Jock McEwan got off the trolley and followed the other miners down the slant dip. With familiar boots they picked their way over the rails, along planks at the side, down again on to the rails, dipping their lamp-lit helmets where the cross-beams were low, making their long sullen way to the coal face.
In spite of the brash cross-barracking of the men and lads on the trolley, each of them entered the pit, as on every morning, with an initial response of sullen resignation. Going underground was putting the sunlight behind you for eight hours, your headlamp your only feeler in a day of barren dark. It was a grim and heartless place to work in—rough grey walls, a floor of coal dust deadened with stone dust and caked with oil, stacks of timber and rails in side-cuttings. There was no life below—only the rats that lived on crusts from the men’s cribs and a white mould that might appear on all timber surfaces one moist might in January and die a week after. Down below you took on the mentality of citizens whose sleep might at any time be disturbed by an air-raid siren, who had lived like this for years. Extracting the earth’s frozen power, you lived at enmity with it. At any time it might fall and bury you. A random spark might strike off an explosion, or a race of boxes run loose downhill. You were always on the alert; though you had worked here without a scratch for twenty years and though you hardly acknowledged the thought you never knew that you would see the sun again that afternoon. The town that lived off raiding the earth carried its casualties—Alec, carpentering on the surface, limping because of his heel torn to the bone by a winch-cable; Sandy with three fingers bitten off where two trucks collided, reared from their bumpers and kissed where his hand tried to hold one of them back; Fred with an eye torn out when a badly-aimed sprag flew back from the spoke of a downhill truck; and the graves in Karoro, from falls of stone, and explosions. Underground you had to settle your habits into realizing that you were a cog in a lumbering inefficient machine page 206 for gutting the earth and that any mistake you made might cause a breakdown or an accident to other men. An error of judgement was a sin, an oversight inexcusable. When you were broken into the mine mentality you had what they called pit sense.
In the last cavel Jock had been paired with Ben Nicholson. Ben had immigrated from Scotland twenty-seven years before as a lad of twenty. Motherwell had no work for him, and the whole of Lanarkshire was hard pushed to provide work for youngsters. He grew up to play on slagheaps, and between the mean grey rows of company houses; Dad drunk on pay night, Mum with fingers worn and blackened with work, bent and nagging, driven by worry; bath-night on Saturday for church on Sunday. Ben had weathered his upbringing with surprising kindliness. He was a good mate at any cavel and any miner was glad to be paired with him. New Zealand had made him benign and tolerant; his eyes twinkled with a kindly Scottish understanding, his face was stern enough and lined, but ready to ease into a wry shrewd smile. He was a man confident that socialism would come but perhaps not in his time; he would work for it, but like a man taking time off for a smoke, he would enjoy himself between efforts. Jock was narrower. He had a single-purposed zealot face that seldom relaxed. He hadn’t forgotten the years of youth he shuffled away in broken boots among the sullen tenements of the Gorbals, with the smell of rotten plaster and cooking fat and open drains, his mother scratching up the next meal from his father’s slim pay packet, his eldest sister who walked out on the family to take up a stand in Sauchiehall Street. In those enforced hours of leisure he had conscientiously read bitter political tracts and cold outlines of economics and he formed his mind to a purpose. If life was easier here in New Zealand it could not cuddle away the memory of the time when he had strength for hire and no one would buy it, and people still drove in cabs, ate fully and slept warm, who could have employed him. He was afraid of Ben’s easier approach, and he was more afraid still of the apathy of the lads who had been born here. They had grown up to good times, a bigger demand for coal than the mines could satisfy, a forty-hour week, bank-to-bank shift, and all the extra emoluments for difficult working conditions —sweat-time for working in a moist atmosphere, wet-time for working ankle-deep in water, dust-time for a dusty atmosphere. They took it for granted that they had these conditions; they didn’t acknowledge that they had them only because the old-timers had fought for them.
At the face they had to wait till the trolley was hauled up again, so that the trucks could start running.page 207
‘Don Palmer says they’re putting up the beer,’ he said.
‘Oh ay,’ Ben said. ‘Prices are going up still. It’ll get worse before it gets better, I think.’
‘A man should refuse to pay it,’ Jock said.
‘Well, there’s nothing to stop us, if we want to do that.’
‘You mean boycott it?’
‘Ay. If we boycott it, we’ll force the price down.’
‘It’ll be a hard thing to do. There’s too many of us like our beer.’
‘Well, you’re always saying these lads don’t know what discipline is. I like my beer myself and I don’t care that much about an extra penny. But I’ll give it up if everyone else will.’
‘It’s not the extra penny. It’s the principle. Everything is getting an extra penny tacked on to it.
‘Table a boycott, then. Put it to the union. It’ll not be only us. I bet once we start we’ll have the whole Coast out. The dredge fellows, the sawmillers, the other miners, the wharfies in town.’
‘It’d be a bit of a change for the publicans to be without work. Will you call a meeting this afternoon and we’ll see what the lads think?’
When the trucker brought some empty boxes they filled them and Jock began to work with fierce energy. ‘Easy on it, man,’ Ben said. ‘You were like that last time I was with you. I believe in working at a good steady pace. You get more coal out that way. If you carry on like that you’ll be buggered before you’re fifty.’ But it was hard for Jock to relax. They got ahead of the truckers and had to stop for a while. ‘Come on, you lazy buggers,’ Jock called. ‘We want to get more coal out than this.’
‘Oh, stop your moaning, Jock,’ the youth called. ‘It’ll only go in income-tax. You don’t expect me to kill myself.’
‘The trouble with you youngsters today is you’re frightened of a bit of sweat.’
‘He’ll learn,’ Ben said. ‘He’s only new. You’re a bloody slave-driver, Jock. He’s pouring sweat as it is.’
‘There’s one fault I’ve got no sympathy with,’ Jock said, ‘and that’s laziness.’
‘Who has?’ Ben said. ‘You’ll be getting like old Ned Seldom. He was a proper slave-driver. I hope you’re never underviewer over me.’
‘I’ll never be an underviewer,’ Jock said. ‘I’ll always stay on the same level as the lads.’
The underviewer came; he must have been satisfied with the trucker’s pace because he had no comments. Just before crib-time the manager came by. ‘You’ve got plenty to keep you going there,’ he said. ‘It’ll be a while before this face is worked through.’page 208
‘Mr Caddick,’ Ben said. ‘I’d like to call a meeting this afternoon.’
‘Beer’s going up. We want the lads to boycott it.’
Caddick laughed. ‘That’ll annoy old Don Palmer. I don’t believe you could do it. Some of the chaps have been drinking twenty years and more. You can’t tell me they can knock off a habit as easily as that.’
‘You’d be surprised,’ Ben said, ‘what you can do when you set your mind to it.’
‘Well, you don’t have to have your meeting this afternoon. I want to be getting more coal out.’
‘We haven’t been slacking,’ Jock said. ‘We got more out last month than any month before.’
‘I know. I know. I’m not casting aspersions.’
‘We can hold the meeting anyway,’ Jock said. ‘You know that.’
‘I know. But I’m asking you if you can hold it another time. What about a bath-house meeting first thing in the morning? You’ll lose less time.’
‘I see no objections to that,’ Ben said. Jock faced Caddick, on his guard for a trap. ‘It’s three days yet before the price goes up.’
‘Well, thank God it’s the publicans and not us you’re against this time,’ Caddick said. He had been manager in the company days and hadn’t accustomed himself to the nationalization of the mine. ‘What happens if anyone breaks your boycott?’
‘We’ll see to that,’ Ben said.
‘Well, I hope there’s no strikes come out of it, that’s all.’
In the bath-house the following morning the miners sat on benches with their pit-clothes on, their batteries on their belts and lamps on their helmets. Ben put the plan to the meeting and Jock spoke for it. ‘There are some individuals in this union,’ he said, ‘who are taking things too easy. I’d remind those individuals that it’s a great temptation for a working man to go to sleep in good times. Us older ones have got enough fights behind us to know that the fight isn’t over. There’s a lot of younger individuals here who haven’t had that experience. All they know of working-class unity is that it’s a phrase we’re addicted to using at union meetings. The doctor’s wife said once they’d been bought off with beer-money. Well, you’ll still be earning your beer-money but if the motion’s carried you won’t be able to buy beer with it. Some of you may think it’s a hardship. Well, I’d have you remember the times when workers have had to go without proper food for months on end because they were on strike or on the dole, and they didn’t have any beer-money.page 209
Jimmy Cairns got up. ‘Well, speaking as an ex-publican myself,’ he said. There were calls, ‘Capitalist! Exploiter!’ and Jimmy continued: ‘Yes, I’ve had my foot in both camps. The only thing I couldn’t do in the victualling trade was to make money. I came out of that pub a poorer man than I went in, in spite of all the coin that passed through my hands.’
‘Think of the beer that passed through you.’
‘You’ll have to work a few Saturday morning shifts to make it up, Jimmy.’
‘Was it true they put an extension of the winch-line to the pub, to haul you down to the face in time in the morning?’
‘Order, order,’ Ben said. ‘This is a meeting.’
‘What I say,’ Jimmy said, ‘is that the quickest way to bring a publican to heel is to stop his trade. If he’s not selling he’s not making money. And that’s the only reason he’s there, to take your money off you. If I do say it myself.’
‘Now you’re showing your hand, Cairns, Robber.’
Arthur Henderson got up. ‘What I’d like the lads to consider,’ he said, ‘is the gravity of the decision they’re undertaking. Well, I always say, a man is a creature of habit, and if a man’s been drinking regularly for nearly forty years as I have, it’s no light matter to say you’ll stop. I get a lot of pleasure out of my beer, and I must say I value the friendship of Mr and Mrs Palmer….’
There were interjections, ‘Sit down!’—‘Count him out!’—‘Time, please, Mr Henderson. We’ve robbed you enough for one night,’ in an imitation of Mrs Palmer’s voice.
‘In a working-class struggle your only friends are in the working class,’ Jock said, ‘besides an occasional intellectual like the doctor.’
‘And not all of them are friends either,’ Ben said. ‘Remember the Seldom strike. One worker against the rest. We don’t want any scabbing in this thing. Either we’re all boycotting the beer, or we take no action at all. Not some in the pubs and some out.’
The motion was carried with a loud chorus of ayes, though the younger ones were glib about it. Arthur Henderson knew he would be the only No, so he voted Aye. And they knew they would have to abide by their decision now.
The last two nights before the boycott, the Saturday and the Sunday, Palmers’ bar was as busy as if it was Christmas. Dad knew why, because Ben had told him of the decision. Rogers was helping Mum and Dad behind the bar. Mum served with great courtesy as she always did, only she emphasized it, as if to say, ‘Your union decisions don’t affect us. We’re friendly to all customers. We’re above politics.’
On the Monday morning Rogers, returning to school for the winter term, was still living in a mood of elation: the future was his own, the world was his friend and he had Flora’s love. He loved the children that morning and nothing they could do could ruffle him; perhaps because of this, they did nothing to ruffle him, they were quieter than usual at their work. Peter was advancing rapidly now. It was six weeks since he had fought with Dickie Cairns and become a leader of a gang of boys, and he hadn’t tormented girls since then. It was nearly three weeks since he had said, when Rogers asked him to draw some pictures, ‘Not like I usually draw. I’m sick of those mad pictures.’ Now he drew cowboys on horseback; once he even drew a train. He hadn’t mentioned again the man and woman who had invaded his hidey-hole. His mind now seemed to be completely off that track. He looked healthier too, freer; his eyes were franker, more eager, more like any boy’s of his age. He was still unsettled, still defiant and occasionally moody; but for Rogers the worst part of his cure was over, there were no risks now, either of making him worse or of getting into trouble with other teachers. ‘It won’t be long now,’ Rogers thought. In fact now if he could get Peter away from his home he would be cured. Now he only had somehow to develop some kind of resilience that could withstand the effects of his parents. But since that wasn’t possible, Rogers supposed Peter would always be, to some extent, an unhappy and resentful boy, till he grew up and could leave home anyway. He might improve a little more with time. Now he was learning to read, too, and fast catching up with the other children. His arithmetic had always been ahead of theirs. Soon he would outstrip them. Soon perhaps he could go up to Belle Hansen’s class. But would that be a good idea? She might drive him into himself again with her bullying. It might be better to let Peter learn more slowly so that he could have at least a year of comparative emotional freedom.
Rogers met the doctor on the main road on his way home from school that afternoon. The doctor got off his bike. ‘I say,’ he said. ‘I don’t know if you know but Raynes has stopped selling comics.’
‘Yes, I know,’ Rogers said. ‘He told me at the party. He didn’t sound too pleased.’
‘I read that one you gave me,’ Dr Alexander said. ‘I was amazed. I had no idea. I’m sure no one else had either at Bernie O’Malley’s meeting. You should have read us passages.’page 211
‘Well, you all treated me as if I had a bee in my bonnet. You weren’t in a mood to listen.’
‘Anyway I gave it to Jock McEwan. He brought it up at a union meeting. They took action. It would have been more suitable if he’d taken it to the school committee. But Jock said the school committee couldn’t boycott a shop, but the union can.’
‘Well, that’s one thing I’ve done for this town,’ Rogers said.
‘How are you getting on with young Herlihy?’ the doctor asked.
‘Oh, good,’ Rogers said. ‘It was difficult at first. It was like setting off a carefully-laid fuse to blast away some fear or fixation and having it cross-connect with another fuse you didn’t know about—if that’s possible. You see what I mean? It might explode in the wrong place. It might backfire.’
‘Well, what did you expect? I warned you. You can’t do a lot to alter people till you alter the social conditions that cause their problems.’
‘But I have succeeded. Peter’s over the worst of his trouble anyway. It was a combination of good guess and good luck. I tremble now when I think of the risks I took.’
‘Anyway, how is Peter Herlihy a result of social forces? Every boy in Coal Flat isn’t the same as him.’
‘No. Certainly not. But every night you send that boy back to his home and expose him to the parents who made him what he is.’
‘Well, I know that myself. It’s a psychological problem then. Caused by the home he comes from. So it has to be cured by psychological methods.’
‘Only up to a point. You have to cure Mike and Nora too before you can cure the boy properly, so long as he lives at home. And if you wanted Nora a happy woman you’d need to have started on her mother thirty years ago. And you’re forgetting the social forces that made them like they are.’
‘What social forces?’
‘Old Mrs Seldom and her hatred of Catholics. Originally it was a class hatred, in Ireland. The Scottish Presbyterian squatters reciprocating the hatred of the Irish tenants. Here it’s meaningless, like a vestigial organ.’
‘But there are plenty of other people in this town with ideas just as unreal. There are Catholics here and people who hate Catholics. Their kids aren’t like Peter. It’s the parents themselves—their personalities—who are responsible for that boy. He’s been starved of affection.’
‘I agree with you there. But why? Because his mother was turned page 212 out of her home by her bigoted parents…. And whether the lack of affection is just from Mike and Nora, or from society as a whole acting directly on the boy or indirectly through his parents, is another argument. No one can say our society shows much affection for the failure.’
‘Other children are satisfied.’
‘They’re more or less normal already. Our society makes a scape- goat of the child who starts with a handicap. He gets the blame for it.’
‘Well, that’s not the reason for the handicap. It was there before society started on him.’
‘In a better society boys like Peter could be cured by a social atmosphere of encouragement…. You said once he was obsessed with sex. A boy who’s the odd one out like that has a nose for all the weaknesses and rotten parts of his society. It’s people like that, provided they’re gifted, who are the writers and artists of western society nowadays. Have you known a community that, deep down, is more obsessed with sex, than puritan New Zealand?’
‘What about America?’
‘We’re only a stage or two behind, the way we’re heading. We’re swamped with their culture already…. Anyway, it’s more important to work for a healthy society through good, normal people than to cure a few isolated people who might never be very co-operative.’
‘It would have been cruel to throw the boy away.’
‘He’s not the only one. There are others being thrown away now all over the country and you can’t stop it because you’ve never seen them and never will. In every town in this country you’ll find the outcasts of an earlier generation—old widows, old men, two or three in every small town living in shacks at the edges of the town, on the beach, off the road, each one a joke among the children of the town. Mrs Seldom’s become one herself, whether you blame her or blame the town…. It’s better to bring in a society that won’t make a rubbish dump of children who’ve been starved of love. The only way to cure boys like young Herlihy is to take them to a camp run on lines of co-operative activity, where they are encouraged to share things and build things together. But they need a constructive society to be released into or all your work goes to waste. I saw a Soviet film about that once. The Road to Life. It was excellent. I’ll try and get the book for you.’
‘Thanks. But I tell you, I’ve succeeded with Peter. Do you think it wasn’t worth doing? Christ, I had to do something.’
‘No. I’m only saying your effort would be better directed towards changing society.’page 213
‘That’s abstract, unreal. I could see results, dealing with Peter. I’ve saved him from gaol, I can tell you that.’
The doctor looked unconvinced. ‘I hope so,’ he said. ‘It’s a bit early to say. There’s still a lot of harm can happen to him yet in that house.’
‘Well, he’s better prepared for it now…. Forget it. We’ll never agree on this….’
‘Anyway the boy’s name came up at the committee meeting and in spite of my doubts I defended your methods.’
‘Thanks. I heard Heath is on my tail. The committee’s going to pay me a visit.’
The doctor looked up. ‘Well, I don’t know anything about that…. You’ve got nothing to fear anyway.’
‘I’m not worried. Are you coming for a beer?’
‘I hardly ever drink. Anyway there’s a boycott on; it started today.’
‘Yes, I heard. But I’m not worrying about it.’
‘You’re not serious, I hope? It’ll go hard on you with these people.’
‘Are you serious? I’m not in the Miners’ Union. If I was, I’d stand by a union ruling. The teachers haven’t come out against the increase.’
‘Now you know better than that, Rogers. The teachers never will. The people of this town won’t expect them to. But you’re a man of good reputation amongst the miners. A professed socialist. And you won’t even support a peaceful communal action.’
‘Well, I say good luck to them. But I can’t take it seriously. The whole thing’s comic. Where’s all the drama and the glory? A beer boycott. A town sulking over an extra penny a glass.’
‘You don’t think socialism is all slogans and flag-waving and speeches, do you? It’s just these patient determined efforts that win.’
‘Look, doctor, when the union has a just cause for a strike or any other action I’ll support them. But this is just comic. It’s a matter for the individual conscience. If I’m willing to go without something else for the sake of dearer beer, that’s my business. I can adjust my own sacrifices. If the miners don’t want to pay more, let them give up drinking. That’s what they’re doing. Well, no one’s trying to force them to buy the beer.’
‘Well, I understand you’re in a difficult position, but I never thought when you got engaged to the Palmer girl you’d let the family have your soul too.’
‘Aw!’ Rogers demurred.
‘I know it’s difficult in your situation just now,’ the doctor said. ‘But seriously, men have done a damn sight more before today than page 214 quarrel with their prospective fathers-in-law for the sake of a principle. If you can’t do that, what will you do?’
‘Rogers watched the doctor bike on to visit a patient, and he walked into the hotel. The doctor’s words had stung him, yet he was completely unprepared for any difficulty with the Palmers. In the last few days he had been taken right into the family. He didn’t want to be accused of ingratitude, because he was grateful. Dad had offered to lend them money for a house when they needed it. Mum had given that party for them and then there was the present. But, damn it, could they buy him like this? They knew all along he was a socialist. They must expect him to take a stand. But what stand? Over a bloody penny. Jesus Christ. A bloody penny. It was comic. As he went in he had no plan. He would let instinct guide him. Flora was the only one that mattered. If he made a stand, she’d follow him. Well, he’d see. What would happen would happen.
Mrs Palmer called him from the kitchen. ‘Come in and cheer us up, Paul,’ she said. ‘The good times are over for a while, I reckon. It’s going to be a bad time for all of us. First Miss Dane walked out on us and that’s no advertisement for the hotel. And now this damn boycott. They don’t expect us to give the beer away.’
‘No,’ said Rogers, thinking twice before he said it, ‘They don’t expect you to give it away.’
‘Well, that’s what we’d be doing if we didn’t put it up. Have a cup of tea, Paul.’
‘What, are you boycotting the beer, too?’ he asked, ‘Drinking tea.’
‘Well, I always say a cup of strong tea is a good stand-by.’
‘Do you think the boycott’ll last?’ he asked.
‘No,’ she said with contempt. ‘You can’t tell Mum that those chaps can go without for long. We’ll hold out. They’ll come creeping in a few days with their tongues hanging out, looking sheepish. Mum knows. You can’t tell me.’
‘No, one can’t tell you,’ he thought, but did not say it.
‘The doctor’s behind this, I’ll bet,’ she said. ‘I wondered why he wouldn’t come to the party and him supposed to be such a friend of yours. They’re good chaps most of the miners. They don’t go starting trouble. I don’t know why they listen to these damn communists.’
‘It’s a union move,’ Rogers said.
‘Well, Jock McEwan and Ben Nicholson. Mind you, I’ve got nothing against Jock. He’s a good chap. But he can’t forget his upbringing. I reckon a man should forget unpleasant things like that, He should be ashamed of them, and keep them to himself.’
‘Ashamed, what of?’page 215
‘Oh, the home tells, Paul,’ she said. ‘He came from a home that wasn’t up to much. In the slums, somewhere in Glasgow. He told me once he had a sister that set herself up for sale on the streets. Fancy boasting about it!’
‘I don’t think he was boasting.’
‘Well, he couldn’t have been ashamed or he wouldn’t have told me. I couldn’t hold my head up if I had a sister like that.’
‘How do you account for Don’s affairs?’ he felt like asking but didn’t.
‘And Ben Nicholson. I thought he’d grown out of all that bolshy stuff. Sometimes he comes in here and you couldn’t wish for nicer company. Always got a laugh in him, drinks hard and knows how to hold it. Married men with families and better homes now than they were brought up in themselves. I thought they’d have grown out of this kids’ talk.’
‘Well, it’s a union rule,’ he said. ‘If a motion is carried all members have to stick by it.’
‘Oh, Paul, now don’t you start talking unionism. You see too much of the doctor, that’s your trouble. What about Jimmy Cairns? He was a publican himself. He ought to be able to see our side of it. I don’t like people ratting on their own class.’
‘What is my class?’ Rogers thought. His father was an engine-driver. There were still people in the district who remembered him. Rogers could remember going barefoot in the slump because his mother had to make his boots last; he only wore them on Sundays in the summer. But then he preferred going barefoot. He could remember taking a dozen eggs to the grocer to barter for a pound of butter because her purse was empty. He got a penny a week for spending money. It was a lot to him. It wasn’t so silly that they were squabbling over an extra penny. A penny a week had been his taste of economic independence, his freedom to choose between an ice-cream and a chocolate bar. And he had been luckier than most kids because his father kept his job: they had never gone hungry in his home. There were kids at school who went barefooted all the time, winter and summer, with fathers on the dole. But then, he thought, a penny was worth a lot more then than it was today. But it would be exaggerating to say he had suffered in the slump. And even if he had would that have made him any better a man? Was it something to prize, like a military decoration? And was it real in New Zealand in 1947, to talk of classes, of anything more diverse than income-groups? He said, ‘Jimmy always was a miner.’
‘He had his chance,’ she said. ‘He had a chance to improve himself. He could have left the mine and concentrated on the pub. He page 216 wanted a foot in both camps. He only had to stop shouting every third round and he couldn’t have helped making a profit. But some people just haven’t got it in them to accept a challenge when it’s staring them in the face. I believe in seizing your opportunities.’
‘Flora came in with a basket full of washing. ‘It’s a little damp, Mum,’ she said, ‘but it wasn’t a bad day for drying. The first fine day for three weeks.’ She smiled at Rogers. How could they expect it of him? he wondered. He wouldn’t consider it, breaking with this girl who had given his whole life a new meaning, for the sake of a penny, for the sake of a union decision that didn’t bind him. If it did bind him that would be different; she would have expected it. But did it mean breaking with her? He hadn’t even asked her. What he would do depended on her answer. But that was giving in before-hand. Why not give in now, then? And watching Flora at work at home, he had come to see how much her family meant to her, far more than his own had meant to him. Her home had been the whole meaning of her life until she met him. Could he ask her deliberately to mutilate one of the things that was dearest to her? To mutilate herself, in fact? He knew he would hardly be responsible for his actions if he were to see anyone deliberately hurt her. Then how could he? Perhaps she would do it if he asked her, perhaps she would follow him out of the family. But it would be cruel to ask her. Look what it had done to Nora Seldom. But that was no analogy; he and Flora could never live like a cat and dog like Mike and Nora. But he couldn’t deny it would hurt her.
‘I’ll have a cup too, Mum,’ she said. ‘I’ll get it, you sit down. If I was a drinking woman I’d be up in the bar now, just to help Dad out.’
‘That’s how much socialism I taught her,’ Rogers thought.
‘Don’t worry about Dad, dear,’ Mrs Palmer said. ‘He’s been through worse trouble before this. Paul, there was one thing. I wanted to mention. How’s Donnie in class these days?’
‘Well, he always was a good kid in class,’ Rogers said. ‘He’s a bit more restless lately. But if you ask me, that’s a direct consequence of Heath giving him the strap.’
‘That twisting rat of a man. I’d like to smack him across the face.’
‘Donnie’ll get over it,’ Rogers said. ‘He’ll forget it in time. I’m taking good care Heath never has another chance to pick on him.’
‘He’s in safe hands then.’ Rogers was flattered. ‘He’s talking too much of that young Herlihy kid, though, Peter Herlihy this and Peter Herlihy that. I don’t like that boy. He’s a nasty-minded brat. I can read it in his face.
Rogers caught Flora on the tip of saying something, probably page 217 about the night Peter and Donnie followed them. His face pleaded for her not to say anything and she suddenly looked down to the sheets she was folding on the kitchen table that she had scrubbed almost white an hour before.
‘He’s not a healthy kid I know,’ Rogers said. ‘But I’m trying to make him better.’
‘Paul’s got some ideas about him,’ Flora said. ‘He was telling me the way he hopes to cure him. Tell Mum, Paul.’
‘Rogers was not pleased with her helpfulness. Mrs Palmer looked at him searchingly. ‘Well, I think he hasn’t had enough love and attention,’ he said. ‘I hope to give him that. It stands to reason if a kid isn’t loved he won’t trust other people, he’ll hate them. His parents don’t give him much attention.’
‘Mrs Palmer looked knowing and superior. She nodded like a tribal elder. ‘Oh, you can’t tell me,’ she said. ‘Mum knows. The home. The home always tells. It’s not much of a home, Herlihy’s.’
‘Well, I think there’s a chance to save the kid. He’s improved a hell of a lot lately. You couldn’t have seen him lately,’ he said.
‘I saw him the other day…. Every mother should make her children the centre of her life. When I had these kids I idolized every one of them when they were babies. Old Dopy here you never heard her cry, she was better than either of the others.—Here, Flora, be a pet and slip up to Dad for a couple of beers for Paul and me.’
This was where, if he was to refuse, he should refuse, Rogers thought; and with every second the opportunity seemed to have passed. But so far he hadn’t committed himself; he wasn’t paying for the beer; she wasn’t paying sevenpence herself, she was getting it at cost price, which was less than sixpence; no profit was being made on the deal, except by the brewers, and they hadn’t raised the price. He stalled. ‘I’m not really thirsty,’ he said.
‘You’re not going to join this boycott too?’ Mrs Palmer said. ‘I thought you’d stick by us. We can’t run this hotel at a loss. Oh, Paul’—she looked at him accusingly—‘you’re not stopping drinking for those bolshies?’
Flora looked concerned. It obviously hadn’t occurred to her that he might be affected by the boycott. ‘Paul always sticks up for what’s right,’ she muttered, as if ashamed to have to say aloud what she thought of him. ‘Innocent girl!’ he thought; she automatically identified their cause with right, and he thought he’d explained socialist principles to her. And yet he loved her; it made him want to protect her, hearing her talk with such political innocence,
‘We’re supposed to be saving now, Flora,’ he said.page 218
‘I’m getting this one!’ Mum said, with relief.
‘We were agreeing on Peter Herlihy,’ he thought, ‘fumbling our way to agreement. That’s important to me. To convert people to more understanding of children, A generation of happy children and we’d have our socialist revolution, naturally, peacefully, If only there are enough people helping the children to be rid of fear and guilt and malice, It’s my job to make people see that kindness is better than punishment. If I fall out with Mrs Palmer now, she’ll turn against those ideas I was explaining. She’ll forbid Donnie to play with Peter, she’ll help to push Peter back in the direction I’ve turned him from. That boy’s future is more important than an extra penny on a glass of beer.’
Yet, though he thought all this, at the end he didn’t believe it, It was fantasy; the real reason was Flora looking at him, waiting for his answer, expecting him to crusade for righteousness, for their extra penny. He saw her now with immense pity—he had never before felt pity for her. How could he disappoint her?
‘No,’ he said finally. ‘It’s nothing like that. I’ll have one just to show you it’s not that,’ And he thought, ‘Anyway, I still haven’t bought one myself.’ Flora went out to the bar.
‘What were we taking about?’ Mrs Palmer said. The time Rogers had taken to give a clear answer had disconcerted her.
‘I was saying I’m curing Peter Herlihy,’ Rogers said. She listened with pursed lips. ‘I’ve tried to bring him out. He needed companionship. He needed to be shown he can trust people.’
It was difficult at first to tell her reaction. She said it in the same tone of voice she had used years ago when he told her he was a conscientious objector. ‘Well, I reckon it’s the home that tells. I don’t care how much you try to bring a child out, you can’t eradicate the home influence. As far as I can see that child doesn’t want bringing-out so much as checking. If he’d had a proper home his mother would have starred to check him before it was too late. It’s a bit on the late side now, Paul. He’ll never be up to much that boy. I want you to keep Donnie and him separated.’
‘Well, kids form friendships, then break them off.’ He argued more passionately. He had given in for her, even if she didn’t know it. She ought to concede something to him. ‘Let it take its course, it’ll finish soon enough. It’s not fair to the kids not to let them pick their own playmates.’
‘It isn’t fair to them to see them coarsened by other boys and not interfere. You’re young yet, Paul. I’m older than you think, in the head if not in looks. Mum knows about these things. She’s seen too much, Paul.’page 219
Flora came back with glasses, ‘Dad says it’s a bit on the flat side,’ she said. ‘He’s not opening a new keg till the boycott’s over or it’ll go bad. You can have bottled instead if you like, but he wants to use this up first.’
‘We can take it, can’t we, Paul?’ Mrs Palmer said. ‘It may be flat but our spirits are light. Here’s how.
It was flat, almost undrinkable. As Rogers swallowed it he thought, ‘I threw away a principle on a hope I couldn’t have believed in. How could I have expected her to understand about Peter? But have I thrown away a principle? I haven’t paid for this. And anyway is it a principle I accept?’ But why pretend all this? It was for Flora that he had that beer. Hell, he was getting to the stage where he couldn’t recognize his own motives, let alone tell the good from the worthless. He made up his mind to speak to Flora.
He followed her into the wash-house where she was taking the empty basket. ‘Flora,’ he said. ‘I don’t want to drink while the boycott’s on.’
‘Oh, Paul!’ she said. ‘I thought you’d be one for sticking up for the right side.’
‘I don’t know that it is the right side, Flora,’ he said miserably. ‘I’m a socialist. It’s a union decision, the boycott.’
‘But you’re not in the union.’
‘I’m in sympathy. I must be. I can’t help it.’
‘I always thought you’d stick by the family, Paul. Just when we’re in trouble.’
‘Flora, I love you, you know. I want to stick by you, not the family.’
‘Well, if you mean you want me to quarrel with them at a time like this, Paul, I can’t. It wouldn’t be fair to Dad. What if we left? We couldn’t expect him to help us then…. I can’t understand it, Paul.’
‘Then you’ve never understood me, Flora.’
‘Oh, Paul, forget it. I don’t understand you when you’re like this. I did before, I knew you like the back of my hand…. Think of the happy times we’ve had, Paul. It’s just at these times we’ve got to stick together.’
Rogers squeezed her hand grimly and walked away, a man at odds with himself feeling like a dog with its tail between its legs.
He was going down the passage intending to go to his room when Don poked his head through the slide. ‘Hey, boozer!’ he called. ‘Aren’t you going to keep us company? We’re a bit short of bright company tonight.’page 220
He looked at Don sullenly. There wasn’t any point in refusing him now. ‘Cheer up,’ Don said. ‘For Christ’s sake.’
‘Ah,’ Dad said. ‘That’s two tonight.’ The other was Mike Herlihy. ‘The dredge chaps are out too. I thought they’d have kept coming here. I treated them fair when I was on the dredge. I saw old Arthur Henderson go past before, looking thirsty. He looked back twice…. Didn’t have the bloody guts to come in. It’s a wonder he didn’t slip in the back way. No one would have seen him.’
‘I don’t want him making passes at me,’ Don said. ‘It’s bad enough having this beggar around.’
Mike made a snarling sound.
‘No, the schoolmaster here,’ Don said and grinned an apology at Rogers. There wasn’t much need. There was hardly a phantom on Rogers’s face of the anger that had taken hold of him the night of the dance. Rogers knew it was meaningless, that Don only said it now because it annoyed him and that Don found it funny to make people annoyed and pacify them before they lost their tempers. But he only looked tired and said, ‘I don’t know why you keep saying that, Don. It’s a stupid thing to say.’ At least Dad didn’t take Don’s remark seriously.
‘We’ve all got our sinful natures,’ Mike said.
‘You’d believe every bloody slander that you hear,’ Rogers said. He didn’t want to renew the religious argument of the last time he’d spoken to Mike.
‘Sure,’ Don said, ‘I’d sin every night of the week if you’d find me the women.’
‘Arh, don’t listen to him, Mike,’ Dad said. ‘He’s all talk. The beer’s flat, Paul. I only serve it to the mugs like Mike here. You’d better have bottled.’
Mike was drinking bottled too. ‘Gassy stuff, Don,’ he said. ‘It’s bad for the stomach.’
Dad took sixpence and left the penny on the bar. ‘It’s only sixpence, Paul.’
‘I thought it was sevenpence?’
‘That’s draught beer. There’s no alteration in the price of bottled beer. Not yet anyway.’
Rogers was relieved. ‘But why aren’t the miners drinking bottled?’ Dad shrugged. ‘Oh, the principle of the thing, I suppose. Boycott one, boycott all.’
‘Bloody rot,’ Don said. ‘If a man wants anything he’s got to pay for it. Beer, women, smokes, everything you’ve got to pay for.’page 221
‘My boy was telling me about you,’ Herlihy said to Rogers. ‘He hasn’t got much respect for you. He likes school, though. First time I’ve ever known him to like school.’ Rogers was flattered. ‘You must be soft on him at that rate. Oh, you’ve got a handful there, young fullah. By God, you’ve got a handful there. It’ll take more than you to keep him down.’ He chuckled over his glass. ‘You and your socialism. It’s a case of the blind leading the blind, you trying to teach my boy anything.’
Rogers didn’t answer.
Heath looked in for a drink. ‘You’re a stranger,’ Dad said, a little coolly.
‘Well, I thought I’d show my independence,’ Heath said. ‘The miners think they can run this town. I’m showing them they aren’t going to control my drinking habits.’
Rogers didn’t speak. He watched Don draw a glassful from the tap. Don winked furtively.
‘That beer’s flat.’ Heath said.
‘Well, it’s been lying,’ Don said. ‘No one drinking it.’
‘We’re not opening a new keg to let it go bad,’ Dad said. ‘It’s not worth it.’
‘Well, I expect a little co-operation,’ Heath flared. ‘You should be grateful for my custom.’
‘Here,’ Dad said and emptied the glass into the slop-bucket. ‘Will you have bottled?’ Heath accepted the new glass with a stance of wrong put right.
Mum looked in and looked out quickly. She hadn’t expected to find Heath there. When she saw him her first impulse was to smack his face, but on second thoughts she thought it better not to drive away custom.