to want to speak to me.’

‘I’m always busy in the bar.’

‘One word—she had prepared this but it sounded flat and ridiculous in her ears—‘One word would mean so much.’

‘Well, hello,’ he said, with mock sheepishness, ‘will that do?’

‘But seriously,’ she said, and realized that seriousness was the worst tactic she could use. ‘Have a coffin-nail,’ she said. As he lit, she said, ‘What about a drive tonight? You can have the use of my car.’

‘I was thinking of going to Stillwater in the bus.’

‘Why not take the car?’ she said.

‘Christ, that’s an idea,’ he said. ‘Thanks.’

‘Is there a dance on there?’ she asked.

‘Yeah,’ he said.

When he came down after shaving and changing she was waiting in the sitting-room in a light frock.

‘Oh, you meant—you’re coming too?’ he said harshly.

‘Of course,’ she said. ‘What did you think? You want me to, don’t you?’

‘Yeah,’ he said, his harshness casing glibly, ‘I just wanted to see your face drop.’

She laughed gently. He said, ‘Just a minute,’ He wondered for a minute. He took it that she was offering herself to him for a second time. He didn’t want to be tied to her while he watched younger and better-looking women dance past them. He knocked on Rogers’s door. Rogers was reading. ‘Get your nose out of a book page 191 for a change,’ Don said. ‘Get some decent clothes on. You’re going to Stillwater.’

‘What for?’

‘You’re coming to a dance with me. Hurry.’

‘Wait till I ask Flora to come.’

‘No. She’s doing some ironing.’

‘I know. I said I’d see her later. But she’d put the ironing off if I asked her to the dance.’

‘I’ll tell her you’re going with me. I wouldn’t ask you, only it’s important.’

The mystery was a little exciting. As they went down the stairs, Don said, ‘She thinks I’m taking her to the dance.’


‘You’ll see.’

It came clear to Rogers when he saw Miss Dane that he was being used. He felt like turning his back on them and going back to his book, to wait for Flora, but already Miss Dane said, without much welcome, ‘Oh, are you coming too? I didn’t knew it was to be a party.’

‘I was going with Paul in the first place,’ Don said.

Rogers felt he couldn’t make the lie obvious. He excused himself and went back to the kitchen where Flora was ironing. He explained the situation without giving away Don’s trickery. ‘He’ll wait if he knows you’re coming,’ he said.

‘No. I want to get this ironing finished. You go with Don, Paul.’

‘I’d rather go with you. I should have thought of it before.’

‘I’m tired tonight, Paul. I want an early night. You go on and enjoy yourself.’

‘I’ll try to,’ he said.

The dance was held in a hall of corrugated iron from which the cream paint was flaking. There were several buses from other mining and milling towns in the district. There was the usual crowd of young men near the door looking over the prospective partners lined up in seats along both sides of the hall as if on approval. The band played clumsily a dilute saccharine jazz dominated by a smoogey saxophone. There were the usual dances—every alternate one a one-step or foxtrot, and the others the Maxina, the Valeta, the modern waltz, the Boston two-step, the Canadian three-step, the Gay Gordons. Rogers danced the Destiny with Miss Dane, but that wasn’t successful because there was a special local way of dancing the steps and she wasn’t familiar with it. Don left them and didn’t come back to them except at supper, held in a back room—sandwiches and shop cakes and tea. They page 192 saw him often dancing with other women. Rogers would have sat by Miss Dane, but he offered his seat to one of a group of girls who stood conspicuously in front of him. It wasn’t comfortable bending over her trying to talk above the noise. She didn’t appear to be in a mood for talk anyway and they had little in common to talk about. He excused himself and went to join Jimmy Cairns and his wife, who had come by bus.

‘Well, Paul, my boy,’ Jimmy said, ‘Enjoying yourself?’

‘Oh, not so badly.’

‘Where’s Flora?’

‘She didn’t feel like coming out tonight.’

‘Meet the missus.’

‘I’ve been hearing a lot about you,’ Jessie Cairns said. ‘You just watch yourself, young chap. Old Heath has got his knife into you.’

‘Oh, I know that.’

‘What, Pansy Henderson been talking?’

‘Well, I knew anyway. Heath’s never hidden it.’

‘Well as long as you know. Who are you with?’

‘Miss Dane. Well, Don brought her really. Then left her.’

‘That’s dirty trick.’

‘So you’re holding the baby,’ Jimmy said.

‘She’s no baby,’ Jessie said. ‘She’s not much younger than me. Tell her to come over here. She looks lonely over there. What’s wrong with you anyway? Why aren’t you dancing with all these young sheilahs?’

He hedged, ‘I’m a bit lazy, I suppose.’

‘Lazy! What’s come over you youngsters today? You’re all lazy. Jimmy says the young ones are too lazy to do anything except hold up their hands, at the union meetings.’

‘Paul’s like me. He likes his beer too much. You can’t drink beer and run a woman too.’

‘Well, you seem to manage,’ Jessie said, ‘Too much beer-money. That’s the trouble with the younger generation. We had some fighting-spirit in the hard times.’

‘Well, it’s really because I’m going with Flora,’ Rogers said, annoyed that they hadn’t realized it.

‘Cripes, I can’t see Jimmy missing the fun just because I’m not there.’

‘How do you know?’ Jimmy said. ‘I only pretend I enjoy myself then.’

‘Shall I ask Miss Dane over?’ Rogers said.

‘Yes. Tell her we’re all going for a drink.’

‘I don’t think she drinks.’

page 193

‘She can have a lemonade,’ Jessie said.

There had been a timber hotel a few yards up the hill from the dance-hall but it had recently burnt down. At the back there was a temporary bar in a corrugated iron shed erected in a hurry after the fire so that the hotel would not lose its licence. It was just a long bar with kegs at the back of it. There was nowhere to sit. Miss Dane would not have joined them, only she had seen Don leave the hall in a crowd. She was glad of an excuse to enter the pub to see who he was with. The bar was crowded. Jimmy pushed to the bar for drinks while they stood jostled among young men swallowing beer fast to get enough spark up to enable them to be bold with the women at the dance. Miss Dane looked about her. Don was in a corner with a girl who was leaning against the wall, with a gin in one hand. She had a sort of turban on her hair, her face was garishly rouged and she grinned a pampered grin that Miss Dane could only read as triumphant. She smoked from a long cigarette-holder, and her shoulders were rounded. Miss Dane took in all this in a second. She quickened to impotent fury and only checked himself from stamping her foot and spurting tears. She trembled in fear that he might see her there and pretend not to see her, or even wave to her casually. ‘Mr Rogers, you don’t object if I go now,’ she said. ‘I’m awfully sorry. But really this crowd and this smoke will make me ill.’

‘I can get the bus if you like,’ Rogers said.

‘Yes, you’d better, I think.’

‘Where’s she going?’ Jessie asked.

‘Back home, I think.’

‘I don’t blame her. I don’t know what she’s doing wasting her time on Don Palmer. He’s not her type. Anyway I never did believe Myra left him. She wasn’t a bad sort, Myra.’

‘Drink up while you can,’ Jimmy said. ‘It’s going up to sevenpence three weeks Monday. We might be boycotting the pubs yet.’

Don grinned when Rogers told him that Miss Dane had gone and he’d have to get the bus back. ‘I’ll be able to take Tess back to the Flat now,’ he said. ‘Meet Tess.’ Later he said, ‘So the old girl went off in a huff? You know, it was her that wrote me that letter.

‘Well, there was no need to tell me that,’ Rogers said angrily. ‘Keep your smelly secrets to yourself.’

‘Are you jealous too?’ Don said. ‘If that’s the way you are, old Pansy will fix you up.’

Rogers could hardly restrain his fists. ‘That’s the last I’ll stand from you!’ he almost shouted, shaping up to him. People coming out of the dance turned to watch.

page 194

Don put an easy palm on Rogers’s shoulder. ‘Calm down, big boy,’ he said, ‘Can’t you stand your leg being pulled?’

‘It’s an insult to your sister,’ Rogers said in an undertone so that people watching wouldn’t hear. ‘I don’t care what you say about me.’

‘You don’t think I meant it, Paul?’ Don said with that glib humility that usually won people. But the appeal was lost on Rogers. ‘If I thought it was true, I wouldn’t know you.’

Sullenly Rogers said, ‘Forget it. You still didn’t need to be so hard on the woman.’

‘Well, what do you expect me to do?’ Don said. ‘Encourage her? It couldn’t have come to anything. It’s better to knock it on the head at birth, isn’t it? Like a snork you don’t want.’