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



The party to celebrate Flora’s engagement to Rogers was held on the Friday night in the Oddfellows’ Hall, the same night as Miss Dane left the hotel. Mrs Palmer had invited most of her customers except Mike Herlihy and some of the younger lads who, she was afraid, might kick up rough. She said to Flora, ‘We’ll show some of these people how a party should be run. We’ll make it a real do.’

Dad had been hard to convince that Rogers was in a position to provide for Flora in the way she deserved. He had a long and serious talk with him.

‘Four hundred and thirteen pounds in the bank,’ he said. ‘That’ll only buy the furniture and the carpets. You’ve got a bloody check, haven’t you?’

Rogers flushed. At that moment he had no idea whether he was presumptuous or ambitious, he only knew that he and Flora were set on marriage and her father’s opposition was one of the hurdles he had to get over. If Dad wouldn’t give in, he was prepared to marry in spite of him, scratch along with Flora for a few years. Was it so presumptuous to ask her to do that? She wanted to marry too; if they shared a lean time, hadn’t he a right to expect it of her? Did her father expect him to wait for years so that he could come to her with a tidy bank balance? Was Flora going to find it so hard to part with the family?

‘We both want to marry, Mr Palmer,’ he said. ‘We love each other.’

Dad looked coldly at him. ‘That’s all very well, Paul. Love doesn’t make a marriage. It’s got to be there, I admit. But you’ve got to have a bit more to offer a girl than you’ve got.’

‘We aren’t even asking to get married yet. Only engaged.’

‘Well it’s going to lead to marriage. And I don’t want you getting our sanction to the engagement and then forcing your way on us, popping a bloody kid inside her.’

‘Mr Palmer! Flora and I—we’ve never … I never had any thoughts of doing that.’

‘I don’t doubt you hadn’t, Paul. But I’ve got to see this thing page 198 with a cold eye, taking all the chances into account. You can’t say that sort of thing doesn’t happen. I’ve seen it happen myself…. Once you get engaged you might start thinking it was safe then.’

‘I don’t intend to take advantage,’ Rogers said.

‘So much the better then. How long will it be before you get married?’

‘We thought, about a year.’

‘How much can you put away in that time?’

‘About two hundred if I stint.’

‘That’s six hundred. Well, I’ll have another yarn with Flora and if I’m convinced she’s dead set on it, I’ll think it over. How long will you teach in the Flat?’

‘About two years.’

‘Then where’ll you go?’

‘It depends where I’m appointed. Probably a bigger town. Perhaps Canterbury.’

‘Well, if you’re still here when you marry you can stay here. That’ll save board and give you a chance to save another hundred or so. There’d be no sense in buying any furniture here; you’d only have to pay for it to be shifted. Mind you, all this is conditional; I’m not yet in a position to make up my mind. Then you’d have to get a house. I don’t want you just renting a house. You’d have to own it yourself.’

‘If I get a sole charge in the country, I’d get the school house.’

‘What about when you leave there?’

‘I hope we’d have saved enough by then.’

‘You’d have a family by then. It wouldn’t be so easy to save.’

So it went on, Rogers had to give an account of his insurance policies, the history of his health and what diseases he had had. He had to get a medical certificate from the doctor to convince Dad he wouldn’t die early and leave Flora a widow. Though he never would have permitted the match without Mum’s intervention, now what Mum said didn’t influence him. Finally one night he told Rogers that he would give his consent. He would lend them £500 towards the house when they needed to buy one; to be repaid within ten years of the loan; this to augment the loan Rogers could raise from Rehab. Of course in the end Flora would get it back, from his will; but Dad didn’t believe in making things easy for the younger generation. They had to stint and struggle the same as he did when he was a young man. He didn’t want to encourage Rogers to think that he was a goldmine. In fact, if it had been anyone less transparent than Rogers he would have suspected that Flora was being courted for his money.

page 199

After all the interrogations and the uncertainty, Dad’s announcement left Rogers rather flat. He had smothered his rebellion for some time and the only reason he hadn’t said, ‘To hell with your humming and ha’ing! We’ll manage together!’ was Flora’s reluctance to fall out with the family. At least it was something that Dad hadn’t, as he had expected, asked him to pull out of the Labour Party.

All the same it was a great relief to know that that hurdle was crossed. Dad and Rogers shook on it and they drank a whisky together to toast the engagement. Then Mum was told and they all drank another. Mum called Flora and she and Rogers locked arms while Mum, Dad and Don were all cheer.

The party when it came was a great success. Mrs Palmer asked Mr Rae to be Master of Ceremonies: that way there’d be no fuss if there was a bit of drink in the hall, so long as everything was kept orderly, and Mr Rae could be trusted to see to that. She told Rogers to ask any friends, but most of them were regular customers and she had already asked them. He invited the school staff and the doctor, only the doctor said he was too busy. Rogers was a little relieved at that.

Mum had ordered the cakes from some caterers in Greymouth. She would have preferred a catering firm to have run the whole party, but Dad said, ‘Cut it out, Lil. This isn’t the wedding yet.’ So she got in touch with the social committee of the Red Cross group, and by inviting the right women she was able to get free and willing assistance with the supper and washing-up. Jessie Cairns ran a busy group of women who cut sandwiches and prepared the tea in a back room. In a side room Don attended a bar where there was beer for the men and wine for the women. There was a keg on the table made of boards on trestles, several dozen bottles of beer, and a dozen of wine imported from Australia and bottled by a brewery in Christchurch. The women preferred the bottled beer. To prevent the men from staying in the bar, the arrangement was that no drinks would be served during dances. Dad hired a four-piece band, made up of local players, at a quid apiece.

Mum had thought that it was Dad’s right to be master of ceremonies, but it was more politic to ask the policeman, and if you looked at it another way, it made Dad seem more important having someone else to announce the dances. The two of them stood by the door, host and hostess in a style to which Coal Flat was not accustomed. Dad in a newish double-breasted suit stood back, modest and informal, grinning as if apologizing for his wife’s formality while really approving it. Mrs Palmer stood in a long page 200 black evening frock, décolleté but only two inches below the shoulders, and backless. She had let her hair down and she did have a fine pair of shoulders to show off; altogether, as she knew, she cut a fine figure in her gown. The way she welcomed her guests she made them feel at home as soon as they came in, yet her manner was almost regal; it was as if she was saying, ‘Don’t take any notice of my bearing. I can’t help acting like a duchess.’ It was a compromise that suited the function.

Constable Rae announced the dances in a tone of neighbourly pump; he kept an eye on the bar, slipping out after each dance had begun and saying, ‘Come on ladies. Come on, gentlemen, the Valeta’s begun. Let the barman have a dance too.’

Rogers and Flora felt as if they were only the excuse for the party, They didn’t seem to have any recognized place in it, and were slightly surprised every time somebody came up and congratulated them. They led off the early dances; Rogers had never been much of a dancer, yet tonight his feet seemed to have wings. It was a whirl from start to finish and they were both happy because they were in love and the whole town knew it and everybody was their friend. Through the evening they agreed that it was selfish to dance together all night and Flora accepted other invitations while Rogers danced with Belle Hansen and with Doris. Doris and Frank were enjoying themselves too. They tried to keep back among the crowd away from the Palmer parents, because, though Frank in any case hated the limelight, he couldn’t rise to the easy stateliness of Mum at the door. Jimmy Cairns was there, and Ben and Maggie Nicholson, and Jock McEwan and his wife, Rogers spoke to them all. Jock said to him, ‘Well, this is the last time we’ll be all in together enjoying ourselves like this for a while, Paul. There’ll be divisions when the boycott starts.’ Rogers grinned in assent, hardly knowing what Jock had said, because he was in a mood to agree with anyone and there wasn’t a dispute in the world that wasn’t trivial. Sid Raynes came up looking sourly benevolent, and a little sheepish. ‘Well, even if you did spoil me trade, I’ll wish you good luck,’ he said.

‘You mean, you’re not selling comics?’ Rogers asked.

‘I didn’t do it for you,’ Raynes said. ‘The Miners’ Union told me. I couldn’t risk them putting a boycott on me.’

All his efforts seemed to be running to success.

Mum and Dad were doing an old-time waltz—Dad spry but formal and Mum flowing, when Flora saw Arty Nicholson look through the door, sceptically, as if reserving his judgement. ‘Arthur!’ she called. ‘Come in!’

page 201

Arty was torn between curiosity and the fear of being called a gate-crasher and a contempt for the exclusiveness of the function. ‘I’m not really invited,’ he said.

‘I’m inviting you,’ Flora said. ‘Come in and enjoy yourself. There’s a bar out the back. Only you’re not allowed to get tight.’

‘I’ve got Winnie here,’ he said. Flora looked out and saw Jimmy’s eldest girl—she was seventeen and had just started working in the baker’s shop. She was fair headed, with a shy pouty face that could break easily into confident laughter once she was with friends; she was very attractive in an immature way. In a year or two she would be lovely. She was medium-sized, with a figure so soft and attractive yet so dormant, as if unaware of its beauty, that men admired her at the same time as they recognized she was only a child yet. It was in her face, too, that unconsciousness of beauty. Flora was pleased to see that Arty had found a new girl, one with the same background as himself.

‘Bring her in too,’ she said, ‘Come in Winnie. I ought to be congratulating you. You’ve got hold of a decent boy. Can I steal him off you a minute? It’s probably the last dance I’ll have with Arthur.’

Rogers saw Winnie looking shy and unwanted at the door, conscious of her short frock, though very few of the women wore long ones, and he led her to dance. She had been at the school when he had been there five years before. ‘Gosh, Winnie,’ he said. ‘I forgot old Jimmy had such a pretty daughter. You just about make me change my mind. I wonder if Flora will mind.’

Winnie grinned: it was strange to hear a teacher talking like this.

Heath was there too. All the school staff were there. Heath had accepted Rogers’s invitation gracefully. He and his wife mixed with the other guests and generally showed that they knew how to conduct themselves on occasions like this. It was rumoured that they didn’t hit it off too well, but, if that was so, they didn’t reveal any signs of it. Rogers seeing them felt as benign to them as he felt to anyone else, particularly when he introduced Flora to Heath, and Heath his wife to the both of them, and congratulated them. That night everybody was their friend.

Flora dancing with Arty said, ‘I really owe you an apology, Arthur. I must have been pretty snobbish that night.’

‘That’s all right, Flora, I’m glad now anyway.’

‘So am I,’ she said. ‘But you don’t know how near you were. If you hadn’t gone off the handle about only being a miner, I don’t know what I would have done.’

Arty’s face was a mixture of flattery and the memory of insult. ‘I’d have broken you away from your family.’

page 202

Her face clouded. ‘No, Arthur,’ she said. ‘I doubt if you would.’

‘Forget it,’ he said. ‘I’ve got no regrets now.’

‘Me either,’ she said.

‘I’m going away in August,’ he said.

‘Where to, Arthur?’

‘South Westland. Me and Joey Taiha. Whitebaiting. What I make on that’ll pay for setting us up. I’m going to get married too.’

‘To Winnie? … Congratulations, Arthur!’

‘It’s not official yet. Don’t say anything. I haven’t even asked her old man…. We will, though, sooner or later.’

As the dance finished and they moved towards Rogers and Winnie, she said, ‘Good luck, Arthur, all the very best.’

‘Thanks, Flora. Good luck to you, too…. You’re all right, Flora,’ he said and she knew he had forgiven her. He was proud of that small secret understanding with her, something her own husband would not know.

Don saw Miss Dane chatting to Heath and his wife. She had just left the Hansens and the Lawsons because she sensed that they found her poor company. The worry of shifting had made her tired. She kept remarking, in her effort to join in the swing of things, that really it was terribly well run considering there was drink in the hall; she hadn’t seen anybody that looked in the least tipsy except the blessed couple and she was afraid they looked more intoxicated with romance than anything else. Don came to her; at this function there was nothing extraordinary in his being seen asking Miss Dane to dance; it was to be expected that a son of the household should attend occasionally to the women who were seldom asked to dance. Miss Dane didn’t dance often. Yet her feet slipped automatically into gear and she followed his movements gracefully. She thought it better to say nothing to him, just to let him guide her and abandon herself to being close to him though she knew it meant nothing, nothing at all. Don, finding that she was not trying to foist herself on to him, took pity on her and spoke to her without contempt.

‘How do you like your new digs?’ he said.

She only smiled, a faraway smile.

He said nothing for a while, and she lost herself once more to the sensation of moving at the will of another, close to his arms, his chest, his legs. A suppressed memory of desire ached in her, but she kept it out of her consciousness, losing herself in the moment and its sensation of mindless movement. Then, as if they had always known each other and spoken from heart to heart, he said, ‘You take things too seriously, that’s your trouble. Life’s not all that serious.’ It was the only time he had ever addressed her as a person page 203 of equal stature and not as a thing or a child; she didn’t answer, she closed her eyes wanting him to go on talking to her like that. The waltz came to an end and he whirled her madly into a climax. Then he smiled at her and returned her to the Heaths and went back to his bar. She wandered past the Heaths without seeing them. The other people seemed to belong to another plane of existence. She slipped out of the hail and sat in her car dreaming, not wanting to puncture her mood. She felt in her handbag and found the packet of cigarettes she had bought over the slide at the hotel that day, still half full, and she lit one and lay back feeling as luxurious as if she were a pampered courtesan in an eighteenth-century French court. And then she remembered the previous time she had danced with Don and she leaned forward and burst into bitter childish tears. Dad looking out the door, said, ‘Hey, Lil, we’d better go and see if everything’s all right. She might want some help.’ But Mum said nothing. She narrowed her eyes and gave Dad a look that was the facial equivalent of kicking your card-partner under the table. ‘She’s probably just tired with all the excitement,’ she said and they went back to their guests.

Then for Rogers and Flora, there was the Destiny and supper. They helped Mrs Jimmy and her women helpers to pass round the tea and sandwiches and cakes. Then there was the event of the evening. Dad took over the floor and he made a speech that was solemn and good-humoured at the same time, with a joke against himself and one against Rogers. It was just the right speech, there wasn’t a word about politics, not a word that would offend anyone, a lot about the serious step the young couple were contemplating, the great undertaking they had promised to begin, and the future before them in their respective careers, Paul yelling at other people’s poor bloody kids and Flora perhaps wiping the behinds of her own. Well, that was in the future, and he felt he could safely predict that in a year or so they’d all be back in this hall to celebrate a more serious and joyous event. He presented them with a parcel which when Flora opened it, turned out to be a set of cutlery.

Then Rogers felt in his pocket and produced the engagement ring he had bought in town and slipped it on Flora’s finger and they kissed. There was clapping and the band led off for the last dance. Miss Dane who had slipped into the hall again was reminded of her farewell at Roko. She slipped out again to the car to wait for the Raes, her teeth clenched against crying.

Then there was ‘Auld Lang Syne’, and ‘God Save the King’, in which even Jimmy and Ben and Jock participated as a gesture of good-fellowship, a fact of which Mum took notice; then as the page 204 crowd were about to break up Mum got the band to start ‘There’ll Always he an England’ to prolong the climax, because the song was patriotic and reminded her of Don’s twenty-first birthday party. As the guests left they noticed the strain in her face. She simply called, ‘Good night!’ to them all continually, not shaking hands now, and as soon as they were gone she flopped in a chair and burst into tears. ‘She’s always like this,’ Dad explained. ‘It’s too much excitement for her,’ People leaving, seeing Miss Dane in the car, never dreamt that she had spent half the evening there.

The next evening Mum said, ‘I’ll bet they’d never seen a do like that before.’ The school had broken up on the Friday of the party for two weeks’ term holidays, Miss Dane went home to New Plymouth to her mother, and Rogers stayed on at Palmers, helping in the bar and doing add jobs for the family. Everyone said he was really one of the family now.