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 people approached Rogers in the street they would stare and then look away when he said hullo. Yet the more he felt their scorn the more he felt in sympathy with them. Because he had no hope in page 237 the friendship of the town’s elders and betters—the Palmers, the storekeepers and the teachers, the mine manager and the dredge-master, the foreman and the winchman and the constable who took it for granted that at last he had realized he was one of them. And the workers’ case was different. The comic game had turned serious: they were on strike. Of course they weren’t starving. It wasn’t like the Seldom strike he’d heard so much about. They had earned good money in the past ten years and had post office savings accounts big enough to tide them over for months. Even they were taking it more lightly than Rogers now; the lads and younger men who had only known short token strikes, the older men who had gone hungry and smokeless through longer bitterer strikes than this one. They still gathered of a Friday evening or Saturday morning to take the bus into Greymouth where one pub out of twenty-two sold beer at sixpence. It was a little pub in a narrow street. At present you could hardly get in, it was so crowded, and though the Speight’s brewery workers in Dunedin were making sure that this pub got priority of delivery, its kegs were drained so fast that often you could only buy bottles. They hadn’t time to pour your beer, and you took your bottle with you, Auckland style, perhaps to squat half-way up the stairs if there was room.

The other pubs in Greymouth were carrying on with trade only halved. Carpenters and plumbers, electricians and shop-assistants didn’t like to think that the miners were going to direct their habits, and they were very willing to pay the extra penny to assert their independence. It was rumoured that some of the publicans were likely to put a match to the sixpenny pub; it was unlikely because it could have set the whole block on fire and there were other pubs in the block; but anyway the police watched it at night. It was rumoured that the victuallers had done such things before. Years before, a police inspector who bothered too much with after-hours drinking and a magistrate who fined offenders too severely had had home-made bombs thrown at their houses to warn them. It was rumoured too, among the people who objected to the power of the Miners’ Union, that they hired cars and drove secretly farther south where they drank and paid sevenpence. A carload of youngsters from another mining town did go to a roadside pub near Kumara one Sunday, and demanded beer at sixpence; the publican refused, there was a fight, and the miners were fined.

The victuallers were holding out. From the headquarters of their association in Wellington they were receiving subsidies from a ‘strike fund’ to which publicans all over the country were contributing. But they saw that their main threat came from the striking page 238 unions, and they couldn’t be expected to support the Coal Flat dredge as well—it didn’t matter about the mine, that belonged to the Government. They were lobbying Ministers to take some action, but consumers’ boycotts were not illegal. The Minister of Labour hoped that, as usual, the strike would somehow blow over, preferably by the publicans’ capitulation.

The dredge company had British and Australian capital. All the gold went to America. The directors in Wellington considered the possibility of sacking this man Herlihy—what was he to them?—but some of them said they should stick by the manager, he was a good man; and they met a delegation from the victuallers who asked them not to give in. Since they all agreed that it was high time the workers of this country were shown a lesson, they agreed in the meantime to take no action except ask the Minister of Labour to settle the dispute by whatever means he could.

Rogers was having tea in Mrs Palmer’s kitchen when she told him Don was to work on the dredge.

‘That’s the worst thing you could do,’ he said.

‘Oh, no, Paul,’ she said. ‘You don’t understand.’

‘You’re exposing him to trouble.’

‘We’re going to show we can fight back, Paul. They can have their unions. We’ve got our union too.’

‘They’ll call him a scab.’

‘It’s them that’s scabbing, not him. Scabbing on the country. We’ve got our union, and you might say, in a way, Don belongs to it too, so he’s being loyal to it by working on the dredge. He’s helping his family out.’

‘I don’t see that you’re helping him out.’

‘You shouldn’t be talking like that. You belong to us yourself. Oh, those silly ideas the doctor used to feed you with, son, you’ll have to grow out of them. You’ve got to take sides, one way or the other. You’ve finished with the doctor, haven’t you? There’s one thing we have to do now and that’s stick together.’

He found Don in his room. ‘Is it true what your mother says, you’re starting on the dredge tomorrow?’

‘Why not?’ Don asked.

‘You’re a fool, man. You’ll never live it down.’

‘What do you care?’

‘I’m your friend.’

‘Friend? My family means more to me than any friend.’

‘Your family aren’t treating you right then. Your mother’s using you.’

‘She’s got a right to, hasn’t she?’

page 239

‘I used to think you were a grown man. I used to envy you. I thought you were independent.’

‘Don’t try to come that friendship stuff. It won’t work.’

‘I’m not asking you to do anything for me. I’m thinking of your own interests.’

‘Well, think of yourself for a change.’

‘They’ll call you a scab.’

‘Who are you to talk? They’re calling you that already.’

‘Yes, and I’m beginning to be sorry for it. I didn’t worry about their boycott. But there’s one thing I do know and that’s that if a man takes the job of a man on strike he’s a scab and it’s the lowest thing he can do to his own mates.’

‘They’re not my mates. I don’t blame them for trying to get their beer cheaper. But you can’t blame us for trying to get more out of them. You can’t expect us to go against our own interests.’

‘You’ll be sorry yet, Don.’

‘Look. You don’t think I’m keen to do this, do you, Paul? Mum wants it. That’s why I’m doing it. She’ll think I’m yellow if I don’t. I can’t let her down.’

‘What did I see in you? I thought you were a man. You’re not loose of your mother’s apron strings. Haven’s you any will of your town?’

‘Who are you to talk? A dreamy ——t like you shooting your head off about being tough. You want to lie low, fellow. You’re in a man’s world and you might get hurt.’

‘You wait and see what happens to you in your man’s world. If you go to the dredge, don’t expect me to back you up.’

‘As if I’d care, Paul,’ Don said wearily. ‘There’s no mates in this life, that’s one thing I’ve learned. None you can depend on. The only ones I had got killed at Alamein.’

‘If you stuck by what you thought was right, your mates would stick to you,’ Rogers said, feeling that the remark might apply to himself too.

‘Look, you’ve got no hope of talking me round!’ Don said angrily. ‘F—— off and leave me alone—for Christ’s sake!’

Rogers found Flora in the wash-house. ‘Can’t you make your mother change her mind, Flor?’ he asked. ‘She doesn’t know what she’s letting Don in for.’

‘I tried, Paul,’ she said. ‘It’s not fair. She’s got her mind made up.’

‘Flora, I’m changing sides. I didn’t think it mattered about the boycott. Your mother says you’ve got to be on one side or the other. Now it’s a strike, I’m with the dredge men and the miners.’

page 240

There was challenge in her eyes as she turned with dripping hands in mid-air. ‘You’re not going to break it off?’

He clasped one wet hand unconsciously hurting her.

‘How can you say that?’ he asked. ‘I’ll never break it off. It’s up to you.’

‘Then you’ve considered it?’

‘I didn’t know what you might do. Flora, you knew what I was when you started going around with me. You know I’ve got principles about things like this. I tell you, I never hid my beliefs.’

‘You were never on our side, all along, were you?’ she said.

‘Don’t sound so disillusioned, Flora. You might have expected this. I tell you, I never hid my beliefs.’

‘I thought you’d think we were in the right,’ she said. ‘What have we done to them?’

‘It’s not a personal issue, Flora. The miners have got nothing against your family. It’s a social struggle, Prices are going up all the time, and someone’s making profits, and the wage-earners and consumers are protesting.’

‘You don’t want to see us run the hotel at a loss, do you, Paul? Now that Dad’s going to help us, you ought to be interested in seeing him well off.’

‘We could manage without his help if we tried. Your father could still make a profit out of sixpenny beer, anyway. He wasn’t losing three weeks ago, why should he be losing now?’

She said wearily, ‘I don’t know, Paul. I don’t understand these things. I only thought we were in the right.’

‘Well, you’re not. It’s a selfish move of the publicans to put the prices up. It’s only to line their own pockets.’

‘Then go away if that’s the way you feel! Go away and leave me alone.’ She turned back to the washboard and bent over it. Rogers could see that she was putting a brave face on it, sniffing and rubbing hard on the corrugated glass.

‘Don’t think it’s easy for me,’ he said. ‘The strikers won’t welcome me. They’ll say I’m a turncoat. But I’ve got to do it before it’s too late…. God, Flora, do you think I’d he any company for you if I gave in on this, sneaking round like no one’s mongrel, begging for scraps of sympathy. Do you think it would be fair to offer you that sort of life? You’d be marrying the remains of me.’

‘You know what you’re asking me to do, Paul. It’s not fair. I can’t walk out of the family at a time like this.’

‘I’m not asking that, Flora. Not yet. Later you might have to. But you’ll have to make up your own mind about that. I’m just page 241 explaining why I’ve got to do this. I’ll have to leave, Flora. I won’t be able to stay here any more. I’ll find somewhere to stay. Good-bye, Flora.’

She didn’t turn or raise her head. Resentfully she let him kiss her forehead. She said, ‘If you want to get in touch with me, leave a message with Doris.’

He found Dad in the bar. There were no customers.

‘Mr Palmer,’ he said. ‘Can’t you stop Don going on the dredge?’

‘Well,’ Dad said. ‘Don’s got a mind of his own, hasn’t he?’

‘He’s not keen to start, Mr Palmer. It’s Mrs Palmer who wants him to go.’

‘Well, Paul,’ Dad said in that flat wooden voice of his. ‘We may treat you as one of the family but that’s so long as you remember your place. You haven’t the right to get mixed up in family matters yet.’

‘I was thinking of the trouble Don will get into.’

‘Don’s taken on trouble before, and more willingly than you did, in the war.’

‘Well, I have to tell you, I won’t be backing you up, Mr Palmer.’

Dad paused, looked at him and then turned his back.

‘You’re what you might call a fifth-columnist, then. You always did have to be a bit different to everyone else.’

‘I may have to leave the pub then.’

But Dad wouldn’t allow him even that amount of independence. ‘That’s for Mum to decide,’ he said.