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 228



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.

page 229

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.’


When the company refused to suspend Mike Herlihy for so long as he was suspended from the union, the union called for a strike. Thompson could not at first believe it. ‘It’s the publicans you’re fighting, not us,’ he said. ‘Or is it the brewers? We didn’t put your beer up. We have to pay more for our beer too.’

‘Then you should be boycotting it,’ the union secretary said—Archie Paterson, the man who was president of the local branch of the Labour Party.

‘I don’t drink,’ Thompson said. ‘But if I did I’d pay up like a man. If the brewers put up the wholesale price, the publicans have got to charge more too.’

‘We’re not working while you employ a scab,’ Archie said. ‘The men are determined.’

‘I can’t see it’s got anything to do with the company,’ Thompson said. ‘I’d understand if you were striking against the company.’

‘That’s an improvement,’ Archie said. ‘The time was when you bosses didn’t even understand that.’

‘Well, why penalize us? We can’t stop Herlihy having his beer if he wants to. We’re not making him break the boycott.’

‘It’s the only weapon we’ve got,’ Archie said. ‘Our labour’s our only bargaining power. If we had a more suitable weapon we’d use it in this case.’

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‘Well, I’m not sacking Herlihy. He’s never missed a day. He knows the dredge backwards.’

‘He never was a keen union man either, if that’s what you mean.’

‘I don’t care whether he’s a keen union man or not. It’s about time the union was taught a lesson anyway. You’ll come off worst this time. I’m not budging. You might all be sacked yet.’

‘Where would you get replacements from? And every dredge in the South Island would come out in sympathy. The miners too. You don’t take me for a fool, do you?’

‘Well, we’ll fight it out. Herlihy’s staying.’

The town was weirdly silent when the dredge stopped. Of a fine night there seemed to be silent mockery in the stars and ancient brooding in the hills. To Rogers, when it rained there was insidious despair on the roofs. Boxed off from the rain the dredge families waited in their houses; it was unlike previous strikes because they could not go to the pubs—they met each morning in the secretary’s backyard. They held out two days and then the miners struck in sympathy. Caddick argued with Ben, and Ben simply said: ‘Save all that for the publicans. Send delegates to the victuallers’ next meeting.’

Only the shops and the school continued. Rogers noticed the strangeness of the children living as if time was interrupted and eternity had broken through, while their parents stayed at home and waited. For the town was still, waiting in the rain, camped in a bush clearing on a terrace under the mountains that had stood before pennies were thought of, and stood now, Rogers thought, under shifting grey fog, impassively as if waiting for the energy to shrug off this colony of men who made mountains out of pennies, breaking their necks on their own artifacts, marshalling like gamblers on one side or other of a penny. He felt above the struggle, and for that moment it seemed pathetic and amusing.

But it wasn’t comic for long. A strike was a strike and Rogers was now in secret sympathy with the men, though he didn’t admit it to himself. He was a displaced person, standing of a late afternoon in the bar with Dad and Don leaning by, and Heath and Mike for company. Cheerless company they were; Heath skiting about discipline for the miners and independence for himself, Mike harking back to original sin and the folly of this world.

Mum would come in with sandwiches as a token of gratitude for their custom, ‘We’ll hold out for months,’ she said, ‘even if it ruins us. They’ll find out.’ But she and Dad were worried; the pub was running at a loss, the few beers they sold to their three customers didn’t pay their overhead expenses, and they didn’t make much out page 235 of their boarders. Most of the boarders had left, those that worked in the mine or on the dredge; when they refused to drink Mum told them to go. The other pubs wouldn’t take them, and their workmates took them into their own homes. At the dredge Thompson carried on with repairs and other work that had needed doing for some time. He and Frank and the foreman and Mike made slow progress repairing cables. He called one evening and ordered a bottle though he seldom drank.

‘Would you like to come back to the dredge for a while, Don?’ he asked. ‘We’re short-handed, even for the repairs we’re doing.’

‘You’re short-handed all right,’ Dad said. ‘Why do you need me?’

‘There’s some riveting of buckets to do. Frank and I are busy on the cables. You and Mike could be on the riveting. Then there’s the drum to be overhauled.’

‘A bit of a come-down, isn’t it, Andy? Me heating rivets?’

‘Well, it’s got to be done, Don. You’ll be on your old wage.’

‘I don’t like to leave the pub, Andy. You don’t know what might happen. They might attack us.’

‘Awh, they won’t do that. Your boy’s here anyway.’

‘Tell you what, Don could work for you. He’s got a crook arm, you know. Heating rivets is a light steady job for him. It’ll be a change for him.’

‘Okay. If he’ll agree. On ordinary wages though.’

‘Oh yes.’

Mum talked Don into it. ‘You go out and show them, son,’ she said. ‘You did it once before. It’ll shame them to see a returned soldier doing their work for them. A man who was wounded while they were skulking in the mine.’

‘It’s the dredge you want me to go to, Mum, not the mine. There’s three returned men on the dredge.’

‘Well, this might win them back. They’ll see you’re answering you country’s call again.’

‘Aw, Christ, Mum, go easy. It’s only the company’s call’.

‘No, Don,’ she said patiently. ‘You don’t understand. It’s industry that keeps the country going. Industry and business. And if there’s a stoppage the country suffers.’

‘I don’t want to provoke them, Mum. There’s no sense in risking your popularity for a few quid in wages.’

‘Well, we aren’t making anything out of the pub,’ Dad said. ‘If you weren’t my son I’d have you put off. Redundancy.’

‘It’s not that, Dad,’ Mum said. ‘Don knows we’d be only too glad to have him stay all the time even if he wasn’t working in the bar.’

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‘Well, he doesn’t went to be molly-coddled,’ Dad said.

‘You still talk about me as if I was a kid,’ Don said. ‘Do I have to remind you I’m a father too?’

‘You’re not fair, Mum,’ Flora said. ‘The strike’s got nothing to do with Don. You’re exposing him to trouble.’

‘Don’s been exposed to more trouble than those loafers can cause him,’ Mum said. ‘Bullets and mines and bombing.’

‘Well, it’s time he had a rest from it,’ Flora said.

‘There was one thing I learned in the army,’ Don said. ‘You had to stick to your mates.’

‘They aren’t your mates,’ Mrs Palmer said. ‘It’s the public of New Zealand who are your mates. Respectable people all over the country. These people aren’t New Zealanders. Half of them are immigrants. The scum of Scotland.’

‘There are more of them than us,’ Don said.

‘We’re an outpost, if that’s what you mean. It’s up to us to show the flag for respectability and order and every man pulling his weight.’

‘Arh, stop talking rot, Mum. Andy Thompson wants me to do a job for him. I could use the wages. But I don’t reckon it’s worth it.’

‘If there’s any trouble, I’ll get Mr Rae to protect you. He might need extra police here.’

‘I don’t want a bodyguard.’

‘He’s got a mind of his own,’ Dad said. ‘I can’t say I’d be very keen if I was in his shoes. I’d go myself because Andy’s an old workmate, only I don’t want to leave the pub to you womenfolk. Don wouldn’t be any good in a scrap with his arm.’

‘That’s why he can go,’ Mum said. ‘Only a rat would attack a disabled man. Well, son, I thought I’d be able to hold up my head and say, “My son is a man, doing his duty without fear or favour,” but it looks as if I won’t.’

‘All right, I’ll go then,’ Don said, ‘if you want it that way. But I’m not keen.’

‘Make sure you wear your returned soldier’s badge,’ Mum said. ‘Haven’t you got a wound stripe?’

‘Who the hell wants to wear a wound stripe?’ Don said.


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.


Don started at the dredge the following morning. It was a light job. With long tongs he held rivets in a furnace till they were a yellowy-red; then he held them in holes in dredge buckets while Mike Herlihy hammered them down. The hammer blows jarred on his bad arm, but he enjoyed, on this frosty morning, being near the fire, with the flush feeling of all active outdoor work. Mike was not good company. He treated Don as if he was a lad just starting. Occasionally he would hesitate with his hammer and tell Don to push the rivet in more tightly, and then it would be too cold and he would have to heat it again. Don couldn’t keep a conversation going, because often Mike didn’t answer him. Thompson and the foreman came to them at knock-off time.

‘I’ll run you home in the truck,’ Thompson said. ‘There’s a welcome party on the shore.’

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As they stepped up the gangway Don saw a group of about twenty of the dredge-hands.

‘Take it quietly,’ Thompson said. ‘Ignore them. They won’t [sic: ]attack. You get in with me and Frank, Don. You get on the back, Mike.’

‘Let the young fullah ride on the back,’ Mike said. ‘Seniority counts too.’

‘I don’t want a ride,’ Don said.

‘You’re not going to walk by yourself?’ Thompson said.

‘I’m not scared,’ said Don.

Mike and Frank and Thompson climbed into the cab to the jeers of the hands, and drove off. The men followed Don as he started on the mile he had to go before he would be home. They jeered at him till he couldn’t ignore it. ‘Come on then,’ he called. ‘I’ll take any one of you on.’

Someone offered to take the challenge.

‘Hold it,’ Archie Paterson said. ‘He’s got a bad arm.’

‘I’ll take you on one-handed,’ Don called.

But no one would fight him on those terms. Don called them scared; one of the men offered to fight with one hand tied behind his back. But Archie made a speech: ‘No violence, boys. We’d be playing right into their hands. They’d have the cops up in no time. The papers would turn it into a riot. You’ve got to fight with your head as well as your hands.’

Don had never felt so sour before. He had always felt the world’s goodwill as a natural extension of his family’s. It had never turned against him. Now, even though he felt better for having challenged them, he hated himself as he walked ahead of them, and they tagged on behind like a nagging conscience. On the main road of Coal Flat, other people stopped and stared or joined in to jeer; the hunted look in his eyes roused looks of triumph, contempt and accusation in the eyes of everyone he could face out. What hurt him most was the children joining in.

When his mother called him in the morning he rolled over and said, ‘I don’t reckon I’ll go today, Mum.’

‘Why not, son?’

‘I can’t go through that again.’

‘You stood up to them all right. You told me.’

‘You try it, Mum. Kids making a fool of you. They’ll be picking on Donnie at school.’

‘Paul’ll put a stop to that. Or if he won’t Heath will. I’ll catch him on his way to school.’

‘I’m not going, Mum. You try it and see.’

‘All right, boy, I will. They won’t beat the Palmers. I’ll go down page 243 there myself and heat the rivets or whatever it is. I’ll show them Mum can take it.’

He jumped out of bed. ‘Go out. I want to get dressed,’ he said. ‘You’re not doing anything of the sort. Go on, close the door.’

Against his protests she accompanied him to the dredge. Outside, against the front window of the bar a crudely-painted notice read: ‘Palmers for Black Beer and Black Wages.’ Mrs Palmer put it in the passage, face against the wall.

The dredge-hands were waiting at a corner a few hundred yards down the main road.

‘Look, he’s got an escort. It’s a convoy,’ one of them called.

‘True enough!’ Mrs Palmer called. ‘Rats might leave a sinking ship. But we’ll man it. My boy and I.’

‘A proper old battleship, Mum? The H.M.S. Dreadnought.

‘Watch how you go down the gangway with those high heels, Mum.’

‘Are you opening up a sixpenny bar on the dredge?’

‘You’re taking the wrong turning. You want to take your boy to the doctor. He’s got scabs all over him.’

‘It’s you’re the scabs!’ Mrs Palmer called. ‘Think of your wives and children. I’d be ashamed to be the wife of any of you. Where’s their guts? Letting their menfolk loaf.’ It would be difficult for any woman to keep her poise in such a situation, but Mrs Palmer, in spite of her high heels on the macadam road, managed to look aggressive and dignified, flicking jibes back at them over her shoulder like a dirty dish-cloth. But Don didn’t speak to her or the men all the way to the dredge. When Mike Herlihy arrived in Thompson’s truck, they hooted him. Don hardly spoke to Mike all day; he was thinking, ‘I won’t do it tomorrow, even for her.’

‘Oh, I tell you, I stood up to them. You’ve got to show you can fight back,’ Mrs Palmer told Dad when she was home.

‘Don’t try to do it again then, Lil.’

‘Why, Dad? Someone’s got to see him home tonight.’

‘This is a man’s affair. You keep out of it.’

‘I’m equal to it, Dad. You know I am. They wouldn’t lay hands on a woman. Not on me and get away with it.’

‘I said stay home. You’re making a fool of the boy.’

‘How? I stuck up for him.’

‘Showing him up in front of those men, like a little boy with his mother to look after him. He’ll never live it down.’

‘Oh, Dad, you don’t understand. What do we care what they think?’

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‘Well, you’ve put the lid on it, Lil. He’s not going to the dredge again.’

‘But Dad, that’s giving in.’

‘You can blame yourself for that.’

‘Oh, Dad, sometimes you make me sick,’ In the kitchen she sagged in a chair and wept.

Later she rang Mr Rae and insisted that he should escort Don home after work.

Rogers came late away from the school that afternoon and came on to the main road to see a group of miners standing in the road outside the pub. He stood by the crowd. They were mostly younger men and some lads. He looked for Jimmy Cairns and Ben Nicholson but they were not there. He sensed that the crowd were itching for action.

‘We ought to go in and demand a sixpenny beer,’ one youth said.

‘Like those chaps at Kumara. They got fined,’ another said.

‘It’d be worth it for the fun.’

‘Someone ought to throw a stone through the window.’

‘You’re fools if you try that,’ Rogers said.

They turned to him. ‘Listen to who’s talking. The school teacher.’—‘Whose side are you on anyway, Rogers?’—‘I hear you don’t drink black beer any more.’—‘Watch out we don’t throw a stone through your window.’

‘Don’t be such fools,’ said Rogers. ‘I bet if Ben Nicholson or Jock were here they’d tell you the same.’

‘Who are you to speak for Ben and Jock? Last thing I heard about you, you were a scab,’ Arty Nicholson said.

‘Here comes another scab,’ one of them said, and they saw Don Palmer coming up the road with the policeman.

‘Christ, he’s got his uniform on. He’s getting official now.’ Behind Don and Rae, the dredge-hands walked jeering.

‘Let’s join in,’ a mining youth said.

Don and the constable turned to face the crowd by the door of the hotel. Rae said, ‘I warn you now. If there’s any trouble it’ll go hard on you.’

‘Oh, go and lock yourself in your gaol, Rae. Remember the Seldom strike. The union beat you then.’

Don spoke for the first time since he had left the dredge. His eyes were hunted: ‘What I like about you blokes is the way you fight one man against one.’

‘We haven’t started fighting yet,’ a dredge-hand said. ‘We’re tickling your conscience.’

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‘Forty to one,’ Don said. ‘If you count these lads.’

‘I’ll take you on,’ Arty Nicholson said. (The Palmers that were too bloody good for him.)

‘You hold your tongue, son,’ Rae said.

‘You’re not the only returned man in this town,’ a dredge-man said.

Don was preparing to fight. His parents and Flora and Heath had just come to the door. Flora was shocked to see Arty Nicholson threatening Don; she would have thought that Arty would be different from the others. Rogers pushed forward to keep Don from his challengers. ‘Get inside, you fool,’ he said. ‘Aren’t you in trouble enough without looking for more?’ Don resisted but Rogers pushed him forcibly while Don released his frustration in several blows in Rogers’s chest and chin with his one good arm. His mother ran out, pushed Rogers off and pulled Don inside.

‘Just be careful, young man,’ Rae said. ‘That could be called assault.’

‘I did it for his own good,’ Rogers said. ‘Did you want to stand by and see him injured?’

Arty stared angrily at Rogers. ‘I can manage my own bloody fights.’ Rogers thought he was going to start on him instead.

Heath stepped forward in a sudden fit of rage. Half of these miners were youths he had taught at school. ‘Go on, go back home, you boys,’ he called, pointing one arm. ‘You should be working, not hanging around the streets.’

He was answered by catcalls. ‘You didn’t used to be a drinking man, Mr Heath. Paying the extra penny just to show us, eh?’

‘Neither should you be drinking,’ Heath said. ‘Half you boys aren’t twenty-one yet. You ought to have put a stop to this a long time ago, Mr Rae.’

‘Well now,’ Rae said. ‘One thing at a time. There’s an ugly situation here without you criticizing me.’

‘It’s time someone complained,’ Heath shouted, talking to everyone and no one in particular. ‘The constable should be reported and the publicans too, for serving youngsters. When the boycott’s over, I’ll make it my business to see that a stop’s put to it.’

‘Putting the whole town to school, aren’t you?’ Archie Paterson sneered.

‘It’s about time it was put to school,’ Heath shouted. ‘This town has had too little discipline, and the proper sort of discipline will do us all good.’

The lads of the miners’ group were spoiling for a chance to attack this man who had bullied them and humiliated them at page 246 school. Rogers heard one whisper, ‘Gang up on him’. He knew that the older men, if they knew of it, would be against it. Four youngsters were scheming now in mutters.

‘This is a working-man’s town,’ a dredge-hand called. ‘We won’t need any schoolmaster telling us what to do. Or any cop either.’

‘It’s time you learned,’ Heath said. ‘We aren’t going to allow the rabble of the country to push us around.’

There were cries of, ‘Who’s we?’ but already there were shouts of, ‘Rabble?’ and the youths were moving towards Heath. Rogers rushed into thoughtless action; he ran to Heath, pulled his hat from his head and threw it on the grass at the side of the road. It was a stupid action and he couldn’t have said why he did it.

‘Here, you!’ Heath said, taken by surprise, but his eyes followed his hat. Rogers ignored him and stepped forward.

‘Listen, you chaps,’ he shouted. ‘Can’t you see that you’re playing right into their hands?’

They weren’t listening, they were jeering at him.

‘I’m not one to talk, I admit,’ Rogers shouted. ‘I’m on your side and I don’t expect any welcome, either.’ They began to listen, but only tentatively. ‘I’m trying to tell you what your Ben and Jock would tell you if they were here. You’re doing the very thing the publicans want, you’re playing right into their hands. If you start a fight the papers will blow it up into a bloody riot….’

But their attention had left him. They were grinning. Heath had gone after his hat, which was perched on long grass on the side of the water-race, ready to fall into the water. It was as if property was more important than dignity the way he chased it, saying, ‘Get that man, constable!’ He saved the hat from wetting, but he slipped, and in trying to balance himself he planted one leg in the race, and then, fell in. He climbed out, his hat crumpled, and his face red and foolish, his suit covered in mud, stamping his muddy shoes. The crowd burst into laughter. Even Rae was tempted to grin. The four youths who had planned to rush him, rolled, leaning on one another, laughing loudly. Heath danced from one foot to the other while he took off his shoes and emptied water from them.

‘You’ll be sorry for this, Rogers,’ he called. ‘It was assault, constable, assault.’

Rogers went to the youths. ‘Can’t you see he was only trying to provoke you into attacking?’ he said. ‘Then they’d have had you where they wanted you.’

‘He’s right,’ Archie Paterson said, taking control. ‘Where’s your union officials? They should have put you wise to that trick. We’d have had police reinforcements here.’

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‘You’ll have them anyway,’ Rae said. ‘This thing’s getting out of hand. What did you do that for?’ he asked Rogers.

‘I saved the peace,’ Rogers said. ‘You couldn’t have managed if there’d been trouble.’

‘Well, that’s as may be… I can’t say Heath’s remarks were helpful either to public order or to me…. And I don’t see any sense in one public servant hounding another,’ Rae said. ‘Very well, I’ll let this go. But I warn you, don’t try anything like that again.’

‘That was a near thing,’ Archie said. ‘They shouldn’t have needed a wavering schoolteacher to tell them that.’

‘They’re only boys,’ one of the dredge-hands said. ‘The miners could have warned them not to start anything on their own.’

Heath was walking with all the dignity he could rouse. The crowd broke up laughing. Rogers spoke to Jimmy Cairns who was arriving attracted by the noise. He told him what had happened. ‘Whose side are you on?’ Jimmy asked.

‘I’m on yours,’ Rogers said. ‘I told the Palmers I couldn’t stick Don’s scabbing.’

‘You’ve woken up then,’ Jimmy said. ‘Just as well. It might have been too late. But you can’t blame the lads if they’re suspicious of you. I can’t make out why you were against the boycott in the first place. You were too comfortable at Palmers’ I think…. Frank Lindsay made bloody sure he didn’t marry the whole family.’

‘Next thing I know they’ll be kicking me out.’

‘If you’re stuck, Jessie’ll take you in. You see what I meant about the boycott. One small step to the right and the next thing you know you’re supporting scabs and profiteers and policemen. You’re not used to union discipline, that’s your trouble.’

‘You’re talking like Heath now, Jimmy. Discipline this and discipline that.’

‘He means keeping people down. We mean keeping ourselves in fighting trim. Self-discipline.’

‘You still don’t allow anyone much independence.’

‘If Palmers kick you out and you’re stuck, try Jessie.’