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



Nora Herlihy primly sat brooding in front of her coal stove. Since her one gesture of reconciliation towards her mother at her father’s graveside, she had hardened herself in her isolation, her bitter pride her only defence against loneliness. There was no one in Coal Flat, no one in the world, with whom she was any longer friendly. She hadn’t seen her brother Jack since her father’s funeral and he hadn’t spoken to her then. The marriage for which she had broken with her family had itself become a source of deeper bitterness. Mike was not for long the tender lover he had seemed before she had left home, a man who understood so much of the world to which she had been brought up hostile. Half her reason for marrying him had been the challenge offered by her parents’ opposition; when that had gone she expected him to treat her with respect because she had a sharp sense of her own inviolability. She expected him to wait till she was ready. For a week she had held out till Mike could restrain himself no longer from what he looked on as his marriage bonus, already a week overdue. To her it was rape. The indignity bit deep in her memory. When she was sure that no baby was coming her fierce chastity recovered and grew over the wound and after that she refused him.

A man more gentle than Mike might have coaxed her into physical tenderness, but surrender to force was an act impossible for Nora. That night, a week after the weeding, their marriage died. She had never forgiven him for what to her was, short of murder, the supreme act of disrespect; because to her love was respect. Afterwards he often tried again but she fought him off, tooth and nail, with an energy fiercer and more lasting than his own. Then he had reverted to his beer. For her he had promised to give it up, but, since she had cheated him, he released himself from his vow. Nora could never respect a drunkard and she grew to hate him bitterly and continuously.

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She made him buy another bed and she slept in another room; she gave him his meals in silence except when she nagged in her shrill acid voice; every second Friday she held out her hand challengingly for his pay-envelope, cursing him for having already taken his share for beer and tobacco. For eight years they lived like that. Then one night when she was weak with worry he came to her room and took her. The fruit of that night was Peter. She carried him with resentment, weak and disgusted at her morning sickness, frightened at her weight which slowed her normally quick nervous movement. Her muscles were not limber to his delivery and she had a long congested labour. She weaned him after a few days, since breast-feeding disgusted her. Mike softened towards the baby and used to tickle it and talk nonsense and she used to take the baby from him. Not that she had much love for it; she was contemptuous of its helplessness, irritated by its crying; but she fed it and clothed it efficiently because its preservation was a challenge. She took a pride in training he boy. By the time he was eleven months, before he was walking—she made him practise while she held his arms—she had him trained to use the pottie; soon after he was two she had trained him not to wet his nappies. She slapped him when he used his left hand and at twenty-one months he was sitting at his high chair, eating with his right hand careful not to spill his food. It was a matter of pride that her child should be earlier and better trained than anyone else’s. She protested if Mike played with the boy or danced him round the room or dandled him on his knee. Father and son developed a clandestine relationship, and she became their censor. And even after all this Mike would occasionally surprise her in bed but she was determined against it, and she fought him off. Peter who slept in a cot in her room used to wake screaming, and the crying made Mike desist. When he was five they sent him to a convent, and he was away a good two years. Since then he slept in Mike’s room, and even now they had their occasional struggles about eleven o’clock; they had come to need them, even to look forward to them, as a necessary climax to their relations; for her the struggle was a release of her pent-up hate, for him there was not much lust in it, mostly a desire for revenge and the reassertion of an unjustly rejected claim, like a further process in an endless lawsuit.

They sent Peter to a convent because by five he was restless and disobedient: one of the first words he had learned was no, and he would shout it at her in defiance before he was two, when he knew only a dozen words; she would slap his legs determined to beat his damned pride out of him, but she never won. Once he turned the page 230 chairs over, another time he played with matches, set the lavatory on fire and the house itself was threatened. He used to swear at her. She wasn’t keen on his being indoctrinated a Catholic; she was all the less keen when Mike reminded her that they had undertaken that all children were to be brought up in the faith; but she hoped the nuns might knock some of the devilry out of him—that she anticipated with a high sense of justice. When they brought Peter home, because Mike said they couldn’t afford the fees—she had used that as an excuse to cut his beer-money—he was more subdued, shiftier, more sullen, but his mischief now was secret and Nora had to trail him to catch him at it, which was more worrying than his open defiance. The only time he cried now was when his father left the bedroom to fight with his mother in the dark and come back muttering curses.

Sitting brooding Nora heard Mike’s boots on the path. She twitched automatically to the alert, and said as he opened the door, ‘Wipe your bloody feet now. Take those muddy boots off before you walk on the mat.’

Mike wiped his boots carefully but didn’t take them off.

‘I told you, take your boots off!’ she said.

‘Oh give me some peace, woman,’ he said. He began to unlace them.

She softened and looked alarmed. ‘Mike, what’s wrong? Why are you home at this time? Why aren’t you up at the pub boozing your pay away like you usually are?’

He didn’t answer. ‘It’s bloody pity you don’t take notice of this boycott,’ she said. ‘It’s the best thing that could happen to you. Christ knows it was bad enough your paying sixpence without having to pay more.’

‘I’d go mad without it,’ he said. ‘You wouldn’t wear the pants then, woman. You’d be sore with bruises. What Don Palmer gets out of me is your protection money.’

‘Christ Almighty!’ she said. ‘Listen to who’s talking. Do you think you could lay a finger on me and get away with it?’

‘I’m not going to Palmers’ tonight,’ he said.

‘What’s come over you? Is anything wrong, Mike?’

‘Trouble at the dredge,’ he said. ‘The union says I’m scabbing. How long they’ll last out I’d like to know. After a week they’ll be sorry. They’ll be sneaking into Greymouth at week-ends for it. They talk about will-power. Will-power. I ought to know about will-power after the vows I was going to take.’

‘It’s a bloody pity you don’t try to use some will-power for once,’ she said. ‘Even if you weren’t strong enough for your vows. page 231 Bloody Doolan nonsense anyway. You’d ha’ made a fine priest. I pity the girls you’d ha’ got in your bloody confession box.’

‘Stop it!’ he shouted. ‘Or I’ll clout you one.’

‘It’s bloody time you laid off the beer.’

‘You talk like the union. They’ve put me out of the union. They reckon the boss’ll have to sack me now.’

‘What’s that?’

‘Sack me, woman, that’s what they say.’

‘They can’t do that!’

‘They say the company can’t employ a man if he’s not a union member. Bloody socialists!’

‘That means the union’s sacking you. The union can’t sack you. They don’t pay you.’

‘That’s what they say.’

‘Bloody unions,’ she said. ‘They’ve caused more trouble than enough in this town already. Look what they did to Jack.’

‘Arh, Jack,’ he sneered.

‘We had the whole town against us!’ she said. ‘We held out too. We would have won if the company had had more guts. The lawyer said we could have sued them for damages. We were determined. They couldn’t beat the Seldoms.’

‘Arh, the Seldoms! Your old man was determined too. I beat him.’

‘You,’ she sneered. ‘It’s a bloody pity you did. If I’d known then what I know now you wouldn’t ha’ beat him.’

‘Oh, you’re sorry, are you?’ he said. ‘Nora Seldom giving in. Nora Seldom admitting she’s wrong.’

She turned fiercely. ‘Stop it!’ she screamed. ‘Or I’ll hit you one. Stop it!’ She said more quietly, ‘What are we going to do if you lose your job?’

‘They won’t sack me,’ he said. ‘They can’t. If they do, I might get into the mine.’

‘You gutless wonder,’ she said. ‘You crawler. Giving in already. Where’s your pride? If you don’t fight them, I will. I’ll take on the whole town and God Almighty too.’

‘Stop your blaspheming, woman,’ he said and chuckled. ‘You fighting God Almighty. I know who’d come off worst.’

‘The union can’t sack you. Who the hell cares if you’re not a member of the union? The company’ll have to stick by you. You’ve never lost a day yet. We’ll go to law about it if they do. We won’t let them get away with it this time. We should ha’ gone to law about it over Jack.’ Her voice was quieter and she continued talking while Mike sat not listening. ‘Jack beat the bloody union,’ she said, ‘even page 232 if they did get him the sack. They came round one morning to gang up on him when he was going to work. Christ, they thought they were going to do wonders, scare hell out of him, keep him a prisoner in his own house. What a show they had! Jack just climbed up the track and stared straight at them, walked right at them and they made way for him. They just followed him but Jack ignored them. They came round that night about seven o’clock. It wasn’t dark yet. Half the town was there. All their wives and hussies with them too. I just got up on the path and I called them all the names I could lay my tongue to. They thought I didn’t know their filthy secrets. I showed them. Terry Brand and that disease he was going down to the Grey Hospital to get treated for. Frances Johns and the husband she stole from her sister in Tasmania. All the kids that didn’t rightly belong to the men they called father. They just drifted away when I brought their ditty bloody histories to light.

‘Oh, shut up woman,’ Mike said. ‘You’ve got a vile tongue.’

‘And don’t I bloody well need one in this town?’ she asked. She stared at him. ‘Get your dirty boots off.’

‘I might as well. I’m not going to the pub.’

‘You gutless bastard,’ she said. ‘You’re giving up drinking because these union bastards told you. You’d never give up for me. Why should you start now? Eh? Answer me that.’

‘Don’t tell me you want me to drink, woman?’

‘If you stop drinking it’s got to be for me. Not for any bloody union. Get up now and go to Palmers’. It’s a matter of principle. Get up and show them.’

He chuckled. ‘I don’t need much prompting, woman. But don’t blame me if I lose my job.’

Peter came running in and flung his bag on the floor, then stopped in surprise at seeing his father. ‘Hang that bag up in the right place,’ Nora screamed. ‘Do you hear me now?’

‘Shut up, woman. You’re worse than the dredge with your screaming,’ Mike said. ‘Peter, there’s no need to aggravate your mother.’

‘Oh, her,’ Peter said. ‘I don’t care about her.’

Mike patted his shoulder and laughed. ‘See, woman, he’s got you taped. He’s not cowed yet, nor like his old man.’

‘Stop encouraging him,’ she said. ‘He does that every night to annoy me. Just because you’re not here to see. You’ll tempt me too far one day, my lad, my Christ you will.’

‘I want a piece,’ Peter said, and when she went out, complaining about his manners, saying that he wasn’t really hungry, to bring our some shortbread from her horde in the pantry, he made faces at her. page 233 ‘I looked in at Palmers’, Dad,’ he said. ‘I wondered where you were. Old Heath was there and Mr Rogers. Mr Heath growled at me. Mrs Palmer chased me with a broom. I called her mad.’

‘Well, not too much of your bloody cheek, son, or Mrs Palmer’ll bar me from the pub.’

‘She will not. She hasn’t got enough customers now. Donnie Palmer said they were glad you still went there.’

Mike looked glad, and Nora who had listened said, ‘That’s enough of your bloody cheek now. It’s had enough Rae coming round a couple of weeks back about you throwing coal on your grandma’s roof without you having him come round again.’

‘Arh, Rae,’ Mike said. ‘The law. It’ll take more than law to keep the human heart in order.’

‘You and your Doolan tripe,’ she said. ‘We don’t want to fall out with Mr Rae too,’ she screamed. ‘He stuck to us in Jack’s strike. You might have need of him yet. Get out and have your stinking beer now.’