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 222


The next day painters arrived to paint the inside of the school. The rain had delayed their programme and they were a fortnight late coming from another school. They started on Rogers’s room first. He and his class spent the first hour moving their chairs and tables into Miss Dane’s room, which was big enough to hold both classes if the tables were spaced more tightly. As a result there was that atmosphere of novelty and restlessness and the class was in little mood to work that day. It was strange for Rogers too, and irritating. The two teachers had to talk against each other’s voices and in the end worked out a dovetailed timetable, so that their voices should clash as little as possible. But Miss Dane, being infant mistress, automatically took control of discipline. She often interfered in Rogers’s class; she treated the two as one under her eye. Rogers had warned the children that they would not have the same freedom in a room short of space; but he hadn’t expected her to act as his overseer. Yet there was nothing he could do; there would be no good in breaking the united front teachers always kept up in front of children. It would have been no use complaining to her; she would simply have said, ‘In these conditions your children will have to be much quieter,’ and she would have been right. If he were to take her aside and insist that he should have the discipline of his own class, it might cause a continual friction between them that would unsettle the children. And of course she might take it to Heath and that would give Heath the chance he was looking for. He could only resign himself to her rule and hope that the painters would finish soon. But when they had done his room, they would start on this one, and the two classes would have to move into the other.

Till he was back on his own he had to give up hope of getting further with Peter Herlihy. There was no room for children to distinguish themselves in this room, except in getting their sums or spelling right. You couldn’t let any child outdo the others in movement or talk, and you couldn’t favour any child. Rogers hoped that by now he had helped Peter along enough to make do for a month page 223 or two. Then he would continue. Recognition and affection should be enough for him now. Miss Dane, however, was always picking on him, because he was more restless than the other children. She cast for Rogers’s endorsement with such comments as, ‘I’m surprised that a boy of your age should be such a nuisance. You should be setting an example to the other children. Don’t you think so, Mr Rogers?’ Rogers would try to evade the question by addressing himself directly to Peter: ‘You’ll have to learn not to talk in this room, Peter.’ But he knew he was disappointing Peter’s hopes for his support.

In the playground Rogers would catch remarks from the older children. ‘He’s a scab,’ they would whisper and he would ignore it. Jimmy Cairns’s boy, Russell, said with frank innocence: ‘My dad says you’re a scab.’ Miss Dane said: ‘Russell! Don’t you ever let me hear you say that again! It was a very cheeky thing to say, and Mr Rogers is very hurt. I’m sure you didn’t mean it, did you, Russell?’ But later she said to Rogers: ‘What do you expect? If you will drink, you can’t expect the children to respect you? I’m quite in agreement with the miners over this. I hope it’ll break them of the drinking habit. I think publicans are in a wicked trade.’

The second day of the boycott Jimmy Cairns had stopped Rogers on the road. ‘What’s this I hear about you breaking the boycott?’ he said. ‘I told the boys when I heard, it was a mistake. “He can’t help going into the pub,” I said, “because he boards there. But I’ll bet he’s not drinking.” Then the doctor said you weren’t in on the boycott.’

‘I had a beer last night,’ Rogers said. ‘I drank bottled. It hasn’t gone up in price.’

‘Ah, now,’ Jimmy said. ‘We’re boycotting all drink till the draught beer comes down. If you drink bottled beer you’re playing into the publican’s hands. He doesn’t care what you drink so long as he makes a profit out of it.’

‘Anyway I reckon it’s comic,’ Rogers said. ‘A penny. It’s not worth the trouble. That’s not socialism.’

‘Well, every man to his own mind,’ Jimmy said, ‘but you know what you’re doing. You’re liable to find yourself boycotted as well as the beer. This town hasn’t much sympathy for people who act against the union.’

‘Are you serious? You say every man to his own opinion. Can’t I have mine?’

‘You can think what you like, but you can’t do what you like. Not if it goes against the good of the rest of us. You’re like a strike- page 224 breaker. It’s the same thing in principle. I’d hate to have to use the word you’ll come to be known by if you don’t join us.”


‘Yes. You’ll never live down a name like that. We don’t use it lightly. But once we do it sticks.’

‘Well, if you use it you will be using it lightly. I can’t take this thing seriously. What about the other teachers?’

The other teachers talked of the boycott in the staffroom. It was an interesting piece of gossip but it didn’t greatly concern them. Fred Lawson didn’t drink, Belle only at home when there was a party. Her husband never went into a pub, so he wasn’t affected. Apart from Miss Dane, the staff took the side of the publicans, on the grounds that the miners had too much say in running the town. Rogers found himself a minor hero in the staffroom because he was defying the union he had formerly upheld. Even Heath was more conciliatory: ‘I must say I agree with you on this stand, Mr Rogers, whatever our differences in other respects. I’m not going to be dominated by the president of the Miners’ Union.’

So that when the delegation from the school committee dropped in on Rogers, though he had forgotten them, he found them affable. The children were of course more strictly ordered now that they were under Miss Dane’s eye: Miss Dane had offered to take the backward group for extra coaching in letter-recognition, and they had improved; and Heath at the moment was not concerned to victimize Rogers. The delegation itself approached the visit with a sense of inadequacy; they didn’t feel that they had the right to criticize, and they didn’t know what faults to look for. They milled about the room smiling vaguely, making polite comments, disturbing the class in spite of trying not to, so that a restless atmosphere persisted after they had gone. Only Rae was judicial in manner; Caddick, though he obviously was a little disdainful of Roger’s job, was friendly to the man who had shown his independence of the union. So was Thompson. Only Mrs Cairns was hostile. ‘I’m sorry I stuck up for him at the committee meeting,’ she told Jimmy before she went to the school. ‘If I can find anything wrong with his teaching I won’t try to hide it, now.’

‘Being a scab doesn’t make him a poor teacher,’ Jimmy said.

‘I’m not saying that,’ she said. ‘I’m just not going to stick up for him any more.’

But she found no fault; she only said aside to Rogers, ‘I thought you’d ha’ known better. I really did. You don’t think of the bills us housewives have to pay. It’s not only beer that’s going up.’ Rogers didn’t answer. None of the other delegates complained of anything, page 225 and they reported at the next meeting a week or two later that they had no recommendations to make.

But Rogers wasn’t concerned greatly whether the delegation was well or badly disposed to him. He was corroded by the town’s enmity. Heath and Belle and Caddick and Thompson might admire him but they weren’t his friends. The people in whose company he had felt easy were against him. On his return to Coal Flat they had welcomed him and trusted him, they had given him the charge of their children with a goodwill not given to the other teachers, because he was one of themselves and had not forgotten it; and even at the height of his popularity he had only been riding their goodwill. Of course he would continue to do his job, and on the surface nothing would seem to change except his own self-esteem which owed so much to the criticism of his neighbours. He wasn’t happy in his present position, hadn’t been happy about it from the start. But what could he do? If he did switch sides now, join the boycott after having repudiated it, he would have no friends on either side. He thought that Flora would follow him if he made up his mind to do that, but it would make things hard for her, and there was no guarantee that she would, and he couldn’t take the risk.

Of course he had slipped into this position by a series of prevarications and compromises: postponing the moment when he would offend Mrs Palmer; surrendering to Flora’s false image of him, even without trying to correct her; fooling himself with an idea he hadn’t even believed, that Peter’s future among these people hung on his choice; acquiescing like an obedient child when Don asked him to drink. Flora had misjudged him: then there would always be unspoken misunderstandings between them. There was no one in the town with whom he could share his mind without reserve….But before these events his mind must have been unconsciously prepared to defy the boycott. Because he hadn’t believed it could have any value, whether or not it might be successful.

It was comic. He couldn’t abide by a majority decision if he couldn’t agree with it. The union had no control over him, he knew; but he believed too that where the union went, so long as Ben and Jock were in office, went socialism, and that way he should go. But he didn’t accept their decision. At back, then, he allowed himself final authority; but why shouldn’t he? What else could a man do? ‘If I agree, I’ll join you,’ was his stand, ‘If I don’t, I’m not with you.’ That was the difference. Their line was, ‘I may disagree before the vote is taken, but if the vote is against me, I stand corrected and do what the majority agrees on.’ And hadn’t they a point? Weren’t there so many examples of individual consciences being mistaken page 226 that the only guide was a majority decision in the full light of collective experience. But there were plenty of cases of a majority being wrong. Didn’t Hitler have popular support? But there you could say the Germans were misguided or misinformed. This beer boycott was such a simple issue: there were no prejudices or blind emotions involved; it should be easy to decide one way or the other. The miners knew what they were doing. But his case was different; his private affairs were involved. But if he couldn’t follow the majority decision, at least he shouldn’t hinder it. All the same he wasn’t going to give up his independence. If he lost that he would have lost everything. He had his integrity and he had his stubbornness too; he couldn’t give way now and make a bloody fool of himself.

He was walking down the corridor at school, and Heath was following him when Dick Cairns whispered, ‘Scab!’

‘Here, that boy!’ Heath called. ‘What did you say’.

‘Please, sir, I said scab.’

‘The utter cheek of you!’ Heath said. ‘That word’s swearing. You ought to have your mouth washed out with soap for that. Get along to my office. You see, Mr Rogers. They might stop me from strapping infants but they can’t stop me strapping the older boys. Oh, I’m with you over this. I won’t have any children insulting their teachers. If any other child whispers that word to you again, just send him along to me. Cheeky brats! What can you expect with parents like that?’

Rogers wanted to defend Dick but he knew it might make Heath punish Dick harder. Of course, Heath thought he was helping him. This was where his conscience landed him, supporting acts that violated it.

Peter came to his table one night a after school. ‘Something’s going to happen to you,’ he said. ‘I’m not telling what.’

‘What, Peter?’

‘My dad’s going to set a ‘possum-trap next time you go to get the bus to Greymouth. You’ll get caught and you won’t be able to get out.’


‘’Cause you’re not fair. When you’re in the trap all the kids’ll come round and throw stones at you and you won’t be able to chase us away.’

‘Did your father say this?’

‘All the kids’ll call you scab!’

‘They’re calling your father that too.’

‘My father’ll chase them if they call him that.’

‘Well, I’ll chase them too.’

page 227

‘You won’t be able to. You’ll be caught in the trap. You’ll be crying because it’ll hurt.’

‘Did your father say this?’

‘No. I’m going to tell him, but. He’ll do it if I tell him.’

‘I’ll be careful where I walk. Then I’ll see the trap and dodge it.’

‘Then he’ll do something else. We’ll get an Alsatian and sool it on to you. It’ll bite you and knock you over and savage you.’

‘Why do you want to do this to me?’

‘’Cause you’re not fair. You let Miss Dane growl at us and you don’t stick up for us.’

‘Miss Dane’s in charge. I have to take notice of what she says.’

‘You’re as big as her. She’s only a lady. You could tell her to be quiet or you’ll hit her.’

‘Teachers don’t act like that.’

‘No, ‘cause teachers are soft, they’re mad. They’re always growling. You didn’t use to growl at me. You don’t stick up for me now. I’m wild with you.’

On top of everything else he had let Peter down too. But what else could he have done? How could he oppose Heath and Miss Dane and the union all at once? Now that he knew that Flora had misjudged him, he felt alone and bewildered, completely alone.